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Remembering TWA Flight 800, July 17, 1996 20 Years Later

Editorial Photo

Former Suffolk County Legislator, Fred Towle, accepts a flower from a member of the Navy to be placed at the Flight TWA 800 Memorial at Smith Point County Park in Shirley.

I had been elected to the Suffolk County Legislature in 1995 and I had only been in office for seven months.
I was having dinner with friends at Okey Dokey’s Restaurant in Patchogue when my pager went off advising me that a plane had crashed somewhere in Center Moriches.
Since Center Moriches was part of my Legislative District, I decided to leave dinner and start heading back to my district.
As I was traveling in the car, I started getting more pages and now phone calls. I then ran into Suffolk County Executive Bob Gaffney. He was also en route to the scene and suggested that I follow his car, which I did.
We headed to the incident command post, which was the Coast Guard Station in East Moriches.
By the time we arrived at the Coast Guard Station, we were advised that the plane had actually crashed in the Atlantic Ocean.
Soon, the small Coast Guard Station became the scene of the largest search and rescue operation most likely ever undertaken by the County of Suffolk.
Every federal, state, county and town governmental agency one could think of set up camp at the Coast Guard Station. Our EMS and fire volunteers and many recreational boaters were also involved in the search and rescue mission from the very beginning.
Within hours, every media outlet known to man had also arrived at the site and started reporting what little information was available at the time.
For the next five to seven days, everyone basically lived at the Coast Guard Station.
Many were directly involved in the rescue and then recovery mission.
Many were there to cut through the governmental red tape.
Many were there to try and determine what actually happened.
Many were there to try to help and provide support and guidance.
As I sat through many of the briefings and talked to officials, I could see that one of the most difficult tasks was coordinating all of the governmental agencies and volunteers that were trying to help speed up the recovery efforts.
After having been at the site of the crash for seven or eight hours, I boarded a Port Authority Helicopter with Governor George Pataki, County Executive Gaffney and Congressman Felix Grucci to evaluate the crash site in the Atlantic Ocean.
Within a few minutes, we were at the site. It was pretty dark, but you could see fires burning on the water, numerous lights and dozens of small ships and boats.
As I looked out the window, I was left in shock over the size of the area of impact of this disaster.
We returned to the Coast Guard Station for one of numerous media briefings. We walked out into a large open field and County Executive Gaffney took to the microphone to give the best update he could.
Within seconds, the field went from night to day. Every light from the global media world was turned on to report what had happened and what was being done to help the families of the victims.
Following the media briefing, we were brought into the Coast Guard garage. This area, had been set up as a temporary morgue. Items and parts recovered from the plane were also stored in this area.
It was clear after walking through this area that the recovery and identification of victims would take months.
A memorial service would later be held at Smith Point County Park in Shirley for family members and friends of the victims, volunteers, officials and local residents that had been touched by the tragedy.
The Suffolk County Legislature would later approve legislation and funding to construct the “TWA Flight 800 Memorial” at Smith Point.
This memorial was also supported through volunteer work and donations.
Clearly, this is a tragedy that should never have happened.
Years later, the tragedy was blamed on design and operational problems of the 747 airliner.
It took years to force corrections to be made, much of which still is being fixed today.
This weekend, marks the 20th Anniversary of the tragedy of TWA Flight 800.
A new call for help was made.
While located on county property, maintenance is provided by the TWA Flight 800 Families Association at a substantial cost. To help offset the cost, the TWA Flight 800 Endowment Fund and the Friends of the TWA Flight 800 Memorial were established to raise a $3 million endowment to provide the ongoing resources necessary to maintain the TWA Flight 800 International Memorial.
Donations may be sent to The TWA FLT 800 Memorial Endowment, PO Box 1061, Clifton Park, NY 12065.
Please join with me in making sure this Memorial is protected and maintained.
By: Fred Towle Jr., Director of Sales and Marketing at the South Shore Press and a former member of the Suffolk County Legislature. This column is published each year so we may never forget those who were lost.

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