These excerpts all focus on one character, Lyn Romano, the wife of one of the victims. In the book, of course these separate excerpts are spread out chronologically and interspersed with the stories of other characters, which obviously provides more context than you’ll get here.
August 19, 1998
Goldens Bridge, New York
7:30 p.m. EDT
“It’s only for two days.”
“If it’s only for two days, why not do it by phone?”
“Because they want the personal touch, that’s why. But don’t you worry, Little Girl, I’ll be back on Friday.”
They’d had this conversation before. Perhaps a hundred times. Lyn had a “horrific fear” of flying. She had what she liked to call a “gift, an insightful gift;” she just knew something terrible was going to happen sooner or later. Her husband Ray didn’t put much stock in insightful gifts; besides, he loved everything about airplanes. The speed, the power, the sheer beauty of an incredible piece of machinery.
That’s just the kind of couple they were. “He’s pure logic,” she would tell her friends, “I’m pure emotion.” As if he she really had to tell anyone that. It was obvious. Whenever they’d have to attend some company black-tie function — Ray enjoyed them, Lyn hated them — he’d inevitably give her “the speech.”
Little girl, be good, he’d say.
Sure I will, she’d answer. “Until someone pisses me off.”
And, of course, someone would. And Lyn would let them know just how they’d pissed her off. As only Lyn could.
One night at a party at their place, a woman whose husband was one of Ray’s most important clients, “imposed herself” on Lyn. “She touched me on the shoulder, started offering me her opinion, which was not in line with my opinion, and I hadn’t asked her to butt in. So I said to her loud enough so everyone could hear: ‘Did I ask for your opinion?’” She laughs. “Ray was across the room making coffee. I could see him looking at me with these pleading eyes. He stayed beside me the rest of the night.” Afterwards, Ray asked her why she felt compelled to do such things. “Because it’s crap,” she’d say. As if there could be any other answer.
She let Ray know too when he pissed her off. About everything and anything. When Ray decided they should join the oh-so-snooty Mount Kisco Country Club, he got Lyn to type up the application letter. Over and over. It had to be perfect, he told her. He wanted to make sure they were accepted.
“Why,” she replied? “Because I’m never going to go there with you. You won’t catch me sitting on that porch at that club house with all those ladies. You go if you want. Fill your quota with clients. But don’t expect me to go with you. That’s not my scene.”
It was Ray’s scene. It has sometimes hard to believe they’d grown up just a few miles from one another in tiny Valhalla, a community of 6,000 just 40 minutes north of New York City. Their families were both Italian Catholic. Italian-Irish and Italian-English. Ray’s father owned the local cab company. Lyn’s dad ran a restaurant. She and Ray graduated from the same high school. But they didn’t date. Not then. They just knew one another in the way kids from small towns who go to the same schools know each other.
That all changed on the night of Wednesday, January 31, 1973. Lyn can tell you it was a Wednesday because Wednesdays have always been significant days in her life. She was born on a Wednesday too, back in July of 1954. She was 19. He was 19. Lyn and a few girlfriends had gone to G.G.’s North, a popular hangout in nearby Armonk, to drink and dance, and see and be seen. Lyn saw Ray Romano lazily leaning against a post by the bar. He was wearing sneakers, sloppy jeans and a brown corduroy waist-length jacket over a T-shirt. His hair, she remembers, was “long and funny. But he didn’t have a moustache then; I made him grow that later.”
Lyn admits she can’t explain why — it was just another of her “insights” — but she knew then and there, on that Wednesday night in the middle of the bar at G.G.’s, that there could never be anyone else but Ray for her and her for Ray.
Ray took a little longer to convince. Just like he took a little longer to figure out what he wanted to do with his professional life. During the seventies, he played academic hopscotch — getting an associates’ degree in engineering and a bachelor of arts degree before finally finding his true path in the MBA and CPA programs at Pace University in nearby White Plains. During his final year at Pace, KPMG, the big international accounting firm, recruited him for its Stanford, Connecticut, office.
He was already 26 years old.
“What took you so long,” asked the recruiter?
“It just takes me a while to make up my mind,” Ray told him.
It took Ray nearly seven-and-a-half years after that night in the bar to finally propose to Lyn. He popped the question on the day of the 1980 presidential election.
“I want to go shopping,” he’d said.
“For what,” she said.
“For a ring.”
“What sort of ring?”
“An engagement ring,” he said.
“Thank God Reagan won,” Lyn says now. “Otherwise my engagement night would have been ruined.” Ray was as obsessively Republican as Lyn was vocally a pox-on-all-their-houses. “Every time an election would come around, Ray would ask, ‘Who did you vote for? I just pray to God you didn’t vote for a Democrat.’”
She’d sometimes tease him, egg him on. But not that night. That night they went out to Madera’s in Thornwood for dinner. They ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon to celebrate their love for one another. And then they went home to his parents’ house to tell them the good news — and watch the rest of the election returns.
“Of course,” Lyn says, “it took him a year after that to set the date for the wedding. My girlfriends told me to dump him. They said he’s never going to marry you. But I knew. I just knew.”
She was right about that. She was right too about how rock-solid their union of opposites would turn out to be. Even though they grew up in the seventies, their relationship had a kind of fifties quality to it.
On fall Sundays, Ray would wash the cars, “whether they needed it or not,” and then he and the boys — Raymond, Jr., and Randy — might play some football in the yard. It was just like the Kennedys, Lyn would say. Like the Kennedys too, Ray was always competitive, never the kind of father to let his kids win out of some misplaced kindness. The boys loved it, loved it even better when they did win. Afterwards, they’d all go into the living room, where Lyn had laid out a sumptuous spread of home-made food on the coffee table for them to enjoy. They’d light a fire and, together, watch the football game on TV.
They lived in a sprawling ranch house on a hill in Goldens Bridge, a rural-suburban community of a few hundred less than an hour’s drive but a world away from New York City. And they were still only a few miles from the families and friends they’d grown up with in Valhalla. The house they lived in had once belonged to Ray’s parents. Ray found it for them back in 1968 while it was still being built. He’d been driving along back roads on his way to a drag race when his clunker du jour broke down in front of the construction site.
