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.

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, waiting in the dining room, heard a conversation, then a struggle. He ran back, and saw Pam's feet sticking out of a closet. The workman was trying to pull her clothes off.

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Lisa Gray