It quickly became clear that the Navy would be called on to do more than just recover the black boxes. The Coast Guard, local emergency response agencies, and civilian volunteers recovered 105 victims, but many more were trapped in the wreckage on the bottom, and only the Navy had the capability to retrieve them. At approximately 120 feet, the water depth limited Scuba divers to less than 15 minutes of "bottom time." In contrast, surface-supplied "hard-hat" divers supported by Navy salvage ships could spend as much as 90 minutes on the bottom. On 21 July, in anticipation of a formal change in the mission, SupSalv requested the assignment of the salvage ship USS Grasp (ARS-51) to the operation.
Returning from a five-month overseas deployment, the Grasp had arrived in Norfolk late on 18 July. She took on board an ROV and other supplies and departed for Long Island just after midnight on 22 July. On 24 July, the Grasp began ROV and dive operations, locating the airliner's black boxes on the second dive.
On 22 July, Rear Admiral Edward K. Kristensen, Commander, Combat Logistics Group Two (ComLogGru-2), became officer in tactical command of Combined Task Group 40.50, controlling all Navy assets supporting the operation. He and the ComLogGru-2 staff relieved SupSalv personnel of many of the administrative and logistics responsibilities, allowing them to focus on the search and recovery effort.
ComLogGru-2 also recommended the assignment of an amphibious ship to serve as afloat command post. Accordingly, the USS Oak Hill (LSD-51) arrived on scene on 24 July. In addition to command and control, the Oak Hill provided berthing and messing facilities for divers, a helicopter platform, logistics support for the salvage ships, and repair and maintenance facilities. She was relieved on 10 September by the USS Trenton (LPD-14), which provided the same basic support capabilities.
By 27 July, sonar surveys by the Pirouette and Rude had identified two primary debris fields, and SupSalv requested additional assets, including a second salvage ship. The USS Grapple (ARS-53), with the deep drone ROV on board, arrived on 29 July and began dive operations the next day. By the end of July, more than 750 Navy personnel were on the scene supporting the operation.
As fast as the Navy response was, the search and recovery operation came under criticism from some who felt it was not moving quickly enough. There also were many who thought that the Navy and the investigators were emphasizing the recovery of wreckage at the expense of recovering victims.
Before dive operations began, the Pirouette and Rude mapped the scene with their side-scan sonars. Observers unfamiliar with salvage and diving operations did not always understand the importance of this process—a vital element of search and recovery activities. Even with the large number of divers working on the TWA operation, SupSalv could not afford to dispatch them at random. As one dive team coordinator remarked, "A vision without a plan is a hallucination." The mapping process allowed SupSalv to focus diving activities in areas most likely to yield results and accelerated, rather than slowed, the recovery of both victims and debris.
From the beginning of the operation, SupSalv made the recovery of victims—not wreckage—the divers' first priority. The side-scan sonar, however, lacked the resolution to spot individual victims if they were separated from the wreckage. This meant that SupSalv had to assume that most of the victims would be found in areas of dense debris, generally a sound assumption. After the first survey was completed, other search tools such as ROVs could make closer inspections of the sonar targets and determine if there were in fact victims to be recovered. On 27 July, the research vessel Diane G. arrived on scene and began to employ an experimental laser line scanner to help identify underwater objects.
Through the end of July, divers recovered only wreckage that blocked access to victims or was of special interest to the investigators, such as the flight data recorders, engines, and cockpit. By the first week of August, 194 of the 230 victims had been recovered, and some dive teams began recovering debris in areas not likely to contain victims. By the end of the month, 211 victims had been located and brought ashore. Over the next ten months, all 19 remaining victims were identified through DNA testing.
The TWA operation saw the largest concentration of Navy divers since the search for wreckage from the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. By 6 August 1996, 188 divers—149 Navy divers plus civilians from the New York State, New York City, and Suffolk County Police Departments—were taking part. From this peak level, the numbers slowly declined as teams rotated in and out to meet other commitments.
The divers worked under very demanding conditions. Visibility on the bottom was poor, seldom more than five feet. The thin metal of the aircraft fuselage created sharp, jagged edges when it tore apart, leading one diver to describe the work as "diving on a pile of razor blades." In addition, the aircraft had three hundred miles of cables and electrical wiring, much of which floated free after the crash, posing a constant danger of entanglement for the divers.
With the added psychological strain of dealing with the recovery of victims, the grueling schedule concerned Navy leaders on the scene. Throughout the operation, divers were evaluated for physical and mental fatigue; full advantage was taken of bad weather to give divers a chance to rest; and psychiatrists, chaplains, and counselors were on hand to help them deal with stress. Even with these measures, it is a credit to the talent and professionalism of the men and women involved that there were no serious dive accidents in the course of the operation.
A Shift in Focus
Two events marked the transition from the period of intense activity to the beginning of a sustained effort. The first was the departure on 27 August of the Grasp and the 25 divers she carried. The second was the increasingly frequent inclement weather, much of it caused by Atlantic hurricanes, that made diving operations impossible for more than half of September. On IS September, the M/V Marion C. II , operating both side-scan sonar and ROVs, relieved the Pirouette .
Despite these hardships, steady and thorough exploration of debris fields continued. With all of the readily locatable victims recovered, the focus shifted to recovering wreckage, including pieces that might conceal the remaining victims. Side-scan sonar was used to expand the mapping effort, and divers and ROVs then systematically recovered all of the debris from one field before moving on to the next.
