10 Years Later, TWA Flight 800 Victims' Families Still Mourning

Andy Krukar boarded TWA Flight 800 with a diamond ring in his pocket, planning to place it on his fiancee's finger at the Eiffel Tower during a romantic weekend in Paris. His fiancee, Julie Stuart, was going to follow him on another flight the next day.

Krukar died when Flight 800 exploded in a spectacular fireball over the Atlantic Ocean just minutes after taking off from Kennedy Airport, killing all 230 people on board.

The ring, in its burgundy jewel box, was found bobbing in the waves by a Coast Guardsman working at the crash scene, and Stuart wears it every day.

It's been 10 years since TWA Flight 800 fell from the sky, but it doesn't take an anniversary for Stuart to remember the summer she lost her husband-to-be. A look at the glistening ring, which she wears every day, can bring it all back. For family members of other victims, it's a rainbow, a glass of wine.

"Time heals you enough so you can move on," said Stuart, 40, of Bridgewater, Conn. But while she is now married with two children, part of her lingers in the past: "I feel Andy is always watching over me."

To observe the anniversary of the July 17, 1996, disaster, hundreds of family members will gather for a memorial Monday on Long Island at Smith Point County Park, the closest point on land to the crash site. Stuart is expected to be among them.

Another who planned to attend was Joe Lychner of Austin, Texas, who lost his wife and two daughters in the explosion. Pam Lychner, a former TWA flight attendant, 10-year-old Shannon and 8-year-old Katie were going to Paris on vacation. He missed the flight because of a last-minute business appointment.

"In the early days I wondered if I could go on living without them," Lychner, 48, said. "I kept asking myself `Why them? Why not me?'"

Lychner is now remarried, and he and his wife have two children, ages 6 and 2.

But while some TWA families have rediscovered happiness, others battle lasting depression. Several couples have divorced — including Ann and Ron Dwyer of New River, Ariz., who split up after the death of their 11-year-old daughter, Larkyn.

"He couldn't stand me crying every day," said Ann Dwyer, 54. "When he saw me, he saw Larkyn."

The Dwyers built the Larkyn Memorial Arena, an 85-acre rodeo and riding facility near their home, in honor of the little girl, a horse lover.

"Larkyn liked to draw rainbows," Dwyer said. "On her birthday, there was the most gorgeous rainbow off our back porch. That's what keeps you going."

Friends of TWA 800 flight attendant Janet Christopher still celebrate her Oct. 5 birthday by visiting her grave near her home in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. The former flight attendants spread a blanket on the grass at her grave, set an honorary place for Janet and toast her with a glass of wine.

LeMerle Brinkley, a former TWA flight attendant who flew the Paris route with Christopher for about 25 years, missed the doomed flight because she had a broken arm. Last year, Brinkley returned to Paris and carved Christopher's initials into a patch of fresh concrete that she plastered on a wall along the Seine River.

"I think about her constantly," Brinkley said. "She was such a sweet person, always laughing."

Federal investigators determined that TWA 800 was destroyed by a fuel-tank explosion — likely caused by a spark from a short-circuit in the Boeing 747's wiring.

However, conspiracy theories — that the plane was blown up by a terrorist's missile or by the U.S. government — have persisted.

"I grow older, and the hate against those who lie only grows," said Michel Breistroff Sr., who lives in France and still believes a missile brought the plane down, killing his son, Michel. "As long as I live, I hope I will get the truth."

Most of the families accept the official explanation and find the continued conspiracy speculation painful.

"There may be entertainment value, but each time there's a show on conspiracies their healing wounds are ripped apart," said John Seaman, head of the Families of TWA Flight 800 Association.

Tom Corrigan, a former New York police detective and the lead investigator on the TWA Flight 800 case, has no doubt the crash was an accident.

"We thought this was terrorism," Corrigan said. "We all believed it was a bomb or missile, but after a thorough investigation we found absolutely no evidence."

Corrigan noted that 1 million plane pieces brought up from the ocean bottom, 120 feet deep, were analyzed, and no evidence of a crime was found.

One of the fallen was Rance Hettler, a 6-foot-3 track star at Pennsylvania's Montoursville High School, which lost 16 students on TWA 800. He planned to attend Northeastern University's School of Criminal Justice and wanted to be an FBI agent.

After Hettler's body was recovered by Navy divers, the FBI made Rance an honorary FBI agent, presenting his parents, Jackie and Gary Hettler, with an FBI baseball cap at a small ceremony at bureau headquarters. They put it in their son's coffin.

Ten years has done little to ease the pain for Jackie Hettler.

"I still have a big hole in my heart that will never be filled," she said.