25 Years Later, No Place for Their Sorrow
Couple Laments Lack Of Memorial in Crash
By Michael Leahy
"I do feel Cathleen here," Bill Casey whispers hoarsely, his feet crunching piles of leaves and fallen twigs. His wife, too overwhelmed to speak, slips on some slick leaves and grabs for him, pale as snow.
"Hey, you all right?" he asks.
Celeste Casey doesn't hear, staring open-mouthed into the moist November air beyond a grove of conspicuously dwarfish trees on the other side of the skinny highway, staring, waiting for Cathleen's presence to touch her.
Cathleen is gone. Twenty-five years ago exactly, on a Sunday morning marked by fierce winds, sleet and fog, a TWA jetliner headed toward Dulles but flying too low began shearing off the tops of those little trees like so many toothpicks, careened across the road and crashed nose-first into the boulder at 180 miles an hour. People living nearby described hearing a thunderous explosion as Flight 514 "went straight into the top of the mountain," in the words of the local medical examiner.
All 92 aboard died instantly, among them 25-year-old Cathleen Casey, a recent law school graduate of the University of Detroit who worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington and dreamed of helping her six siblings through college and one day becoming a judge.
"When I think of her, I think she probably would have been damn tough," Bill Casey says sideways to his wife, anxious to break this silence, looking for levity in the form of a needle. "Like you."
"Nasty like her mother," Celeste answers obligingly, her bright blue eyes not leaving the sky.
Celeste, a former high school home economics teacher with hair the hue of a red autumn leaf and Irish skin the color of porcelain, is blunt, curt, tough. But nothing will ever make her tough enough for the sight of this eight-foot-tall, 40-foot-wide boulder, which will forever be a reminder of Ground Zero but will never satisfy the Caseys as a fitting memorial to their daughter and those who died with her.
"You know, we never looked," she says finally, fingering the cross dangling from around her neck. What she means is, neither she nor Bill ever viewed their daughter's remains, which the 71-year-old Celeste now regrets because, as a result, it's as if the Ohio cemetery holding Cathleen's body holds nothing, and these faraway Virginia woods contain everything.
Her last breath, her last glimpse, her last thought . . . happened here. Consequently, her spirit must be here as well, her parents reason. Deer roam the land, golden leaves fall in exquisite solitude, the place is testament to the sublime pleasures of being alive. For the Caseys, it only makes this a more painful place to contemplate death.
So much for closure.
"Closure," thinks Bill Casey, is one of those words we create for feel-good emotions we wish we could summon, or pretend to. "I'm still not there," he says. "Especially with the way this looks."
He gestures with a broad hand at a twisted, rusted hunk of metal lying nearby, lingering testimony to the horror of that other December 1. The Then and Now of things sometimes merge frighteningly for him. A newcomer to the scene sees merely a boulder and woods, but Casey sees chilling images from 25 years ago: the jet's TWA logo cut in half, a mashed engine cowling hanging from one tree, a blouse dangling from another.
There were body parts scattered 100 yards past the boulder; rescue workers found wrapped Christmas presents amid the debris. Nine days after the crash, when the Caseys arrived by car to view the scene, there were still clothes and personal items everywhere, including a pair of pants that Bill Casey will never forget: zipped and clasped and hanging on a high tree branch, as if a man transformed into a human missile had been neatly lifted out of them without leaving a crease.
The black boulder sits a few yards east of Highway 601, the winding country road that separates Loudoun and Clarke counties. Sparsely populated back then, the area has seen new homes pop up in recent years. But where the jet hit, nothing has changed really.
Casey looks around at what is holy ground to him. There are still small chunks of the 727 scattered in the woods--sea-green pieces of metal with holes where rivets belong, and scorched strips of the plane's decorative wallpaper.
But what infuriates the Caseys is what has happened here since the crash, what has been dumped and defiled: jagged shards of broken soda and beer bottles litter the area, and lovers have scrawled their names on the big boulder. Across the road, someone has tossed a load of bald tires.
It feels like a desecration to 75-year-old Bill Casey, especially when he contrasts it to the reverence paid the sites of recent airline disasters such as that of EgyptAir Flight 990, off Nantucket Island, where the Coast Guard solemnly dropped a memorial wreath and flowers from grieving family members soon after the Oct. 31 crash.
"This place didn't get any wreath," Casey says, pointing to the only thing suggestive of sympathy here, two long-stemmed artificial roses stuck into a fissure in the boulder by an anonymous mourner. "Otherwise, not a damn thing."
Compounding Casey's anger is the knowledge that relatives of the victims of TWA Flight 800, which blew up off Long Island in 1996, will be getting financial assistance from New York in constructing a $1.26 million two-acre memorial.
"People ignore this place when every other fallen plane these days gets the attention it deserves," Casey snaps.
