|Host To Horror:
Queens' Role In
Disaster & Mourning
By STEPHEN McGUIRE
Evoking haunting memories of TWA flight 800 and last
years Swiss Air flight 111, Queens once again became the center of grief following a
tragic plane crash the ill-fated flight of the EgyptAir jetliner that departed JFK
for Cairo early Monday morning and like in disasters past, some of the
boroughs best banded together to make the bereavement process more bearable as
experts searched for answers.
Aviation officials discussed details
of the crash outside of the Ramada Plaza Hotel near JFK Airport.
HEADED FOR DISASTER
EgyptAir Flight 990 carrying 33 passengers from Los
Angeles, touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Jamaica shortly before 1
a.m. on Nov. 1, where 167 passengers and 18 crew members boarded the doomed Boeing 767
headed for Cairo, Egypt.
Flight 990 took off from Queens at 1:19 a.m., in weather
that was reported as good, and climbed to an altitude of 33,000 feet.
Ascending into the early morning sky, the airliner carrying
a total of 217 people headed east over Queens and Long Island before beginning a rapid and
unexplained descent into the waters 65 miles off the coast of Nantucket, Mass.
Red Cross Volunteers from Queens
were on hand to provide counseling following the EgyptAir crash.
THE PHONE RINGS
Shortly before 5 a.m. on Sunday, the "red phone"
rang at the Ramada Plaza Hotel at Kennedy Airport.
On the other end were officials from the Port Authority who
notified Ali Chiani that an EgyptAir flight, that had left JFK only a few hours earlier,
had plunged into the Atlantic and that all 217 aboard were presumed dead.
For Chiani, the rush was on.
As general manager of the Ramada Plaza, Chiani quickly
assembled his staff, cleared away space and prepared for the deluge of people about to
Even though the hotel has been transformed into
"command central" in previous air disasters the Ramada served as the
gathering place of officials and families of the victims during the TWA flight 800 and
SwissAir 111 air disasters Chiani didnt really know what to expect.
"We set aside space for the press, clergy, the Red
Cross, Federal Aviation Administration, Police and Port Authority," said Chiani.
By late afternoon, the aforementioned and 16 families had
filed into the Queens hotel in an agonizing wait for word on the victims fate,
according to Chiani.
Once inside the Ramada, grieving friends and relatives of
those on board the EgyptAir jumbo-jet stared vacantly as tears streamed down their faces.
Some screamed and cried.
Many struggled to speak about loved ones they had talked
and joked with just days and in some cases hours ago.
One young woman was re-portedly adminis-tered oxygen, too
distraught to breathe after learning the dreadful news.
Family members of the victims board
a bus en route to
Rhode Island outside the Ramada on Monday.
PREPARING FOR THE AFTERMATH
Because the Ramada Plaza is the largest hotel in the
vicinity of JFK and can accommodate the most people and parking, it has become the
"Official/Unofficial" place to set up a counseling and command post in some of
the worst air disasters in recent memory.
Following the crash involving a TWA jet in July of 1996,
relatives sought refuge at the JFK Ramada as they anxiously awaited word on the victims of
the flight that left Queens, bound for Paris, France.
Inside, shocked and heartbroken family members were offered
protection from curiosity seekers and a probing press corps as well as given the option to
seek a host of counseling services.
Since the TWA disaster, a book of procedural guidelines was
written and a special phone line was established in an effort to prepare the Ramada staff
in the event of a similar tragedy.
The implementation of these tools were essential in
mobilizing the hotel staff in 1998 following the crash of SwissAir flight 111 and with the
most recent EgyptAir incident, according to the hotels general manager.
Chiani further explained that the early notification system
is critical and has helped hotel staff pay close attention to the "little
things" like preparation of food.
Many on board flight 990 were of the Muslim faith,
explained Chiani, and the food they and their families ate has to be "hallah" or
blessed, he said.
"For them this is not a happy occasion," said
Chiani, "so we try to pay attention to every detail." details such as
designating only certain floors in the hotel for grieving family members, providing
security and establishing direct phone lines to Cairo, he explained.
LENDING AN EAR IN A TIME OF GRIEF
By 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, a "family assistance
center" had been established at the JFK Ramada and counseling of shocked relatives
was underway, according to Ximena Rua-Merkin, director of the Queens chapter of the
American Red Cross.
By the end of the day Merkin, and a team of trained
volunteers, had spoken to almost 58 family members of those on board Flight 990.
"We were basically there to make our presence known,
take care of any concrete things they need and let them know its okay to cry,"
said Paulette Floyd of Forest Hills, one of the Queens Red Cross volunteers who took part
in the counseling effort.
Also a social worker at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in
Queens Village, Floyd, who counseled family members following the TWA and SwissAir
tragedies, said that being a shoulder to cry on in the wake of disaster is no easy task,
despite her previous experience.
"You always feel that you could do more," she
"Dismay and shock," were the common reactions of
relatives of the victims as they walked around the Ramada on Sunday according to Tony
Maffia, vice president of Psychiatry and Mental Health at
Jamaica Hospital, assembled an Emergency Crisis Management Team consisting of counselors
and medical personnel and were on the scene at 9 a.m. on Sunday to set up support services
for grieving family.
"People are confused and disoriented, they need
someone there to be sympathetic to their pain and suffering and to offer the support they
need to continue to function," said Maffia of the important role that the Jamaica
Hospital staff played in the hours following the crash of Flight 990.
UNDERSTANDING THE LOSS
For many of the relatives of those on board the
ill-fated EgyptAir jetliner, "shock" is pro-bably the most common reaction,
explained Dot Schmitt, assistant director of the Counseling Center at St. Johns
Following such an event, many relatives will "feel a
numbing, in terms of loss,"according to Schmitt.
Among the reactions of family members can be "denial,
anger, bargaining, depression and years later acceptance, " according to Schmitt who
explained that the feelings of anger and depression can linger for years.
Schmitt concluded that relatives seeking counseling during
the time following disasters of the magnitude of Flight 990 can find the process
"enormously helpful" in the overall healing process.
THREE CRASHES IN THREE YEARS
In the past three years, three passenger airline flights
with trans-Atlantic destinations have fallen from the sky after leaving JFK International
In July of 1996, Trans World Airlines Flight 800, carrying
230 people bound for Paris, SwissAir Flight 111 carrying 229 and EgyptAir flight 990 with
217 aboard, all left from JFK and met their end over water shortly after take-off.
Could there be a connection?
Not, likely said one local aviation expert.
According to Vincent Driscoll, professor and chairperson of
the Aeronautics Dept. at the College of Aeronautics at LaGuardia Airport in Flushing the
fact that all three planes that crashed left from the same airport may be purely
"These were three very different airplanes," said
Driscoll discounted the theory of some critics that the
route that all three planes took could be "cursed."
"The Boeing 767, is one of the safest planes flying
today," Driscoll contended saying that the route taken by EgyptAir flight 990 is
standard for many flights leaving JFK.
PREPARED FOR TRAGEDY?
Even though the three most recent air crashes involving
Queens airports have happened after the planes have left local airspace, local airport
crews are prepared for the worst in the event that a disaster takes place here on the
ground, according to Al Glaser, General Manager of LaGuardia Airport for The Port
Last month members of various local agencies including the
New York City Fire Dept. and E.M.S., Police Dept., the U.S. Coast Guard, the FAA, and
several airlines came together to participate in a "mock disaster simulation at
The purpose of the exercise was to create multiple
scenarios in which members of different agencies work together in a rescue situation,
according to Glaser.
After exercises like the one at LaGuardia, all of the
players evaluate the test and determine a plan to deal with an airport crisis.