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TWA Flight 800 victims’ loved ones marks 20th anniversary

Christina Ortiz along with her 2-year-old son Isaac,

Christina Ortiz along with her 2-year-old son Isaac, remember family who were lost in the crash of TWA Flight 800 20 years ago tonight at a memorial service held at the TWA Flight 800 Memorial in Smith Point County Park on July 17, 2016. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The two women stood before the polished black granite and traced the name of an old college friend carved in stone along with 229 others.

They were among more than 200 people who crowded into the memorial to the 230 passengers and crew who perished when TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the surf off the eastern coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996.

“It was rough, it was very hard to see her name up there,” said one of the two women, Dena Saumers, a math teacher from Los Angeles whose sorority sister, Candace Silerman, also of Los Angeles, was lost. “But it’s such a nice setting so it’s nice to see her remembered like this.”

She and other loved ones and friends of those aboard TWA Flight 800 gathered again Sunday — the 20th anniversary of when the aircraft exploded — at Smith Point County Park to cast flowers into the tide and remember the victims on the eastern Long Island beach where debris from the aircraft washed ashore.

The memorial service, at dusk, has become an annual rite at the etched-granite memorial plaza, which looks out over the Atlantic Ocean to where the giant aircraft fell.

S.R. “Dusty” West, 75, of Sarasota, Florida, was one of several TWA crew members who flew in to pay their respects. West piloted that same aircraft from JFK to Athens a week prior to the crash, and knew several of the crew including Ralph Kevorkian, the chief pilot of the doomed flight.

“It tore you up,” West said. “You can’t believe it, it’s such a reliable plane.

West said he had flown over the memorial several times in the waning years of his career, but this is the first time he has ever visited himself.

He arrived with Gene York, 81, of Newport Beach, California, a former TWA pilot who, like West, had known many of the crew members who perished that night.

Together the two men, who both lost comrades during their military careers, entered the circular memorial before the ceremony began, to look at the names on the wall.

York’s wife, Gail, a TWA stewardess for 25 years, had worked with each of the stewardesses who had died.

“We turned on the TV and just broke down,” York said, recalling the night he received a telephone call telling him his coworkers had been killed. He said aircraft crews are such a tight-knit group, “it’s like losing family.”

As in past years, the names of those who were lost were read aloud, beginning at 8:05 p.m. A former TWA crew member silently crossed herself, as her husband hung his head and cried.

It took 15 minutes to read all the names — ending shortly before 8:31 p.m., the time that Flight 800 went down.

Kelsey Rogers, of Montoursville, sang “Amazing Grace.” Only 18, she never knew her sister Kimberly, a high school student who was among the victims, and perished two years before she was born.

Montoursville, a tiny hamlet in Pennsylvania of roughly 4,500 people, lost 16 high school students and five adult chaperones — participants in a trip to Paris by the town’s high school French Club.

John Seaman, who heads a victims’ families group and lost his niece, Michelle Becker, 19, of Macon, Georgia, on the flight, said the memorial, which was dedicated on this day in 2002, was a place that brought comfort and healing.

“Twenty years, unbelievable,” said Seaman of Clifton Park, speaking as a pale moon, nearly full, hung in the southern sky near the crash site. “A lot of years, and a lot of tears, and also a lot accomplished. A lot.”

The memorial plaza features an abstract rendering of a lighthouse carved from 6,700 pounds of black granite. Its 10-foot tower serves as a metaphorical lighthouse, to guide the crash victims back to their loved ones, and to point family members to the place where their loved ones perished.


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