by Susan Polizzotto
A jumbo jet carrying 230 people disappears from air traffic control shortly after take-off from New York’s JFK airport. It’s a clear evening in July, 1996, some twenty minutes after sunset. I’m in my apartment in Brookline, Massachusetts watching TV. The Cold War is over, Bill Clinton is president, and the Olympics are due to open in Atlanta in two days.
Before it disappears, the pilots do not radio the tower to report a malfunction or other in-flight emergency, nor do they call Mayday. The only non-routine communication from the captain is a remark about “crazy” readings from the fuel quantity indication system. Because the cause is unknown, speculation and conspiracy theories about TWA Flight 800 begin circulating.
Ten miles offshore of Long Island, the captain and crew of the Adak, a 110-foot Coast Guard cutter, see the plane explode in a ball of fire and fall from the sky. They speed to the crash site to search for survivors. After reclaiming several bodies from the fuel-slick ocean—as well as human limbs, dismembered torsos, and less-identifiable fragments of muscle, bones and tissue, some entangled in jagged chunks of airplane debris—the full magnitude of the tragedy hits them. In all likelihood, no one survived.
Overnight, the Coast Guard shore command, Group Moriches in eastern Long Island, transforms into the hub of a massive search and recovery effort. Within days the number of personnel rises from 65 to more than 1,500 federal, state and local emergency responders, including the FBI and NYPD’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. They join forces with Navy dive teams and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to recover the dead and every possible scrap of evidence in order to piece together what caused the catastrophe.
I rent a one-bedroom unit on the ground level of a brick brownstone and my landlords live above me. Seated on a blue sofa that belonged to my grandmother, my ears perk up when I hear about the crash on the nightly news. My ticket is already purchased and bags partially packed for a trip to Salt Lake City for my sister’s wedding later this month. My whole family will be flying there for the occasion. I’m not afraid of flying—more people die in car crashes than in plane crashes. But it gives me pause. What if something goes wrong on one of the planes we will be taking?
As a junior officer assigned to the Coast Guard First District headquarters in downtown Boston, I assume work will be busy tomorrow. I know people at Station Fire Island, one of the small boat stations comprising Group Moriches, and I can only imagine what they’re facing—a somber, gruesome, and taxing mission of responding to a large-scale aviation casualty.
Almost immediately, the situation proves to be too much for the Group Moriches’ Commanding Officer (CO) to handle. At a press briefing a few hours after the crash, without gauging the effect his words might have on the public or the families anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones, the CO tells reporters that the Coast Guard’s search and rescue efforts will cease at midnight. The next morning, the Admiral I work for relieves him of command and appoints the Deputy to fleet-up and be the CO. An interim Deputy is designated as backfill until a permanent one can be selected.
On August 5th in Vestal, NY, the week after she flies home from the wedding in Salt Lake City, my mom dies. One minute she’s on the phone with my brother, Mike, a Navy doctor stationed in Yokosuka, Japan who has called to wish her happy birthday. The next minute she’s collapsed on the floor, telling Mike she feels funny and can’t catch her breath. He hangs up and dials the volunteer ambulance squad where he used to work, and Mom is loaded onto a stretcher and rushed to the emergency room where her life slips away. Doctors are baffled and I’m stunned. It takes several days, but eventually Mike—home from Japan on emergency leave—receives a copy of the autopsy report.
Blood may clot in large vessels, such as a deep vein in a human leg, without obstructing blood flow around it. But if it breaks free and travels to a small artery in the lungs, it’s often deadly. Known as a pulmonary embolism, this condition can be difficult to diagnose. Symptoms include shortness of breath, an elevated heart rate, and sometimes chest pain, but we learn this too late to save Mom.
A faithful Mormon from birth, Mom’s idea of the afterlife makes me question whether she would want saving. If the hereafter is as she believes it to be, there’s no pain and suffering and she’s reunited with her father and grandparents. For all I know, she’s enjoying herself. It’s those of us left behind, including my grandmother, a staunch Mormon matriarch, who are hurting.
In September, the interim Deputy at Group Moriches receives orders to report to a new assignment in Connecticut—a month shy of the permanent Deputy’s arrival. With my supervisor’s blessing, I apply to fill the gap and am delighted to be chosen. No more twice-a-day commute on a crowded metro, I’ll have a short drive and live near the beach. I tell no one how relieved I am to escape the slow and tedious work that leaves ample opportunity for rumination. Now more than ever, I need the distraction of physical exertion that comes with a busy, operational assignment.
