The mother opened her box of memories and the pain and darkness poured out again.
She pulled out a card. Then a letter. Then a photo of the daughter she lost 25 years ago when a commercial jetliner blew up over the Atlantic Ocean only minutes after lifting off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, killing all 230 passengers and crew.
Such is the complicated, enduring legacy of TWA Flight 800.
To some it is still a story of a terrorist conspiracy that persists despite well-documented facts showing the plane was actually brought down by a tragic mechanical failure. To others, it is a somber, bureaucratic turning point in how America investigates air crashes.
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But for victims’ relatives like Carol Ziemkiewicz, who lost her daughter Jill Ann in the TWA 800 fireball, it is still a troubling story of lives cut short – an open wound of the heart that never seems to heal.
On those days, when she peruses the boxes with photographs and letters and poems about her daughter, Ziemkiewicz is reminded once again of what might have been.
“I lost my heart, my soul,” said Ziemkiewicz. “My family will never be the same.”
From ancient times, history has been pockmarked with sudden, unexpected tragedy that rips apart the lives of ordinary people. But our modern world, with television and social media, have brought those intimate moments of tragedy into our living rooms and to the cellular phones we carry in our pockets. What once might have seemed distant and limited to people far away has now become far more personal.
So it is with TWA Flight 800.
America watched on the night of July 17, 1996, as orange flames from the downed airliner streaked the Atlantic’s choppy surface, just a few miles off the coast of Fire Island.
We followed the video footage of fishermen and recreational boaters who rushed to the scene from docks in the Moriches Inlet in the hope that some passengers and crew might survive.
Later, we monitored the trail of conspiracy theories. Was this an act of terrorism, perhaps the kind of suitcase bomb that brought down Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988? Was it an errant missile fired from a U.S. Navy ship? Was it a meteor? After all, so many boaters thought they saw streaks of light in the summer sky.
We also witnessed genuine goodness, too.
As families of the lost passengers gathered at a hotel, we were introduced to the grace and kindness of a Franciscan priest, the Rev. Mychal Judge, who comforted the grieving. Five years later, Judge would perish in the 9/11 terrorist attack as he ministered to firefighters and police at New York City’s World Trade Center’s twin towers. His grave in Totowa, New Jersey, is now a shrine for those who want him proclaimed a Roman Catholic saint.
It turned out that TWA 800 fell because sparks from a defective wire ignited vapors in a fuel tank, which then exploded. But subsequent investigations by the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board changed America.
Not only was TWA 800 one of the worst air disasters in U.S. history, it also raised questions about how America responds to conspiracies, how our government monitors the maintenance of aging commercial jetliners and how we treat relatives of victims.
One major change that resulted from the plane’s downing was that airlines now are required by federal law to set up a toll-free hotline for victims’ relatives to obtain information after a crash and to assign groups such as the Red Cross to care for those relatives.
Federal officials in 2008 announced new safety requirements on certain aircraft to prevent airplane fuel tanks from exploding.
Such basic policy changes, however, mean little to the families of those who lost mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandchildren and friends.
Families forever changed
“Some people say time heals all wounds. I don’t think that’s true,” said John Seaman of Albany, New York, who lost a niece aboard TWA Flight 800 and went on to lead a coalition of victims’ relatives who campaigned for airline safety. “Time doesn’t heal the wounds. Time just provides anesthesia.”
On a recent summer day, Carol Ziemkiewicz sat in the quiet of a kitchen of her townhouse in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey.
A picture of her daughter Jill sat on a nearby table — a friendly smile with wide, inviting eyes. Ziemkiewicz opened a photo album, pausing at a snapshot of her and Jill sitting on the lap of a Macy’s Santa Claus when mother and daughter spent a day in Manhattan. Over a door leading to a patio, a plaque said: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.”
Ziemkiewicz reached for a stack of letters from Jill’s friends, then another photo album and more pictures. She fell silent, her eyes reading the now-familiar sentiments of a poem, with this haunting stanza: “Like a comet blazing ‘cross the evening sky, gone too soon.”
“Losing Jill was like everything inside me was gone,” Ziemkiewicz said. “I just could not comprehend the shock. Literally, it was the shock.”
Jill Ziemkiewicz had just turned 23 in 1996 when she suspended her dream to be a landscape designer and signed up to become a TWA flight attendant after noticing an ad in a newspaper. An accomplished high school swimmer, her close friends called her “Jilly Fish.”
After finishing her TWA training in the spring of 1996, Jill worked a few domestic flights. But TWA Flight 800 on July 17 was to be her coming-out party of sorts – her first international flight.
“The rookie,” former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said in a eulogy.
A quarter-century later, Whitman said she is still troubled by the loss of life on TWA Flight 800.
“It’s such an overwhelming tragedy,” Whitman said in a recent interview.
