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Grieving families view TWA Flight 800 wreckage

February 9, 1997

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. (AP) _ Families of victims of TWA Flight 800 toured the cavernous hangar where the wreckage of the plane has been reconstructed Saturday, placing white roses on the seats assigned to their loved ones.

Before entering, more than 150 relatives were shown pictures to prepare them and signed releases promising not to sue for mental distress from what they saw.

``They have the seats all lined up row by row ... charred and busted up and mangled,″ said Stephanie Maranto, whose brother, Jamie Hurd, 29, of Severn, Md., was one of 230 people killed.

``You immediately run through your mind that these seats were full at one time, full of life, full of people and children and husbands and wives.

``It’s so upsetting to see them sitting like that, completely empty and just broken to pieces. It’s a very quiet, cold and eerie feeling,″ she said.

Relatives walked through the hangar, big enough to house two football fields and containing some 50,000 pieces of broken metal from the Boeing 747 that have been pulled from the ocean floor.

Parts of the plane are displayed in sections, along with passengers’ personal belongings: wallets, clothing, luggage and pocketbooks.

Such visits are routinely offered to relatives of plane crash victims, officials said, and several families had asked to see the wreckage.

Only two families had viewed the hangar before Saturday: Charles Christopher, an FBI agent whose wife, a flight attendant, was killed, and Jamie Hurd’s father and sister, Cyndi Hurd.

Friday, the medical examiner’s office said DNA tests had identified Hurd’s body. He’s the 216th victim to be identified.

The Paris-bound Boeing 747 exploded off the coast of Long Island shortly after takeoff July 17. Investigators maintain that the explosion could have been caused by a bomb, a missile or mechanical failure. Evidence confirming or ruling out any of the theories has yet to be found.

``We understand what the families want,″ said FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom, who spokes to the families before the tour. ``They want answers and we want those same answers, but we just don’t have them and we are not going to make up some answer for the sake of doing that.″

Scallop dredging boats continue to collect wreckage, the reconstruction process is not yet complete, and tests designed to simulate mechanical malfunctions and sabotage are still being conducted, Kallstrom said.

He assured the families ``that we would run out every lead, conduct every interview, do every experiment necessary.″

``We’re not a bunch of quitters. We don’t walk away,″ he said.

But Joseph Lychner of Houston, who lost his wife and two young daughters, said the tour did nothing to relieve his fears that his family suffered before dying, because their seats remained largely intact.

``I was hoping for a clear indication that my family died instantly,″ he said. ``It really haunts me, thinking that my family was free-falling through the air.″

Lychner said he blames TWA and Boeing for the tragedy, charging that Boeing put air conditioning units too close to the center fuel tank, causing vapors to get so hot that they could explode.

``In essence, they had a bomb in the belly of the plane,″ Lychner said. ``I believe that TWA and Boeing, in effect, murdered my family. ... If I had the ability, I would file criminal charges.″

The NTSB has concluded that the plane’s center fuel tank exploded, but has not determined what ignited the blast.

Krista Koponen, whose sister, flight attendant Sandy Meade, was killed, said she found viewing the wreckage reassuring.

``I think the real reason I came was to see they were doing all they could do,″ she said.