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Feds may store TWA 800 here

February 05, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Hagerstown is one of three areas being considered for the storage of the rebuilt remains of a TWA airliner that exploded off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., nearly three years ago, officials said.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have painstakingly rebuilt the Trans World Airlines plane that was Flight 800 from parts recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.

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A spark of still-unknown origin apparently caused TWA Flight 800's center fuel tank to explode, killing all 230 people on board.

The hangar where the plane is stored costs several million dollars a year, and NTSB officials are under pressure from Congress to find a cheaper site.

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Hagerstown has been mentioned along with John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and a site near Dulles International Airport in Virginia, according to NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm.

"It's in the early stages of the process," he said. "We're looking at the options, feasibility and costs There's quite a bit of work that needs to be done."

The plan calls for construction of a facility that would both house the wreckage and serve as a regional NTSB training center. Local economic development officials said Hagerstown would be an ideal spot for the project and would add credibility to the county's efforts to lure businesses.

There are some hurdles that must be cleared, however.

The first is to convince the federal government that Hagerstown would be the best spot.

Schlamm said the cost of storing the aircraft wreckage in Calverton, N.Y., is about $4.5 million, which includes hangar rental, security and maintenance.

Each of the three sites under consideration would have advantages.

Schlamm said it would be cheaper and easier to move the wreckage to JFK. That airport would also enable NTSB officials to keep the plane close to the spot where it crashed in July 1996.

The site under consideration in Loudoun County, Va., is a George Washington University campus near Dulles. It is home to the National Crash Analysis Center and would be close the NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Hagerstown is also close to Washington and would have the added advantage of being cheaper, local boosters said.

"They can do it a lot cheaper than that here in Hagerstown," said Thomas B. Riford, marketing specialist for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said county officials began discussing the project with the NTSB two or three months ago.

"We learned that there was a need," Riford said. "We contacted the NTSB and the NTSB contacted us. It kind of happened at the same time."

Snook said the facility could be built near Hagerstown Regional Airport north of the city.

Local officials agreed the project would benefit the county.

"It would be a good fit for the airport, bringing aviation-related business to the county," Snook said.

Riford said it would give the county "wonderful ascribed credibility." He noted that the NTSB's responsibility extends beyond air crashes and includes highway, rail and shipping accidents.

"Look at Hagerstown. We're the 'Hub City' for a reason," he said. "We exist because of transportation You cannot ask for a better location for this."

Divers spent more than a year combing the ocean bottom for pieces of the Boeing 747 wreckage.

Schlamm said investigators recovered about 95 percent of the plane. They identified the pieces and then attached them to a frame they constructed.

Few plane wrecks have ever been reconstructed as extensively, Schlamm said.

"It's certainly the largest and most comprehensive," he said. "This reconstruction is unique in many ways."

Before the NTSB decides what to do with the wreckage, Schlamm said officials likely will have to conclude their investigation. It is important to keep the plane intact for use as evidence in litigation stemming from the crash, he added.

Once a decision is made, Schlamm said moving the plane will be no easy task. The frame measures 94 feet.

"It's so big it won't fit in another aircraft," he said.

NTSB officials also must consult with leaders on Capitol Hill, Schlamm said.

Local officials have been working with U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., on that score.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., whose district includes the Loudoun County site near Dulles, chairs the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee. But Bartlett said through a spokeswoman that he will do everything he can to convince federal officials that Hagerstown is the best spot.

"We've got a great case," he said.

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