Jack Cashill's TWA 800: My Personal Hole in the Sky

I am sure there is a TWA captain somewhere who believes the government theory that a spontaneous fuel tank explosion brought down TWA Flight 800 in July 1996. I just have not met him. -- Jack Cashill

I spent a couple years and $40,000 earning a nonfiction creative writing MFA so I could share my experience in a memoir about TWA Flight 800. I made this effort in part as a remembrance for my late fiancée Susanne who died onboard, but also because boiling inside me is a great frustration and firm belief that the truth about what really happened to that Boeing 747 has been deliberately concealed.

I’ve flown thousands of flights into New York’s major airports, and admired Long Island’s southern shore so many times that I can paint it as it must have existed on the evening of July 17th, 1996.

The sky was that deep shade of blue you only see only at dusk during summer in the moments just before the sun finally sets. The distant colored sails of leisure boats jibed and tacked -- small irregular triangles bending and pulling their water-skimming vessels.

And above them were the departing aircraft -- some fanning out for a variety of domestic destinations, while the European-bound flights cued up offshore like a string of marching ants on an invisible fishing line, all heading for the North Atlantic track system with an entry point somewhere far-off near Newfoundland.

A recent departure from JFK International airport joined the procession -- a double-decker red and white Boeing 747 with four underwing engines, each producing roughly 50,000 lbs. of thrust during climb-out.

From the shore, it would have appeared as a Cross of Lorraine: a single line for its body with two lines across it -- one larger to represent the wings, and a smaller one for the tail -- such as a stick figure a child would draw. Inside the plane’s windows, too far away to see, were 230 passengers and crew. And although I knew several of them, someone special to me was in seat 3-2 in the forward first-class section: my fiancée Susanne Jensen.

She would have heard the aircraft’s inner workings from her upfront seat. The gentle vibration after takeoff as the landing gear retracted and stowed, followed by the hum of jackscrews retracting the flaps for the aircraft’s acceleration, reminded her that she was now safely on her way to Paris.

With the world getting smaller outside, she would have already reclined her seat and most likely taken off her high-heeled dress shoes with a smile of satisfaction, happily unaware that anything was about to go fatally wrong.

At 10,000 feet the flight attendants would have just been given the signal to unbuckle, rise from their retractable jump seats, and begin their service, but there would not have been time to wheel the dull aluminum carts out into the aisle.

Susanne would have been reading reports and notes from her briefcase, mentally preparing for her multilingual financial meeting in the morning, or chatting with my coworker and friend Captain Gid Miller, deadheading on this flight and seated across the aisle to her right.

If she instead looked beyond the seat to her left, her view out the pressure-retaining, double-pane window would have faced north across the water at a steady string of Long Island’s strands -- Atlantic Beach, Long Beach, Lido Beach, Point Lookout -- with the slowly setting sun behind her casting lengthy shadows.

With a US Air flight overhead, this 747 was restricted from climbing above 10,000 feet until adequate aircraft separation was obtained. More seaside communities -- Jones Beach followed by Fire Island -- would have slipped by, creating a beautiful moving view from the largest successful commercial aircraft of its day -- one I’d hoped to eventually command. But Susanne’s Long Island sightseeing ended without warning at Smith Point near Moriches, NY.

So many witnesses reported seeing a streaking flash of ascending light. That’s what shakes the perfect summer evening’s tranquility when I imagine what happened. The sky is suddenly stained with exploding smears of red and orange airborne violence. A glowing fireball spreads out from Susanne’s 747 like a grenade.

At 8:31 p.m., near the longest day of the year, it was still daylight, but not for much longer. The only red in this image should have been the pair of painted red stripes that ran the length of the aircraft’s 230-foot fuselage, and the red tail displaying TWA’s slanted, white-letter logo. The only orange should have been the impending sunset.

Whatever object caused TWA Flight 800’s center fuel tank to explode, that initial blast would have instantly shoved Susanne and everyone else onboard 12 feet upward and 17 feet to the right, according to William Donaldson, an independent researcher and retired U.S. Navy commander.

The Suffolk county medical examiner’s office announced that the probable cause of death for almost everyone onboard was a snapped neck. That’s the feel-good report for victims’ families so that we imagine our loved ones departed this world quickly and painlessly. The bulk of the passengers were seated in the main coach section where this probably was the result.

But because first class, in the nosecone of the aircraft, broke off from the rest of the now burning wings, fuselage, and tail, I can’t get this image out of my head: Susanne freefalling for what would have felt like a lifetime, lap-belted to her mostly-blue seat styled with a single narrow white and two wide red vertical stripes.

She would have been in pure panic mode while flopping about violently, gasping for breath from the sudden decompression, and deafened by the explosion and resulting wind noise -- only to finally die with her eyes wide open when impacting the water at roughly triple highway speed in what would later became known as the yellow debris field.

My only consolation is that, without being able to turn around, she never saw behind her the giant hole where the rest of the aircraft should have been -- an oblong oval opening to the tumbling sky, bordered by torn cables, shredded aluminum aircraft skin, sheared beams and spars, and accented with sparking severed wires.

And I hope she couldn’t comprehend what was actually happening if she lived long enough to ride this nearly three-mile-high, free-falling hellivator all the way down to the ocean’s surface, and then sink to 140 feet below, where her body would wait to be recovered.

In hardly more time than I can hold my breath, her life was over, and mine was torn inside out. The 747 that went up whole and came down in 876 pieces invaded every part of my life.

Moving on from real-world disaster isn’t so easily imagined. I can’t just paint over the images in my brain of the streak of light, the burning jet fuel, the now lifeless bodies, and the splintering aircraft. The woman I loved, nestled in the safest, most sacred place in my professional aviation world, was eradicated out of a clear evening sky without so much as a hint of a warning.

Gone forever was the love of my life, torn from the sky while in the trusted and competent hands of my fellow employees -- my mentors and my peers. The red and orange fireball that consumed her life also burned its way into my core existence. I’d lost everything, and even my airline didn’t know what to do with the pilot whose fiancée was on that flight.

As the days and weeks and months without her stretched on, I looked for solace within the familiarity and fraternity of the cockpit -- the only thing with meaning I had left, and what became known as my aluminum parachute. It wasn’t much, but going to the cockpit was something tangible for me to hold on to, and a reason to get out of bed. After I buried Susanne, I buried myself in my work.

I applaud those who are creating documentaries and writing books that reveal insight into the aftermath and investigation of that July 17th, 1996 disaster. My memoir does include my opinion that the 258 witnesses who saw a missile have been rejected by the official investigation.

But mostly my memoir is a personal interest story. It reveals what it’s like to be in love, and to lose her -- along with my international airline -- all in a single unpredictable moment. 13,760 Feet -- My Personal Hole in the Sky is a memorial at altitude for 230 passengers and crew, and if you read it, you too will yearn for answers.

Mark Berry 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).

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