TWA Flight 800 ceremony on Long Island remembers 230 lives lost

Parents, siblings, wives and husbands, extended family and friends, all made their way to the black granite memorial at Smith Point County Park on Fire Island on Thursday, July 17, 2014, to remember those they lost 18 summers ago as TWA Flight 800 exploded, plunging to the sea off East Moriches. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

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A pilgrimage of people forever linked after TWA Flight 800 exploded in the dark, plunging to the sea off East Moriches 18 summers ago, came together at a twilight ceremony on Fire Island Thursday night to remember what is hard to forget.

Parents, siblings, wives and husbands, extended family and friends, made their way to the granite memorial at Smith Point County Park on the east end of the island for the 7:30 p.m. event.

The moody strains from the voice of Irish singer Enya played on speakers set up. Nearby, several people who probably hadn't seen each other since last's year's remembrance shared hugs and handshakes and otherwise got reacquainted.

Several at the memorial, its future far from certain because of funding issues -- read aloud the names of those they loved and lost. Others in the gathering of about 100 preferred to remain silent on a breezy early evening, the blue Atlantic as a backdrop.

A woman walked up to the memorial -- the list of the 230 victims inscribed across eight columns -- and pressed her fingers to her lips before touching a name on one of the six gently curved blocks of black granite.

A few mourners put flowers on nearby stone benches with the name of a victim inscribed. Another group walked toward the crashing waves on the beach where just offshore, countless burning chunks of the 747-100 plummeted to the ocean at 8:31 p.m. on July 17, 1996.

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"I just feel this is where I have to be . . . Not everyone wants to come to this," said Jim Hurd, 69, a retired auto repair business owner from Severn, Maryland, who lost his son and namesake, Jamie Hurd III.

Hurd said the march of time is a reminder of how sudden and permanent the crash was to him and others forced to live without the victims they knew.

"You always remember. It's just different," Hurd said. "We all get older. Jamie's friends got older . . . He'd be 47 today."

In front of another bench that was recently dedicated to Joe Vandenoever, a Navy Reserve diver from Chicago who led the recovery dive operation and died earlier this year, his friend, Michael Wilkins, 35, said the memorial held special meaning.

He said like other divers who worked on the Flight 800 recovery, Vandenoever often talked about his work there as a defining moment for him as a Naval Reserve diver.

"Everybody I know talked about this job," said Wilkins, a diver in the Navy Reserve from upstate Kingston, who took pictures of the bench with Vandenoever's name and other biographical details inscribed.

The memorial site, with its benches and blocks of granite, is the closest strip of land to the location where the Paris-bound jet splashed into the ocean. A four-year investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the cause was an accidental fuel tank explosion.

Despite its hallowed place in the lives of friends and relatives of the Flight 800 victims, how long it will remain there is unclear.

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"As time passes, fewer people remember," said Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) on Wednesday. "It's becoming more difficult to raise money for the ongoing expenses."

Calarco and fellow Legis. Kate Browning, (WF-Shirley), were recognized at the memorial service for their efforts to secure permanent funding for the site.

"I'll never forget that day," Browning told the gathering, amid an orange and red sunset and a cool ocean breeze. "It was a beautiful night like tonight. It looked like this . . . The Suffolk legislature needs to continue to support you."

John Seaman, president of the Flight 800 families group, said they're trying to raise about $3 million to preserve the memorial. Currently, the group's endowment only has about $300,000 and it costs about $100,000 annually to maintain the memorial.

Seaman asked relatives and friends of the Flight 800 victims to think about the victims in Thursday's downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet above the Ukraine.

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"Remember those poor people today, and their families, and the terrible, terrible thing that overtook them today," he said. "Our hearts go out to them and their loved ones."

With Nicole Fuller

and Joan Gralla

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