As sirens fade, seaside town is calm but not yet at peace After 'mob' departs, horrors remain vivid for residents along shore

Tragedy Of Flight 800

July 19, 1996|By Dion Thompson | Dion Thompson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. -- On the morning after, this seaside town was quiet. But the tragedy was on everyone's mind.

"It's the first thing people say," said Pat Zak, who owns an antique store in town. "This is something everybody can relate to. New York to Paris. I've been to Paris. Now, I'm afraid to go."

Outside of this town that is little more than a stoplight and a handful of stop signs, the media horde gathered to await the latest briefing. There was a sense of purpose in the encampment. The hum of generators for the six extension antennas and 15 satellite dishes filled the air. But in the town, people went about their business.

It was so different from Wednesday night and early yesterday, when the cries of sirens and the pulsing flashes of emergency lights told of disaster.

"It was an absolute zoo here," said Mabel Prebish, 66. "Down on my corner there was like a mob scene. It was utter madness."

Officials do not have an answer to why TWA Flight 800 from New York to Paris exploded 10 miles out from where the Atlantic Ocean meets the shore here. They only know that all aboard -- 230 people -- are dead.

Lingering memories

"We can't ever go to the beach again because it's going to be, like, there was death here," said Victoria Rotolo. "It's just a horrible thing. It just makes you feel wary of the safety you take for granted."

Rotolo had set up a small stand from which her two daughters -- Renee, 5, and Alison, 3 -- offered sweetened iced tea to all rescuers who passed by. She and her husband, Doug, did not tell the girls all that had happened. The children are too young for such things, she said.

The Rotolos told the girls the tea was simply a nice gesture, a way of saying "thank you" to the people who helped.

The Rotolos live on Atlantic Avenue, the main road leading to the shore. A police checkpoint was two blocks down from their house, and a little farther from there, Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels gave live-from-the-scene reports to WABC-AM radio listeners. Sliwa has a talk show on the station.

"Knowing the law enforcement agencies in the area as I do, they asked me to come out," said Sliwa, wearing the standard-issue T-shirt and red beret of the Angels. "They thought maybe I could get some information that nobody else could procure. But that was not the case today."

Popular witness

Ken Wendell, a 32-year-old electrical contractor, who just happened to be flying in the area Wednesday night at the time of the explosion, received more than his 15 minutes of fame.

"Our phone hasn't stopped ringing since 10 o'clock last night," ,, he said.

He and his partner were flying over Riverhead when Flight 800 disintegrated.

"It didn't explode and slowly go down. It just went -- plop," he said.

The "Today" show picked him up at 5: 30 a.m. in a limousine, brought him and his partner to the shore to tell their story again, only this time with the sea in the background.

"Everybody called but they were the first, so we honored them," said Wendell, who lives in Huntington. "They brought us down, but the FBI got us first."

Selling drinks

Ben Saft, 15, and his buddies Peter DiSario, 16, and Mike DiSario, 13, all of East Moriches, did the entrepreneurial thing. They bought sodas and bottled water and sold them from their classic red Radio Flyer 1990 wagon.

"We're not trying to profit from others' losses," said Saft. "But we heard there were a bunch of people out here who were thirsty."

By mid-morning, the officials had set up a blue Port-A-Lav. Nynex crews laid in 96 phone lines for the command center at the Coast Guard station. A dozen pay phones and 15 regular phone lines were put in to satisfy the news agencies.

Al Brumley of the Dallas Morning News returned at midday from five hours at sea with a rescue crew. Slowly, he made his way to the half-moon of 20 television cameras and the clusters of microphones wrapped liked bouquets.

"There were a couple of things that reminded you that someone had died: a ladies' brown leather coat, very much in tact; a bundle of letters wrapped with a rubber band," he said.

The debris ranged from pieces the size of popcorn to seat cushions, to one piece of plane -- about 8 feet by 3 feet. Sometimes the remains of Flight 800 looked like leaves scattered upon the water, he said.

"I feel like I want to sit down and think about it for awhile. You think about the bodies that you know are out there, but you can't see them. It's pretty unsettling," he said.

The townspeople say nothing happens here. But those who are here will never forget what happened on July 17, 1996.

Last night, they gathered at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church for a memorial Mass.

"If somebody died in your family, you would all gather together and that is what we have done," said the Rev. James M. McDonald, pastor of the church. "We have gathered together."

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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