'Like A Death In The Family'

September 18, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, VA. -- One by one, the makeshift charts went up along the wall until they numbered 132.

On the long, gray conference table, two dozen phones rang again and again as frantic families called, seeking shreds of information.

In the hours after Flight 427 plunged into a hillside outside Pittsburgh, more than two dozen USAir workers assembled behind the double glass doors in an eighth-floor conference area they call "the next-of-kin room."

Summoned by phone and beepers from dinner tables and Little League games, they came to begin the almost unfathomable task of telling families their loved ones had perished.

"It was total chaos," said Fred Fagan, who supervised the efforts at USAir's corporate headquarters here.

"There were a million questions -- questions we often couldn't answer."

They were not counselors, priests or psychologists, but USAir cargo handlers, ad salesmen and ticket agents -- all volunteers ,, predesignated for next-of-kin-room duty if a crash should occur.

And their only training for the job had come from experience -- talking to grief-stricken strangers after other crashes, some all too recent.

Yet how USAir workers handled those first, delicate hours on the evening of Sept. 8 -- and the days that followed -- was critical to confused and devastated families.

And it was crucial to the public perception of a struggling airline that was facing its fifth disaster in as many years.

In a sense, an airline is like almost no other corporation, for it sells a service that can, however rarely, mean sudden destruction to those who buy it.

It is a distinction that ultimately makes the airline's workers unique as well.

The grief of USAir employees is nothing compared with the families'.

Yet the crash of Flight 427 has left a corporate family stunned, feeling a responsibility that has little to do with blame or causes.

"You almost feel guilty not doing more," said Ralph Miller, a USAir manager who worked all night the evening of the tragedy.

While crews prepared to haul truckloads of aircraft pieces to a hangar -- and fragments of bodies to the coroner -- calls began to flood the switchboard of headquarters here in Crystal City and reservation lines across the country.

"The families wanted to know what you knew, when you knew it," Mr. Fagan said.

"But for awhile, we could only tell them that it didn't look good."

From the flurry of news reports that flashed across television screens all evening, most knew there had been no survivors. Yet, in the first few hours following the 7 p.m. crash, workers could only promise to call back.

They took names, jotted phone numbers and quickly built files for each passenger, adding new information as it arrived.

But for the next few hours, anxious families would wait -- some sitting in the dark with other family members -- until the call came from the next-of-kin room.

"The worst thing we could do is tell someone that a friend wasn't on the airplane and then have to call them back and say he was," said Mr. Miller, director of the airline's properties and facilities.

Arriving at USAir's headquarters shortly after 8 p.m., Mr. Miller quickly called Chicago O'Hare Airport to secure the ticket stubs that two agents at Gate F6 had taken from passengers, one by one, as they walked down the ramp to Flight 427.

Early on, workers had a reservations list. But the tickets were the only sure way of knowing exactly who was on the flight.

One woman on the reservation list missed Flight 427 -- by two minutes.

Shortly before midnight, the list was final. Each volunteer was assigned seven families. The callbacks began.

With markers, they scrawled in passenger names on the charts taped to the wall, along with the identification number of the volunteer assigned to the victim's family.

Underneath each name were lines to update the passenger's status. In an age of computers, it was a rudimentary system -- the same one that had been used in previous crashes when many survived and the injured were taken to as many as six hospitals.

But early on, Flight 427 assumed a grim simplicity. It was clear that no one was going to hospitals, that no one would walk away. The status lines would remain blank.

Only the death tally was changed that evening, updated from 131 to 132.

A lap child with no ticket had not been counted.

As night crawled on, the phones beeped again and again in the first-floor reception room. Calls came from friends, from consulates in Washington wanting to know if foreign nationals had been on board, from business associates -- and from the families.

"They'd say, 'I think my dad was on there. I think my sister was working that flight. Can you tell me something, anything?' " said Barbara Toureau, a 17-year veteran receptionist who rushed back to her post only hours after going to her Falls Church home.

She quickly scanned the confirmed passenger list in front of her.

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