Ray, who was always a big “toy person,” loved to race cars and motorcycles when he was younger. He sold his last motorcycle when Randy came along in 1987. Now that he was a family man, he told Lyn, he figured he’d never get the chance to indulge his fantasies again.
But that was before he bought the GTO. It was a 1968 hunter green model, one of only 6,900 of the muscle sports cars Pontiac made that year. It was Ray’s dream car. When Ray found it advertised for sale — the owner, the original owner, was a “little old lady who only drove it on Sundays” — Lyn pushed him to buy it. “Better he gets a car than a girlfriend,” she joked to her friends. He was doing well in his job, she pointed out to him, so they could afford it. “For a lousy $8,000, Ray,” she said, “you can have your dream car. Go for it.”
So he did.
The day he brought it home, Ray sat in it in the driveway and just revved the engine. Neighbours came to admire the car and to revel in Ray’s boyish delight at his new toy.
“He was always working on it,” Matt Nevey says. In fact, one of Matt’s first memories of the man who would quickly become one of his best friends was seeing the GTO in pieces in the driveway and Ray hovering lovingly over it. It was 1990 and Matt had just moved into the house above Ray and Lyn on the hill. He was still a bachelor then, and the Romanos took him under their wing. There was always a beer in the fridge for him, an open invitation to stop by for a drink or a meal or just to have a chat. Matt was a lapsed accountant. He’d gotten a degree but never practiced. “I was really stressed when I found out Ray was a partner in a big accounting firm,” Matt says. “Whenever I’d say I hated it, Ray would say I must have just been in the wrong area. He loved accounting, he loved the organization of it.”
Later, after Matt married Moira, and Tony and Darlene Goncalves moved into a third house on the hill at the top of their shared lane in 1992, their little enclave was complete. The three couples became each other’s best friends as well as neighbours.
When they got a notice from the postal service that they’d have to put in their own mailboxes at the end of the lane, for example, the project became a joint venture. Matt supplied the cement, Ray got the wood and then Ray and Tony did the actual construction work. “We were sweating our butts off,” Tony remembers. “And Ray says, ‘You gotta admire people who do this for a living.’”
Ray didn’t do that for a living, of course, but he was one of those men who are “good with their hands.” Six years ago, the summer Lyn’s sister, Mary Jo, got married, Ray built a huge deck beside their backyard pool. He was still in the middle of constructing it — doing all the work himself — when Lyn and Mary Jo began to worry it wouldn’t be big enough to handle all the people they wanted to invite to her wedding reception. “No problem,” said Ray, we’ll just make it even bigger. And he did. That simple gesture didn’t only ease Mary Jo’s worries about the wedding reception, it also helped make her a little less nervous about getting married in the first place. Since Lyn and Mary Jo’s parents had divorced when they were kids, Mary Jo looked to her sister’s relationship for reassurance that marriage still made sense. “Lyn and Ray’s marriage restored my faith in the institution,” she says simply.
Although reality is always more complicated than the view from the outside, the Romanos’ marriage — like their family life — did seem like something from a different, less complicated era. Though Lyn had graduated with a degree in psychology and spent 10 years working as an administrator for a judge in their local ninth district, she happily gave up that job to raise their boys and be there for Ray when he got home from the office. “My life revolved around him and the house,” she says without the least trace of angst or post-feminist regret. “My only other passion was the kids.”
During the summers, she’d spend her days around the pool with her kids and the neighbours and the neighbours’ kids. Partly because of the pool, the Romanos’ backyard was a favourite gathering place. Lyn liked that too, liked being at the centre of things. But each day at four o’clock, she’d get out of the pool, shower, change and be there to greet her Ray at the door. It was the way they both liked it.
Like Lyn, Ray relished their role as neighbourhood hosts. People would often stop by for a beer. Ray, who had done stints as a bartender while working his way through college, made them feel at home by the pool.
The pool was the setting for more than just neighbourly gatherings — as Matt and Moira and Tony and Darlene found out the night they got together for a night of parlor games. Ray loved to play games. On this night, it was the Newlywed Game, in which players ask each member of a couple the same questions and compare their responses. When they asked Ray and Lyn how often they made love, it was Ray’s answer they all remembered later: If it was up to Lyn, he told them, it would be seven nights a week. When they asked Ray and Lyn their favourite spot to make love, their answer — the same from both — surprised their friends: the pool, they said, without hesitation. “After that,” remembers Darlene, “it was hard to walk past the pool without thinking, ‘Ah, the pool.’…
“Lyn and Ray were always the family support structure for our little community, our three families, and their house was the gathering spot. The door was always open. Ray, he was like the head of the families. How do you say warm but reserved? It was like being around a tranquilizer. Every year, we’d put on this Valentine’s party for the neighbourhood and I’d be really stressed about organizing it, about whether something was going to go wrong. Ray would come over before and he’d be teasing me, calming me down. And then he’d take over, he’d act like the bartender and cut up the lemons, and by the time everybody came, it was all fine.”
Like Lyn and Ray’s life together, Ray could be more complicated than he appeared too. He was part the high school class clown all grown up, part the protective big brother, part the obsessively ambitious, upwardly mobile professional. If Lyn’s life revolved around Ray and the kids, Ray’s life revolved around Lyn and the kids and the house and the neighbours — and, of course his career. It may have taken him a while to find himself professionally, but Ray very quickly made up for lost time.
In 1993, he became a partner at KPMG. His clients included such corporate giants as Xerox, GE, Pittston Oil and Union Carbide. He was proud of his accomplishments, and he was keen too to take on the trappings that came with his business success. Including expensive suits.
Lyn bought her own clothes off the rack at Kaldoor’s.
“How can you shop there,” he’d ask her?
“That’s my Sak’s,” she’d fire back She liked to needle him. Once, when he came home with two brand new suits — one of which had cost him $1,100 and the other $300 — she told him the $300 suit looked much better on him. “He was crushed,” she says.
But she had a way of zeroing in on what was really important to him. When he began to worry that other partners were making more than he was, Lyn demanded: “Are you happy with how much you make?”
“So why do you give a shit what they make?”
“Because,” he would say, “I work hard. I think I deserve to make as much as they do.”