There were no obligatory yellow ribbons in 1974, nor any of the instantaneous outpourings of national mourning so familiar today after such communal tragedies as Oklahoma City and Columbine. For the stricken relatives of Flight 514's victims, there were no grief counselors, no efforts by the airline to bring family members to the crash scene. "No reverence," Bill Casey says.
He has an idea how to "make things right," as he puts it. "I'd like to see these woods cleaned up and some kind of plaque erected. It's a disgrace to have it looking this. It's like nothing more than a bunch of animals died here."
For Casey, a retired credit manager for John Deere, building a proper memorial to Flight 514 has become his life's mission. He sought support from Vice President Gore a year ago, only to receive a letter from a National Park Service official noting that the government does not own these woods.
Marie Addi does. Addi, who lives in Fairfax, and her now-deceased husband were called to the site the night of the crash. "You could see the wiring of the jet, and clothes everywhere," she said. "It was like being in another world."
Hoping to sell her undeveloped land someday, Addi worries that even a small memorial on the state-owned right of way along Highway 601 might attract gawkers and scavengers, disturbing the tranquillity, lowering her property's value.
"I sympathize with the [Casey] family," she said, "but I don't know what a plaque would do for them. . . . If I were in their shoes, I'd find something besides a public marker, something like a living memorial that does something for somebody."
Addi's response elicits a sigh from Bill Casey. "If people in authority knew what we and other victims' families went through, they'd reconsider this," he says. "There's been very little sensitivity from that first day."
Dec. 1, 1974, was a snowy Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, where the Caseys, a large Catholic clan, were concluding their Thanksgiving weekend. Cathleen went to church that morning with her mother and a sister, then headed for the airport, her father driving, her mother reading a newspaper. "I think Cathy had an omen," Celeste says. "She got a little annoyed seeing me looking over the paper. She said, 'You shouldn't be reading when I'm about to go.' "
November had been a traumatic month for Cathleen. Just 12 days earlier, while she sat in her car outside her Washington apartment, a robber put a sawed-off shotgun to her head and pulled the trigger, only to have the gun jam. A week before that, her apartment was burglarized. "What it's done to my emotional state can never be measured," Cathleen wrote a friend. " . . . I've never looked worse in my life, or been as jumpy."
Celeste recalls: "I wish we'd had more time to talk that morning. . . . But, thinking it was late, we got to the airport, pretty much just said goodbye and then Bill and I went home."
Flight 514, which had taken off from Indianapolis with 46 aboard, picked up Cathleen Casey and 45 other travelers in Columbus, and headed for Washington's National Airport. Thirty-five Washington area residents were on the plane, including recently retired Army Brig. Gen. Roscoe C. Cartwright, one of the first six African Americans to attain star rank.
Troublesome crosswinds forced flight controllers to divert the flight to Dulles. Recorded cockpit conversations revealed that, on approach to the airport, the 727's pilots expressed confusion to each other over what altitude to take.
Later, in addition to blaming the crew, crash investigators faulted air-traffic control procedures and the Federal Aviation Administration for the absence of clear instructions and adequate flight charts.
TWA remained mute about the catastrophe for hours, even as television and radio stations reported the 11:09 a.m. crash. "We don't have anything to tell you," the Caseys remember a TWA employee saying. "Your daughter is probably walking around a terminal for all we know."
Bill Casey's upper lip trembles at the memory. "It was inhumane the way they treated us. It wasn't until 1:30 in the morning that they sent two guys out to talk to us."
Mary Lou Deeg, whose husband, Donald Jerger, was on Flight 514, has a similar recollection. "I learned he was dead from the TV," recalls Deeg, who lives in Indiana, noting that airlines are "much more caring" today.
Relatives of EgyptAir's victims, for example, were met by 40 grief counselors. One of them, the Salvation Army's Darren Mudge, says: "It's hard to imagine how someone gets by losing a loved one that way without some help. . . . Society came to the realization that you couldn't leave these people stranded."
That realization came too late to help the Caseys, who will next turn to the State of Virginia for help in getting a memorial. State transportation officials say they have no policy for roadside monuments. Del. Eric I. Cantor (R-Henrico), who has unsuccessfully pushed for them, says, "I thought it was mom and apple pie. But some people worry about cost; others wonder whether it's morbid."
The Caseys resolve to push on, not undaunted so much as haunted. They don't expect anything as grand and illusory as closure, they say, just a modest road sign, a little peace for the spirits they feel hovering here.
They walk amid the jagged glass, not speaking for several minutes--even chatter feels inappropriate here. Bill bends to pick up some oak leaves. Then he reaches for a few chunks that have come off the boulder, and turns to Celeste.
"Want these for your garden?"
She shakes her head. "No." A small shudder. Heading down the hill, she turns with a last thought that she wants to get out before it slips away with everything else that's been taken from her here.
"In this world," she says, "there's a lot of--what's the word I'm looking for?--indifference, you know? A sign could let people know, 'Let's be kind to each other. Life is short.' Isn't that worth it?" Her hand sweeps over the shattered pop bottles. "Isn't that better than this?"
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
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