Memorial for Victims of Flight 800 Set to Open
Newsday (New York)
July 14, 2002 Sunday
By Daphne Sashin
In the four years it took to build the TWA Flight 800 International Memorial at Smith Point County Park, there were moments when John Seaman wasn’t sure he would ever realize his vision.
Like the time Seaman, 53, spent eight days explaining to an excavator that he wanted rolling hills that gently curved around the memorial, just high enough that visitors who sat on one of the stone benches overlooking the beach would see the approximate spot in the ocean where the Paris-bound plane crashed off Moriches Inlet on July 17, 1996.
“[He] couldn’t see it in [his] mind’s eye,” said Seaman, a director of the Families of TWA Flight 800 Association Inc., the force behind the memorial. Undeterred, Seaman – whose 19-year-old niece, Michele Becker, was among the 230 killed – went out with a bulldozer and sculpted the mulch himself.
The result of this and other battles, to be unveiled today just in time for the crash’s sixth anniversary on Wednesday, is a $4-million, two-acre memorial and botanical garden on donated county land, designed by Bay Shore architect David Busch and paid for with cash gifts and in-kind contributions.
At its center lies a curved granite wall, 12 feet high and 28 feet long, with the names of the 230 victims engraved on one side. On the other side, which faces the Atlantic Ocean, an artist has etched a froth of sea turning into 230 soaring doves. Benches with inscribed dedications are scattered throughout the space, which is framed by a large curved wooden trellis. Fourteen flags line one entrance, representing countries that lost people in the crash.
The fruit of Seaman’s dedication, victims’ family members said, is a soothing, contemplative space.
“I don’t know how to describe the relief,” said Jim Hurd of Severn, Md., who lost his 29-year-old son, Jamie, and who has worked with Seaman and Seaman’s wife, Eleanor, to build the memorial.
“When I’m here, I’m really closest to where my son was last at, and really where most of him is, ’cause they just didn’t find a lot of him,” Hurd said.
Nearly every weekend for the past year, Seaman, who works full-time building computer systems, and his wife have driven to the Shirley site from their home in upstate Clifton Park.
On a bright day last week, Seaman, who grew up in Setauket, was wearing what has become his standard uniform, a collage of his life since the crash. Over his heart lay a pin depicting an angel spread over a white bow, which he and Eleanor made for the fifth anniversary. His yellow T-shirt, which read “Success Through Teamwork,” was a gift from the divers who spent four months after the plane went down searching for bodies. His faded blue jeans were caked with dirt from thousands of hours of planting, mulching and digging.
But it took more than gardening for the memorial to take root.
There were the appointments with granite experts who scoffed at the concept of a giant curved granite wall, unusual in its scope. After Seaman finally found a company that would take on the project, it took another five months to quarry the six 13-by-5-foot blocks needed.
“We never did a wall of that magnitude,” said Eric Boussiere, president of Polycor Memorials, the San Sebastien, Quebec, firm that did the job. Normally, the company quarries blocks of 8-by-4 feet, which take only a day to recover.
Once the construction began, some contractors would not attempt the complicated task of laying the intricate pattern of stones that had been planned for under the wooden trellis framing the site. Each piece had to be fitted exactly in place – only an eighth of an inch apart.
“An architect can draw anything on paper,” said Mark Meyer, one of the Navy reservists who took over construction in April from crews of volunteer union laborers and spent more than a month placing the stone. “They didn’t take into consideration some of the variances in the stone. They may look the same, but one may be longer, wider, or thicker. Their differences made it tough to kind of lay out.”
Seaman, with the help of family members and volunteers, surmounted every obstacle to create what he calls a “subliminal comfort zone.”
But for him, there’s more to be done. More flowers have to be planted, he is working with Suffolk officials to develop a plan to protect the memorial from the elements, and he hopes to someday raise the money for a sculpture to mark the spot under which a vault of unclaimed personal effects from the victims has been buried.
“It’s not a park, it’s not a garden, it’s not a memorial. It’s more than all that,” Seaman said. “We wanted to shoot for something extraordinary because it was an extraordinary event. And it was 230 people that we loved.”
About the Memorial
The TWA Flight 800 International Memorial at Smith Point County Park in Shirley is open daily, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
To get there, eastbound visitors can take Southern State Parkway to Route 27 to the William Floyd Parkway. Westbound travelers, can take Route 27 to the William Floyd Parkway.
To make contributions or sponsor memorial bricks, which cost $150 and $300, make checks payable to: Families of TWA Flight 800 Association Inc., P.O. Box 800, Center Moriches, NY 11934.