Ray would never admit it to her, of course, but he knew Lyn was right. Once, after he told his mother how much he earned and she told him how proud she was of him, Ray’s seemingly disconnected reply was simple: “Lyn keeps me grounded,” he told his mother.
He could tell his mother, Lyn would complain later, but he couldn’t tell me.
Ray was hardly a conventional romantic but that made the odd moments when he would make some tender, out-of-character gesture all the more meaningful. One day, for example, when Ray was in New Orleans on business, a florist’s delivery truck arrived at their door in Goldens Bridge.
“Are you Lyn Romano,” he asked?
“Then these are for you.”
At first, Lyn couldn’t figure out who they could be from. In all of their 14 years of marriage, Ray had never once sent her flowers for no reason. But the card confirmed they were from Ray. The card elliptically praised the benefits of one-stop shopping. Everything I need, the card said, is right there.
When Ray arrived home from his trip that night, Lyn, as usual, was waiting at the door.
“So,” she began without preamble, “Who is she?”
Ray looked puzzled. Then he laughed. “I did good, didn’t I,” he said. He had, she conceded.
“Just don’t expect me to do it again,” he said.
And he didn’t. But he could be full of surprises. Just this summer, he’d called her from a partners’ meeting he was attending in Florida. It had been a lousy summer for Lyn. Her father had suffered a heart attack and she was emotionally and physically exhausted from helping to care for him. When Ray called her from Florida, it was to announce that he’d booked a villa for her and the kids. They were booked on a flight to Florida a few days later.
“I can’t,” she protested, “I don’t have the time.”
“It’s already booked,” he said.
“But I hate flying.”
“It’ll be fine,” he said.
And it was. “And the place was unbelievable,” Lyn remembers, “the most beautiful place I ever stayed.”
Not all of Ray’s surprises were as welcome. Even though he loved their home and their life in Goldens Bridge almost as much as Lyn, Ray was still eager to move to a bigger house that better reflected his status in the firm. All the other partners have bigger houses, he would say. They would occasionally spend their Sunday afternoons driving around looking at other larger and more luxurious homes in the area, but Lyn would always find some reason why whatever house he found just wouldn’t do. The truth was it was because none of those bigger, more luxurious homes were located next door to Matt and Moira and Tony and Darlene.
But then one weekend afternoon last January, Ray got a telephone call at home from one of the firm’s senior partners. Lyn and his mother were sitting in the kitchen when Ray came in after taking the call in his home office “His face was gray,” Lyn remembers.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he said, “but I’ve been offered a real great opportunity. They want to transfer me to Pennsylvania. It’ll be a major step —”
Lyn began to cry.
Ray knew better than to push then. “I suppose we should talk about this some other time,” he said.
Ray’s mother was less reticent. “How can you be crying,” she demanded? “It’s his career.” It’s the same with flying, she added. “You may not like it but he’s got to do that too. He has to. For his job.”
Lyn understood that. But it didn’t make it any easier.
Ray tried to find a way to make it all sound like an adventure. He knew how much Lyn liked to garden. “I’ll get you a great house,” he said, “and it’ll have a greenhouse out back—“
Lyn had heard enough. “The two of you don’t get it, do you? You don’t have a damn clue. I waited three years to get a porch built on this house. I don’t care about any of that stuff. I like living here. I like living with our friends.”
Later, after Ray had left for the office, Lyn softened. She sent him an email. She addressed it to “Maym.” She couldn’t remember why she’d started calling him that in their emails. But she did. The reason didn’t matter. It was a pet name, like Little Girl, which is what he always called her.
“You know that I don’t want to move,” she says she wrote in her email, “but I will follow you to the ends of the earth if that’s what you need me to do. I love you.”
In the end, the transfer fell through. Lyn was relieved, but she knew the relief was probably only temporary. Ray was moving up in the company, as she knew he deserved to. There would be another transfer offer, another promotion. She would just have to learn to live with it.
As she had learned to live with Ray flying.
This trip — to Switzerland on behalf of a Union Carbide spinoff — had already been postponed twice this summer. Now the date had finally been set again. It would take place two weeks from now — on Wednesday, September 2, 1998.
Still, as they sat on the deck on this warm August night drinking a beer with Steve, their helicopter pilot neighbour from down the road, Lyn couldn’t resist one more why-do-you-have-to-fly conversation.
Steve, like all of their friends, knew all about Lyn’s flying phobia, knew that before she’d relent this time — as every time — she’d make Ray promise to call the minute his plane landed, make him leave her a detailed itinerary with phone numbers for every stop “including the nearest pay phone outside the hotel.” It wasn’t quite that bad, of course, but Steve knew enough to sit back and drink his beer while Lyn and Ray played out their routine.
Finally, Ray turned to Steve for help. Ray — as he often did — had quoted statistics to Lyn, told her how much more likely it was to die in a car accident than in a plane.
“Isn’t that right,” he asked Steve?
“That’s right,” said Steve.
“See,” he said to Lyn, “Everything will be OK.” He took a sip of his drink.“Hey,” he said suddenly. “I just had an idea. Why don’t you come with me, Little Girl?”
Lyn laughed. She wasn’t having any of this. “Yeh, right,” she said.
September 3, 1998
2:20 a.m. EDT
Lyn Romano stared at the number on the screen. 1-800—. She knew she should call. Upstairs. In her purse. The itinerary. She should go get it first. Then she’d know for sure. She didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to call either.
Ray would be telephoning her in a few hours. From his room in Geneva. He’d be pissed when he found out. He’d say she was overreacting. Again. There it was again. On the TV. Swissair.… Crash.… Flight from New York to Geneva.… She’d flipped on the late news a few hours earlier, just before she went to bed, more out of habit than anything. And there it was. Oh my God, she thought absently, another plane crash. She hated flying.… Swissair.… Wait a minute! Ray was flying Swissair. Ray…
She went upstairs to their bedroom, found the itinerary Ray had left for her, brought it back downstairs and put it beside her. She didn’t read it. She couldn’t.
Terminal 3, the man on the TV said. Was that where Ray’s plane had taken off from? She couldn’t remember. But she couldn’t reach down and open up the paper with the itinerary on it either.
Instead, she reached for the telephone.
