After the Crash
Joe Lychner heard the call-waiting beep and clicked over. It was his mother-in-law: Did Pam and the girls get on the plane?
Yeah, said Joe. Pam called from JFK.
Oh my God, she said. A TWA flight went down.
He turned on CNN, and saw Flight 800 burning in the Atlantic. The plane had crashed near Long Island.
Pam, Joe knew, had been on it. And Shannon. And Katie. His family.
Over the next weeks, he'd fight a thousand indignities: the 800 number on CNN that was constantly busy; the long New York wait for the bodies to be recovered and identified; news delivered not from the airline or the government's investigators, but from a television in a hotel bar.
In the JFK Marriott, where the families gathered to await the bodies, Lychner took action -- the kind of action he imagined Pam would have taken. He organized, he spoke out. He found a helicopter to fly family members to the site of the crash and, furious at what he saw, called a press conference to protest a puny recovery effort. He summoned a chaplain to comfort the families. When an official hinted that not every body would be recovered, Lychner and the other families held another press conference to demand that every last body be found.
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But for Joe Lychner, those fights were not the hardest part. The hardest part was leaving New York and returning home, facing an empty house and his new life alone.
Joe's life had been wrecked before. He'd met Pam in St. Louis, in the summer of 1980, right after college. He and a frat buddy had picked an apartment complex near the airport because that was where the TWA flight attendants lived. At a Friday happy hour, he spotted a blond one in jeans and a white shirt. Pam was grousing to a friend: The bad thing about St. Louis is that there are no men here.
She looked up and saw Joe approaching. Except that one, she said.
They seemed to belong together. She was gorgeous, impossibly thin and blond. He was handsome, in a square-jawed Midwestern way. He liked it that she was strong-willed and hardheaded; she reminded him of his mother, who'd raised him alone after his father died young.
At the end of that summer, almost on a whim, Joe, Pam and four friends moved to Houston. Joe had been offered a sales job there at Sperry Univac. The air controllers' strike meant that Pam and some of the other flight attendants were looking for work, and a boomtown seemed a likely place to find it.
Life was good; they stayed busy. Pam took a job at a real estate development office, and Joe prospered at Sperry. He asked Pam's best friend, Kim Reid, whether she thought Pam would marry him. Kim said he'd have to ask Pam, not her.
An unabashed romantic, fond of grand gestures, he proposed near the end of a hot-air balloon ride, while Kim was taking pictures from the ground. "How much time do I have to decide?" Pam asked. "Till the balloon lands," he said.
They were married in '84, and Shannon, their first daughter, was born the following year -- the day the Challenger exploded. While Pam was in labor, Joe and a nurse watched TV clips of the crash, scanning the sky for parachutes.
You S.O.B.! Pam yelled. Get back here!
Katie was born two years later, and the family picture -- good-looking parents, proud of their blond daughters -- seemed Norman Rockwell perfect. Pam served as general contractor on the house she wanted built for her family: a Spring Valley mini-manse, graceful and airy, with a pool in back. She and Joe fought about details of the house, until Joe learned to give up. The house was her domain; he only lived there. That attitude, he joked, saved their marriage.
In 1990, Pam bought another house to renovate and sell. Soon after she put it on the market, a man called and asked to see it. Little things about the conversation seemed odd to Pam. He told her that he and his wife planned to pay in cash, and that they'd just gotten into town and didn't have a phone number. After Pam asked his wife's name, he paused -- a bit too long, she thought. "Pamela," he said finally.
A bit unnerved, Pam asked Joe to go with her to the showing. While they waited for the couple, a pickup pulled into the driveway. The driver was a workman from a cleaning company Pam had used, and she went to see what he wanted. He told her he'd forgotten to clean under the sink.
Joe lunged, grappled with the man and pinned him into a corner. Pam ran outside, screaming for help.
The police later found that Pam's assailant, William David Kelley, was a convicted rapist and child molester. He'd been the voice on the phone, and he'd come prepared to meet Pam. He was carrying a knife and duct tape. In the back of his pickup, he'd spread a blanket.
