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.

But Joe wants more than money. Under the law, the families can't even take TWA and Boeing to court -- and thus, can't subpoena the companies, can't force them to reveal their internal workings. Joe believes that with a lawsuit, he might uncover a paper trail of criminal activity -- a Boeing document showing that the company's officers knew the central fuel tanks were hazardous, maybe, or a TWA memo recommending that the elderly plane be retired. He wants to be able to bring criminal charges against the companies' officers -- to lock them up, to see them serve time. That, he says, would be justice.

When he says the word, it's an unmistakable echo of Pam; her crusade has clearly shaped his. Joe believes that evil things are done by evil people, and that locking them away will make the world safe. It's not a perfect equation -- a rapist, obviously, bears a different kind of guilt than an executive who had an inkling that, under certain circumstances, an engineering flaw could possibly become dangerous. But if that executive exists, Joe will hound him no less relentlessly than he hounded William David Kelley. He feels he owes it to Pam and the girls.

Earlier this year, Joe testified before a House subcommittee about the Death on the High Seas Act. After his testimony, the proposed change in the law sailed through the House. As written, it would be retroactive, allowing the Flight 800 families their day in court. The Senate, Joe says, will be tougher. But he learned how to lobby from Pam, and he knows how to wield the peculiar power of victimhood. No senator wants to be seen opposing the Flight 800 families.

The first anniversary of the crash marked a turning point, Joe thinks. He's gotten over the first Christmas without a tree in the marble entryway, the first of the girls' birthdays without one of Pam's cakes.

During that year, his job kept him afloat; the long hours and travel served as a kind of anesthetic. But earlier this fall, he cut back to part-time. Once you've dealt with life and death, he asks, how can you go back to selling software?

Talking with friends, he's proposed various plans for the rest of his life. Law school, maybe. Politics. Something big, only he's not sure what. Something meaningful. Something as important as Pam's work with Justice For All.

He's spending much of his time now on "crash issues." Besides his Death on the High Seas lobbying, he's serving on a Department of Transportation task force to improve the handling of airline disasters. Joe argues that airlines should notify passengers' families of a crash within a matter of hours; that family members should be told of developments at the same time as the media, not afterward; and that airlines should require passengers to fill out cards with the name and phone number of an emergency contact. In the event of a crash, the airline could simply call the families. Later this month, the task force will complete its report, which will be forwarded to Congress.

Joe doesn't plan to leave Houston. His friends are here, and his memories. Right now, he can't imagine selling the house, or even changing it much. He's moved the girls' desks out of the dining room, where they used to do their homework while Pam cooked. But otherwise, everything remains eerily unchanged. Pam's earrings are still on the bathroom counter. A living room table is covered with family portraits.

In his briefcase, in the plastic slipcover that holds his credit cards, he keeps another photo of Pam and the girls. Sometimes it catches him unawares. Sometimes he still can't believe that they're dead.

Friends talk about "when he remarries." They say that he's the marrying kind, that he'll have to give up that house, that no other woman could bear to live there. But in the same breath, they say he's not ready yet, that people recover at different speeds, that he's coming along just fine.

About a mile from the house, outside Spring Valley's city hall, there's a bronze statue of Pam and the girls. Called "Love's Embrace," it's shamelessly emotional, a monument to a secular saint and her daughters. People stop to read the plaques embedded in the ground. They touch the bronze. They leave roses.

Every morning, Joe jogs to the statue. And at night, on his way home, he pulls into the parking lot to look at it again.

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