Her whole body was shaking. She knew she was in shock. The voice at the other end of the line couldn’t give her any information. There was no information yet. Perhaps in a few hours. Do you have family around, the woman asked? She called her sister, Mary Jo. “Mary Jo,” she said, “can you turn on the TV? I have a feeling Ray’s plane’s gone down but I think I may be overreacting. Ray’s right, you know. I always overreact. Can you come over?”
Mary Jo was there in 20 minutes.
“Read this, will you?” Lyn said, handing her the itinerary.
Mary Jo looked at it for a moment, then at the TV.
She began to cry.
Lyn was crying too. Everyone in her husband’s family died too young, but always from heart attacks. Ray’s father had died from a heart attack just before she and Ray got married. That’s why she shoved baby Aspirin down his throat every day. So he wouldn’t have a heart attack and die on her. And now—
Should they go to Kennedy, Lyn asked? Maybe they should go there. Incredible as it may seem, Lyn had no idea how to get there. She may have lived on the edge of New York all her life but it might as well still have been a foreign country.
There was no point in going to Kennedy, her sister said. No one there would know what they needed to know. So Mary Jo kept calling. the 1-800 number, but no one there seemed to have any information either.
4:30 a.m. EDT
He’s not on the plane, Lyn told herself. He’s not. At 4:30, the Swissair rep finally called back. Ray Romano was listed as a passenger on Swissair Flight 111. Wednesday!… It had happened on a Wednesday, Lyn thought, suddenly. She’d been born on a Wednesday, she’d met Ray on a Wednesday. And now Ray was dead. On a Wednesday.
“Darlene, it’s Lyn.”
Even though it was 4:30 in the morning and her friend Lyn Romano’s call had just woken her from a deep sleep, Darlene Goncalves responded almost as if by cheerful rote.
“Hi, hon, how are you?”
But then she caught the tremulous tone of Lyn’s voice, realized the time.
“Ray was on that Swissair plane,” Darlene heard her friend say. “He was on the plane that crashed.”
“OK,” Darlene said, reacting, not letting herself think, “I’ll be right down and I’ll go with you.” She didn’t know where they would go, only that she should be with her friend.
“It’s OK,” Lyn said, “my sister’s here now. I just need you to let the neighbours know. OK?”
She woke up Tony.
“What do you want?”
“Tony, get up. Ray was on that plane.” Tony knew right away what she meant. He’d stayed up the night before watching the news about that Swissair plane that had crashed off Nova Scotia, not thinking for a moment his friend Ray might be on it. That’s not to suggest he hadn’t thought about Ray as he watched the news. They were both into aviation, both into airplanes, both loved to fly. When they’d get together, they’d often talk about what they’d seen the week before on Wings, a Discovery Channel program about the history of aviation. The plane crash was the kind of news he and Ray would almost certainly have talked about later.
Ray on that plane?
“There were survivors,” he told his wife suddenly. When he’d turned off the television, he remembered the announcers were talking about the fact there had been survivors. Ray was a survivor. He would be all right.
They turned on the TV.
But now the news had changed. There were no survivors.
No survivors at all.
He and Darlene hugged one another and cried.
“This can’t be real,” she said. “It can’t.”
The insistent sound of the ringing telephone woke Moira Devey shortly after 6 a.m. Matt, still sleep-puzzled himself, picked it up first.
“Ray?” she heard him say into the telephone. “Airplane?”
And then she knew. It was as if someone had punched her in the stomach. She’d been up with the new baby until after midnight last night, and had been watching the news. She’d watched the bulletins about the crash, seen the fishermen in their boats.
It was all too horrifying to watch, she told herself as she turned off the TV. Thank God I don’t know anyone travelling tonight.
But she did. She’d forgotten that Ray Romano was supposed to be flying off to Switzerland someday this week. Was it? It was. Last night.
By the time Matt got off the telephone and returned to their bedroom, she was sitting in a chair, crying hysterically.
He didn’t have to tell her anything. She already knew.
Lyn Romano stared, transfixed, at the objects on the table in front of her. She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten here to this military base, to this makeshift trailer, to the rows of tables filled with the personal effects of those who’d died on Flight 111, to the table in front of her, the one with the personal effects of one Ray Romano.
Lyn couldn’t even recall the flight from Westchester to Halifax. Only that she almost had refused to fly at all. She had been supposed to fly from Kennedy with her mother-in-law and her two sons. She remembered being in the middle of saying goodbye to her mother when the Delta Family Assistance man came to her door.
I’m sorry, he said, the plane’s been delayed. It’ll just be a few hours —
That’s when Lyn lost it. Get off my property, she’d screamed. Get away from me and don’t come back.
The man, Lyn could see immediately, was petrified. Here I am, I’m five-foot-five and 117 pounds, she told herself, and this guy, this gentle guy who just wants to help, is petrified of me. I’m sorry, she thought, I’m sorry for making his life a torture. But not sorry enough to stop. I can’t help myself, she thought. I can’t.
The man did as he was told. He retreated. But he returned a short time later with a new plan he very tentatively outlined for Lyn.
Would you be willing to fly out of Westchester in a private jet, he asked? The local Westchester airport was just 15 minutes away. Lyn didn’t want to go. But she knew she had to, knew she had to see what there was to see of Ray, of the place he — she still couldn’t bring herself to believe he was really dead.
It was an eight-passenger jet. She remembers literally crawling on to it, remembers not saying a word for the entire flight, remembers thinking she didn’t care anymore if the plane went down because Ray was already gone and her boys were with her and what more could happen anyway?
Now she was here in Shearwater in the trailer with all the bits and pieces of all the lives that had been lost. She looked in the direction the Mountie pointed. That was Ray’s carry-on bag, all right. In shreds. And his magazines — his Journal of Accountancy, his Forbes, his beloved car magazine. There was a yellow notepad too. With Ray’s handwriting on it. She’d packed them all for him. And the two shampoo bottles next to his stuff.
How could they be in one piece and Ray…?
I don’t understand what they’re saying about the bodies, she said to the Mountie. What happened to the bodies?
He put his arms around her. You really want to know this, he asked.
Yep, she said. I do.
