• U.S.


10 minute read
Roger Rosenblatt

At the mosquito hour, when the grills are cooling and the kids seem to shout louder than ever as they cling to the last light of the day, the people of East Moriches, New York, look up from the decks of their boats and houses and see a 747 flare, break apart and go down in the sea. In a second or two, a typically dank Long Island South Shore night goes from languor to amazement to horror. Private vessels are first to rush toward the site through the Moriches Inlet, which opens to the ocean. Zodiacs from the Coast Guard station follow. Cutters come soon after. Emergency vehicles make a long, undulating necklace of light on the roads leading to town. The air is thick with police sirens and slow, mournful fire alarms. Everyone turns on the news.

It was a fire in the plane. It was old and faulty equipment. It was the hydraulic system, the electrical system, the structure. A small aircraft hit it in midair. It was a terrorist bomb. Nearly everyone suspects that first and strongest, and the more officials say not to speculate about it, the more one speculates. Within a few hours, when it is clear that none of the 200-plus people who were on TWA Flight 800 are going to be found alive, the mood of the town is laden with sorrow. East Moriches (established early 1700s, population a little more than 4,000) is about to become America.

“When my neighbor and I headed out in his Whaler,” says a construction contractor, 53, who was one of the first on the scene, “we thought we were going to find survivors. We came upon dead bodies, but we kept looking for people who were still alive. Then we realized nobody was alive. I saw legs, a head. I said, ‘Please, God, don’t let me see a kid.’ Then I saw a kid.”

This is not the Hamptons–this area of Speonk, East Moriches, Center Moriches strung out along the Old Montauk Highway, which was long ago supplanted by the ever widening Long Island Expressway. Here it is still around 1948. The people work for a living, know one another’s business, tend to their green squares of land and (most of the time) love America. Take the Long Island Rail Road from Manhattan, and you understand these places at once. After the conductor calls out the suburbs, the names of the stations get rougher: “Patchogue!” “Moriches!” You are too far east to commute to the city and not far east enough, or rich enough, to occupy what a young woman here calls “those houses that nobody lives in.”

Between Levittown and the Land of the Neverending Fund Raiser lies East Moriches, where people fish, farm, run “country stores” and “garden centers,” teach, practice law, hang dry walls and dig swimming pools for other people. On Atlantic Avenue, which leads to the Coast Guard station, the trees are fat, the sidewalks cracked, the homes need reshingling and bikes lean on kickstands in the driveways.

“I know it’s important, but I wish they wouldn’t go so fast. Kids play on this street, ya know.” The heavyset woman hosing down her trash cans refers to the onrushing traffic to and from the Coast Guard station, where the police, the politicians, the FBI and the press have their separate clusters and where bodies are being brought by boat to the cement pier.

Wednesday night was terrible, surreal. One’s eye flitted between the events outside one’s door and the reports of those events on television. More hard information was to be learned from TV than from the dark, but there were things that the cameras did not or could not pick up–the reek of the jet fuel burning; the twinkling helicopter lights competing with the stars; the moist, ominous air; the sight of silent, empty ambulances heading back to other quiet towns like Flanders and Manorville; or the people themselves, hunched in front of their TV sets, growing steadily more aware of their altered state.

“If anyone should find a body part on shore,” said a local television announcer, “call 911.”

Cameras could not penetrate the imagination either. “Did I know anyone on that flight?” “Maybe I’ll cancel my trip to El Paso.” “How exactly does one die in an airplane crash?” “How long are you conscious?” “They’ll show the families soon. How will they bear it?” “We went to Paris once. Remember the exhilaration when the plane surged up?”

It turns out that the disaster was as near as it felt. A young couple from Manorville had been on the flight.

But television could go where the wreckage was, and one could peer into the obscure video to find the pieces that were eventually going to become a comprehensible story. Boats maneuvered in the darkness. Nets dipped into the black water. Flares dropped by C-130s hung in the sky like naked light bulbs at the ends of luminescent cords.

From high above, the burning remnants of the crash looked like a city’s lights at night, like the lights of Paris. At sea level they became a pulse of fire, lifted and lowered by the roll of the waves. The shape of the mile-long area of the fires changed continuously, like drops of mercury. Now it was a pool of votive candles. Now a constellation. Now the elongated map of Long Island itself.

