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The Fall of Flight 800: People On Board Make It A Titanic for Our Day

July 20, 1996 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ The doomed flight carried an extraordinary congregation of extraordinary people _ people who always moved forward, out of drive or vision or accident of birth. The tragedy of TWA Flight 800 is the tragedy of promise and privilege crushed without warning.

When, since the Titanic sank in 1912, has such an accomplished array of travelers met such a fate?

Disaster is supposed to choose its victims indiscriminately, raiding all levels of society. The victims of Flight 800 were the folks next door, but they were also the ones on the screen and in the paper.


They included a philanthropist flying to France to rejoin her children on vacation; three businessmen trying to close an $80 million deal; an inheritor of the mantle of Roone Arledge at ABC Sports.

Many people have reported feeling, when they heard of the crash, that they knew someone on board. In many cases they did, although it might have been more accurate to say they knew OF them.

They knew Jed Johnson’s interiors from the pages of Architectural Digest. They knew Jack O’Hara’s name from the credits at the end of ``Monday Night Football″ and ``ABC’s Wide World of Sports.″ They knew Rico Puhlmann’s fashion photos from the cover of Harpers Bazaar and GQ. Eileen Ford, grande dame of fashion modeling, called him ``the last of the great gentleman photographers.″

They knew Pam Lychner for her tireless advocacy of crime victims’ rights, a cause that claimed her allegiance after she was attacked by a man with a history of sexual assaults in 1993. She founded Justice for All, an organization with thousands of members nationwide.

Many of the passengers of Flight 800 lived in places like Edgartown and Scarsdale and Grosse Pointe, went to schools like Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth, worked for companies like Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.

They were people famous people knew. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani recognized the name of Kirk Rhein, once a partner at his old law firm; Rhein, chief executive of Danielson Holding Co., was en route to Europe with two other executives trying to line up financing for an acquisition.

French President Jacques Chirac offered his condolences personally to Alain Merieux, president of the eponymously named French pharmaceutical company, on the death of his son Rodolphe.

Actor Joe Mantegna knew high school English teacher Lois Van Epps, who lured him into acting and directed him in his first play at age 16.

``Up to that point, I had no more interest in acting than the man in the moon,″ Mantegna told The New York Times after learning of her death. ``She was absolutely instrumental and vital to me in being the performer I am today.″

Tenafly, N.J., lost its town administrator, Robert Miller. The medicines division of Bristol-Myers Squibb lost its director of international technology, Luc Bossuyt. The State University of New York at Binghamton lost one of its most popular professors and a rising academic star, Constance Coiner.

France lost its greatest country music guitarist, Marcel Dadi, who was on his way home after a visit to _ where else? _ Nashville.

Saxophone player Wayne Shorter lost his wife and manager and his 17-year-old niece _ she was the daughter of singer Jon Lucien _ who were flying to meet him on a European tour. New York City Judge Michael Pesce lost his fiancee, Wall Street bond trader Bonnie Wolters.

TWA pilot Donald Gough and his wife were going to Finland to visit relatives. But Finnair flights were booked so they took TWA to Paris. The French painter Sylvain Delange was going home after exhibiting pictures at a festival in Colorado. But he misplaced his return ticket, and had to wait until Wednesday to leave.

Rodolphe Merieux, who worked for one of his family business’s U.S. branches, was supposed to fly home to France on Friday. But he took an earlier flight to surprise his parents.

The lost potential and missed chances spanned generations. Beverly Hammer had recently passed her stockbroker’s exam at age 59, and her 29-year-old daughter, Tracy, was less than a year away from finishing double doctorates in veterinary science and microbiology at Michigan State.

Flight 800′s roster was no rival to the Titanic’s, which boasted John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Macy’s owner Isidor Straus, John B. Thayer of the Pennsylvania Railroad and George D. Widener of the Philadelphia banking dynasty. But it was an impressive cast.

They are the kind of people we sometimes envy or fear, and almost never pity. But in their pointless ends people seemed to see the trademark of a century that has managed to make even mass murder impersonal.

On the day after Robert Miller and his wife died, having never made it to the vineyards of Burgundy, the mayor of Tenafly, N.J., clutched a small white Bible and addressed Miller’s old colleagues.

``We can’t make sense of this,″ Mayor Ann Moscovitz said, ``because it makes no sense.″