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Heaven-bound passenger

National | A family perseveres in faith in young son's death over the Atlantic

Issue: "Castro’s license to kill?," Aug. 3, 1996

On a windswept New York beach last Sunday, a little group gathered to stare into the gray Atlantic and read from a fatigue-bound New Testament. Having just completed six weeks' ROTC training, Matthew Alexander had left his Army-issue Bible back home in Florence, S.C., while he headed to Marseilles, France, for a month of mission work.

He never made it. His Paris-bound flight, TWA 800, exploded in mid-air and plummeted into the ocean off Long Island 17 minutes after taking off from Kennedy Airport on July 17. Matthew, 20, died in the crash, along with all 229 others on board.

As government experts labored to reconstruct the shattered aircraft, surviving families of the passengers were left to do the same with their lives. For some, that meant lashing out at the airline, the FAA, unknown terrorists, even the coroner in charge of identifying the bodies. For nearly all, it meant a

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tearful oceanfront memorial service complete with unblinking television cameras and publicity-hungry politicians. After the service, some family members tried to get nearer the wreckage in small boats, while others simply waded deep into the rolling surf and tossed flowers out on the watery gravesite.

Matthew Alexander's parents, James and Tari, along with his five sisters, came to New York after the crash-but they skipped that service. Last week, James Alexander, in his first media interview since Matthew's death, told WORLD that he's been able to observe at close range how families are dealing with their grief.

"For some there's a hopelessness and despair, a cynicism about life. Others are getting angry and bitter, wanting to fight, find somebody to blame it on. But the majority, I'd say, try to find something from general religious concepts they can hold onto. The big thing yesterday was passing out angel pins to put on your shirt to give you guidance. I told my children if someone asked them if they wanted an angel to guide them, just to say they already have the Holy Spirit."

Religion and psychology have been important in the efforts to help families through the grieving process. At the official memorial service, attended by some 1,000 family members on New York's Fire Island, there were nearly as many clergy members to address the crowd as there were politicians. Said Rabbi Marc Gellman: "Even though there may be a conspiracy of evil in this world, there is here and throughout this earth a conspiracy of goodness that will overcome."

The Alexanders had a different experience. "TWA drove us up to church Sunday" in the county where the plane went down, related Mr. Alexander, who pastors Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Florence, S.C. "We had a wonderful time worshiping with other Christians. It was wonderful to get away from the secular psychologists talking about grief and death." After the service, the family drove to a point on the beach nearest the plane's resting place. Mr. Alexander asked the New York pastor to read Romans 8 from Matthew's army-issue New Testament. "This was a passage that had meant a lot to me in my own spiritual walk. As my 32-year-old brother was dying of cancer, he asked me to read to him from Romans Chapter 8. I was away from the Lord at the time, and that passage turned my own spiritual life around."

The little seaside service came just four days after the crash. Mr. Alexander says he was already in bed on that Wednesday night when his oldest daughter called him from out-of-state. She had heard about a TWA crash on the news, but she didn't know her brother's flight number. "When she told me the time of the crash, I just knew in the bottom of my heart that was his flight." Throughout the long night, the Alexanders hoped against hope that their son had missed his connection or somehow survived the crash. But TWA called at noon Thursday with grim news: Matthew had made the flight, and there were no survivors.

The family's time together before the tragedy had been brief. A senior at Wake Forest University on an ROTC scholarship, Matthew had spent the past six weeks in training at Ft. Bragg. As a French major, he was scheduled to spend a semester studying at the University of Burgundy, though the fall term wouldn't start for another five weeks. He was on Flight 800 because he wanted to spend a month ministering in France through Youth With a Mission.

Knowing that Matthew would be gone for five months, family members were able to say many heartfelt goodbyes. "We see God's sovereignty in that," Mr. Alexander notes. "The day before he left, four of his sisters were away. He called each one of them before he left. He took probably an hour and talked to each one of them. Then at the airport he gave us that hug and kiss like he always did, and I rubbed his head on the way out like I did when he was a little boy. He never got to where he didn't like me to do that."

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