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.

A power struggle between the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board meant that the families received most of their news from TV. Joe was watching CNN in the airport bar when he saw an interview with a member of the Coast Guard. The saddest thing he'd seen, said the man, was the body of a blond woman still strapped to her seat, still clutching the body of her blond daughter.

After almost a week of waiting, Joe -- a business guy, used to pulling strings -- contacted the Port Authority, which agreed to fly victims' families to the site of the crash. Joe was on the first helicopter. In a shamelessly grand gesture, he threw rose petals on the water.

He'd expected to see a tent city on the water, an armada of searchers. Instead, he saw only one Navy ship and a few dive boats. Outraged, he thought about what Pam would do, and began organizing. He brought together the leaders of the victims' families -- many from France and Italy -- and told them what he'd seen. He compiled a list of demands to present to President Clinton, who was on his way to the JFK Ramada.

From Pam's example, he knew how to use the media, and understood the leverage that tragedy had conferred upon him. Bereaved family members elicit far more sympathy than the average bureaucrat, and in front of the TV cameras, Lychner was eerily perfect: articulate, emotional, sure of himself. The broad-shouldered embodiment of grief.

Kim Reid, Pam's best friend, had flown up to New York to be with him. Kim kept telling Joe to slow down, to get off the phone, to take some time to absorb his loss. He didn't. He stayed busy.

On the night of July 22, five days after the crash, a detective tapped Joe on the shoulder and said he was needed on the sixth floor. Joe knew what that meant: He was needed to identify a body.

It was Pam's. She had been found on the first night, he was told, but it had taken a week for the overwhelmed Suffolk County coroner's office to identify her. He was asked to sign a release so her body could be moved to a funeral home. He refused. Pam wouldn't have gone anywhere without the girls.

He continued to wait, and each day received the same report: No children had been found. He and other family members began beseeching the press to reverse its coverage, to report not how many bodies had been recovered, but how many were still missing.

Again he was tapped on the shoulder and summoned to the sixth floor. This time, the body was eight-year-old Katie's, the youngest person on the plane. She, too, had been found the first night; the delay had come in identifying her.

It was particularly hard to believe that Katie was dead. She'd been the wild daughter, the stubborn one, so full of life that she seemed about to burst. When she was four, she hounded her parents to let her join the YMCA swim team. After the gun went off at her first meet, the other kids raced freestyle to the other end of the pool; Katie clung to the side. As the other swimmers neared the end of the pool, she swam a few feet, then clung to the rope marking her lane. It's okay, honey, said Joe. Come on back.

No, said Katie. And she swam a few more feet, and clung to the rope again. The other swimmers finished the race, and still she doggedly refused to come out. She started and stopped, started and stopped. When at last she finished, the crowd of parents clapped and cheered.

I don't know why, Katie told her parents, but I always get the most applause.

At the Ramada, more days passed. Joe began to worry that Shannon might never be found. Shannon, the quieter daughter, the one always eager to hug him, the one he'd thought would take care of him in his old age. A few weeks before the crash, making BLTs with the girls, he'd been showing her how to cut a tomato. The knife slipped, and she was cut deep enough to need stitches. She screamed as he rinsed the finger in tap water. He and Pam rushed her out to the van, and he drove like a maniac to the hospital.

Dad, Shannon said from the back seat, I know you didn't mean it.
She knew he couldn't always protect her.
Joe thought Pam wouldn't want Shannon left alone. If her body wasn't recovered, he decided he'd cremate Pam and Katie and sprinkle their ashes on the ocean.

Finally, he was tapped on the shoulder again. Shannon's body had been recovered on July 28 -- 11 days after the crash. Joe remembers the date: It was his and Pam's 12th wedding anniversary.

He buried all three at Pam's family plot near Chicago. Her relatives could visit them there. And he wasn't sure he could return to Houston. He wasn't sure how to go on with his life.

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