NEW YORK — Charles V. Wetli, the Long Island medical examiner who was thrust into the national spotlight when Trans World Airlines Flight 800 exploded in 1996 and killed all 230 people on board, died July 28 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 76.
His daughter Kavita Dolan said the cause was complications of lung cancer.
Dr. Wetli was a pioneer in the field of forensic pathology, and his career dovetailed with the emerging use of scientific evidence to solve complex crimes and unexplained deaths. His expertise made him a valuable resource and expert witness for many law enforcement agencies and lawyers in cases across the country.
But his most famous case by far was the TWA tragedy, which quickly became one of the most disputed investigations in US aviation history and presented Dr. Wetli with a challenge that few county coroners ever face: having to identify so many bodies that had been dismembered or mutilated beyond recognition.
On July 17, 1996, a Boeing 747 heading to Paris from Kennedy International Airport in New York blew up shortly after takeoff and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean 9 miles south of Long Island.
Early speculation centered on terrorism, as several witnesses reported seeing missiles in the air just before the explosion. But federal officials said they found no evidence to support that theory.
After four years of painstaking investigation, the most exhaustive in commercial aircraft history, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the explosion had been caused by vapors in the center fuel tank, “most likely” ignited by a short circuit. Several people, including some who were involved in the initial investigation, remained skeptical.
But the possibility of terrorism severely complicated the job for Dr. Wetli, the chief medical examiner of Suffolk County, Long Island. In a plane crash caused by bad weather, autopsies of passengers are usually unnecessary. But this case required them because body parts could contain microscopic shards of metal or bomb residue that could help determine whether the plane had been sabotaged.
Right after the crash, 99 corpses were found floating, but it took Navy divers three months to recover most of the others. Over time, the debris field had been expanded by the tides to more than 400 square miles. The last remains weren’t found until 10 months after the crash.
When the bodies were not immediately recovered and identified, family members directed their fury at Dr. Wetli. They worried that swift action regarding their loved ones had become secondary to the retrieval of forensic evidence for a criminal investigation.
He said politicians who did not understand the process had given families false expectations of quick results. But in time, he and others managed to identify everyone aboard the plane.
“As far as I am concerned, my staff did a phenomenal job,” Dr. Wetli said at a government hearing in 1997. “I think handling a task of this sort is nothing short of herculean.”
Charles Victor Wetli was born on Aug. 27, 1943, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. His father, Cletus Wetli, was a mechanical engineer, and his mother, Mary (Carriveau) Wetli, was a homemaker.
Charles was raised in Green Bay and later in Manhasset, on Long Island. He studied chemistry at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, graduating in 1965, and earned his medical degree from St. Louis University in 1969.
After his residency in pathology, he served in the Army from 1973 to 1976. A major, he was stationed in Japan and served as chief of pathology of the US Army Medical Laboratory Pacific.
While there, the United Nations Command sent him on a special mission to South Korea in 1975 to examine the bodies of seven South Korean soldiers found in a tunnel. South Korea had accused North Korea of killing the soldiers, which North Korea denied.
Dr. Wetli, working through two days with just three hours of sleep, found that the soldiers had died of carbon monoxide poisoning that had emanated from the cement used to build the tunnel. The determination that the North Koreans had not killed the soldiers averted an international incident.
After an early marriage that ended in divorce, Dr. Wetli married Geetha Natarajan, who is also a forensic pathologist, in 1995. She survives him. In addition to his daughter Dolan, he is survived by another daughter, Carla Caldwell; two sons, Cletus Wetli and Vikram Natarajan; and seven grandchildren.
When he returned from the Pacific, Dr. Wetli became deputy chief medical examiner for Dade County, Fla., where he spent 17 years.
There, he was instrumental in expanding the definition of hurricane-related deaths to include people who were not killed directly by high winds or flying debris. He told The Times in 1992 during Hurricane Andrew that counting those who were killed indirectly — because of stress that caused a heart attack, for example — would give “a truer estimate of the devastation.”
He also became an expert in drug-related deaths, deaths in police custody, and the relationship between the rituals of certain Afro-Caribbean religions and forensic investigations.
Arriving in New York in 1995, he was on the job for 18 months when Flight 800 exploded. He retired in 2006.