To Pam and Joe, their family no longer seemed perfect, but vulnerable. Pam began spending more time inside the house, keeping the curtains drawn. Sometimes Joe would call home and get no answer. Worried that Kelley had gotten free on bail and had come seeking revenge, he'd tear out of his office and race home to check on Pam and the girls. Eventually he bought Pam a cellular phone, so he could always reach her.
He worried when she went out at night with her friends; she didn't want him to travel. He cut back at work, leaving a job as vice president of a control-systems company to go back into direct sales, so he'd have more time at home. They bought a massive security system, including a radar "dog" that barked whenever someone approached the door. When Joe heard the slightest sound at night, he patrolled the house, clutching a handgun. He taught Pam to shoot. When he came home at night, he was careful to call, "It's me."
Pam lectured her friend Kim on safety: "The unknown is what's going to get you."
Joe was furious to find out that Kelley, a fourth-time offender, had been out on early release. The other victims, Joe thought, hadn't seen the case through the system -- they'd refused to testify, or had allowed Kelley to negotiate a plea bargain. When Joe and Pam tried to contact them, they said they were afraid to come forward at the trial. Joe vowed to do better, to keep Kelley off the streets.
Before the attack, Joe and Pam hadn't known the difference between civil and criminal court, but they began to educate themselves about the legal system. The day after the attack, Pam couldn't bear to attend the arraignment, but Joe sat in the front row. Kelley wouldn't look at him.
Pam began to attend the hearings. Kelley appeared stoic in the courtroom, but jailers told Joe and Pam that he "went nuts" back in the holding cell. More than ever, they wanted him behind bars.
They agreed to accept Kelley's plea bargain: 20 years for aggravated kidnapping with intent to commit sex assault. The deal was a tradeoff: The prosecutor said he could go for life, but given the way sentences worked, a 20-year sentence might last longer. Kelley would have to serve at least a quarter of it.
A month after Kelley went to prison, the Lychners received a handwritten lawsuit. Kelley was suing them for the pain and suffering he'd undergone during the fight with Joe. Pam and Joe felt more nervous than ever. The suit, they realized, was ridiculous. But clearly Kelley remembered them and wanted revenge.
On a morning soon afterward, Pam called Joe at work to say that they'd received another letter, this one from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Kelley was being reviewed as a candidate for early release. Joe told Pam that he'd come home at lunch. He expected to find her crying, hiding in a dark corner.
Instead, Pam was charging around the kitchen, furious, waving the letter and cursing. "I'm sick and tired of cowering to this guy!" she said. "I'm gonna blast him with both barrels!"
She called the mayor's office for crime victims services and talked to its director, Andy Kahan. He told her how to write a protest letter to the Board of Pardons and Paroles -- and Kahan, a victims' rights crusader, recruited her to his cause. She began showing up at hearings, supporting crime victims, explaining the ins and outs of a system she'd learned the hard way.
At a trial, she met Dianne Clements, whose 13-year-old son had been shot and killed by a neighbor's son a year before. Like Pam, Dianne counseled and coached victims -- and like Pam, she believed the criminal justice system needed to be reformed. Pam told Dianne, I'm really mad, and I want to meet other people who are fed up. Dianne thought, Who are you, lady?
In 1993, they found their first cause in Gary Graham, whose scheduled execution had drawn high-profile protests from Hollywood. Of course he deserved to die, Pam thought. Who were these Californians, and what did they know about justice? She proposed holding an anti-Graham rally at Tranquillity Park.
Yeah, right, said Dianne.
A three-day rally, said Pam. Over three weekends.
Oh my God, thought Dianne. Who's going to come?
They sent out press releases, and Pam explained her mission on the evening news. TV served her well: Articulate, emotional and sure of herself, she was the blond embodiment of suburban fear of crime. Hers was the face people would come to associate with the issue. Hundreds of people attended the rally; it received widespread media coverage; and suddenly Dianne and Pam's dream had a mailing list.
They named their group Justice For All, and Joe drew up the rules by which it would be governed. At its first meeting, 50 people gathered at the River Cafe. Pam was elected president, Dianne vice president. They lobbied legislators to be tough on crime, to repeal mandatory release laws, to register sex offenders, to build more prisons. Pam and Dianne organized marches, and held up protest signs at intersections.
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."
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.
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.
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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