A TWA jetliner with 229 people aboard exploded in a fireball moments after taking off for Paris and plunged into the waters off Long Island on Wednesday night. There was no sign of survivors.
The 747 jet, Flight 800, was bound for Charles de Gaulle Airport from Kennedy Airport when it went into the Atlantic Ocean 20 miles off Moriches Inlet at the east end of the 110-mile island about 8:45 p.m.
"It was a big orange fireball . . . you saw nothing but flames," said witness Eileen Daly. "My initial reaction was what is it? . . . Oh my God, it's an airplane!"
There were 212 passengers and 17 crew members on the flight, according to Mike Kelly, a TWA vice president who held a news conference at Kennedy Airport. He said he had no word on survivors.
Kelly said the plane had arrived from Athens, Greece, and had been on the ground about three hours before taking off for Paris.
"We are not finding any survivors," said Steve Sapp of the U.S. Coast Guard. "We are locating lots of bodies out there."
From the air, wreckage and fuel on the water could be seen burning in the night.
Suffolk County Fire Department Chief Myles Quinn said a temporary morgue was set up near the scene.
Asked about the possibility of a bomb, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Eliot Brenner said, "We can't discuss security issues."
"Nobody knows for sure what happened," said White House spokesman Jim Fettig.
Vic Fehner, who was fishing on the bay, said, "It started off like a little ball, like a flare.
"It came down for a few seconds and all of a sudden burst into flames, a big ball of flame, and it just started to rotate around."
Jason Fontana, a cook at John Scott's Raw Bar in Westhampton Beach, said "it looked like a big fireball with pieces coming off of it. You heard two big explosions, like two big firecrackers going off, just before sunset."
Sapp said there was a report of life rafts floating in the water after the explosion. Six helicopters, three Coast Guard cutters, a Navy P-3 rescue plane were among the units dispatched and the Navy plane was dropping additional life rafts.
The National Transportation Safety Board was pulling together a team to send to the scene of the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the waters of Long Island.
President Clinton was briefed Wednesday night about the crash, but the White House issued no formal statements from him.
Brenner said the plane was a Boeing 747-100, an early model of the giant airliner, first produced in 1970. It can carry as many as 450 passengers.
The crash was the second major airline disaster in slightly more than two months, following the May 11 crash in Florida of a ValuJet DC-9. All 110 people aboard that plane died when it crashed into Florida's Everglades.
The deadliest air disaster in U.S. history came in 1979 when a DC-10 crashed on takeoff at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, killing 273.
A Pan Am jetliner exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, killing 270 people. A bomb hidden in a luggage compartment detonated 38 minutes after Flight 103 left London's Heathrow Airport for New York.