'It's not a pretty sight' Scores of volunteers find only debris and bodies

July 18, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- The bodies floated, some in clusters, in the dark, choppy waters that swelled 2 or 3 feet, eerily lighted by an orange glow of rescue lamps and the oily flames of chunks of wreckage.

"It's not a pretty sight," Capt. Steve Dalder's voice crackled over the radio of his Sea Tow salvage boat shortly after midnight, as he hauled his first body, a woman, aboard.

One of scores of volunteers -- mariners, fishermen, vacationing boaters -- who rushed to help the Coast Guard mount a rescue effort, Dalder kept at the grim task for hours, radioing a colleague to hurry with more equipment because after about three hours in the water, the bodies were beginning to sink.

The early radio calls indicated that about three Coast Guard cutters and a P-3 rescue plane were working across Moriches Bay, aided by several large fishing boats and a small fleet of other craft.

A makeshift morgue was set up by at the Coast Guard station in East Moriches. More rescue boats assembled there and were launched into the night, the crews in bright orange life vests.

The first word of the crash came over the radios of the ships out on a peaceful evening. "There's a flare in the sky," reported a voice on one radio. Then another screamed, "It's a ball of flame, a red ball up in the sky."

Dalder's wife, Paula, listened to the radio messages as her husband, pulling on his gear, ran for his boat.

"It's horrible, it's awful," she said later, glued to the radio monitor. "There's a lot of bodies floating in the water. There's no news of any survivors. They're just finding bodies."

As the night wore on, and the grimness of the task became more apparent, more and more rescuers poured into the area. New York City sent teams of police divers and Emergency Service units, a command craft and rubber launches. The Air National Guard sent an air rescue unit, which was setting up the morgue. Coast Guard cutters and helicopters were dispatched from bases along the shoreline up into New England.

"We have a Coast Guard helicopter from our air station on Cape Cod on the scene," said Lt. John Heller of the Coast Guard, who heard about the crash as he was driving home from a Red Sox game in Boston and rushed to his headquarters there.

"We are searching as best we can for survivors. Obviously, primarily survivors, although so far we've recovered only debris and bodies," he said.

"We have several cutters on the scene; two 110-foot cutters. We have about four more en route. They should be there in the next couple of hours, by daybreak."

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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