Remembering Flight 800

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The shouts and squeals of children drifted up the dune, mingling with the mournful words of politicians, rescuers and family members who gathered yesterday at Smith Point Park in Shirley to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800.

As the children romped in the ocean below, their antics sent an unwitting message to the mourners who grieved in the sweltering heat -- life goes on.

Ten years to the day that the Paris-bound plane fell from the sky, killing all 230 passengers and crew, a crowd of 600 people sat under a blue and white canopy and listened to speeches. Every once in a while, they wiped tears -- or perspiration -- from their faces in weather eerily similar to the day of the disaster.

"We are taught to believe that a decade is a considerable length of time," Gov. George Pataki told the audience. "Today, I join all the people of New York in praying that a decade is enough time for comfort."

Time, the families noted all day long, plays funny tricks. Children are born, friendships form, jobs change -- and then a decade can seem like a very long time. But when your shoes sink into Long Island sand again, or when the television flashes endless footage of the disaster -- then, 10 years pass in the beat of a heart.

"It's hard to believe it's been 10 years," said Larry Siebert, of Jefferson City, Mo., whose two grown daughters, Chrisha and Brenna, died on the flight. "But then, when you're back here, it seems a very short period of time."

Later in the evening, family members prayed together before setting white carnations afloat in waters as still as those a decade earlier. Just after 8:31 p.m. -- the moment the plane disappeared from radar screens -- a Coast Guard cutter set out for the crash site, where they laid a wreath in memory of those who died.

A pain that never leaves

Many of those who came for the anniversary said they had hoped the gatherings would grant them release. Instead, they experienced the kind of intense pain that comes with prodding a wound that never healed. "It's been a depressing weekend," said Ted Harris, who was mourning his son Larry.

Heidi Snow, who lost her fiance, Michel Breistroff, said 10 years has done little to ebb families' grief. She founded and is now the executive director of a counseling organization that caters to families who lost loved ones in plane crashes. About a month ago, she said, families called seeking help preparing for the anniversary of the crash.

"These are trigger points," Snow said. "It'll be a birthday, it'll be an anniversary. It just shows you that it hits people at all different points in the process."

During the afternoon program, Rear Adm. Timothy Sullivan, who commanded the Coast Guard's fleet of rescue vessels after the crash, choked up when he described the sadness crew members felt upon discovering they would not save a single person that night. "My crew was quite frankly disappointed that we had failed many of you," he said. When he finished, the crowd rose to its feet in applause.

A final dedication

Yesterday's afternoon ceremony dedicated the final piece of the memorial to Flight 800's victims -- an abstract rendering of a lighthouse carved from 6,700 pounds of black granite. The 10-foot-high tower that looks out over the Atlantic is intended to serve as a metaphorical beacon, "to create a path for loved ones to come to us and for all of us, a clear light and direction to find them," said Harry Edward Seaman, who designed the sculpture and lost his cousin Michele in the crash.

The abstract is the centerpiece of the memorial, which was dedicated in 2002 and includes a garden and a granite wall bearing the names of the victims. The final piece sits above a tomb holding many of the victims' personal belongings.

When the hourlong ceremony had concluded, visitors were invited to stroll through the memorial. Children, many born since the crash, wandered through the garden, and old men and women hobbled in on canes. Pinned to nearly every shirt was a smiling face -- photos of the victims in happier times.

In the evening, family members gathered once again at the victims' memorial, this time to join in prayer.

The Rev. James Devine, who was chaplain at Kennedy Airport 10 years ago, evoked memories of the initial days after the crash. "We prayed together, we ate together, and we tried to support one another. We said in the beginning we would never forget," he said. "And we're here."

Ten years ago, TWA Flight 800 exploded on a clear summer evening, over waters unrippled by wind. Yesterday evening, time again seemed to be playing funny tricks. The sky was empty of clouds; the humid air devoid of a breeze. Six American flags hung limp along the path to the beach.

As 8:31 approached, the families, carrying white carnations and two wreaths, streamed down the path and gathered around a rowboat. Two lifeguards in the boat then rowed to a waiting Coast Guard cutter as the mourners tossed loose flowers into the rowboat's tiny wake.

At 8:31, two Coast Guard helicopters swept overhead, parting ways before reaching the assembled mourners. The lifeguards dropped one wreath into the surf and handed the other to the Coast Guard, which carried the flowers 10 miles to the spot where TWA Flight 800 fell to earth.

Joy Lychner-Smith, 55, watched the wreath travel to the place where her sister-in-law and two nieces had drawn their last breaths.

She wiped tears from her eyes. "It gets to you, huh?"

This story was reported by Hana Alberts, Bill Bleyer, Dave Marcus and Julia Neyman.

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