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
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."
One last call before leaving was to his 81-year-old grandmother, Helen Alexander, with whom he constantly exchanged letters throughout his college years. "He always ended his letters by saying 'Grandma, pray for me. Then he'd put 'love, Matthew.' He was very excited about going over there as a missionary. I said 'Matthew, I never can really feel relaxed on a plane.' He said, 'Oh grandma, I love to fly. I can't wait to go.'"
Because Matthew died on his way to spread the gospel, the Alexander family hopes that his death will accomplish his mission. "There's not anything that happens that's not within his permissive will," says Helen Alexander. "He has a greater purpose in it that we can't see, and he'll bring good out of it. I've been praying and praying that God would use Matthew's short life to bring people to the Lord."
As the Alexanders prayed, many others in a shocked nation were concentrating on how the crash happened. Suspicion turned almost immediately to terrorism. Flight 800 simply fell out of the sky with no warning, no call for help. Witnesses on the ground said that the plane was already engulfed in flames as it dived into the ocean. Experts said it was unlikely that any sort of mechanical failure could have caused such a sudden, catastrophic crash.
A week after the disaster, less than half the bodies had yet to be recovered, and the plane's so--called black boxes were recovered after seven days of intensive searching. An investigator said the black box recorded a "fraction-of-a-second sound just prior to the end of the tape." That gave credence to theories of terrorism, but by Friday investigators still could not rule out the possibility-however remote-of catastrophic mechanical failure. The Boeing 747 had arrived New York just hours earlier from Athens, an airport with a long history of security problems. Other theories, however, focused closer to home: By midweek, investigators were questioning personnel at various marinas in the area, trying to determine whether a surface-to-air missile might have downed the jet.
"I can't recall anything that has had a catastrophic effect like this case," said Christopher Ronay, former head of the FBI's bomb unit. Based on his 30 investigations of aircraft bombings, Ronay said Flight 800 represented a special case. Reports of a huge fireball in the sky indicate that the 48,455 gallons of fuel aboard the plane were somehow ignited. But Ronay said a bomb in the cargo hold would be unlikely to produce such an effect: "You have to blow up a fuel cell or an engine to get an explosion like that." Indeed, at least three bombings in recent years have torn gaping holes in airplanes in midair, yet the planes were somehow able to land safely.
Pan Am's 1988 disaster in the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland, was actually the exception rather than the rule, according to experts. In that case, plastic explosives hidden in a cassette recorder blew a hole in the cargo hold of the jumbo jet. At 33,000 feet, decompression was instantaneous and the plane fell to the earth in pieces.
But TWA 800 was flying at only 13,700 feet, an altitude that should have allowed the aircraft to survive simple structural damage. FBI sources said that if the plane was indeed brought down by a bomb, it was either much larger than the one in Lockerbie or it was hidden in a wing or an engine casing. Either scenario is frightening to anti-terrorism experts: A large, powerful bomb should have been detected by airport security, while a precisely placed device would indicate that terrorists had somehow gained access to the plane itself, perhaps posing as mechanics or other employees.
With 1.5 million passengers in the U.S. boarding commercial flights every day, the spectre of such sophisticated terrorism has led to new questions in the airline industry. Some have charged that security procedures at American airports are obsolete. Two French reporters claimed they breached security at JFK just four days after the crash, making their way to TWA's international departure lounge without a ticket and without passing through any security checkpoints. Others, meanwhile, point out that airport metal detectors-which were installed at a time when hijacking was the main threat to commercial flying-are ineffective in detecting today's high-tech explosives.
Without waiting for a definitive finding, President Clinton on Thursday advocated the creation of a new federal office for dealing with relatives after such disasters and announced sweeping new regulations for airline safety. Among his proposals: Increased hand searches of luggage and physical inspection of every plane arriving in or departing from the United States. Mr. Clinton also endorsed the idea of "baggage matching," an expensive, time-consuming process that ensures that every piece of checked baggage is registered to a passenger actually on the airplane. United Airlines estimated the procedure would cost $250 million at that carrier alone, with the increase to be passed on to travelers. More devastating, perhaps, would be the psychological blow. Baggage matching, after all, has long been used in hot spots like Northern Ireland, and implementing it on domestic flights would shatter Americans' illusion of safety at home.
In New York last week, the Alexanders were explaining to others the spiritual safety that faith in Christ ensures. "Two nights ago I sat down with a man who is a Muslim from Algeria," said Mr. Alexander. "He lost his cousin on the flight. I told him about Christ and left him something to read. TWA has provided escorts for us, and their efforts to comfort us opens the door for us to explain the gospel to them. My wife has shared the gospel with several ladies-one in particular who lost her daughter on the plane. And the tracts we leave out just disappear. People are definitely reading them. Only the Lord will know what fruit comes of it."
The investigation into the final moments of TWA Flight 800 will likely drag on for months. One week after the crash, only about 1 percent of the wreckage had been recovered, along with fewer than half of the 230 bodies. But long after the tragedy has faded from the headlines, the pain will continue to burn in the hearts of those left behind.
"This is a time as a family when we really need the prayers of God's people," Mr. Alexander says. "It's done a lot to teach us about suffering, and the common bond we have with humanity. We have gotten comfort even from unbelievers who are willing to cry with us. I believe that's God's common grace. At the heart of if, it's just the grace of Christ that gets us through it. He's there. He's sufficient.
"We gave Matthew to God as an infant through baptism. Now we've given him to God again. He was God's to begin with; God just took what was already his."