After the Crash

When victims' rights advocate Pam Lychner and her daughters died on TWA Flight 800, her husband knew what he had to do: Find justice for Pam.

Joe welcomed Pam's obsession with her cause; he'd much rather see her fight than withdraw. The whole family would go pass out leaflets at Memorial Park. He encouraged her to speak in public, and wrote her first speeches. Their neighbors were astounded to see her on TV; then they grew used to the TV vans that parked in her driveway as she delivered sound bites. She campaigned hard for George W. Bush. Ann Richards, she thought, was too soft on crime.

Pam worked mostly from home, the cordless phone to her ear as she cooked, planning yet another round of lobbying or empathizing with yet another crime victim. She'd get up at 4 a.m. to work on the Justice For All newsletter; at night, she'd fall asleep at the computer, and Joe would carry her to bed. After carpool, she'd bring the two girls to the Justice For All office. She roped her friends into volunteering there, and into baby-sitting while she made a TV appearance or ran a board meeting.

Pam was a stacker, and her Justice For All paperwork threatened to take over the house. About once a month, Joe would consolidate ten or so piles into one pile. Pam would rail at him: She'd known where things were.

But you know now, Joe would say. Everything's in this stack.
He was delighted. Finally, they had their lives back.

After three years, Pam needed a break. At the words "Justice For All," Shannon and Katie would make the sign of the cross, as if warding off a vampire. Pam stepped down as president, and planned to spend the summer of '96 concentrating on the girls.

She painted the house and bought new patio furniture. She drove Katie and Shannon to swim practice at the YMCA; spitfire Katie was a star. They took day trips to Galveston, to AstroWorld and to the Cockrell Butterfly Center. And she began planning a three-day trip to Paris, just for the three of them. Ten-year-old Shannon had been copying Monet's paintings, and Pam wanted to show her the artist's garden in Giverny.

Two days before their flight, Joe left on a business trip to Calgary. He and Shannon had a hello/good-bye ritual: She'd run to him, jump into his arms and wrap her legs around him. This time, she backed up the length of the kitchen before she started running, and gave him a big kiss.

Usually, Shannon was the loving daughter, the one eager to hug and kiss. But in the last few months, rambunctious Katie had also turned snuggly. That day she followed Shannon's lead, running the length of the kitchen, jumping into her dad's arms, hugging him tight. Then, since it would be a long separation, each girl performed the ritual a second time.

Pam and the girls walked Joe to the garage. As he backed away, he saw the three standing there, each making the sign-language sign for "I love you."

As good-byes go, he'd say later, that one was about perfect.

After Joe heard about the crash, he walked across the street, still holding the cordless phone, still talking to his mother-in-law. When his neighbor answered the door, Joe could tell by his face that he already knew.

They went back to Joe's. CNN flashed an 800 number to call if a family member had been aboard. Joe dialed, and got a busy signal.

He called other people to come to the house: friends, his boss, his sister in San Antonio. By 10 p.m., seven people were with him. They took turns dialing the number. Always the line was busy. CNN buzzed in the background.

Joe pictured Pam and the girls clinging to wreckage, or maybe seat cushions.
His friends dialed on the house's two phone lines, and on two cellular phones. Someone finally got through -- and Joe was told that at that time, TWA could offer no information.

He pictured Pam and the girls dying alone in a New York hospital.
The friends kept dialing. They got through again, and were told someone would call back in an hour.

No one did.
When they got through again at 3 a.m., Joe spoke to someone he thought sounded competent. I know what's going on, Lychner told the man. My wife was a TWA flight attendant for years. I know how this works. All I want is to be on your first flight to New York.

The man said something about being sorry, that he'd need to verify with a vice president in the morning.

Joe threatened to hold a press conference. Ten minutes later, the man called back. Sorry, he said; he'd made a mistake. Joe asked for the 8 a.m. flight to New York.

Sorry, the man said, it's full. You'll have to wait till 2 p.m.
Joe made a reservation on Continental.
That night, he heard on CNN that there had been no survivors. Numb, he spent the rest of the night picking out outfits for Pam and the girls to be buried in.

The Ramada Inn at JFK was "Crash Central," the gathering place for the 230 victims' families as well as investigators, the TWA "go team," and the media. News coverage focused on suspicions that Flight 800 had been downed by a terrorist bomb or a missile. "Whether it was an act of terrorism or mechanical failure doesn't make any difference," Joe told a reporter, trying to turn attention to the victims. "What's important is to put a face on the tragedy... It wasn't just a plane crash. There were people in there, good people."

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