Grieving At Ground Zero

ON THE FIFTH FLOOR of the Ramada Plaza Hotel, the children play: about a dozen or so kids, turned loose in two rooms set aside just for them. A handful can fool around on computer games and CD-ROMs in one room while another batch does arts and crafts in the next. They aree a splash of color and movement in this drab, gray airport hotel. Four flights down, in the hotel ballroom, the color drains under fluorescent lights. Reporters have been kept out of the hotel, but people inside say that downstairs there is only waiting, and the serrated frustration that comes with not knowing. As divers continued to search for bodies last week, the Ramada swelled with the hundred or more families of passengers whose remains had not yet been found. The ballroom offered a constant reminder of what might happen next: posted on the bulletin board are instructions on what families should do if their relatives' bodies are recovered.

The six-story Ramada, just off Kennedy airport, has been ground zero for the grief and incomprehension surrounding TWA Flight 800. It has been a place of prayer and condolences, of unlimited bar tabs and a presidential visit. "We all try to comfort each other as best we can," said Quetcy Vega, who lost an aunt and a cousin on the plane. The medical examiner is identifying bodies very slowly, keeping families at the hotel. Wild theories and false information germinate in the Ramada's dining room and bar; a few families have formed factions over how the authorities are handling the recovery. At the same time, they have all endured the same painful requests: for medical or dental records, for checkbooks or CDs (to take fingerprints), even for pictures of the victims smiling, to check the teeth. Rumors filled the tense hours: that navy war games off Long Island had caused the disaster, that a bomb had been packed in with an organ transplant loaded on board at the last minute. Dan Thorin, a New York musician whose aunt and cousin died in the crash, spent the week sharpening his frustration. "People are screaming for information," he said. "Some families are splitting up out here, fighting. I can't think in here. You get five versions of everything."

For some, the strain turned into anger. On Tuesday, Gov. George Pataki announced that divers had found dozens of bodies, possibly a hundred. When the NTSB contradicted this, saying that it had made no such find, a few families lashed out. Already angered at TWA's initial delays in naming the passengers on the flight, they confronted the governor and the NTSB. "Tell us what you know, now," demanded Joe Lychner of Houston, who further railed at having to get his information from CNN, rather than directly. Some French families complained about the American rescue and briefing methods. "I want my brother!" Michel Olivier told reporters. "I don't want politics!"

Thursday's visit by Bill and Hillary Clinton--he tearfully addressed the ballroom, and both met with family members individually--relieved a lot of the tensions. "He was holding my hand the whole time," said Richard Penzer, whose sister died in the crash. "He said, "What can I do for you?' " By Friday, the hotel had set up videoconferencing with Europe for the several dozen French and Italian families and provided simultaneous translation for all NTSB briefings. Even so, many grew resigned that their relatives' bodies might never be found. Some, like Thorin, were still unmoored. "Am I supposed to sit in the lobby and cry all day?" he asked. "Am I supposed to sit in my room? What am I supposed to do?" But Patty O'Grady, whose cousin was an attendant on the flight, spoke for many when she praised the cocoon of the hotel. "You don't have to speak to communicate. You can see into people's hearts. It's as if you're holding hands with a hundred people without touching anybody."