Survivors put a human face on tragedy Victims' friends, relatives begin a search for healing

July 20, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK CITY SUN STAFF WRITERS MICHAEL JAMES AND MARK HYMAN CONTRIBUTED TO THIS STORY. — NEW YORK CITY -- Why would a man put himself through this, to be crowded by cameras and microphones, to be asked repeatedly about the wife and two daughters killed in the explosion of TWA Flight 800?

For Joe Lychner, 38, the answer is simple.

"You put a face on the tragedy, and you let people know that it was more than a plane that went down," he said, standing outside the Ramada Plaza Hotel. "There were people, good people."

Official business went on inside the hotel. There were private briefings to keep the families abreast of what was happening miles away in East Moriches, the seaside town where the recovery of Flight 800 is being conducted.

Lychner's wife, Pam, 37, and daughters Shannon, 10, and Katie, 8, had planned a four-day trip to Paris. They were going to see the sights, lie beneath the Eiffel Tower and take a picture looking up at the magnificent grid of steel and iron. Shannon, a child with dreams of being an astronaut and a painter, had wanted to see a garden captured by Monet.

Lychner, a computer software salesman from Houston, Texas, held up studio portraits of his smiling, blond-haired girls and a separate photo of himself and his wife at a charity ball.

He said he will take a helicopter to view the crash site. It will help his understanding of what happened. He wants to know that his family did not suffer. And he wants to find them.

"Finding the remains is the most important thing to me," he said, strangely calm on this dreary, overcast day. "I don't want to leave one of them out there."

Lyncher was one of the few family members seen outside the hotel, where flags flew at half-staff. Police controlled the entrances. Four ambulances waited outside. Inside, chaplains, rabbis, priests and counselors comforted the families of the victims.

"Every interaction is different," said Amy Zweiman, a social worker who had been inside the hotel. "Some people are quiet and numb, other people are grief-stricken and overwhelmed. They're crying."

The Suffolk County Medical Examiner's office also was on hand. The staff needed medical records, X-rays, items to identify the dead.

Kyle Tennant of Brooklyn brought the dental records of her friend, Donna Griffith, 37, who in June graduated from a Manhattan business college. Griffith was thrilled to be taking her first trip to Europe.

Tennant said she hoped to get a memento, perhaps a piece Griffith's jewelry. It was not to be.

"They said there would be no jewelry left, that everything would have been burned off," she said, crying, encircled by cameras and microphones. "It's one of the saddest parts of this tragedy to me because if I could have just seen a piece of jewelry, it would have meant a lot to me. All I have left of her is a picture."

For Richard Penzer, talking seemed a way of expressing the pride he had for his sister, Judy, 49. It was a way to pass on her story.

"My sister was full of life," said Penzer, 38.

She was a muralist from Pittsburgh, Pa., and was going to Paris with Jill Watson, a friend and architect. They had worked together on Penzer's rowhouse. Richard Penzer said he was holding up well.

"It's my mother I'm worried about. I don't know how to react to her," said Penzer, a real estate speculator from Lawrenceville, N.Y. "She's just stunned."

Though the cause of Flight 800's destruction is unknown, some family members believed terrorists were at work.

"The people who did this are real cowards," said Jacki Penzer, wife of Richard. "It's a cowardly act. If you're going to go out and make a statement, don't kill innocent people and students."

Joe Lychner, the salesman from Houston, said he had talked to men who have flown the 747. They said the jet is a tough bird. Mechanical failures are rare.

"That leads me to believe that it was something else," he said.

His sister, Judy Lychner Teller, 37, had already made her decision: Terrorists destroyed Flight 800.

"Joe's a better person than I," said Teller, who had flown in from Albuquerque, N.M. "Yes, I'm angry. It's a senseless crime. I don't think they'd like to have their family taken away and have an empty house to come home to."

For the friends and family gathered at the Ramada, or making the grim drive to East Moriches, only the pain of grief is certain. And some deal with that by coming forth to give testimony, to put a human face upon this disaster, to make an attempt somehow at healing themselves.

Alba Reyes, a friend of Donna Griffith, spoke for all when she said, "It feels like someone just took a chunk out of my heart."

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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