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FLIGHT 800: TRAGEDY'S AFTERMATH

Families Fill N.Y. Motel With Grief, Anger

Aftermath: Ballroom has been turned into a 'trauma room' where the victims' loved ones go to wait for news and seek solace.

July 20, 1996|LISA MEYER and ALAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — Fittingly, in a world turned upside down by an explosion in the sky, the central refuge for grieving families and friends is the ballroom of a white-brick Ramada Inn in an industrial section of Queens, near an airport named after an assassinated president.

The ballroom has been temporarily renamed the "trauma room," and across its low-pile carpeting and wooden dance floor are a variety of psychologists, social workers and clergy.

They are available 24 hours a day, human medication to anesthetize the pain, sent by Trans World Airlines and the Red Cross and the City of New York. They counsel people who are waiting to see if the Atlantic Ocean will ever give back the people they loved.

"They said it could take a month to get them all out, if they can get them all out," said Richard Penzer, mourning for his sister, Judy Penzer, 49, an artist from Pittsburgh, Pa.

Judy was on board Flight 800 with a friend, architect Jill Watson. They had just completed work on an avant-garde row house with a neon "Z" on the side. They had decided to celebrate with some leisurely driving through the picturesque French countryside.

"My feeling is that the people who did this are real cowards," Richard said. "Such a cowardly act! If you're going out to make a statement, don't kill innocent people!"

Reporters were not permitted to intrude in the trauma room. They would only learn of its goings-on--of people's worst emotional injuries--as a few of the bereaved ventured outside.

The people praised the help they were getting--and cursed the unknown terrorists who they presumed were responsible for 230 deaths. More than anything, they yearned for the semblance of peace that might follow the recovery and identification of the bodies.

Alba Reyes, 33, had come the short distance from Brooklyn, lamenting the loss of her best friend, Donna Griffith. Reyes had collected essential dental records and also brought along a color photo, the one that showed Donna sitting at a patio table with a drink in her hand during their Key West, Fla., vacation. "They said the picture wouldn't help," she said regretfully.

No, it was the dental evidence that the medical examiner's office was after, that and any record of fingerprints, the best things for identifying remains. Information about distinctive moles or tattoos would be useful as well. Photos would only be of help if they showed an unmistakably wide-mouthed smile, exposing something telltale about the teeth.

At midday, only 100 bodies had been recovered, according to Suffolk County's chief medical examiner, Charles W. Wetli, a nationally known forensic pathologist. Assorted body parts also filled four bags. Tentative identification had been made of 16 victims, positive IDs of only two.

"It is a slow, arduous, tedious process and we have to be accurate," Wetli said.

Some of the anger expressed in the trauma room was about this long process. Many family members would like to view the victims, making their own determinations of who's who.

These visits would be futile, Wetli said. His office has no facilities for it. Besides, the victims "are not viewable in the usual sense of the term. They have extensive injuries. Many are facial and head injuries. They would not be viewable to the lay public."

Sometime in the future--and then only if absolutely necessary--the photograph of a corpse might be shown to a non-family member. But to do so with someone's relative, Wetli said, "would be irresponsible and inhumane."

Inside the Ramada Inn, something of a community has formed among the many different people undergoing such great storms of similar feelings. Those who can handle such things mingle in front of the TV set in the bar, watching the surrealistic sight of personal effects and aircraft debris bobbing in the sea. They may recognize something hauntingly familiar.

TWA has provided free transportation to those loved ones who wished to come to New York, to be near the crash site. Greeting them are limousines and people from "trauma-response teams," airline personnel who volunteered for this work and have received special training. "Family escorts" stay with the grief-stricken, running errands, even making sure the laundry gets done.

Joe Lichner, a 38-year-old Houston man in the computer software business, has been in and out of the motel, trying to stay busy. His wife Pam and his two daughters--Sharon, 10, and Katie, 8--are now gone from his life. Dental records have arrived from Texas, but they have yet to match up with any of the cadavers accumulating in the morgue.

Impossibly restless, Lichner rented a helicopter and flew over the spot where the ocean still clings to his family. "I wanted to get perspective on how it happened, just to understand what they went through," he said. "I didn't think I could get it by just standing on the shore."

Circling in the sky, he allowed the new reality of his life to race across his mind. Down there were his three greatest treasures. The girls had gotten good grades in school, and their mom had thought up the trip to Paris as a reward. They were intent on going to the Louvre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. They were going to lie under the Eiffel Tower and take a photograph, looking straight up.

"I need to see their remains," he said. "Finding those remains is the most important thing now. Finding all three. I couldn't leave one of them down there."

Then Joe Lichner returned to the hotel--home of a makeshift trauma room placed on a dance floor--where a collage of heartbroken families wait to heal across time's steady drift.

Times staff writers Josh Greenberg, Donica Croot and Barry Bearak contributed to this story.

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