Death come to home town


Disaster: The explosion of TWA Flight 800 wasn't the first calamity in a Baltimore author's happily obscure Long Island village.

July 28, 1996|By Jim Kramon

WESTHAMPTON BEACH, NEW YORK -- For the third time in less than a year, this quiet resort town of 1,700 has been hit by a calamity.

Last August, a brush fire -- one of the largest in New York history -- threatened to consume the town, in May there was an ugly racial incident in which a young black man was savagely beaten and now there is TWA Flight 800, the kind of disaster that town folk always thought would happen somewhere else.

Westhampton Beach is about 100 miles from New York City and for some here, it might as well be 10,000 miles.

This is an insular community, and town residents like it that way. It's the kind of place where a power breakfast is a Rotary Club meeting in a roadside restaurant. The people here revel in quiet obscurity, each night they sit in their homes out here near the tip of Long Island, and pull down the shade on crime, grime and all else that big cities symbolize.

This is my hometown, my family has lived here since 1950. Although my law practice is in Baltimore, I return here every summer and I visit frequently at other times during the year.

Natural disasters are not new to Westhampton Beach residents. Every few years this place gets hit by a hurricane, but until recently, that was about it.

Forty years ago last Thursday, the nearby East Moriches Coast Guard station received a distress call from the Andrea Adoria, the Italian luxury liner that sank in the Atlantic killing 51 people. Now a small armada is searching for wreckage in Moriches Inlet, and ships are returning to the Coast Guard station with wreckage and bodies.

A pall fell over the town as soon as we learned that Flight 800 blew up strewing wreckage and bodies in the ocean just a few miles away from the beautiful sandy beaches that draw tourists here.

Twelve of the 230 dead lived on Long Island and one woman, Donna Griffith, 37, is a native of nearby Westhampton, an unincorporated town. Her body was recovered from the waters not far from Westhampton Cemetery where she was buried on Wednesday.

The crash brought hundreds of outsiders -- news crews, federal agents, politicians and mourners -- to the town. The residents are having a difficult time coping with the disaster and the publicity and the incursion by the outside.

"Jim, we're losing control," lamented a good friend and neighbor who was shaken by the events.

Everybody seems to remember where they were on the night when TWA Flight 800 exploded. I was here watching TV when a bulletin flashed on the screen. At first, there was a report of an explosion, but it was unclear whether it was a plane or a ship.

My friend and neighbor Fred Showers learned the truth much quicker. He's the village's housing inspector and a volunteer fireman. As he was driving home, he saw a plume of flame reaching from the sky to the ocean. Shortly after that, his fire department beeper activated and when he checked it he saw a coded message.

Translated, it read: "plane down." He drove toward the firehouse thinking that it was probably a small plane used to pull advertising banners. He joined the other volunteers at the firehouse, and when they got the word that a 747 had gone down, there was stone silence.

The firefighters went to the beach and soon the Red Cross and ambulances from other towns began to arrive. The crash had activated a disaster plan. But a feeling of helplessness soon fell over the rescuers because the wreckage was in the ocean and there was little hope for survivors.

Like people everywhere, the residents here wonder whether it was a bomb, a missile or an act of God. Their anxiety is tinged with sorrow.

"It's a terrible sorrow for the families of the victims and for us," said Bill Sexton, a local merchant.

The local residents are conservative folks who value their independence. For the most part, their conservatism doesn't have a mean streak, they are remarkably tolerant and compassionate.

In late May, Shane Daniels, 21, a member of a well-respected black family from a nearby town, was nearly beaten to death during an incident outside a club here.

Three white men -- including an off-duty New York City police officer -- were arrested in connection with the attack. Shane's alleged assailants, all out-of- towners, were enraged when he walked a white female friend to her car.

It was a horrifying crime, magnified many times in the minds of Westhampton Beach residents, many of whom have never experienced racial violence.

The FBI and the media descended on the town after the beating incident. There was lots of coverage of the racial angle and the savagery of the attack but little about the town's reaction.

The Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis Clubs launched a fund raising effort to pay Shane's medical bills. He suffered serious, and most likely permanent brain damage after he was beaten with a metal club. Buckets in stores along Main Street overflowed with contributions.

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