Jack Cashill's TWA 800: For a Mother, 20 Years Ago Is Yesterday

Throughout the TWA 800 investigation, authorities held the grief of family members in ready reserve to ward off tough questions. Within months of the July 1996 crash, FBI honcho Jim Kallstrom was citing the "consternation and pain" of the families to silence critics. True to form, the media interviewed only those family members that affirmed the government position. Many parents, like Lisa Michelson, did not. -- Jack Cashill

When I came home from work on the evening of July 17, 1996 I turned on the television and the newscasts were all saying the same thing: TWA Flight 800, bound for Paris, blew up off the coast of Long Island.

My nineteen-year-old son, Yon Rojany, was supposed to be on TWA Flight 841 bound for Rome. Basketball coach Larry Brown had seen Yon, an excellent athlete, play in California where we lived and encouraged him to try out for the Italian Basketball League. Yon thought it worth a try and was on his way to Italy.

However, as soon as I heard the news and saw the images of flaming wreckage, I knew. I knew in the way only mothers know that Yon was on that Paris-bound plane. I called TWA throughout that night, desperate to be proved wrong, but I was sure I wasn’t. It took an endless two days before my niece, who was in Paris, was able to check the passenger manifest in Paris and confirm my fears.

It was hard for her to tell me and harder for me to hear. Flight 841 had been cancelled, and TWA booked Yon on Flight 800 before he had a chance to call me. All that I remember on hearing the news was falling to my knees and crying.

Like the other grieving family members, I went to the Ramada Plaza at JFK Airport. They called it “Heartbreak Hotel,” and that week it deserved its name. We gathered every day for news and got almost nothing. We heard about a missile spotted on radar, but that conversation ended as though it never happened. 

We gathered in a big ballroom with tables set up for all the families. I remember going up to Jim Kallstrom, head of the FBI investigation, and saying it was an act of terrorism. He said, “I know.” 

As hellish as the place was, I was not going to leave until they found Yon’s body. I spent the days down in the big room or upstairs in my room watching CNN. The story dominated the news. There were Jewish services in the evening, and that meant a lot to me. 

After thirteen days, the authorities recovered Yon’s body. I took some solace upon learning that he was whole, complete. The day after Yon was recovered I left the Ramada to bring Yon home for burial.

I returned home but the life I knew before Yon’s death was gone, never to come back. As any mother who has lost a child knows, the pain never goes away, and life never returns to what was once normal. 

I followed the investigation intently. I called the NTSB, speaking to Peter Goelz, daily. I was desperate for answers, desperate for the truth. About two months into the investigation, Jim Kallstrom did a 180. It was almost like he had whiplash. For the first two months, all I heard from him was bomb or missile. And now he was talking about a mechanical failure. That news hit me like a slap in the face. 

Some time the following winter the authorities took me and other family members out to Calverton on Long Island, the site of the investigation. They took us to a room where the seats from the plane were stored. It all seemed too pristine as though this investigation was being staged. Nothing about that scene was real.

There were just too many things that did not add up. Planes just don’t explode. You can smoke a cigarette in a 747 fuel tank and douse the cigarette in the fuel without worry. As I would learn, there had never been a spontaneous midair explosion in the Jet A fuel era before July 1996, and there has not been one since.

I saw Kallstrom at the tenth anniversary ceremony on Long Island. By this time I knew a lot more about the witness statements, the radar data, and the CIA involvement. I walked up to Kallstrom, and he let me talk to him. “I can’t believe you’re still sticking to this story,” I said. “How can you lie to people’s faces?” He told me he wasn’t lying and dropped his head.

I didn’t believe him then and don’t believe him now. As the twentieth anniversary approaches this July, I grow more anxious every day. All I ask for at this stage, from the government and the Clintons, is the truth. The truth is so easy, so simple. To lie is what’s difficult.

Lisa Michelson is one of family members, whistleblowers, researchers and others who have not given up the pursuit of the truth. To learn more about their story please read Jack Cashill’s introductory article in this series or his book, TWA 800: The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy (Regnery: July 5). 