As conventional diving and ROV efforts became less productive, SupSalv had to come up with an alternative method to retrieve the final pieces of the aircraft. Beginning on 4 November, four commercial trawlers began trawling for debris using equipment and techniques originally developed for harvesting scallops from the sea floor. These ships typically spent 21 days on-station, followed by 7 days off for rest and resupply. Bad weather and mechanical failures imposed additional breaks in the operation, which lasted until 28 April 1997.
Trawling was a painstaking activity. The ships worked along lines several miles long at 2-3 knots, while towing two 15-foot-wide nets. Each area was swept until no new material was recovered. To ensure accurate coverage, SupSalv provided the trawlers with differential global positioning system receivers.
Trawling was suspended when successive sweeps turned up only small amounts of additional debris. As a follow up, an ROV examined 85 separate sites, searching a 100meter-diameter circle at each site. At only one of these did the ROV discover any debris, a single small piece of the aircraft. Overall, the trawling operation recovered two to three tons of aircraft debris, amounting to 1% to 2% of the aircraft. Of these items, the NTSB considered about 100 "useful"; the remainder either were too small to identify or were from parts of the aircraft in which the investigators had little interest.
On 18 May 1997, SupSalv, with the concurrence of the FBI and NTSB, terminated the TWA Flight 800 search and recovery operation. It had lasted ten months, during which time divers made 4,344 dives for a total of 1,773 hours on the bottom. All 230 victims ultimately were recovered and identified, along with 95% of the aircraft.
Lessons Learned (and Confirmed)
The TWA operation offers many lessons for the conduct of future operations, both for the salvage and diving community and for the Navy as a whole. Most simply confirm traditional Navy strengths and capabilities, but what is new is their application to the nontraditional Navy mission of responding to civilian national emergencies.
The most significant are:
- The Navy has an unmatched ability to conduct sustained operations with minimal shore support. The TWA operation demonstrated that this capability is of use not only for traditional forward presence missions but also for operations closer to home. Shore facilities on Long Island were very limited and rapidly overwhelmed by the influx of reporters, investigators, and victims' families. Civilian vessels such as the Pirouette and Marion C. are designed for coastal operations of limited duration, and lack the endurance of the blue-water Navy vessels. They thus were obliged to return to port every two or three weeks to take on supplies.
- The Navy needs to maintain a core salvage capability. SupSalv acquired many support assets through a civilian contractor, but only the Navy had the expertise to coordinate an operation of this scale on such short notice. The Grasp and Grapple were indispensable for their surface supplied diving and heavy-lift capabilities, as well as for their long endurance. They represent half of the Navy's salvage capacity and all of the Atlantic Fleet's capability. This is a marked difference from just a decade ago, when there were 16 Navy salvage and rescue ships.
- Amphibious ships are valuable assets for a myriad of operations. Given the limited shore facilities available, the Oak Hill and Trenton were invaluable to the search and recovery operation. They provided berthing spaces, mess decks, communications suites, machine shops, office spaces, cargo holds, helicopter landing decks, boats, and medical facilities. These same capabilities would be useful in a range of national emergency situations where existing shore facilities are limited or nonexistent.
- The Navy can work well with civilian agencies responding to national emergencies. SupSalv and the NTSB had a strong working relationship, facilitated by a simple Memorandum of Agreement and previous operations together. The MoA eliminated the need to negotiate administrative and funding mechanisms at a critical point, when time was crucial and the NTSB was occupied with investigating the disaster.
Civilians and Navy personnel can work together effectively under Navy leadership, but only if the Navy leads rather than orders. The many civilian divers who worked on the TWA operation accepted Navy supervision because they respected the capabilities of the Navy divers and supervisors; the Navy never had any formal authority over them. A heavy-handed approach could have soured relations, with unfortunate consequences for the operation and for the Navy's public image.
- Public affairs issues need to be dealt with quickly and directly. Public interest in the TWA Flight 800 crash, the investigation, and the search and recovery effort was considerable. By quickly setting up a command information bureau, the Naval Sea Systems Command Public Affairs Office established a positive relationship with the press. This effort was so successful that media outlets often used Navy-supplied footage for reports unrelated to the actual Navy operation.
Forward . . . From Long Island
Although it took place just off the U.S. coast, the TWA search and recovery operation reinforced the key advantages of naval forces set forth in "Forward . . from the Sea." Naval forces responded quickly to a crisis, remaining on station for several months conducting round-the-clock operations. Using ship-based logistics to augment the limited shore facilities, the task force remained largely independent of shore support facilities.
"Forward . . . from the Sea" notes the Navy's contributions to humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief efforts in many foreign countries as part of the service's peacetime forward-presence mission. The same capabilities that suit the Navy to this mission abroad make it equally effective for domestic national emergencies, particularly where shore facilities are limited or nonexistent or where natural disasters have damaged or destroyed the local infrastructure. The service needs to prepare for these missions. Some navies have gone so far as to assign some of their vessels to secondary disaster relief missions, often funded by civilian emergency management agencies. The U.S. Navy probably should not adopt this approach, but we should develop a clear concept of how our existing assets can prepare for disaster-assistance roles without compromising their primary missions. The success of the TWA search and recovery operation proves that we have much to offer.
Captain McCord is the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving and Director of Ocean Engineering at Naval Sea Systems Command. Mr. Schoene is a research analyst at the Center for Security Strategies and Operations in Techmatic’s Defense Sector, Arlington, Virginia.