This FBI history article appeared in the September/October 2016 issues of The Grapevine, published by the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. The article was written by James K. Kallstrom (FBI: 1970-1997).
It was a hot evening in New York City on Tuesday, July 17, 1996. Most of the heads of Law Enforcement were at the Friars Club for a dinner to honor Ray Kelly, who was leaving the NYPD to become the head of U.S. Customs Service. As the Assistant Director of the NYO and long-time veteran of the office, I had known Ray well and respected him. It was a festive occasion among good friends. As coffee was being served and the speeches were about to begin, my pager screeched its familiar sound. It was the phone number of the NYO duty supervisor with the added suffix “911.” Suddenly, other pagers started chirping. The two telephones in the lobby were in use so I called from my Bureau car parked outside.
What I learned was chilling! The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had notified us that their radar contact with a 747 jetliner en route from JFK airport to Paris, France had disappeared just minutes after take-off. Other aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean near Long Island’s Moriches Inlet reported seeing a large fireball in the sky. It was TWA Flight 800.
Hours later, we learned that the passengers included grandparents, the Executive Producer of ABC Sports, a noted American musical composer, 16 members of a high school French club from Pennsylvania, newlyweds, children from 6 months to 16 and a deadheading flight crew — all bound for the City of Lights. All 230 souls from 16 countries were presumed dead. So began one of the largest, gut wrenching and complicated investigations ever conducted by the FBI.
My mind was racing as I drove to 26 Federal Plaza. I told the duty supervisor to begin an established call out and to have all the SACs meet me in the Command Post. The only exception was Lou Schilliro, the SAC of the Criminal Division, whom I sent to the Coast Guard Station at Moriches to assist in search and recovery efforts, open a local FBI command post and begin assigning leads covering Long Island and the surrounding waters. I also dispatched a technical team to assist him with needed communications.
The NYO Command Post was already gathering steam when I arrived. As more and more Agents assembled, they immediately began answering phones, which were ringing off the hooks. The whole world seemed to be calling. The media clamored for any information; state, local and federal officials demanded answers; citizens offered tips; eye-witnesses had stories to tell and — most heart wrenching — stunned family members sought anything the FBI could offer on the fate of their loved ones.
For me, that first hour still remains a blur today. I spoke with FBI Director Louie Freeh, Attorney General Janet Reno, the head of the FAA, the president of TWA, as well as the Admiral in charge of the Coast Guard Atlantic. Jim Hall, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) informed me that a ten-man GO Team led by NTSB Vice Chairman, Robert Francis, would depart from Washington for Long Island the next day. I called Assistant Director Bob Bryant, requesting his help in establishing a Navy point of contact at the Pentagon.
The FBI rightly prides itself on its history of pursuing the truth wherever it leads. Our job is, and always has been, to follow every lead wherever it takes us in a professional and “dispassionate” manner. Yet today, more than 20 years after the TWA 800 disaster, I still vividly recall how the FBI/NYO family struggled mightily with “dispassion” in this case.
It began with a call from my wife, Susan, as I pulled into the underground parking garage. My dear friend and fellow Agent, Charlie Christopher, had just telephoned our home. He was frantic. My heart sank when I learned that his beloved wife, Janet, was aboard the plane, serving as the senior flight attendant. In a terrible twist of fate, she had switched shifts with a colleague so that she could attend her son’s Eagle Scout induction ceremony the following weekend. Charlie’s was one of my first calls.
For the NYO, this case was now personal. . . . (read the rest)