He reached over, picked up a glass shampoo bottle. Lyn noticed for the first time that, while the bottle itself appeared undamaged, it was completely empty. He showed her the small hole in the bottom right hand corner of the bottle through which all the shampoo had been sucked out during the crash.
The human body, he explained carefully, is 90 per cent water. What happened to the bottles happened to the bodies.
Lyn thought about that for a moment. Then she took a picture out of her purse. It was a photograph of Ray. She began to tell the Mountie about her Ray. “I knew then that I needed to show them pictures and explain to them who my Ray was,” she would explain later. “I knew I needed to do something to make this right. My husband was not going to be a seat number. He was not going to be a name.”
It was the first step in the process that would turn Lyn Romano into the leader of a new air safety organization she would found.
This shouldn’t be, Lyn Romano repeated over and over again in her head as she sat on the chair beside her oldest son, Raymond, Jr., watching silently while the nurse calmly, efficiently withdrew the small sample of blood from his arm. The blood would help the authorities identify from among all the bits and pieces of bone and flesh they had recovered so far the bits and pieces of flesh and bone that belonged to his father. It just shouldn’t be, Lyn said to herself again. He’s only 11 years old, for God’s sake.
Why couldn’t the officials have been right when they told her — when was it now? A day or so after the crash? Time had lost all meaning — that they believed there might be as many as 70 complete bodies inside a section of the plane’s cabin that had survived the crash intact and was now sitting on the ocean floor. They’d asked her to Fedex them a picture of Ray they could use for identification purposes. Fedex! She’d never gotten a Fedex package in her life and now she couldn’t answer the door at home without finding someone there to deliver or pick up a package. Swissair. The State Department. The Medical Examiner’s Office.…
But of course the picture hadn’t helped. There were no bodies, no intact section of the airliner. How could they not have known that, Lyn wondered?
Finally, the nurse withdrew the needle from Raymond’s arm, covered the tiny pinprick with a cotton swab. Little Raymond didn’t flinch. His father would have been proud.
If only Ray had been sick, she thought. Then they wouldn’t need to have put little Raymond through all this. But Ray had never been sick a day in his life, never once gone to the doctor, never visited a dentist. No one knew his blood type. Even Women’s Hospital in New York, where he’d been born, couldn’t help. There’d been a screw-up with their computer system, Lyn was told when she called, and they couldn’t access records of births there between 1950 and 1955. Ray had been born July 14, 1954.
So now it was up to Raymond, Jr., to provide the blood that would help them to put the pieces of his father back together again.
My God, she thought, how is this possible?
Tonight she and Ray should have been celebrating their seventeenth wedding anniversary.
Instead, Lyn Romano stood by the window of her living room, alone. She lit another cigarette and stared out, unseeing, onto the darkened street below.
The boys were gone, off at friends’ houses for sleepovers. The neighbours and friends and family, who had been her almost constant companions since that morning — My God! Could it really be a full month ago today — were finally gone too, back to their own homes and families and lives.
They had lives to get on with. She had … nothing. Half her heart and soul was gone, ripped out of her. She couldn’t stand it when people said they understood — how could they understand? — when they tried to comfort her by comparing her loss to the death of someone else, someone they knew. Ray wasn’t someone else. There could be no comparison.
She’d done a lot of yelling this past month. At the authorities up in Halifax who still hadn’t identified Ray’s body. At the clerks at Women’s Hospital who couldn’t tell her Ray’s blood type. At the officials at KPMG who thought they knew better than she did how to invest their late employee’s — her Ray’s — life insurance. Even at the friends and neighbours she knew only wanted to help.
No more Ziti, she’d yelled at one point after yet another neighbour stopped by with yet another plate of food for the freezer. Everyone wanted to help out. What do you need, Darlene had asked at one point? Tell me what you need and I’ll get it. Lemon seltzer, Lyn had said. Now she had more cans of lemon seltzer than she could use in a lifetime.
People only wanted to help. Lyn knew that. But she couldn’t stand some of the comfort words they seemed to feel duty-bound to say. When her friend Denise stopped by one day with flowers, she put her arms around Lyn and began to use the words. Closure. Healing. Lyn stepped back from her embrace. I don’t want to be rude, she began, and I don’t want to throw you out but…. They talked for a while longer then, and Darlene left. Afterwards, Lyn noticed that, while Denise had left the flowers, she’d taken the card that was supposed to accompany them. She wondered what the card must have said, what Denise had thought better about giving her.
Lyn made a fire in the fireplace. It was the first fire she’d lit since the accident. She thought of all the fall Sunday afternoons she and Ray and the boys had spent in this room eating the spreads she’d cooked up and laid out on the coffee table for them, warming themselves in the glow of the fire, watching football games on television. She hadn’t seen a football game since Ray died. My God, what would she do on Super Bowl Sunday? They’d always watched the Super Bowl as a family.
Everything reminded her of Ray. The coffeemaker in the kitchen. She didn’t drink coffee. Ray drank coffee. The supermarket. There were aisles she just couldn’t go down anymore; aisles that contained foods she’d bought especially for Ray. And the GTO in the garage. Reminding her of Ray every time she passed by. She’d asked Raymond, Jr., and Randy if she should get rid of the car. No, they both said. They’d want it when they got older. To remember their Dad.
Lyn would always remember.
The other night, she’d looked at the clock in the kitchen and wondered idly: When is Ray coming home? As if none of this had happened. As if he would suddenly show up at the door and this would all turn out to have been some bad dream.
Lyn tried to remember the last time she’d slept more than a few hours at a stretch. She couldn’t. She wasn’t sure how she put in the hours she was awake. She couldn’t read; her mind couldn’t focus. She couldn’t watch TV — except for the video of Ray’s memorial service in their backyard. She watched that every night, watched it and cried some more.
Darlene had tried to convince her to take some Valium so she could get some uninterrupted rest. But Lyn refused. If she took one, Lyn said, she’d take the whole bottle. She couldn’t do that. Besides, she really didn’t seem to need to sleep any more.
