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Recovery Workers Troll a Sea of Despair

Scene: Those searching for bodies and wreckage struggle with grisly images. Yet they are determined to scour every inch of water until the job is done.


EAST MORICHES, N.Y. — One image haunted 16-year Coast Guard veteran Mike DeLury more than any other: The tiny white shoe he found bobbing in the ocean.

"Normally we go out and save lives and bring people back to the dock," said DeLury, 33, of New Haven, Conn. "[This is] something that people in the Coast Guard aren't used to doing. . . . It's rough on the people out there."

Sunburned, exhausted, shaken after long shifts on the ocean, DeLury and his fellow recovery workers were determined to scour every inch of water off Long Island until their work was finished. But early-morning fog, intermittent afternoon showers and a day's worth of choppy seas were making that job much tougher Friday. The work was taking its toll.

Navy crewman Joe Stouder could not stop thinking about how the mess strewn across the vast expanse of ocean before him got there in the first place.

"It's pretty bad to think of how it happened," he said after a day of searching. "It was like--boom!"

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Pete Simms was struck by how such a normal day could suddenly turn so tragic.

Before the crash, he had spent a routine shift Wednesday monitoring the pleasure boats that form a summertime flotilla off Long Island's coast. He was out the door of headquarters about 9 p.m., his shift over, when the radio crackled with one last call. This was a big one.

Plane down, the dispatcher said. All units must respond.

For the next 22 hours, Simms searched the waters in vain for signs of life, then helped in the mind-numbing task of unloading body bags at the dock.

When he finally headed home, Simms said, his body ached, his mouth was dry and he desperately needed sleep. But the grisly scenes played themselves out over and over again in his mind.

"When you see images like that, so many bodies all at once, it almost doesn't seem real," he said. "It's like a bad dream. It's surreal. It's like something out of a movie.

"But it is real."

Simms is a veteran who has plucked dead bodies out of the ocean before. But some of his younger crew members showed their distress on their faces. And after a few trips out to the crash site, some of them asked Simms for land duty.

Simms understood the meaning of their request and sent them to the counseling tent.

To guide the 28 cutters and four helicopters, the Coast Guard used a computerized grid transmitted by satellite that divided the ocean site into milelong blocks. Each boat trolled its area, responsible for plucking from the water everything crew members could fit into a net.

Occasionally, a cutter would happen upon a large piece of the plane, such as the 30-foot section of wing scooped up by one crew. But most of the four tons of wreckage recovered so far were small shards.

"We're here for the long run, until we're satisfied that we've picked up every piece," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jim McPherson, briefing reporters near the shore. "We'd rather be rescuing survivors, but it looks remote at this point that anyone survived."

One of the volunteer recovery workers, Willie Floyd, who heads the marine unit at the Newark Police Department in New Jersey, spoke for many of his colleagues as he prepared to return home after an exhausting day at sea.

He was thinking of his 12-year-old daughter and hoped he could avoid having to explain to her what her Daddy had done today. "I hope she's sleeping when I get home," he said.

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