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Passengers May Have Prepared For Crash, Boaters Say

July 18, 1996

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. (AP) _ First came the smell of smoke. Then flames from the wreckage were visible miles away as boaters responded to the Coast Guard’s call for help in searching for possible survivors from TWA Flight 800.

Racing over the glassy black water on a calm, dark night, Brian Kelly’s boat was one of the first on the scene after the Boeing 747 bound for Paris exploded and plunged into the ocean off the Long Island coast.

Minutes later, more than 100 boats formed a circle around the flames, which burned over a large area and jumped 15 feet into the air.

``It became very real when we saw the boat right next to us pull out that first body. It was a lady with a white skirt,″ said Kelly, 34, of Sayville. ``She had no shoes on.″

All 229 on board were presumed killed.

Nauseated from the fumes, Kelly, his brother Leo and friend Jimmy Vaccaro peered over the oily water with a hand-held flashlight, watching suitcases, papers, tray tables and other debris float by.

Then, a moment of hope: a yellow TWA life jacket bobbed nearby with its emergency beacon flashing.

``We really thought someone was in it, ″ said Vaccaro, who hooked it into the boat.

The jacket was empty. But it was inflated and buckled, suggesting the passengers had time to prepare for a crash.

``These things don’t light and inflate by themselves _ you have to pull on it or blow through the tube,″ said Vaccaro.

But the Coast Guard said none of the bodies recovered wore life preservers, suggesting that the explosion did come without warning.

The trio in the Kelly boat stayed on the scene until their fuel ran low, giving water and other supplies to authorities. ``The police out there were welcoming anybody and everybody,″ Kelly said.

Gary and Rick Hinrichs wanted to help, to offset the nightmare somehow. So they, too, boarded their tiny fishing boat, tossed in 10 extra life vests and set off into the darkness.

``We thought maybe, just maybe, we could pull somebody aboard,″ said Rick Hinrichs, an elementary school physical education teacher from nearby Manorville.

``We found out pretty quickly that we couldn’t,″ he said. After five hours of feeling the water slap his face, ``all we could do was watch.″

Hours later, police reversed themselves and asked private boaters to leave the crash site and stop touching potential evidence.

One large piece of the jet, a section of a wing that floated and burned for hours, was visible, said Ralph Lettieri, a firefighter who raced out in his own boat with two other firefighters.

``You couldn’t tell it’s a plane,″ Lettieri said. ``You got fishing boats with outriggers out there, and they’ve got their nets out, trying to pick up body parts.″

Vaccaro said: ``You just can’t comprehend it. All these people just two hours before were sitting back on the plane, reading, getting into their trip, and all of a sudden it’s over.

``The emotional part hits me now,″ he said. ``Out there it was denial. But now, Oh, God...″


Associated Press National Writer Ted Anthony contributed to this report.

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