NEW YORK, July 17 -- A TWA jumbo jet with as many as 229 people aboard exploded shortly after takeoff from New York Wednesday, scattering fiery debris across a broad area of ocean off the coast of Long Island.
Searchers and federal officials said there was no sign of survivors. The Paris-bound 747 airliner, with 212 passengers and 17 crew members on board, plunged into the Atlantic about 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Long Island around 8:45 p.m.
Witnesses reported a mid-air explosion occurred about 8:30 p.m.
"We hope to God we do find survivors, but right now all we're finding is bodies," said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Steve Sapp in New York.
The air traffic control center in Boston lost contact with TWA Flight 800 shortly after it took off from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, FAA spokesman Bob Hawk said.
White House press secretary Mike McCurry said federal officials have not been able to confirm the plane exploded and have no indication of any "specific threat related to this aircraft, this flight, or this route."
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told CNN the State Department had no reason at this point to suspect terrorism was involved.
"We don't know the cause of the crash," he said.
Mike Kelly, the head of TWA operations at John F. Kennedy Airport, said: "At around 8:40 p.m. we lost it off the radar screen. The plane originally was Flight 881 from Athens and it had been on the ground for three hours."
Flight 800 was at about 8,000 feet (2,400 m) trying to reach cruising altitude.
"I want to express my deepest regrets to the families of passengers and crew for their tragic loss," Kelly said.
Life rafts were scattered across the water, but they may have been dropped by rescue planes. The Coast Guard dispatched all available planes and vessels to the scene.
Lt. Cmdr. Jim MacPherson of First Coast Guard District in Boston, which is overseeing the rescue effort, said some fragments of the plane had been recovered by late Wednesday, but added, "There's been no sign of survivors."
He said every available Coast Guard plane, helicopter and vessel, including eight cutters, were being sent to the scene to help in the search.
Sven Faret, the pilot of a small plane flying at 8,500 feet over Long Island at the time of the crash, said the jetliner exploded "into a giant ball of flames -- the biggest darn ball I ever saw -- and then an instant later you just saw pieces just drop out of the bottom of it into the water."
Another witness, Eileen Daly, who was standing on a beach in the area, said she "a big white flash. Then all of a sudden it turned into this big orange fireball that broke off into two pieces ... and just fell into the water."
Phil Simone, fisherman: "It was a very large explosion, a massive explosion."
MacPherson said special infrared equipment was also being sent to the crash site to help in the search for survivors during the night.