She did spend hours on the computer. Ray had bought the computer. She didn’t want it. She hated machines. Machines were so cold, she told him. I mean, I only got an answering machine a few years ago. What would I want with a computer? Ray bought one anyway. And then Lyn had ended up becoming a computer wizard. She discovered she loved emailing, loved hanging out in various chat rooms. She’d met one woman through a gardening chat room — gardening was one of Lyn’s passions — and, after a year or so of emailing back and forth, she’d even invited the woman and her husband to spend the night at their house. Ray thought that was a little wild, but he said OK.
Now she was using the computer to meet other people who’d lost family in plane crashes, people who might possibly understand the hell she was going through. She’d discovered one couple from the Netherlands who’d lost their son in a plane crash a few months ago. They emailed back and forth regularly. Recently, she’d even found a site Swissair had set up for the families of people who died on Flight 111. She’d taken it upon herself to post daily messages to the group, updating them on the status of the identification process, on the progress authorities were making with the recovery process and with the investigation into the cause of the crash. Making the calls every day to find out what was going on in Halifax gave her a focus for her own life. She needed that.
Ray must have known something, she thought, must have known he might not be around much longer. He’d finally put the heater in the pool. How long had they talked about that? He’d wrapped the house in aluminum siding, did what he could to make everything maintenance-free. He’d even taught Raymond, Jr., how to mow the lawn.
Ray’s little man.
Two days after Ray’s plane went down, little Raymond was out in the yard, mowing the lawn just the way his father had taught him.
Ray must have known.
Maybe, in some strange way, she did too.
Otherwise, why had she insisted this summer — of all busy, crazy complicated summers — on finally staging that poker party Ray had been talking about wanting to have for his birthday? For years, Ray had told her he wanted to celebrate by getting a bunch of the guys together for a boys-only night of poker. For years, Lyn had intended to organize it. But something — someone else invited them to a party the weekend of Ray’s birthday, or someone was going to be away on vacation — always seemed to get in the way.
Not this year. They’d had to rearrange the date a couple of times and Ray had told her not to worry, there’d always be next year, but she had insisted. You’re going to have your poker party, she said.
And he did.
Matt was there. And Tony. And a few others.
Lyn organized it all, set up the food. She told Ray she’d sleep at her mother’s that night, let them have their fun on their own, but Ray insisted she stay. He wanted her home, he told her.
She’d spent most of the night upstairs. She’d entrusted Matt with the job of making sure no one smoked their smelly cigars in the house. But of course they had. She didn’t mind. Not really. It was Ray’s birthday. And he was happy. He’d told her so when he came up to the bedroom to see her around 11. He wanted to make sure they weren’t making too much noise.
And now Ray was gone.
If he says that one more time, Lyn Romano thought to herself, I’m going to explode. “He” was the priest at her mother-in-law’s church. And “that” was the phrase that had become his mantra during this memorial service: “closure and healing.”
Lyn had already organized one memorial service for Ray two weeks earlier. That one — for their friends and Ray’s business associates — had taken place on a sweet sunny afternoon on the deck Ray had built by the pool in their backyard. One of Ray’s childhood friends had told stories about Ray’s boyhood, about the day they’d turned Ray’s father’s lawn mower into a go-kart, got it going and then couldn’t figure out how to stop it until it crashed. Some of the men Ray worked with didn’t just talk about how “very friendly, very caring, very fun to be with” Ray had been; they told stories. About the day that Ray had taken one of them for a drive in his GTO before he got the muffler working; about how they’d put the Rolling Stones on the stereo and turned the volume up and had “the drive of our life.” About Ray’s love of a good game of golf and about his frustration at his inability to sink a putt. About how Ray was probably, at this very minute, standing “outside the pearly gates having a smoke because you can’t smoke inside.” Lyn and the kids chose songs to play to remember their father. Raymond, Jr., chose Eric Clapton’s My Father’s Eyes; little Randy picked I’ll Never Break Your Heart. Everyone cried.
That service was all about Ray.
This — this was different.
The priest didn’t know Ray. So he fell back on all that standard-issue priest talk about closure and healing and, by the third time she said it, Lyn was sure she would scream. Randy seemed to know what was happening. He reached out, grabbed his mother’s hand. The only thing that kept me in that pew, Lyn would remember later, was my kids. I had to stay for them. But at the end, she admits, she lost it.
Matt had to help her to the car. Matt and Moira knew Lyn hadn’t been looking forward to this service, so they’d insisted on coming along. Just to be there. In case she needed them.
Now Matt drove the car. Moira was in the front seat, Lyn and the boys in the back. They drove in silence. Even Matt, usually the one to find some way to lighten a mood, couldn’t think of anything to say.
Finally, it was Lyn herself who broke the spell.
She turned to the boys. I need you to do something for me, she said solemnly. OK?
They nodded their heads.
I need you to yell this word as loud as you can for me. OK?
They looked at her, incredulously.
Soon the whole car was yelling in crazy unison. SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!
Lyn Romano had flown back to Halifax again, this time to collect Ray’s wedding band. As Ian Black — the Mountie from the identification squad who had become “the only one I would let call me” and who had, in fact, telephoned her two days before to tell that the ring she’d been insisting against all odds would be found had indeed been found — placed the ring in her hands, Lyn suddenly wasn’t sure she wanted it anymore.
I’m not a religious man, Black told her as he delicately folded her fingers back over the ring, but you willed this ring up, Lyn. Lyn was crying. Black had tears in his eyes too.
It wasn’t the first time they had cried together. Over the past few weeks, as authorities went about the gruesome business of attempting to identify the remains, she and Black had developed a strange, unlikely bond. They’d become so close that, when Black went on vacation for a few days, he continued to telephone Lyn every day, just to see how she was doing.
She was not doing well.
She wanted Ray’s ring. She needed it. She insisted that they find it for her. Now. She was not above screaming at Black either.
Black had tried, as gently as he could, to make Lyn understand what the force of the impact had done to everything and everybody inside that plane, about the way in which the twisted, broken mingle of wreckage and human remains had spread out along the ocean floor 180 feet below the surface, about the needle-in-a-haystack improbability of the divers finding one small wedding band in the middle of all of that—
You have to find it, Lyn told him urgently. You just have to.
We’ll do our best, he said, we will.
You have to find it, she repeated.