For a month, I oversee Coast Guard personnel and logistics and chair the daily meetings with the FBI, NTSB, Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV), and other partners who form the team investigating the loss of TWA 800. I learn more about leadership in the first week than I have in the better part of a year in Boston, where I’m not directly responsible for anyone else’s work or well-being. Taking cues from the CO about connecting with your people, I make frequent rounds of the administrative and medical offices, spend a morning at sea with the Captain and crew of the Adak, and visit all the small boat stations on the south shore of Long Island. A Chief Warrant Officer, an old salt with twenty-something years of service, dispenses gems of wisdom. “Coastie’s respond to clear communication,” he patiently instructs me one day after I’ve given a vague order. He’s right—they are not to blame if I am not specific.
I also meet the family members of people who perished and escort them to the hangar on Long Island where TWA 800 is being reconstructed. The jumbo jet takes shape on a 250-foot long scaffold like a giant 3-D puzzle. Large pieces retrieved by the Coast Guard and other surface responders have already been assembled and smaller pieces are being added as Navy divers discover them on the ocean floor.
Personal belongings held in a second-story evidence room which have been examined and found to contain no clues to the crash are released by the FBI: photos, wallets, a Bible, jewelry. Family members often recoup only a letter, a ring, a diary, or a bone fragment with DNA. Unbelievable to me, as one who’s still making the pilgrimage through grief, is how small, even microscopic things bring them a measure of closure.
Unlike me, some visitors have suffered multiple losses— not just a parent, but both parents, several brothers and sisters, a beloved spouse and two children. I say nothing of my own loss, but somehow feel less alone and find kinship and comfort with them. The chasms left by so many sudden departures split my heart open. Inside, I find a reserve of compassion and resilience I hadn’t expected to be there.
I recall a woman in a red coat who visits Group Moriches with her spouse or a friend, either before or after going to the hangar. She wants to be as close as possible to where her loved one passed. We speak calmly, as if exchanging news about a social event or the weather. I know inside she harbors a black hole that swallows all light. I’m strengthened by her presence and humbled by her quiet dignity.
Daily, the Navy divers comb portions of a miles-wide debris field and recover fragments as small as a quarter. One-by-one-inch pieces are mostly what’s left now. The divers, investigators, and forensic scientists treat each one as attentively and respectfully as if it belonged to a relative or friend. The meticulous chain of custody and other procedures bolster the hope that eventually the mystery will be solved, and these families will have answers. The divers will work until November, but my duties come to a close in early October when the new, permanent Deputy arrives.
In mid-October, the autumn leaves are at their peak and my dad comes to Boston for a long weekend. We wanted to hike in the White Mountains, but the unpredictable New England weather thwarts our plans. After I drop him off at Logan Airport in a chilly downpour, I decide to visit a friend in Winthrop, a co-worker who’s been very kind since my mom died. On Shore Drive, cars brake in front of me and I slow to a crawl. Ahead, the ocean crashes over the seawall. I watch, awestruck, as spray plumes above the line of cars, and saltwater spatters my windshield and deepens the puddles on the road. The scene in the Ten Commandments, where Charlton Heston lowers his staff, letting the Red Sea roil over the Egyptian chariots, plays in my head. When traffic finally unsnarls, I drive another block and parallel park near my friend’s house.
From her third-floor windows we watch sheets of rain douse the beach and heavy surf pound the seawall. “I’ve never seen the waves breach like that,” she says. She’s from Boston; I’ve only lived here a year. As we talk and listen to the storm, I don’t pause to consider my neighborhood in Brookline, do not picture the Charles River jumping its banks, or the pond rising in my living room.
In Brookline, I discover a foot of water in the alley where I usually park, so I drive to the front of the brownstone and enter through my landlord’s door. On the foyer table I find a note and a flashlight: We evacuated when the power went out. You’re welcome to join us on the Cape or stay in the upstairs guest room. Fresh towels are in the closet next to the bath. The handwriting is composed and graceful, with generous loops. How bad can it be? Nothing I can’t ride out, the Coastie and former Girl Scout in me thinks. Taking the darkened stairs down to the laundry area of the brownstone, expecting to find things much as I’d left them, I halt short of my door. The bottom two steps are submerged, forcing me to stop. By the flashlight’s glow, I lean over the dark water, insert my key in the lock, and gingerly crack the door open. I can go no further.
