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.

Kim Reid and her husband were waiting when Joe pulled into the driveway. She hadn't wanted him to face the house -- Pam's house, the girls' house -- by himself.

Joe waved her off and stepped inside: the first night of his life alone.
Pam's friends at Justice For All were old hands at tragedy; many had lost husbands, wives, sons, daughters. They warned him not to make any big changes for a year, that it would take him that long to think clearly about the rest of his life.

He hated being in the quiet house, alone except for Abbey -- Shannon and Katie's dog, a little Maltese. He traveled for business, or he worked late, then ate dinner out with friends. He tried to get home so late that he'd fall asleep, exhausted.

Kim Reid told him it wasn't fair to the dog to be left so alone. He gave Abbey to one of Shannon's best friends.

He had trouble sleeping. Katie's bedroom was above his and Pam's. He'd wake up hoping to hear Katie turning in bed or running across her room.

He dreamed about the crash: what Pam and the girls must have felt. The flames. The fear. The pain.

He'd heard about survivors of tragedies who commit suicide. He could relate.
Later he'd say that he considered suicide for only the briefest moment. He'd turn it into a joke: He'd say that if you knew Pam, you knew she had a way of getting in your face. And if there's an afterlife, she would never let him live down a suicide. She'd be in his face for all eternity.

About once a week, Joe Lychner gets a call from someone who says he knows what really happened to Flight 800. The callers vary, as do the fever-dream scenarios: The plane was shot down with American particle-beam technology, or by the U.S. Navy, or struck by a meteor, or attacked by a Stinger-toting terrorist flying an ultra-light. Always the kook on the other end of the line urges Joe to go public with this information, to blow the lid off this thing, to get the truth out there.

Joe wants the truth to be out there. At the Marriott, after recovering Pam's and Katie's bodies, he realized that the cause of the crash did matter, after all. He told CNN that the crash should be taken in three stages: recovering the bodies, apprehending the suspects and making sure that it never happens again.

Of the three main possibilities -- a bomb, a missile or a mechanical failure -- he's come to believe, firmly, in mechanical failure. Three times he's traveled to Long Island to see the NTSB's reconstruction of the plane. Both the FBI and the NTSB briefed the families of Flight 800 on the investigation. The cause of the crash, the investigators say, was mechanical. No terrorists. No plot.

But to Lychner, that doesn't mean no one is to blame. As he explains the most likely scenario, his voice takes on an edge of anger: The 26-year-old plane had no insulation between its center fuel tank and the air-conditioning unit. Newer 747s have that insulation -- and that change, says Lychner, shows that Boeing knew there was a flaw in the design.

Flight 800 sat on the ground, on a hot July day, for two and a half hours. The NTSB believes that fuel began to vaporize inside the nearly empty central fuel tank, and that when the jet took off, falling air pressure caused still more fuel to vaporize. Such vapor is extremely volatile, and investigators believe a spark could have come from any of eight possible sources.

In December, the NTSB issued an urgent recommendation to the FAA, warning that 747s shouldn't be allowed to fly with empty central fuel tanks. The solution, of course, is simple: Fill the tanks. But the FAA has so far refused to recommend that course of action. Lychner, like some NTSB scientists, believes that the FAA's recalcitrance is due to its close ties to the airline industry. A recommendation would leave TWA vulnerable to lawsuits, and would perhaps force airlines to retrofit all the uninsulated planes still in service.

Before the end of this year, the NTSB will hold open hearings on the crash. It's possible that those hearings will include a couple of days at the hangar in Calverton, NY, allowing the public to inspect the reconstructed plane. In a way, Lychner dreads that possibility -- the element of spectacle, an obvious magnet for wild-eyed conspiracy theorists, the unending discussion of Flight 800. But in another way, he welcomes it. He wants the confusion cleared up. He wants the NTSB's recommendation to be heeded, lest other lives be lost. He wants to move on to the next phase.

And that, as he sees it, is justice. He and other members of the "Flight 800 families" want to sue TWA and Boeing, but the corporations have declared that they are shielded by the Death on the High Seas Act. Under that 1920s law, designed to protect the widows and orphans of sailors, companies are responsible for pecuniary damages when someone is killed at sea. "Pecuniary damages" is limited to lost wages, and doesn't include things such as pain and suffering. Under that formulation, the lives of Joe's family -- like those of about half the Flight 800 victims -- are, literally, worthless.

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