Piecing it all together: researchers study Flight 800 remains

ASHBURN, Va. – TWA Flight 800 burst into flames, broke into pieces and plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean near Long Island, N.Y., in July 1996. All 230 passengers and crewmembers lost their lives.

More than 10 years later, a large section of the fuselage has been reconstructed in a Loudoun County hangar at the National Transportation Safety Board’s Training Center, a facility rented from GW’s satellite campus here in Ashburn, Va. While so many lost their lives on that plane, its reconstruction now serves as an educational tool for students and professionals studying disaster.

Most people are unaware of the airplane’s presence because the NTSB does not give public tours of the facility, said John Ziemba, director of marketing and communications at the Virginia Campus.

“They don’t use it as a tourist attraction,” Ziemba said. “It is in honor of the people who lost their lives.”

Roughly 500 NTSB investigator trainees and members of disaster management agencies view the wreckage each year, Kudson said. Despite restrictions, Loudoun County Public High School students participating in Engineering and Technology Day at the Virginia Campus toured the facility with reporters April 11.

Upon entering the building, the jigsaw of metal and wires stands long and tall. Windows and doors are still intact, and “Trans World,” the beginning of the plane’s former owner’s name, is still visible. The aircraft is the largest reconstruction of its kind in the world, Wildey said, and often leaves observers silent.

“Most people are awed by the size and scope of the reconstruction,” said Peter Knudson, the NTSB communications manager at the training center.

The Boeing 747 had a rough journey to GW. After disintegrating over the ocean, the airplane was recovered by the NTSB in 100 feet of water, and the wreckage was reconstructed in a Long Island warehouse, Wildey said. TWA did not want the wreckage, Wildey said, so the NTSB became the owner.

The investigation into the cause of the crash, one of the most complex in civil aviation history, officially ended in 2000. The pieces of the plane were packed into boxes, the NTSB Materials Laboratory chief said.

The NTSB began its lease of a building from GW at the Loudon County campus in 2003, and it has since remained the wreckage’s storage facility, Wildey said. After an eight-week reconstruction, the plane began to serve as an educational tool, he said.

During Engineering and Technology Day, Wildey explained how the accident occurred to the group of high school students. Although the FBI originally blamed the crash on a criminal act, the NTSB determined that an electrical current was able to propagate through wires into the center section of the aircraft’s fuel tank, which was full of flammable vapors, he said. Within six months, Wildey explained, the investigators decided that the explosion occurred in the center section of the wing tank.

Conspiracy theories about the ignition source and cause of the crash still circulate today. Wildey said the NTSB will continue utilizing the wreckage for educational purposes and that the downed plane’s remains will stay at the Virginia campus indefinitely.

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