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Memorial honors TWA crash victims 10 years later

Families, friends still coping with losses

HIRLEY, N.Y. -- On a steamy afternoon similar to the day 10 years ago when they hugged their loved ones for the last time, relatives of the 230 people who died aboard TWA Flight 800 gathered yesterday in dedication to the final piece of the memorial.

At a park that is the closest piece of land to where the jet exploded, an expansive memorial was completed yesterday with the dedication of an abstract black granite sculpture called ``The Light." The sculpture was designed by Henry Seaman, whose cousin died in the crash, and is the centerpiece of the TWA 800 memorial at Smith Point County Park.

Victims' families had placed wedding rings, teddy bears, and other mementos in a sealed vault under the sculpture, along with the last unclaimed property from the crash.

``It is painful for me to have lost my brother. I think about him every day," said Christophe Delange of Paris, a computer engineer, whose brother, Sylvain, 35, was an artist. ``But it is more painful for my niece. She was 7 years old and losing her father. That's been very difficult for her to endure."

Also honored yesterday were the rescuers who toiled in the search for survivors amid burning jet fuel and mangled bodies during 72 hours of work after the crash.

John Seaman, head of the TWA Flight 800 Family Association and the uncle of 19-year-old victim Michele Seaman, introduced the rescue effort's commander -- Coast Guard Rear Admiral Tim Sullivan -- as the man who represented ``all the king's horses and all the king's men."

``My crew was initially very disappointed, very upset that we failed many of you," said Sullivan, his voice cracking with emotion. Sullivan was the only speaker at the ceremony who received a standing ovation from the audience of about 1,000 people.

Minutes after taking off from Kennedy Airport, TWA Flight 800 to Paris exploded, raining carnage on the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island. Among those killed were 16 high school students from Montoursville, Pa., and five chaperones who were traveling to Paris as part of a French Club trip.

Initially, investigators were not sure if the calamity that killed all 230 people aboard on July 17, 1996, was caused by a bomb, a missile, or mechanical failure. Following an exhaustive, four-year investigation, officials determined that the jet was destroyed by a center fuel-tank explosion that was probably caused by a spark from a short-circuit in the Boeing 747's wiring that ignited the tank's volatile vapors.

Despite the finding, conspiracy theories linger.

``There will always be a segment -- although this segment is pretty small -- of people who for whatever reasons, they like to keep their names in the news or whatever, who honestly believe in these conspiracy theories," said Robert Francis, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Board, who led the investigation and attended yesterday's service.

Flight attendant Pat Kelly Fusco of Sanford, Fla., lost two friends aboard the flight : Connie and Jacques Charbonnier, husband-and-wife flight attendants from Huntington, N.Y.

``I was in Rome and woke up in the middle of the night and turned on CNN and saw that the plane was down. I watched TV and cried all night long -- and I'm still crying," said Fusco, her voice cracking and her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. ``I miss them terribly."

Despite the pain, she said, ``I'm glad I'm here. It brings back the tragedy, but it also brings back good memories."

Fourteen flags at the entrance of the memorial represent countries where the victims came from. After the service, the flags were all lowered to half-staff . A large granite wall displays the victims' names.

The memorial garden features stone benches and massive black stone tablets that tell the story of the victims, as well as the rescue workers and boaters who raced to the fiery scene.

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