Twenty-four years ago today, an explosion high above the coast of Long Island sent TWA Flight 800, a jumbo B-747 headed from JFK to Paris, plummeting into the Atlantic. I was at home in St. Louis (where TWA was headquartered) eating pizza in a t-shirt and underwear when I got the call.
The plane had disappeared from radar.
I was told in rushed words to get my “go” bag (filled with things you need if you’ll be away from home suddenly) and get to the office. Immediately. My beeper started going off. As the director of employee communications, I was part of a stellar team that supported an international company network with 25,000 employees.
At the office, we manned the phones. Got organized. Hooked at the hip with our lawyers. Communicated with our top brass who were all in London and needed to return urgently. Listened to messages from witnesses on Long Island telling us they’d seen a missile in the air before the explosion. And heard other disturbing calls, like the guy who left a message in slow, Irish brogue: “You should talk to the people at British Airways — they’re used to it. You’re just new to it.”
I’ll never forget that.
Nor will I forget the photo, and the TV clip, of TWA Flight 800’s tail floating in the ocean waves.
Network television broke in soon after my notification with video and news about the crash. We’d had emergencies before, but nothing like this. In 1996, there was no twitter, or Facebook, robust internet or company intranet. Our team had to rely on the media and press releases to get information out, any form of communication we could use. Our reservations agents needed to know what to tell the onslaught of callers. Our pilots’ and flight attendants’ unions needed. The team that went to NYC to be family advocates needed. The FBI. The NTSB. Our employees around the world. Difficult and impatient Mayor Rudy Giuliani. All needed.
For days, our brains were fried from no sleep and we wanted to cry, so we took turns doing that, but we kept doing our jobs. Bundles of food with tags of condolences from other airlines filled our offices, providing us sustenance and the feeling we weren’t alone. Tearful employees from other departments showed up to offer help, wringing their hands, not knowing what to do. A war room was set up and a PR firm called in to help handle the hundreds of media calls that came in every hour from across the world. Work started on press conferences, and a special edition of the TWA Skyliner newspaper for employees, and memorial services in four cities to be simultaneously broadcast on CNN.
My head spins thinking about it now, how we did it, remembering how I felt. I honestly thought for the first years after this disaster that I’d always cry on July 17.
Could I ever forgive myself for sending young Maddie Smith to NYC to survey the wreckage bobbing in the ocean, from a helicopter – causing her pain and grief even while she remained professional, in order to produce a special newspaper edition for employees? Eventually leave for a planned surgery despite the tears, strain, and difficult work remaining in my office? Collect the photos of lost pilots and flight attendants whose smiling faces stared up at me, and manage to keep my shit together?
Somewhere in a St. Louis park is a towering oak tree and a plaque dedicated to the souls of Flt. 800. Elise Eberwein, John McDonald (fellow communications directors), and I had the tree planted, and buried a time capsule underneath with our personal thoughts about the tragedy and how it had affected us. We even had a quiet memorial service right there, the three of us sitting cross-legged on a stifling summer day, probably unsure what even drove us there. I think we were bonded by emotions we couldn’t put into words; we were seeking to heal our own broken hearts, knowing what the families who’d lost loved ones were enduring, and what our TWA “family” was suffering through.
Those weeks and months, while difficult, taught me so much, too, about working through tough situations, to both give and accept compassion and to maintain professionalism even if it’s through tears. I was witness to dedication, commitment, friendship, humor, cooperation, resolve, tolerance, understanding. Love.
All 230 people died that early starry evening in July. (https://abcnews.go.com/Archives/video/twa-800-plane-crash-10353435)
Then, in a much slower descent, our beloved, historic, legacy airline slid into a decline from which it eventually wouldn’t recover. Before the crash, we’d finally crawled out of an earnings hole, and despite monikers in the media like “financially-ailing airline” or the joke “Tires Without Air,” we’d all kept the faith that it would. And it was.
The NTSB found that the probable cause of the crash was an explosion of flammable fuel/air vapors in a fuel tank, most likely from a short-circuit. There is another belief that the plane was downed by a missile (a U.S. submarine missile going awry is one theory, with some radar to back it up). I’m one of those who don’t believe the government’s final conclusions — and I’m NOT a conspiracy theorist. But I’ll never know. There are numerous books on this, YouTube videos, and a lengthy documentary from 2013 (trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOqKuTBcqRs).
Today, as I sit in an airport in Missoula, Montana, there is no longer a TWA pulling up to airport gates around the world with it’s gleaming red/white livery.
But, I’m not sad the airline no longer exists and I’m no longer crying about July 17. The pictures from those days are fuzzier now in my head, the emotional response less intense. We all move on, change jobs, marry, have kids, migrate to new cities. We bury the pain deep, just like my friends and I did with the time capsule.
But that doesn’t mean we forget what it all meant, and how significant the event was to the world, and in our lives.