And they had. On his severed hand. Which had been mixed up in a tangle of wires and plane parts hauled up from the bottom of the sea by the U.S. navy salvage ship Grapple. Black knew it was Lyn’s ring as soon as he saw the letters engraved in it: 10-3-81. That had been their wedding day.
It was another piece in the puzzle. The carry-on bag, the magazines, the legal pad, the shampoo.… And now… this ring, this precious band that she had placed on Ray’s finger on their wedding day.
Lyn ran her fingers over it, trying to feel Ray in the gold.
She wanted it.
But she didn’t want it.
If they’d found Ray’s ring, it meant that Ray really was aboard that plane. Part of her still didn’t believe that. All of her still didn’t want to believe that.
The day after she got the ring back, Lyn drove out to Peggy’s Cove for one last look. Unlike so many other family members who found comfort in the stark beauty of the rocks, Lyn saw only death. “I don’t see the pretty.” She would never go back, she told herself.
Back in her room at the Lord Nelson Hotel, Lyn agreed to speak to a reporter from the Halifax Chronicle Herald. She was crying. There were some people “I need to name,” she told reporter Lois Legge. She singled out Ian Black, among several others. “I need the people in this country to know what wonderful, wonderful people they have here,” she said. “Just everybody that I’ve come in contact with, from the customs agent to the coffee shop, even before they know anything. I mean, you should be so proud of your country.”
November 23, 1998
“Miles,” Barbara Fetherolf1 wrote in an almost plaintive email message to Miles Gerety2 today, “What on earth is going on?” It was a good question. The new Families of Swissair Flight 111 site — a Yahoo Internet club, complete with message board and chat room that Miles’s 13-year-old son Paddy had helped set up for him — had been operating for less than a month and already cracks were beginning to appear in the façade of unity among family members. It was probably inevitable. Hans Ephraimson-Abt3, in fact, had warned Miles during their first lunch that it would be difficult, if not impossible to keep all the grieving, confused, angry family members working together for long. The families of the victims of the Pan Am 103 crash over Lockerbie, for example, had ultimately split off into four, often warring groups.
But Miles’s own personality may have made the fissures obvious even more quickly among the families of Flight 111. He seemed to savour his almost paternalistic role as the Lord Protector of all those who came to his site to grieve and share their pain. And he was uncomfortable with the free-wheeling ways of the Internet so he tended — lawyer-like — to be cautious to a fault about his legal responsibilities for anything controversial or untoward that was posted on the site.
In the first few weeks, that was not a problem as family members migrated from the Swissair site — posting there, Monica Hawkins said, felt “kind of funny” because they knew Swissair officials would be reading their words — and began defining their new community of constant sorrows. And finding out about one another. “I am wondering if there are any other people out there around my age (19) who lost someone on the flight and would like to communicate,” wrote one young woman whose father had died on Flight 111. Two days later, a woman who had lost both her parents, posted a empathetic reply. “I’m not really sure what to write, but I really want to,” began another post from a woman who’d lost her father as well and who had never participated in an Internet chat before. “Maybe writing to you all is a good way to deal with what has happened.”
The mood began to sour quickly after Matt Wald4 wrote a story about the new families site in the New York Times. Part of the problem was that the publicity not only attracted new family members but also others as well, some with no direction with Flight 111 and with an ax to grind. When a new non-family member, who signed himself “aviator,” began posting messages about the likelihood of pilot error or the role the inflight entertainment system may have played in the crash — sparking an at times heated debate with other members — Miles responded by deleting his posts and removing him as a member of the club. “Many family members were very upset by these postings since they saw the site as a place for emotional support, a personal place where they could post feelings,” Miles explains.
But others were becoming just as upset with what they saw as Miles’s controlling ways. In one message, for example, he issued a series of edicts about how members should conduct themselves on the site, ranging from posting no messages in all-capital letters (“This is the Internet equivalent of screaming and will not be tolerated here”) to an admonition to members to “write posts about their difficulties coping.” “Three violations of these rules may result in your denial of access to this site,” he wrote, “especially if those violations appear to be intentional.”
Mark Fetherolf, who quickly came to dismiss the still-unelected Miles as “the self-proclaimed leader” of the families group, resented Miles doctrinaire, “chain of command” approach to his role as webmaster. “On one hand, it’s petty bullshit, hardly worthy,” he allows. “On the other it’s a very interesting story about the formation of a community using the Internet as the basis for communication There is a clash between the Internet culture — no rules, just people — and the more traditional view taken by Miles.” Mark’s initial software developer’s Internet-savvy view of that cultural divide quickly lost its detachment when Miles deleted messages from his wife and Lyn Romano, another family member they hadn’t yet met.
The problem began when a family member from Georgia who, Miles says now, “was having a rough time,” posted a message calling for the erection of a memorial at Peggys Cove on which the names of all of the victims of Flight 111 would be listed. Lyn and Barbara — who’d gone separately to Peggys Cove several weeks after the crash and after the first emotional visits to the site by groups of family members — opposed the idea. In messages they sent to the site, they argued that Peggys Cove could never be a place of beauty or peace for them and they didn’t want their loved ones associated in any way with such a memorial. Barbara says now her point was that Tara “was young and too full of life to have her name on a stone. I also added that I didn't think that Peggy's Cove was a beautiful place but one of pain and despair for our family.”
Miles says he didn’t object to what the two women had to say so much as how they said it. “Our problem was with the tone of the remarks and that two people were piling on the poor woman.” He immediately deleted both of their postings from the website.
Though Miles had been one of the first family members to contact Barbara Fetherolf following the crash — “I liked him initially,” she recalls, “he seemed to be a caring person” — she say now “I did notice that he did a lot of name-dropping and didn't allow you to say much.” After he deleted her messages, she says, “he called my husband and explained in his crazy way that he wanted to be a judge in Connecticut and something about we were offending his mother. We were appalled. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to express our feelings on this? We were already in tremendous pain and he was adding to it.”
Miles’s decision touched off a flame war between Gerety and Monica Hawkins, the group’s acting vice-chair, on one side, and Lyn and the Fetherolfs on the other, with non-combatants chipping in on one side or the other for good measure. For a week, the battle raged on the site itself and in private emails among the combatants.