On Thursday morning the early light is wrapped in haze, the grass is wet, the half-risen sun casts great splotches of shadows on the front lawns. It is going to be a scorcher. The traffic, bemoaned by the woman on Atlantic Avenue, redoubles by the hour. Official cars flash red and white headlights and roll through.

At the point where the road forks left toward the Coast Guard station and Moriches Bay, the people who were allowed to pass park their cars in a baseball field and walk a mile or so in the hot dust. License plates read Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont. The TV people have come with huge trucks and satellite dishes, some of which are the size of dinner plates and sit atop tall poles; they are connected to the trucks by red wires in coils. A parking lot full of these trucks looks like a moon landing at rush hour.

What resembles a modern sculpture of fused microphones is set up for anyone in charge who would speak to the press. Whenever New York Governor George Pataki or one of the Coast Guard officers steps in front of the mikes, the reporters rush to create a mosh pit around them. But no one has anything new to say.

Out of everyone’s sight, around a hook of land, workers keep bringing in the bodies. Ice trucks stand waiting to take them to nearby morgues. The press cannot go to where the bodies are brought in. Since the area has been declared a crime scene, it is difficult to get around. The Air National Guard base in Westhampton, where the C-130s are located, is off-limits. Dune Road, which runs beside the ocean, is barricaded at the point where Westhampton Beach approaches the area of the Moriches.

One can still get to the beach on one’s own, but all there is to see and hear this morning are the blue-silver light on the water, cawing sea gulls and harmless, whispering waves. The crash area, now a junkyard of flotsam, is miles out of range.

For all the agitation and anxiety at the Coast Guard station, the atmosphere of East Moriches remains as it was. The library, normally quiet, is somber. People try to sound cheerful by saying the things they always say, but their voices are flat and the air feels sodden.

At the deli on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Montauk Highway, the usual customers mix with the newcomers under a hush. One of the three women owners who opened the deli only two years ago has lived in the town for 20 years. She and her husband have reared four daughters, two of whom have gone to college. Except for a devastating forest fire last year, she cannot recall anything going wrong in East Moriches until the plane crash.

When asked how she feels today, she simply says, “Very sad. Sad for the people, for the families.” When asked if it would make much of a difference to her if it turned out that the crash was the work of terrorists, she says, “Not really. It’s just sad. That’s all.”

Her answer may speak for the fact that acts of terrorism are becoming more familiar to Americans after Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center bombing, but it seems to go deeper than that. Like most of the people in this town, and perhaps in the country at large, she is not thinking globally or strategically. She is concentrating on what she understands–a grief akin to that after a death in the family.

“I can’t stop talking about it,” says the man who expected to find people alive in the water. “My friend who was with me can’t sleep. And I can’t stop talking.”

The sun does not appear on Friday morning. The sky is a gray gauze, fog covers the crash site, a light rain falls, and thunderstorms are forecast for the late afternoon. The body count is more than 100, but the weather and high swells will impede the search today.

More chunks of the 747 are recovered. A fuller narrative is given of the flight, from takeoff to the explosion. The mounting testimonies of experts nearly confirm that the plane was sabotaged.

Even so, nothing seems to touch the public as painfully as the pictures of the family members, who tell stories of their suddenly dead loved ones in brave efforts to project their grief outward.

“How are they holding up?” a reporter asks a chaplain who is counseling the families. One has the image of their doing just that.

At 2 in the afternoon the FBI’s James Kallstrom, Suffolk County medical examiner Charles Wetli and Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, announce it will be a while before any definitive analysis can be made. More and more FBI agents are coming into town. People are asked to report anything they saw or heard on Wednesday night.

“I guess this has put East Moriches on the map,” says the man who owns the liquor store.

“A heck of a way to get us on the map,” says the man who owns the stationery store.

The late afternoon sky is as solemn as it was in the morning. The town is quieter than yesterday. Tonight people will begin to wean themselves from the disaster reports and tune in to the excessively happy opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Atlanta. Flipping between channels, they will occupy antipodal worlds. Come the weekend, they will take their boats out on the bay, and eventually they will speak less and less of Wednesday night.

But it will remain with them forever, to be dredged up on summer nights years from now, and it will remind them of who they are and where they live.

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