Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Quiet Community Pitches In To Help TWA Recovery Effort


Someone stapled purple ribbons to the telephone pole on the corner of the only intersection with a traffic light in this Long Island town. Across the street, a handmade sign hangs in the appliance store window: "East Moriches Fire Department and Ladies Auxiliary Send Our Prayers to the Families of Flight 800." On the other corner, the only special advertised at Deery's Restaurant today is, "Prayers for the Families."

Ask anyone who lives here, and they'll tell you East Moriches, N.Y., is a quiet town, full of good people, where nothing much happens. And they like it like that.

About these ads

But last Wednesday night, a fireball in the sky that turned out to be TWA Flight 800 threw the quiet bayside town into the international spotlight. Within hours, hundreds of police, federal investigators, and Coast Guard officials raced to the shoreline. On their heels came a parade of television satellite trucks, dozens of camera crews, and hundreds of reporters all hungry for information and a phone line to file their stories in a handful of different languages.

"It was a quiet night. We were getting ready to close, then all of a sudden, around 10 o'clock, the town just lit up," says Brian Deery, who owns Deery's Restaurant and kept it open until the early morning hours to feed rescue workers and give reporters a place to work.

Most of the people of East Moriches have shown that kind of generosity, as well as courage, empathy, and lots of tolerance as they've dealt with the onslaught. Some say they'll be haunted by what they and their families have seen. For others, this is a piece of history that, too, will pass. But all say they're now ready to return to their quiet lives.

"It's turned the town upside down for the past week," says Elizabeth Williams, who works at the Words and Images Design House up the block from the main intersection. "I'd say most people are ready to see fewer reporters and TV cameras now: It's time to just let the investigators do their jobs and let us get on with our lives, too."

The town of East Moriches is not much more than the intersection with a traffic light and a handful of stores that line the main street. It's two miles long and almost as many wide. While it once thrived on duck farming and fishing, most of the 4,000 residents now work elsewhere or are retired. But as Carl Davidson says, chatting with friends outside the post office, it's a town where most people know each other and get along.

The night of the explosion, more than a dozen people set out in small boats to help search for survivors, having no idea of the immensity of the tragedy they'd find on the calm, dark water. Amid patches of still- blazing jet fuel and chunks of wreckage, floated bits of clothing, a child's toy, and, occasionally, a body.

"My son, he's 25 years old and he called me that night and said, 'Mommy, I can't stand this - this is the most horrible thing I've ever seen in my life,' " says Lynda Michaelis, who works at the local appliance store, across the street from Deery's. "I'll never be able to go down to the beach again without thinking about that."

About these ads

Willy Ringhuff, a husky volunteer fireman, decided not to take out his 30-foot boat that night. "I could have, but there are things, once you see them, that you can never forget," he says, adding, as if to explain, "I have three kids."

But Mr. Ringhuff, like most people in town, still pitched in. As word of the explosion spread, neighbors and local shop owners brought food and drinks for the rescue workers to the fire station.

"We had four trailers here; we're taking the goods back and forth to the Coast Guard Station - I was the truck driver; that was my job," Ringhuff says, noting that the fire station stayed open for four days straight.

During those early hours of the crisis, police shut down the main street and allowed only emergency workers and support personnel through. By morning, they had reopened the main road, but several blockades remained.

One week later, Paul White still has to pass three security checkpoints before he reaches his gray clapboard house on the water at the end of Moriches Island Road. His grandfather's friend sold the federal government the land where the Coast Guard station now sits, at the center of the search for more wreckage, a mile or so from Mr. White's house.

"I can understand the need for security," he says, carefully folding a piece of cardboard into stack for recycling. "But what bothers me more are the news people who think they can tear up the place."

White and other property owners built up and maintained the wetlands between his house and the Coast Guard station, planting sea grass and barricades to keep the water at bay.

Now, the area is a makeshift press camp, lined with dozens of satellite trucks. Each is decked out with canopies, tents, chairs, and trash scattered about. Reporters, producers, and photographers lounge around waiting for briefings. Along the beach, cameras and lights protrude from the sand. The fragile grasses have been beaten down for wiring and reporters to come and go for their "live shots."

"I don't think they realize how fragile this area is," White says. "See how these houses are raised up? Three years ago, there was four feet of water here - part of that land protects this."

Irene Austin, who bicycled down to the marina opposite the Coast Guard Station, is also very worried about the environmental impact of the press corps.

"It's ironic: I've been noticing how beautiful this area has become since it's been environmentally protected," says Ms. Austin. "You see birds here you never saw before, and the marshland growth. But I'm sure they'll clean it up."

A mile up the road, the town's baseball field has been turned into a parking lot for the media. Nightly softball games have been canceled indefinitely, says Louis Tsunis, of the Town of Brookhaven's Parks Department, which maintains the field. "We're all pitching in to try to help out," Mr. Tsunis says.

The beaches have also been closed. "We used to walk down there every morning," Alfred Nicosia says, "but that's nothing, no sacrifice, compared to what the families are going through."

Like most people in East Moriches, Mr. Nicosia and others are more concerned about what the town can do to help the families. "This town pulled together. We're all neighbors," says Lawrence Smith, a volunteer fireman.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.