A glass can be filled slightly above the rim if you add liquid slowly. Surface tension holds it in, but only to a point. Adding too much or too quickly breaks the tension, causing the glass to overflow. That’s normal behavior when matter enters a space, fills it to capacity and beyond: a wave of hot coffee crests the edge of a cup; a crowd spills from a stadium into a parking lot; a pot with the lid on bubbles over on the stove; a human heart swells to the brink with gratitude or grief. Life deals out all kinds of overflow—some joyful, some sorrowful—and forces us to play our hand.
From my position on the stairs, I sweep the flashlight’s beam around the room—a lighthouse sending a signal. Water eddies around my chairs and dining table, laps at the TV stand and makes islands of the sofa and kitchen bar. Books on the bottom shelf of the bookcase lie motionless as shipwrecks. I catch a whiff of tidal creek and sulfur from the soggy drapes and upholstery. Except for the ticking of a battery-operated wall clock and rain pelting at the windows, the room is silent. Quarter past eight. Even though the power is out, I worry about being electrocuted if I flip on a light switch or wade in.
Without stepping in, I snatch the phone from its cradle on the kitchen bar near the door. I hear a dial tone, but the person whose voice I really want to hear can’t be reached. My tears flow, not for the waterlogged clothes, books and photo albums, not even for my grandmother’s blue couch and antique credenza. The tears flow because, in every crisis, large or small, whether personal, professional, financial, or spiritual, Mom was always there for me. Even when we didn’t see eye to eye, she listened to me vent and offered everything she had at her disposal to help and comfort me. I’m sobbing because never again will I be able to just pick up the phone speak with her.
Generally, I’m resilient, but there are moments when my eyes brim, a knot the size of a spiky sycamore pod lodges in my throat, and try as I might, I cannot hold back the tears. I wept rivers in Logan Airport the day Mom died, waiting for a flight that could not board soon enough, not caring who saw. But at her viewing and funeral, not a drop fell. One look at the face in the casket told me what I wanted to know—she wasn’t there. At the cemetery, I sensed something soaring above the green hills, viewing the world at its own pace and perspective, before escaping Earth’s gravitational pull and merging with the universe.
What I want to know now is why people cry—the biological or evolutionary reasons for those briny drops that gather and flow. Tears happen every day to every waking person in at least one of three forms: basal, reflex, or emotional. They’re triggered by instinct, involuntary reflexes, and human emotions. Basal tears contain antibacterial proteins that moisten our eyes when we blink. Reflex tears occur when the eyes are exposed to irritants, such as smoke or chemical fumes. Emotional tears result from exactly what you might expect—intense emotions which may include sadness, pain, and depression but also happiness, relief and joy.
I always cry when I chop onions. My nose runs too. A year after I left Boston for a new assignment on a West Coast cutter, I had to get pepper-sprayed to become a boarding officer. It was part of the qualification process. My eyes stung and afterward watered buckets until I pried them open in front of an air vent and let the capsicum crystals dry, which I then brushed away. Pepper spray residue remained on my hair and scalp; it re-flashed when I took a shower. Something about the combination of fire and water felt both destructive and cathartic, like the old me had been burned and extinguished and some new creature stood—raw and dripping—on the bathmat outside the cramped, steel stall.
In 2000, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunges into the Pacific offshore of California. My shipmates and I arrive at the crash site knowing everyone on board is probably dead. We’re mentally ready, but it’s still a gut-punch when we find human remains, a lady’s purse, a briefcase, a single baby shoe floating, almost peacefully, on the crest of a wave. The effects of my experiences with plane crashes kill the joy of flying long before 9/11. It’s no longer fun and carefree when you know how an airplane wing or fuselage looks in cross section. How whole seats turn up more often than whole bodies. How the bright-colored jewels in a forensic expert’s hand that resemble beach glass are mini-bottles, melted by the heat of an explosion and burning fuel. How the force of air on a body descending from high altitude blasts away clothing.
Nevertheless, every time there’s an opportunity to return to civilian life at the end of a tour, to walk away from the Coast Guard, I stay. It is a far cry from Mom’s life and the traditional roles of wife and mother she imagined for me, but I love the work. It is the best commitment I’ve ever made.
Mom believed her destiny depended on how she treated people around her. In that respect, we’re not so different. On a daily basis, in one manner or another, I set out on a mission to protect and save lives, knowing not everyone will be saved, that sometimes all I can do is bring closure to those left behind.
To the faces of those who are suffering, I offer a listening ear, a cup of coffee or a glass of water, and my assurance that we’re doing everything we can. In time, the ocean may restore, in whole or in part, what is feared lost. Or it may jealously clutch what it’s claimed. I belong to a force who wrests from it small tokens to assuage grief.