20 Years Later: How TWA Flight 800 Redefined Support Groups

Much has been written and debated about TWA Flight 800, one of the deadliest plane crashes of the 1990s. Not to be lost in the shuffle: The role that a support group for families of the victims played in defining the regulatory response to the crash and the memorial built to honor those lost.

Two decades ago, the explosion of TWA Flight 800—which killed all 230 aboard when the airliner crashed into the Atlantic off of Long Island—brought together a broad group of families that stretched continents, languages, and cultures.

The tragedy still lingers, as do questions about what happened, which have sparked occasional documentaries and continued debate, despite the National Transportation Safety Board having determined years ago that terrorism wasn’t the culprit. (Rather, it said an explosion in one of the fuel tanks likely caused the explosion and ensuing crash.)

But one result of the July 17, 1996, crash that makes it stand out among similar tragedies is the way the victims’ families united and became something of a community.

Families of TWA Flight 800 Association, a victim support group, formed quickly after the crash of the airliner, which left JFK Airport in Queens, NY, for Paris but exploded shortly after takeoff. Despite the cultural and language differences many of the families had, the group gave them critical support as they waded through a challenging shared experience.

The association has not only played an essential role in honoring the memories of those lost but has also served as a collective voice to speak for those victims during the four-year federal investigation. Whenever the story resurfaces in the news cycle—as it did in 2013, when the cable network EPIX released a documentary on the tragedy that floated a theory that a missile was involved—the group is there to speak up about the negative effects such rehashing has on families.

John Seaman, the longtime head of the association, has repeatedly rejected the theories and emphasized that they reopen the wounds around the tragedy.

“Let it go,” Seaman told the Associated Press in a story published this week.

With such a wide group of people affected, it’s inevitable that some may not share Seaman’s sentiment and remain skeptical of the official explanation of the crash. Among them is Lisa Michelson.

“It’s a terrible cover-up,” Michelson, who lost her son in the crash, told the AP.

But even with doubts still lingering about the cause of the tragedy, it’s hard to ignore the value of an association that has brought so many grieving families together. The group played an active role in creating a memorial at Smith Point County Park, about 14 miles from the crash site. At last year’s ceremony, Board Member Frank Lombardi emphasized the memorial’s value as a sacred place.

“For family is a place in the heart,” Lombardi said, according to Newsday. “This memorial holds a place in all of our hearts.”

The association, which The New York Times called a “formidable political force” in an August 1996 article, also forced a change in strategy by regulatory groups in how they work with victims’ families. In addition, it has inspired later organizations focused on victims’ families, particularly in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

More importantly, coming together in this way has made things just a little easier for those families affected by Flight 800. The pain still lingers, but as the two-decade mark nears, the passage of time is helping, according to Seaman.

“It’s time to take a deep breath and reflect,” he told the AP. “I think the passage of time is helpful. It allows some of us to forget a lot of the details. The loved ones are not forgotten. To us, it’s about healing.”

An illustration on the back side of the TWA Flight 800 memorial. (Mr.TinDC/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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