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Searchers retrieve pieces of plane from choppy sea

A stuffed Tweetie bird. Two passports. Family photographs. A singed chunk of an airliner tray, holding the familiar tag instructing passengers that their life vests are under their seats.

The increasingly choppy seas off Long Island are yielding the remnants of TWA Flight 800, leaving both precious belongings and mundane debris for young Coast Guardsmen to retrieve and collect.

Nineteen-year-old Tom Coonan, who joined the guard 10 months ago, pulled the yellow toy animal from the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday.

"I could think about the kid sitting there, looking at his mom, holding on to his teddy bear and all of a sudden it's over," the freckled guardsman said as he recounted his first encounter with tragedy.

Seas of 6 to 8 feet hampered the search Friday, as a summer storm moved through the Long Island area. The Coast Guard called in its smaller boats, under 82 feet, and searchers struggled in vain to find the the flight data and voice recorders.

With some of the searchers grounded, new details emerged about what they had seen in the 48 hours since the crash.

Two New York Air National Guard helicopter pilots said they saw the explosion during a training exercise 8 to 10 miles away.

"Something caught my eye in my peripheral vision. I looked up to the left and a saw a streak," recalled Maj. Fritz Meyer. "The first explosion grew into this huge, huge fireball. The fireball was four to five times the size of the sun."

Speeding to the crash site, Meyer and co-pilot C. F. Baur had to slow down their helicopter to avoid debris still falling from the sky. First thinking they had witnessed the collision of two light planes, they realized it was larger when they saw the first of about 30 bodies, an empty life raft and airliner parts.

Less than five hours later, the Coast Guard cutter Point Wells and its 11-man crew was the second guard vessel to arrive.

By then, the spot was awash in light from flares dropped by C-130 planes. Helicopters hovered overhead and the ocean was dotted with private boaters trying to find survivors.

The crew returned 48 hours later, calling themselves lucky that they hadn't had to pull bodies from the waters.

By Friday, the seas were so choppy that the Point Wells didn't go back out after coming ashore near Shinnecock Inlet to repair a leaky water pump. Brisk wind and waves meant debris was scattering and heading toward land.

Ed O'Connell, out for a walk on the beach alongside the inlet, saw a dark bit of cloth sticking out of the sand. He found what appeared to be a seatback from the airliner along with the plastic food tray and the instruction tag for the life vest.

"We've all seen that," O'Connell said.

He notified the FBI, and several law enforcement officers arrived to pick up what they said was the latest of several pieces of debris found along the beaches Friday.

Ocean crash site

Divers face low visibility in an expanded search area at the site of the TWA crash in the Atlantic Ocean, 40 miles from New York.

Temperature: 65 degrees F.

Depth: 110-120 feet

Flow of current: About 1 mph east

Search area: Expanded from 240 to 400 square miles, as debris has drifted overnight.

Ocean floor: Soft bottom of sand and mud

Sources: NOAA, U.S. Coast Guard, News in Motion