On July 17, 1996, 230 people died as a TWA jet bound for Paris exploded shortly after taking off from Kennedy Airport, raining debris over the Atlantic Ocean south of Moriches Inlet on Long Island. The following excerpts are part of a story that was published in Newsday on July 20, 1996.
Everyone who died aboard TWA Flight 800 has a story and each story an equal share of heartache — a stab wound of sorrow that will pain family and friends long after officials solve the case and ocean rhythms scrub the crash site clean.
"We are standing before God now with a very, very different view of what life is about,' said a clergyman on Thursday after helping to anoint the bodies of victims. "People, good people ... died last night."
No screenwriter could summon the pathos of these true-life tragedies. The 11-year-old exchange student heading home to France and promising to write his 14-year-old pal in New Jersey. The flight attendant eagerly opening the world to her 9-year-old son. The television producer anticipating a bottle of wine and romantic moment with his wife on the charming French boulevard. The mother who hates flying but loves her 29-year-old daughter and agrees to an overseas vacation — just the two of them. The high schoolers from Pennsylvania hoping to learn French and perhaps, in an unforgettable summer, a little more about themselves.
From the melancholy details of these individual cases a mighty sadness accumulates. The 230 persons aboard the doomed 747 jetliner flew in good faith. In the way the everyone does, they suspend disbelief and put trust in the extraordinary machine that would lift its great weight off the tarmac of Kennedy Airport and settle down smoothly on another continent. A few hours to France! Bon voyage.
But something went wrong — the failure of machine, or man, or politics — and a trip begun in hope and joy ended with blinding, sudden finality, with a sickening explosion off Center Moriches, with a fearsome scattering of metal and luggage and lives.
On the following pages you'll find sketches of many of those who died when TWA Flight 800 lost its wings — when hopes and good wishes were brutally dashed in the velvety, summer sky over the Atlantic, when the impossible happened, as, too often, it does.
Beverly and Tracy Anne Hammer
Beverly Hammer, 59, had just passed her stockbroker's exam July 8. She and her daughter, Tracy Anne, 29, were heading to France, where Tracy Anne was to deliver a paper on veterinary science.
They shared a restless intellect and voracious reading appetite, said husband Richard Hammer of Long Beach. Tracy Anne had a lifelong love of horses and was to receive a double doctorate in veterinary medicine and microbiology in May from Michigan State University.
An advertising sales consultant, Richard Hammer considered joining his wife and daughter, but the two were keen on traveling strictly as a pair.
Eric and Virginia Holst
Eric and Virginia Holst of Manorville were to have celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary tomorrow while they were in France attending his brother's wedding.
Her mother, Luz Mari Pelaez, of Center Moriches, had driven the couple to Kennedy Airport for the flight.
"I went to give her a big hug and she said, Mommy, mommy, I'll see you next week,' " Pelaez said.
Eric Holst, 32, was a dentist in East Moriches and catered in part to children. In his office are cards from elementary schoolchildren who called him "Dr. Eric."
The son of John and Joan Holst of St. James, he was a 1986 graduate of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, School of Dental Medicine, and was partners with Dr. Stuart Novins.
Virginia Holst, 31, was her mother's partner in International Distribution Networks, direct distributors for Nu Skin and Interior Design Nutritionals products. She attended Suffolk Community College and the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising in Manhattan. She started her business five years ago and worked out of her home.
Her father, Helmer, died when she was a child.
Virginia also had battled thyroid cancer. "She got so strong, so full of energy and life, it was amazing," Pelaez said. "She fought that war. And she won."
Eric was on the board of Hampton Vistas Condominiums, where the couple lived. "A lovely young couple. We will miss them," said neighbor Jean Squeri.
The couple met at a Hamptons dance club and dated for six years before they were married.
Jacques and Connie Charbonnier
Jacques and Connie Charbonnier of Northport were both flight attendants for TWA and took the New York-to-Paris Flight 800 as often as five times a month.
They met 21 years ago on a flight. Jacques, 65, managed flight attendants — among them, his 49-year-old wife, who was an accomplished painter of French landscapes.
Ray Lang always bid for flights overseas. Paris. Cairo. Germany.
And with 20 years as a TWA flight attendant, the 51-year-old North Massapequa man often got his wish.
He brought back sweets for his mother, Mildred, gifts for his close-knit family and tales of adventures, including when he took over for a sick driver and steered a tour bus through the rural outskirts of Cairo.
"He was always telling stories," said Ray's only brother, Ted, 54. "If there were fifteen people in a room, he was the center of attention."
Friends and family said the outgoing Farmingdale High School graduate carefully tended to his flowers and hungered for books on American history. Then there was his appetite for crossword puzzles and "Jeopardy."
But Lang's passion was traveling and flying. It began decades ago after a three-month backpacking trip through Europe. "His job was everything to him," said Wendy Lang, Ray Lang's niece and goddaughter, who is also a TWA flight attendant. "He wouldn't have been doing anything else."
New Hyde Park
For Vera Feeney, her family was her life.
The 53-year-old part-time housecleaner and her 17-year-old daughter, Deirdre, both of New Hyde Park, had hoped to board a Tuesday flight to Paris but were instead bumped to Flight 800. France was a stopover and mini-vacation for the mother and daughter before arrival to their ultimate destination: Roscommon, Ireland, where they had planned to visit Vera's 80-year-old mother for a two-to-three-week holiday.
The Feeneys had been making the annual trip to Ireland "since Deirdre was small enough to be carried in her mother's arms," Vera's husband, John, recalled yesterday. This trip to Ireland was particularly important because Vera Feeney wanted Deirdre to to spend time with her 80-year-old mother, Margaret, and father, James. Feeney came to this country more than 20 years ago from Ireland.
The family's last few days before the trip had been filled with marathon shopping sessions at Roosevelt Field Mall for clothing and souvenirs for family members in Ireland, John Feeney said yesterday. They had tried to get on the Tuesday flight but were bumped to TWA's flight 800.
When Vera Feeney wasn't doting on her husband, she was doting on her daughter, "the apple of her eye," John Feeney recalled yesterday, explaining that she would spend her days bringing Deirdre back and forth to soccer practice and games. They couldn't wait for the trip, discussing at their last dinner together how long the flight would take and what sights the two were planning to see before taking a connecting flight to Dublin and a two-hour train ride to Roscommon. "They were each other's best friends," John Feeney recalled.
New Hyde Park
Deirdre Feeney, 17, of New Hyde Park, was looking forward to a a full day of sightseeing in Paris before traveling on with her mother, Vera, to Roscommon, Ireland, where mother and daughter were going to spend time with family members.
"She had been talking about the trip for weeks. She couldn't wait," her father, John, said yesterday, explaining that his daughter was an avid soccer player who was trying to convince her mother that they needed to check out French soccer stadiums during their brief Parisian layover.
He described his daughter as quiet and thoughtful, someone who was known for doing sweet things for the friends and family in her life. "It was the little details that she paid attention to," Feeney said. "She promised to bring back my favorite foods, Irish sausages and Cadbury chocolates. She was just a good girl."
Deirdre, or De De as her friends called her, had just graduated from Kellenberg, a Catholic High School in Uniondale, where she had been on the honor roll for four years and played for the varsity soccer team. She had received a four-year scholarship to the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx, where she was going to begin studying nursing, her father said. The trip to Paris was a graduation present from her parents, he said.