Throughout the TWA 800 investigation, authorities held the grief of family members in ready reserve to ward off tough questions. Within months of the July 1996 crash, FBI honcho Jim Kallstrom was citing the "consternation and pain" of the families to silence critics. True to form, the media interviewed only those family members that affirmed the government position. Many parents, like Lisa Michelson, did not. -- Jack Cashill

When I came home from work on the evening of July 17, 1996 I turned on the television and the newscasts were all saying the same thing: TWA Flight 800, bound for Paris, blew up off the coast of Long Island.

My nineteen-year-old son, Yon Rojany, was supposed to be on TWA Flight 841 bound for Rome. Basketball coach Larry Brown had seen Yon, an excellent athlete, play in California where we lived and encouraged him to try out for the Italian Basketball League. Yon thought it worth a try and was on his way to Italy.

However, as soon as I heard the news and saw the images of flaming wreckage, I knew. I knew in the way only mothers know that Yon was on that Paris-bound plane. I called TWA throughout that night, desperate to be proved wrong, but I was sure I wasn’t. It took an endless two days before my niece, who was in Paris, was able to check the passenger manifest in Paris and confirm my fears.

It was hard for her to tell me and harder for me to hear. Flight 841 had been cancelled, and TWA booked Yon on Flight 800 before he had a chance to call me. All that I remember on hearing the news was falling to my knees and crying.

Like the other grieving family members, I went to the Ramada Plaza at JFK Airport. They called it “Heartbreak Hotel,” and that week it deserved its name. We gathered every day for news and got almost nothing. We heard about a missile spotted on radar, but that conversation ended as though it never happened. 

We gathered in a big ballroom with tables set up for all the families. I remember going up to Jim Kallstrom, head of the FBI investigation, and saying it was an act of terrorism. He said, “I know.” 

As hellish as the place was, I was not going to leave until they found Yon’s body. I spent the days down in the big room or upstairs in my room watching CNN. The story dominated the news. There were Jewish services in the evening, and that meant a lot to me. 

After thirteen days, the authorities recovered Yon’s body. I took some solace upon learning that he was whole, complete. The day after Yon was recovered I left the Ramada to bring Yon home for burial.

I returned home but the life I knew before Yon’s death was gone, never to come back. As any mother who has lost a child knows, the pain never goes away, and life never returns to what was once normal. 

I followed the investigation intently. I called the NTSB, speaking to Peter Goelz, daily. I was desperate for answers, desperate for the truth. About two months into the investigation, Jim Kallstrom did a 180. It was almost like he had whiplash. For the first two months, all I heard from him was bomb or missile. And now he was talking about a mechanical failure. That news hit me like a slap in the face. 

Some time the following winter the authorities took me and other family members out to Calverton on Long Island, the site of the investigation. They took us to a room where the seats from the plane were stored. It all seemed too pristine as though this investigation was being staged. Nothing about that scene was real.

There were just too many things that did not add up. Planes just don’t explode. You can smoke a cigarette in a 747 fuel tank and douse the cigarette in the fuel without worry. As I would learn, there had never been a spontaneous midair explosion in the Jet A fuel era before July 1996, and there has not been one since.

I saw Kallstrom at the tenth anniversary ceremony on Long Island. By this time I knew a lot more about the witness statements, the radar data, and the CIA involvement. I walked up to Kallstrom, and he let me talk to him. “I can’t believe you’re still sticking to this story,” I said. “How can you lie to people’s faces?” He told me he wasn’t lying and dropped his head.

I didn’t believe him then and don’t believe him now. As the twentieth anniversary approaches this July, I grow more anxious every day. All I ask for at this stage, from the government and the Clintons, is the truth. The truth is so easy, so simple. To lie is what’s difficult.

Lisa Michelson is one of family members, whistleblowers, researchers and others who have not given up the pursuit of the truth. To learn more about their story please read Jack Cashill’s introductory article in this series or his book, TWA 800: The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy (Regnery: July 5).