When Jill stepped into the fuselage of the Boeing 747 at JFK on that July night 25 years ago, she wore the TWA uniform – a blue, knee-length skirt, a white blouse, a blue scarf knotted around her neck like a cowgirl.
TWA Flight 800 did not take off until around 8:30 p.m. Just after 5 p.m., Jill phoned her mother.
Carol Ziemkiewicz still has the Bell Atlantic telephone bill that lists the call. She also remembers her daughter’s last words.
“Mom I’m psyched. I’m going to the garden,” Jill excitedly told her mother — a reference to the Gardens at Versailles palace just outside of Paris that was once home to French royalty and is now a museum. As a student of landscape architecture at Rutgers University, Jill longed to walk amid lush flowers and shrubs and clipped lawns at Versailles.
She never made it.
“She wasn’t going to Versailles,” Ziemkiewicz now reasons. “She was going heaven.”
A jetliner explodes
Thirteen minutes after TWA flight 800 took off, the plane was rocked by an explosion in a fuel tank near the wings.
The jetliner cracked and broke into several sections, then fell into the Atlantic. Luggage and wiring and food and seats and fuel and pillows and blankets and peeled-off sections of the fuselage were scattered for miles on the ocean surface and across its sandy floor.
Also scattered in the surf or deep below were the bodies of the 230 victims. It took months, but the remains of every victim were eventually found, aviation investigators said.
“Sometimes it seems like it’s yesterday. Sometimes it seems like an eternity,” said Jill’s older brother, Matthew, now the deputy coordinator for emergency management in Bergen County, New Jersey.
Matthew was already mourning the loss of his father a year earlier to a heart attack. Losing Jill was a shock that never wore off.
“Nothing’s ever the same,” he said. “You move on. You get better. But there’s a big hole in the family.”
For Jill’s sister, Carin, who was only two years older, the loss was also devastating.
“We grew up together. We did everything together,” Carin said. “We were born to be best friends.”
Scars that don’t heal
In Montoursville, Pennsylvania, Stephanie Bedison bears similar emotional scars as the Ziemkiewicz family.
Bedison was a coach and teacher to several of the 16 students from the town’s high school French Club who perished on TWA Flight 800. They were traveling to Paris with five adult chaperones.
For Montoursville, a 4-square-mile speck of a town in central Pennsylvania with just 4,600 residents, the loss of 21 residents was a shock to the system.
“It was hard to accept,” said Bedison, now retired from her job as a special education teacher and track and cross-country coach at Montoursville Area High School. “It was surreal.”
Bedison’s son, then a high school senior, considered joining the French Club on its trip to Paris. But he chose another trip – to Honduras – as part of a science project.
Television news trucks swarmed the tiny community after the crash. So did conspiracy theorists and ordinary people who just wanted to offer some measure of comfort.
Bedison said many residents retreated into their own emotional privacy while also trying to make time to attend the funerals.
Even today as she looks back, Bedison feels pained as she recalls the students who were lost and the town’s collective grief.
“Each one of these kids was unique,” she said. “You’re talking about kids who affected almost every aspect of the school, from drama to academics to athletics. Almost everyone knew one of the students.”
In memory of the victims, Montoursville erected a statue of an angel with hands extended to a monument with the names of the town’s victims.
“Why is there an angel statue in the middle of the town?” Bedison said. “This is our history. This is a history lesson. People should know that.”
In Moriches, New York, Matthew Cashman also feels that need to remember the history of TWA Flight 800.
Cashman, an electrician, jumped on his father’s fishing boat, “The Rogue,” on the night that TWA Flight 800 blew apart and crashed into the Atlantic. Several friends from the town joined them. Their goal, they figured, was to rescue survivors. Only no one was alive.
“We were staring at this massive debris field that was still on fire,” Cashman recalled.
Then, he spotted a body. Then another. Then, two more.
In all, Cashman and his father, Thomas, who was well known on Long Island as a shark fisherman, recovered four bodies that night, all of them women.
“They were people. They were gone,” Cashman said, as he recalled how the group carefully lifted each victim from the Atlantic, placing them side by side on the boat’s deck and covering them with blankets. “There was no conversation on the boat.”
Cashman drew comfort by helping to build a monument to the TWA 800 victims atop a sand dune overlooking the beach at Long Island’s Smith Point State Park. But he is still troubled by what he saw the night the jetliner crashed.
“It’s still raw,” he said. “Just talking about it now makes me feel like it happened yesterday.”
Carol Ziemkiewicz says she draws comfort from a garden in Lyndhurst, New Jersey that was built in Jill’s memory.
The garden, which is based on one of Jill’s designs as a budding landscape architect, features wind chimes — a favorite of Jill’s — and a fountain designed to replicate the sunflower, another of Jill’s favorites. But memorial gardens, while comforting, can’t erase the scars of losing a daughter.
“A lot of people have moved on,” Ziemkiewicz said. “I haven’t.”
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