On the evening of July 17, 1996, Trans World Airlines Flight 800, a Boeing 747, no more than fifteen minutes out of Kennedy Airport on its way to Paris, mysteriously exploded nine miles off the coast of East Moriches, Long Island, three miles above the choppy, gun-metal gray Atlantic. In a horrifying descent of 400 miles an hour, it brought death in a heart-beat to 230 passengers and crew.
The multiple crime scene came under the jurisdiction of the Suffolk County Police Department. The F.B.I. and Suffolk joined Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire Arms (ATF), feeding information to their own forces, the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) and the Suffolk County Medical Examiners Office (M.E.) during the diving, recovery and identification of victims, seeking an explanation of the cause of the worst domestic commercial aircraft accident in American history.
As Coordinator of the Chaplains Bureau, my task was to assign, support and receive feed-back” from the Department Chaplains as we made ourselves available to SCPD personnel directly involved in diving for the bodies, transporting them to the Coast Guard dock, bearing them to the Boat House or temporary morgue, examining, photographing the victims, and transporting them to the Medical Examiners Office in Hauppauge thirty-five miles to the west.
The homicide detectives at the M.E.s Office and the arson squad examined the victims for evidence of various types of explosive ash. Young recent graduates of the Police Academy, were assigned to maintain security at the M.E.s loading platform where the bodies were brought for I.D., autopsy, and the recording and preservation of any valuables brought up from the ocean floor. Many young and old-time policemen were going to face more death than they would ever see again on the job.
Day after day, on choppy, wind-swept seas, our ten divers followed hand lines from mother boats down into the darkened, slow motion world below to search for victims. Swimming close to shards of razor-sharp aluminum fuselage, weaving in and out of the passenger cabin, avoiding the bird nests of shifting wires, lifting seats and utility items, they brought heart-break to the surface: toddlers, teenage girls and boys, young marrieds and the elderly.
With the greatest of care and reverence, the bodies of victims were lifted aboard SCPD Marine Division power launches, gently placed in body bags and brought to the dock on Moriches Bay. To preserve the sanctity of this work, none of the wire services, print nor TV media were permitted on the three acre compound where our ministry to the dead was performed. No one should place in print or on film description of the mutilation of those children and adults.
Several news organizations attempted to penetrate the area with telephoto lenses from hastily rented houses across the bay. A plastic screen was hung between the dock where the recovery boats arrived and the open door to the temporary morgue. It was there that the Litany For The Dead from the Book of Common Prayer was said over more than one hundred victims. Everyone, yellow sea-slicker clad emergency service cops, homicide detectives, police officers, superior officers and coast guardsmen remained still, heads bowed for the blessing and commendation of the dead. The Roman rite, Jewish prayers and Lutheran commendations were met with the same sense of sacredness by those who stood around the bodies lying on broad yellow tarps before their departure for Hauppauge.
Our Chaplains worked alternately at the C.G. dock, temporary morgue and the M.E.s Office in Hauppauge until the middle of September. I have been with the SCPD and PBA for thirty-two years and witnessed scores of homicides. I have never seen such reverence for the dead and the living, humility and faith in God expressed than I have in that two-month period. At Hauppauge, the teams of pathologists, dentists, homicide and arson detectives, physicians assistants, radiologists and rookie cops brought the bodies from large refrigerated trucks where they were weighed, photographed and finger printed again. Any jewelry which might have survived the crash was described, registered, tagged, enveloped and stored in front of two police witnesses.
The team of dentists, a volunteer group from Suffolk, and the M.E.s personnel, had just returned from a national disaster response training week. One evening, early in the recovery phase, a shout of horror rose, accompanied by grief, as the dentists came upon one of their own colleagues among the victims. Most of those over whom I prayed were stripped of their clothes, socks and shoes by the down draft. No wallets, drivers license or I.D. were available, thus making identification a delayed response until the families forwarded dental records and, more poignant ... graduation, confirmation, birthday, baby and wedding pictures. All these were yet to come from grieving families.