Lyn declared that Miles and Monica hadn’t simply deleted her postings, they had deleted “MY FEELINGS” and, in the process, “MY RAY” too. Miles says the “threatening tone” of Lyn’s angry emails “left Monica in tears and caused her to cease being active” with the group.
Conceding in a public message that he had made judgment calls “which I am willing to concede may have been bad calls,” Miles urged everyone to cool out. “We owe our lost loved ones a better legacy than this.” But he then closed his message with yet another I-know-what’s-best postscript: “I am in the middle of a battle with Swissair,” he noted. “Swissair has refused to let us contact non-U.S. families. Continue this debate and they win.”
“What the hell are you doing,” an infuriated Mark fired back. “Do you really propose to censor this site based on your judgment only. I have been polite and sensitive. This is an outrage. I am livid.”
After deleting another of Mark’s public messages about the controversy, Miles emailed a warning to him: “This post is divisive, unhelpful and has nothing to do with support and grief. The rules are not debatable. If you post another message like this your access to the site will be denied.”
A week later, after deciding “enough was enough,” Miles decided to take the site “private,” meaning non-family members couldn’t join and non-members couldn’t read the postings at all. He also deleted Mark and Lyn from the group’s membership list.
Though Miles didn’t remove Barbara, she quickly decided to drop out too. “I am very disappointed in you and I can’t tell you how you and some of these other members have hurt me,” she wrote in her final email to Miles. “I guess there is a very simple answer to this. Don’t be involved anymore. Frankly, when you look at the big picture, it certainly won’t bring my wonderful daughter back and it does nothing for this family… so time to quit.”
Mark then set up his own separate Yahoo site, “SR111,” which was open to anyone who was interested in the crash. Its stated purpose was broader than the Families site — “This club is an open forum about Swissair 111: the crash, investigation, victims, survivors, what went wrong, why, who is responsible and how will such tragedies be prevented in the future” — and Mark made it clear from the outset that no one’s posting would be censored.
At the same time, Mark and Barbara decided on their own — not carved in cold stone — memorial for Tara. They established an educational scholarship fund at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth that Tara had attended.
February 10, 11:30 am
“You actually got a smile out of me on a WEDNESDAY,” Lyn Romano emailed Doug Johnson at the sr111 website, “and I can assure you.. THAT IS NO EASY TASK!”
It had, in fact, been a good morning, one of the few in recent months Lyn could remember. She’d been making arrangements for her trip to Halifax in two weeks to publicly launch her new International Flight Safety Organization and, not coincidentally, to meet with Vic Gerden to tell him how much she wanted them to get on with the investigation. She wanted her organization to become a focal point for efforts to make the skies safer; that would be her personal memorial to Ray, not some marker on a cold rock at even colder Peggy’s Cove.
She’d scanned the morning’s postings on the electronic message board. Liz Benteau had written in, “as a Canadian,” to make the point that the best hope anyone had for finding out what had really caused the accident was to wait for Vic Gerden’s Canadian Transportation Safety Board to issue its report. In doing so, she took a light swipe at the supposedly more politicized U.S. aviation authorities: “As this disaster does NOT involve a Canadian plane or airline, nor is there any Canadian in any jeopardy what so ever of having any blame put on them, then why would Mr. Gerden have any fear of 'covering' anything up?” she demanded. “That is why I am quite confident they will not ‘miss’ anything....we will know the truth.”
Lyn couldn’t help herself. “Maybe you are right... and of course you are entitled to say whatever you feel,” she replied using her email name “Rosebush.” “But.. I do love my country as well as you love yours. We do have our problems,” she conceded, but then added pointedly: “I know of a few ‘professionals’ in Canada.. that leave much to be desired.. and that will be told.. in my book.”
There were all sorts of other messages Lyn read as well, many having to do with the recent revelation that “aviator_ua,” who’d frequently posted to the sr111 site, claiming to be a former commercial pilot and offering his take on many of the technical issues behind the crash, had been unmasked as a fraud. Far from being a pilot, he apparently worked in a travel agency and had a history of posting to airline-related web groups under a variety of names.
Many of the sr111 regulars, including Doug Johnson, were angry about aviator’s intrusion into their site, which had led to confusion and many pointless arguments as he challenged the views of some of the real aviation experts on the site. But Johnson had a plan for dealing with him: ““I think we ought to sic the Italian Stallion on him,” Johnson suggested in a posting to the site, referring to Lyn, “and RoseBush him to a quivering pulp.”
Lyn couldn’t help but smile. “Just point me in the right direction,” she replied. “And this ITALIAN STALLIONESS (hope you don't mind I prefer the female status (smile) ) will do her thing.”
She’d barely hit the Send button on the computer when the telephone rang. It was Randy calling from school. He was in tears.
“I miss daddy,” he said.
Lyn hurried over to the school to get him and bring him home.
When she got back, she emailed the sr111 site to explain what had happened. “I go offline now … to be with him,” she wrote simply.
Soon after the book went to print, Lyn announced the formation of the International Aviation Safety Association, a lobby group she funded using the proceeds from her husband’s insurance settlement and whatever money she received from suing Swissair.
The organization has been active in lobbying Congress, the FAA and others on air safety issues. In March 2003, after publication of the final report into the causes of the crash, IASA called for an immediate investigation into what it described as "criminally negligent homicide" by, among others, the FAA, for failing to ensure passenger safety.
One last note. As I was completing work on the manuscript, Lyn retroactively withdrew her cooperation and demanded her story be eliminated from the text. (She was upset I’d written a newspaper profile of her nemesis, Miles Gerety, and decided she didn’t want her Ray mentioned in any book that also mentioned Gerety!) For a variety of reasons, I refused her demand.
After the book was published, Lyn changed her mind again, writing to congratulate me on having captured her, Ray and their relationship. We’ve talked on a number of occasions since and she’s never again mentioned that she didn’t want me to include her story.
1. Barbara and Mark Fetherolf’s 16-year-old daughter, Tara, died in the crash.
2. Miles Gerety’s brother Piers, a UN worker, was killed in the crash. Miles later organized the official families group. His story is also told in the book.
3. He lost his daughter in the crash of a Korean Airlines plane Flight 007 15 years earlier and later became a well-known advocate for family rights.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber