Families touched by other disasters offer healing words

After the crash of American TWA800 in July 1996, the families and friends of the victims of Pan Am 103 became a big help - they have tried going through such disaster before... 

As the anguished families of those killed aboard TWA Flight 800 wait for answers there are a group of people who already know certain sad truths about the nature of such disasters.

 They know that identifying loved ones can take days or even weeks and that sometimes no remains are found at all. They know that if terrorists did cause the crash, they may not be found and brought to justice. And finally they know that the grief never completely ends.

 "I can't tell these people that I feel good now, I haven't solved our problems," said Philip DiMauro of Pelham whose daughter Joyce, 32, was killed in December 1988 when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.

 "That old adage about time heals, something like this unheals it," DiMauro said. 

Since Flight 800 exploded a week ago off the coast of Long Island, those whose relatives died in the Pan Am crash and other airline disasters have lived an eerie replay.

 Florence Bissett of Hartsdale, whose only child, 21-year-old Kenneth, died on Flight 103, said listening to reports of the TWA disaster "breaks me up."

 Dr. Gregory Asnis, director of the trauma program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, said such feelings were not unusual.

 "In bereaved people, frequently anniversaries, birthdays, dates of the tragedy, other tragedies that are rather similar to one suffered by their loved ones, reactivate a lot of the original feelings," Asnis said.

 He said renewed depression should be short-lived, although a small percentage of bereaved people feel chronic grief that does not abate.

 The Pan Am flight was carrying 259 passengers including seven with ties to Westchester County when it exploded over Scotland. Eleven people in the village of Lockerbie also were killed.

 A terrorist bomb inside a tape player was blamed for the explosion. Two Libyans have been indicted in the attack but have yet to be arrested.

Because the wreckage of the Pan Am flight fell on land, it made both the investigation into the explosion and recovery of bodies easier.

 Some of the relatives of those on the TWA Flight have berated public officials for what they view as the torpid pace of the recovery effort. Those involved in other disasters counsel patience.

 Ruth Rabin of Irvington waited seven weeks for her son's body to be identified after he was killed in a December 1987 plane crash.

 Thomas Rabin, 24, and 43 others died after a former Pacific Southwest Airlines employee shot both the plane's pilot and copilot, sending the aircraft slamming into a California mountainside.

 Rabin urged those TWA family members awaiting word on their loves ones at the Ramada Plaza Hotel near John K. Kennedy International Airport to go home.

 "They can't expect those bodies to be identified any minute," she said. "They should go home, have a service in a local church or synagogue and hope that some day the body is returned."

 Bert Ammerman, whose brother was on Flight 103, said 13 families never received any remains.

 "I can't emphasize how awful that is," he said.

 Ammerman of River Vale, N.J., was president of the Victims of Pam Am Flight 103, a support and lobbying group that formed after the crash. The group worked to improve airport security and to get better procedures for treating the families of victims.

 Ammerman went to the Ramada hotel on Sunday to offer his assistance.

He advised officials to take family members out on the water where the plane went down.

 "Certain families have to go there, they have to see the site," he said. "I did that in Lockerbie."

 Ammerman is also continuing to push legislators to improve the handling of future disasters. He said airlines should be required to ask passengers whom to notify in an emergency.

 TWA was roundly criticized for not notifying next of kin immediately.

In contrast, Rabin said she was treated with compassion by Pacific Southwest Airlines, which had a representative call her family daily for weeks to offer assistance.

 Rabin said she moved ahead with her life by returning to her routine, seeking counseling and attending meetings of the local chapter of Compassionate Friends -- a support group of people whose children have died.

 And she has learned how to talk about her son without fear of making others uncomfortable.

 "I do not act as if my son did not exist," she said. "I talk about him. I dream about him."