One month after the world's worst air disaster at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, the last victims, their bodies burned beyond recognition, were brought here today to be buried together.
With a 77-member red-robed choir singing above the noise of the nearby southern California freeways, a single red rose for each victim was placed in a bouquet as the 117 names were read by a cemetery official. About 400 relatives or friends of the victims attending the 45-minutes service stood in a large semicircle as two young Boy Scouts laid the bouquet in front of the eight rows of large white coffins.
Each of the whitewashed concrete and steel burial vaults contained the remains or partial remains of a victim of the flamming crash, cemetery official Samuel Douglass told reporters. In addition, Douglass said six victims' bodies had been separated and placed in coffins banked with flowers. "It's sort of like Unknown Soldier," said a cemetery official. "These are representative of all the victims." The final death toll was 580.
Each of the bodies will be buried in an individual grave in the 160-acre Westmister Memorial Park, a private cemetery in this Orange County community. Airline officials said 80 per cent of the 321 passengers who perished on the Pan American World Airways 747 came from Southern California. Nine Pan American crew members were also killed on the plane.
None of the 66 persons who survived the crash, all of them passengers of crew on the Pan Am plane, was present at today's funeral service, the Pan Am official said.
The Pan Am jumbo jet and a KLM 747 collided on a fog-shrouded runway at Tenerife's Los Rodeos Airport March 27. A preliminary investigation of the collision indicated that the pilot of the KLM airplane apparently started to take off without final authorization of the airport's control tower and plowed into the Pan Am plane, which was taxiing farther down the runaway.
Most of those abroad the Pan Am plane were retired persons headed for a Mediterranean cruise. Their relatives were flown here for today's burial serve by Pan Am, and the airline said it was paying for the entire service. A cemetery official said the coffins cost about $1,700 each, and the plots for the 117 crash victims were donated by the cemetery.
The cemetery is in Orange County about 30 miles south of Los Angeles and another 30 miles from Rossmoor Leisure World, a retirement community where 21 of the crash victims lived. Many of the onlookers at the service today were elderly and arrived in large buses chartered by Pan Am.
Elsie Crane, 71, a resident of Tuftin, Calif., said her only sister and brother-in-law were among the crash victims. The body of her brother-in-law, Milton Adams, a retired official of the United California Bank, was identified, and Adams was buried last week, she said. But her sister, Edna Adams, was not among those crash victims identified and was buried here today.
"It's a terrible thing never to know where she is," said Crane. "We gave the airline people everything we had to try to help, but there was no way."
Investigators are still attempting to identify those victims buried here today through X-rays and medical records, said Derek C. McWhinney, general manager of the cemetery. McWhinney said that if any positive identification was made the victim could be disinterred and moved elsewhere, or a plaque with their name would be erected on the grave.
The remaining graves will be numbered with a single plaque listing all the names of crash victims buried here, McWhinney said.
This is not a mass burial," he said. "We will dig one grave at a time and lower each casket individually. We are trying to handle each of these as an individual burial to give each person the dignity they deserve."
The cemetery official estimated it would take two days to complete all the burials.