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'It Is a Tragedy': O.C. Families Mourn

Relatives: Huntington Beach woman and parents of Irvine man were on Flight 990.

November 01, 1999|MEG JAMES and SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The dead cut across faiths and nations.

One was a Huntington Beach woman whose presence on the flight was confirmed by her rabbi. Another was a Coptic Orthodox man from Lakewood. Two more were the parents of an Irvine man who were returning home to Cairo after a stay for medical treatment.

All perished early Sunday when EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged 33,000 feet into the North Atlantic, killing all 217 people aboard.

Among the dead was Sheila Jaffee, 63, of Huntington Beach, who was traveling with two friends with whom she regularly played Pan, a card game. Their identities were not immediately available.

Jaffee and her former husband, Melvin Jaffee, owned National Lumber and Supply Inc., a Fountain Valley-based chain of home-improvement centers that encompassed 21 stores before going out of business in 1990.

Jaffee's family declined comment Sunday night but confirmed she was aboard through the family's rabbi, Michael Mayersohn of Temple Beth David in Westminster.

"We can confirm she was on the plane with friends, but [the family is] not going to make any further comment," Mayersohn said.

Melvin Jaffee could not be reached.

Also aboard were the parents of Moataz Mohammed, an engineer and the father of three who lives in Irvine, said Yassir Ibramim Fazaqa, leader of the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo.

Mohammed's parents had been in Orange County for a couple of weeks while Mohammed's father received medical treatment for an unspecified illness. The parents decided to return to Egypt, and Mohammed took them to Los Angeles International Airport Saturday evening for the flight to New York, then on to Cairo.

On Sunday, Mohammed himself made a flight to New York to try to learn more details of the accident. Reached at a hotel near John F. Kennedy International Airport late Sunday, he declined comment.

"The sad thing is that you expect that you are doing your parents good, giving them a healthier life and then something like this happens," Fazaqa said. "It is a tragedy."

Mohammed's father had suffered from a lingering illness and "it was too complicated for them to treat it in Egypt," Fazaqa said.

"As soon as he felt better, the father wanted to go back to work," Fazaqa said. "He wanted to go back to Egypt. It's never befitting to complain about the will of God. You submit to the will of God, but then God has given us human hearts."

Fazaqa described Mohammed as a leader of the Mission Viejo congregation, often giving lectures and the Friday sermon called a Kutba.

"He was one of the more active members of the congregation," Fazaqa said. "He was among the more well-learned, and he was well-respected. Our hearts really go out for him. I can say this on behalf of the community, we feel his pain."

For Etedal Nakhla of Lakewood, the shock of learning that her husband, Mourad Yassa, was dead came amid the supporting embrace of her fellow worshipers at St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Bellflower.

Nakhla had not seen news reports about the crash before arriving for morning services and didn't learn that Flight 990 had gone down until a fellow parishioner casually mentioned it.

"It was quite a shock, and she eventually fainted," said Father Bishoy Mikhail, one of three priests at the church.

Several others from the congregation took the woman to LAX to confirm that her husband was on board. Late Sunday, another priest went to the woman's house to comfort her and her two small children.

"Like many immigrants, she was just finding her way," Mikhail said. "She had just found work about a month ago, and she had just started to attend our church."

The family has been in California about a year. In Egypt, the couple were agricultural engineers, but they had taken jobs in a packing plant in La Palma. Yassa had been recently laid off, and he was returning to Egypt to tend to business related to the couple's apartment there.

Fellow parishioners were taking care of the couple's son, Mina, 10, and daughter, Julie, 9, who were slow to grasp the reality that their father was dead, according to a family friend who answered the phone at the church.

Mina told church members, the friend said, that his father was probably fine. "He's a good swimmer," the boy said.

The pilot and co-pilot of the flight lived in Cairo but had developed friendships with Egyptian expatriates in Southern California.

Gina El-Tawansy of Los Angeles is among those friends.

Her family first got to know the pilots after her sister flew to Cairo in 1994. The plane was crowded, and her sister was stuck in the smoking section of the plane and was bothered by the smoke.

The pilot of Sunday's flight, Hatem Roushdi, who was also the pilot that day, took the sister under his wing and moved her to a seat in the front of the plane.

The family eventually became friends with Roushdi and his co-pilot, Gameel el-Bitash, who was a few months away from retirement.

"The first thing that I heard when I woke up was that they could not spot the plane on the radar," she said. "It's very depressing. Too many people are losing their lives. It really shocks us.

"I just hope that God will help these people, the families of the victims, to get over it and be able to cope with all this."

Good fortune was with some others, who were supposed to be on the flight but weren't.

Ezzat Sobky, a doctor and genetics specialist from Cairo, came to San Diego for a conference last week. He had a reservation to return home on the flight, but when he called his family, his children were angry at him for "leaving them behind," said Abou Bakr El-Tawansy.

To appease his children, Sobky managed to squeeze onto a flight that flew back to Cairo on Thursday.

"He is a lucky person," El-Tawansy said. "Nobody knows what is coming tomorrow."

Times staff writers Scott Martelle and Karen Alexander contributed to this report.

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