Meanwhile the M.E. and his staff were severely unjustly attacked for stalling by two headline-grabbing politicians, not from Suffolk. The morning after the disaster, Thursday, July 18, remarkably less than fifteen hours from the time the plane went in, the M.E. had received one-hundred victims from East Moriches and by that evening twenty had already been processed awaiting identification. By Friday, forty-five had been completed and through Saturday and Sunday, another forty-five had been processed. Through all of this, I saw doctors, dentists, detectives and rookies show great respect and sensitivity for the victims as they worked late into the night. TWA eventually provided seat numbers and names of those registered aboard the flight. A large cut-away diagram of the cockpit and passenger cabin was hung in the M.E.s Command Post. Here homicide detectives, radiologists and clerical personnel worked with photographs of the victims in happier days, some only a few weeks old, as they continued to compare finger prints. The worst error would have been an incorrect identification. In several cases, it required two weeks to establish identity.
The Chaplains who had parishes of their own, were available in a variety of shifts, always ready to speak with any SCPD personnel who wished to talk. Many took advantage of our presence. Some had children no older than those with whom we were working. Others were recalling their grandchildren or their marriages. It should not be surprising to know that there were many expressions of faith in God, the fragility of human life and the risks we take as human beings. Nowhere did I hear among the police Where was God? ... Why did God allow this to happen? Only one rookie assigned to the M.E.s Office, while trying to come to grips with the continuous flow of bodies, asked more than once Why? Why?
It was encouraging to hear one young cop reply that God gave us free will to live as we choose, to take risks, to be a good cop, or not, to help people and maybe die while were doing it. God lets us be free to do our own thing, and sometimes we get killed doing it. Thats not just about flying, its about being a cop too. We can get killed choosing to do this kind of work, right?
SCPD Homicide has the reputation for clearing, on average, more cases than any major municipality in the United States. I do not know how accurate that is, but there is a side to this bureau that is seldom seen. These detectives, young and old, some of whom have been exposed to raw violence for thirty years, have learned to protect their innermost feelings. Yet, these same officers were required to meet with the victims families at a New York hotel and show them rings, watches, and ask personal health questions ranging from surgical history to dental work. Time and again they returned to these families, and through their empathy, they were met as extended members of those families, conversing with them on a first name basis.
Everyone of us ... Emergency Service cops who worked with the bodies along with Homicide at the temporary morgue, the divers, the crews who boarded the victims, Arson detectives and Chaplains had our faces thrust into the horror of TWA 800. Some continue to carry degrees of sadness, others more emotional consequences.
There are mental pictures of our divers suddenly surfacing beneath bobbing, steel hulls as they try to gently pass on the body of someones mother or father. Intrusive thoughts appear and reappear for each of us when we reflect on the terrible loss of life we witnessed. Equally important, however, is the heroism of our SCPD personnel. Few of us reflect on how blessed we are with daily human life until the band strikes up a dreaded tune and we have to get up and dance to it. When my 24-year-old daughter suddenly died, I realized that there is a good dance music for which I should be grateful.
One image of this disaster remained for me on my last day on the dock in September of 1996, when almost all the bodies had been recovered, I approached a piling next to our last Marine Bureau recovery launch. They had just returned from a troubling recovery. I walked further down the dock and found a wet teddy bear with a red ribbon around its neck, and a wet pair of red toddlers sneakers.
I have not been able to forget those sneakers and teddy bear that seemed to go together. For two years I have thought about that child. So, this July 18, 1998, I returned to East Moriches and wound my way down Atlantic Avenue toward the Coast Guard Station. Everything was peaceful: the white houses and cottages, their picket fences and backyard sloping eastward into Hart Cove. The ocean, and Long Island Sound where I live now, have always been for me the scene of young love, peace, and sometimes foolishness. After passing the tall grass and tilted telephone poles with their wires looping above the sand-blown road, I came to and was admitted by the Sentry.
On the dock I found a dry place to sit down, amazingly where I found those little red sneakers and teddy bear. I sat there and prayed in the stillness. The sun was bright and the breeze that carried the gulls was strong. I had a sense that God called me to return and learn that He had taken care of all those children and adults.
So, when someone asks me “Where was God that night?” my answer is In all those good cops who gave their bodies in the water, their emotion, their reverence and their love. He was present in the hearts of all those good boatmen who went out into the darkness that night seeking the living among the victims.” When I ask myself why I am a priest and a police chaplain, I sometimes think God answers me with my favorite song: It had to be you.