Man Who Helped ID Every Flight 800 Victim Dies

Medical examiner Charles Wetli was at the center of a 4-year investigation
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 17, 2020 7:35 PM CDT
Medical Examiner Helped ID Every Flight 800 Victim
Families gather to hear the names read of the 230 people killed when TWA Flight 800 exploded in 1996 on the 20th anniversary of the crash in Shirley, New York.   (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Dr. Charles Wetli, a pioneer in forensic pathology, was in demand as an expert in other people's cases across the country. In 1996, it was a case of his own—the explosion of TWA Flight 800—that made the Long Island medical examiner a national figure, the New York Times reports. Wetli, who died July 28 of lung cancer complications in New York at 76, was embroiled in the much-disputed, four-year investigation of the explosion. It was the job of Wetli and his staff to identify 230 victims, who were all aboard the Boeing 747 when it went into the Atlantic just south of Long Island. He had to perform autopsies on all of them because that could help determine—by detecting bomb residue, for example—whether terrorism caused the explosion. It was 10 months before the last remains were found. Eventually, his team succeeded in identifying the remains of all 230 people.

The investigation, which found vapors in the center fuel tank probably caused the explosion, not terrorism, was contentious while it was going on, and skepticism about the conclusion remains. The victims' families were angry with Wetli that the recovery and identification process wasn't faster. He said politicians had misled the families about the time it would take, and he was criticized for not accepting help so autopsies could be performed around the clock. "As far as I am concerned, my staff did a phenomenal job," Wetli told a hearing in 1997. "I think handling a task of this sort is nothing short of herculean." Christine Negroni, who wrote a book about Flight 800, said Wetli "should be remembered as a pioneering forensic physician who assembled an array of dentists, X-ray technicians, pathologists and tiny samples of DNA to put a name on every bit of human remains recovered." (More TWA Flight 800 stories.)

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