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THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 800

Amid Waves and Wreckage, Recovery Workers Find Death

Scene: As bodies are brought to shore, charred and shattered debris from Flight 800 continues to spread across the water.

July 19, 1996|MARC LACEY and JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. — Floating all about them were the intimate details of lives still being lived: A postcard written in German. A wedding invitation. A picture of a small, black dog. A child's coloring book. Plans for a house.

And more: A water-logged college poetry text, sitting tidily atop a suitcase floating gently on the Atlantic Ocean, miles from land. Backpacks. Purses. And shoes, shoes everywhere, bobbing to the surface.

"I saw no less than 20 pairs of shoes. It looks like they had just blown off people's feet," said Bob Ferguson, a retired Eastport, N.Y., firefighter.

But as boaters gingerly patrolled the waters where TWA Flight 800 went down, one thought struck 16-year-old David Deach.

"It felt like death all around," he said.

Amid mercifully still waters, beyond the Moriches Inlet and Fire Island, the sunshine of the day only etched deeper the horror of the night before, mimicking the contrast between life and sudden death.

Ashore, Coast Guard boats disgorged their cargo of bodies--the first one recovered 27 minutes after the shattered debris of the Boeing 747 hit the water in a curtain of flame descending from the dusky heavens--and then more throughout the night and next day.

Some had been retrieved intact; others, less so. Some, said Michael Fagan, a former New York City police officer who visited the East Moriches Coast Guard station, had been burned.

At the red tile and white stucco Coast Guard station between West Cove and Harts Cove on Long Island's sandy south shore, workers in white jumpsuits zipped the bodies into black rubberized bags.

The bodies were taken, singly and in groups, in refrigerated trucks to the Suffolk County medical examiner's office to yield to investigators, perhaps eventually, clues to the cause of the crash; to yield, in some cases quickly, their identities to devastated family members.

From shortly after the crash Wednesday night through late Thursday, Hasidic rabbis hovered at the docks, praying as the victims were brought ashore.

In part they were drawn to serve all the souls; in part they were drawn there by rumors that members of Orthodox Jewish sects might have been aboard the Paris-bound flight, which is a common connection to Tel Aviv.

In Judaism, it is a tradition that someone, usually a person called a shomer, remains with a Jewish body as a mark of respect based on the belief that the soul remains with the body until it is buried.

The aircraft debris too was being taken ashore--so much, Gov. George Pataki said, that two barges were brought in to haul it to a site in Brooklyn.

There, it will be loaded onto trucks to be deposited at a former Grumman Corp. hangar where the pieces, large and minuscule, will be reassembled in the meticulous process investigators undertake to seek clues to the cause of the crash.

But it was on the water that the horror of the flight came to life.

With grim expressions, recovery workers offered up the remnants of everyday existence that had been strewn to the waves. Among them: airplane tray tables and charred seat cushions, one of them still burning as Thursday dawned, 10 hours after the crash.

Deach, of Manorville, N.Y., went out with Jim Murphy, a 37-year-old restaurateur from the same small town north of here, in Murphy's 33-foot fishing boat.

For two hours just after the first light broke, they puttered amid the detritus, at one point fouling their propeller in wreckage, reversing direction to dislodge it, and then leaving it on the gently rocking surface.

"It's just a mess," Murphy said. "It's just one big oil slick, with rescue crews everywhere. And everywhere you look are seat cushions, clothes, books, suitcases. Whatever was on the plane is now out there floating in the water. I saw a coloring book, so you know there were kids. I finally said, 'Let's get out of here before we see something we don't want to see.' "

Lacey reported from East Moriches, N.Y., and Gerstenzang from New York. Also contributing were Times staff writers Alan C. Miller and John J. Goldman in East Moriches and Geraldine Baum in New York.

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