Memorials: Not Just a Look Back

A Year ago, the emergency vehicles, responding to the call that TWA's Flight 800 had gone down in the Atlantic Ocean, raced past an empty field on Main Street here on their way to the nearby Coast Guard station.

Today, the field has become a living memorial garden full of flowers. An engraved stone book will let visitors know the garden honors "the kindness of the human spirit" as well as the 230 passengers and crew who lost their lives. The names of many of the victims and rescue volunteers are stamped on a simple red brick path that leads to a children's playground. A modest engraved arch crosses the path.

The garden is part of a new American process: the building of memorials to honor and remember victims of disaster. In Oklahoma City, a chain-link fence adorned with flowers and mementos at the site of the bombed Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building will be replaced by a permanent memorial featuring a reflecting pool and 168 chairs - one for each of the people killed by the explosion.

Almost from the start of the TWA tragedy, which marks its first anniversary today, people in this village felt they had to build something.

Everyone knew someone who had gone out to sea to try to rescue survivors. Residents cried as the families of the victims left roses on their beaches. The local Coast Guard station became the center of the wreckage retrieval.

"We had hit the history books in a devastating way and felt compelled to put it in a positive light," says Dawn Wesche, one of the organizers of the memorial.

This town is just one of many that have felt compelled to commemorate disaster and its aftermath.

In addition to Oklahoma City, a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery helps to comfort the family and friends of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, blown out of the air over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Some people object to the building of such memorials, believing they glorify tragedy.

In general, however, "the memorials have become a part of the grieving process and part of what communities see as ... the therapeutic process," says Edward Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

A town waits 50 years

That is what's happened - over time - in Texas City, Texas. Fifty years ago, a ship loaded with ammonium nitrate exploded with a force nine times bigger than the Oklahoma City blast.

Texas City originally put up only a small headstone as a memorial for the 500 people killed by the explosion. But this year the town erected a multimonument memorial. They invited survivors back for a three-day 50th anniversary "rebirth celebration."

At first, some of the 2,500 survivors were saddened by the use of the word "celebration." But then they realized Texas City was celebrating its rebuilding and positive events that took place after the disaster. For example, new emergency procedures were instituted and a blood bank was set up in nearby Galveston.

"At the end of the three days, some of the survivors said it felt like the event had provided a closure for them," says Micah Duckett, assistant to the mayor.

Memorials offer salve

Such memorials and ceremonies have a "very cathartic function, they are very powerful for more than just the survivors," says Kenneth Foote, a professor of geography at the University of Texas at Austin and author of a book about memorials.

"It's a shared grief," says the Very Rev. Harry Pritchett of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, which will host a memorial service for the TWA flight on Sunday and unveil a memorial at the church.

The memorials also give a sense that the world cares. "It memorializes your loved ones so that they are not forgotten," says Burt Ammerman, whose brother, Tom, was on Pan Am Flight 103.

Spontaneous actions

Human interaction is often what makes a structure a true memorial. As families of the dead visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington in its early days, for instance, they started leaving personal mementos.

"People were not encouraged to leave stuff at the wall, yet people took the initiative and made the memorial more than it was," says Mr. Linenthal, who is also the author of several books on memorials.

For the people of Moriches, the crash of TWA's Flight 800 will certainly be remembered as an event that made the small village even more close-knit.

Last August, six women banded together to start the memorial-building process. After making sketches, they presented them to the Town of Brookhaven, which owns the field.

To raise money, they put a price tag on everything: bricks were $50 apiece, trees went for $250 to $500, and playground equipment brought in donations as high as $1,250. An inmate sent some stamps for mailings. A little girl raised $15 from playmates.

Volunteers did the work. One man, whose brother died on the flight, flew in from St. Louis to work on the playground equipment. TWA employees arrived in their red uniforms to plant flowers. All the work will see its culmination tomorrow at a dedication ceremony.

The process helped, says Ms. Wesche. "It gave us a way to vent our grief and feelings and a goal to shoot for, and maybe we'll get some closure out of it."

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