First came the stunning news, then the painful days of waiting for a phone call confirming that the body had been recovered, then the trip to the morgue, followed by the ritual details and decisions that death demands of survivors.
Yesterday, Susan Corbin Fusco, a 53-year-old Riverdale kindergarten teacher killed when an Air Florida plane crashed into the Potomac, was buried in a Prince George's County cemetery. For her son and daughter and husband of nearly 31 years, the burial marked the end of one ordeal and the beginning of another.
In the immediate aftermath of their loss, members of the Fusco family clung to each other and to friends who filled their home in Bowie, bringing food and answering phones and remembering Susan, by all accounts a rather extraordinary everyday person. Like the families and friends of the airliner crash's 77 other victims, they have learned about catastrophe.
"You know what happens?" her husband, Gene, said after taking a phone call from a well-wisher in West Virginia over the weekend. "You wind up comforting people who are comforting you."
In the eight days and nights since the crash, he and his children's emotions ranged from the initial shock over their loss, to anger at news reports that they felt did not do her justice, to anguish over how she died and resignation that she would never return to the three-bedroom rambler, to a poodle named Bambi, a 16-year-old son named Adam, a 22-year-old married daughter, Pamela Farrell, and the husband who had driven her to the airport last Wednesday.
"I keep reviewing it in my mind," Gene Fusco said in their den, his original notes about his wife's flight arrangements scribbled on sheets of yellow paper still lying nearby. "I keep thinking about going back after I left and saying, 'Sue, this is crazy. Why fly in this weather?' "
Susan Fusco was going to a teachers training institute in Tampa and had almost left the night before but, as her husband said later, "It just didn't work out." Normally, he would have left her at the boarding gate in the airport, but circumstances did not permit it, so he drove away and heard about the crash on the car radio as he was returning to his office in the U.S. Department of Education.
He wound up at the Twin Bridges Marriott Motor Hotel with the relatives of the other plane crash victims, called his children in Maryland and his mother-in-law in Connecticut, then drove home "and had a very bad night." The following day, Thursday, the telephone rang incessantly with calls from friends and relatives in Anchorage, Phoenix, San Diego, Sarasota and closer to home.
Among the callers was Vincent Reed, the former D.C. school superintendent and now a high-ranking member of Fusco's department. " 'Be strong,' he says," Fusco said, recalling the conversation to two teaching colleagues of his wife when they came to the house. "That was an order. I said, 'Yes, sir.' That was that."
There were others. Almost every afternoon, a representative of Air Florida called to ask if there was anything the airline could do. And one day, a lawyer from California phoned to offer his services in the litigation that is bound to come.
Thursday night, Adam Fusco, who is in the "talented and gifted" program at Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, had what his father termed an "anxiety attack." Daughter Pamela and her husband, Timothy, moved temporarily into the Fusco home while their 18-month-old son, Jason, was farmed out to friends.
Throughout the week, the television stayed on almost constantly in the family room, bringing no good news but serving as an electronic link to the outside world. "I don't like to see the survivors, you know," Pamela said. "I keep saying, 'Why couldn't she be one.' " Much of the time, Adam sat staring at the TV screen but not watching what was on it. "I don't pay much attention to it, anyway," he said.
A network television crew arrived Friday at the Fusco home, along with the first batch of sympathy cards. Within a few days, they would nearly fill a shoebox. The family was buoyed also by the establishment of two memorial funds, one by the PTA at Beacon Heights Elementary School where Susan Fusco taught, to be used for a scholarship, the other at her husband's office.
Despite his grief, Gene Fusco had other concerns. As acting division director for review of Title I funds in the Department of Education, he worried about a report due to Congress by Feb. 1 on how his department spent $3 billion in 1981 to educate poor children. Last year, he said, nobody cared, but that was before the Reagan administration proposed putting his program into a block grant for the states to use as they see fit. This year, he hoped Congress would read the report.
Fusco planned a trip to his office Sunday to work on the document, but the phone call he had been waiting for--telling him that his wife's body had been recovered--finally came at 11:30 a.m. So he went to D.C. General Hospital instead. His daughter, son-in-law and Bill Boyer, a close friend, went with him. Boyer looked at the facial photograph by which positive identification of the body was made. They did not have to look, Boyer told them, and they didn't. Husband and daughter said they appreciated the sensitive way the identification was handled.
Susan Fusco's was the third body recovered from the river, they learned. She was still wearing the "I Am Loved" charm her husband gave her. Police said she had died on impact, a fact the family found comforting. "I couldn't bear to think of her strapped in her seat, struggling to get out," Fusco said.
"It's been a difficult day, but I feel relieved this stage is over," he said Sunday night. "I feel badly for the relatives who have more painful days to go through waiting for the phone call I received today."
All around the house were memories of his wife. "That's the side Sue slept on," he said, pointing to one side of their king-sized bed. "I don't think I'll ever sleep on that side." Then, there were the closets that were filled with her clothes. "It all began with Susie having this side," he said, laughing. "Over time, she took over the whole thing."
She loved to cook, especially with fresh fruits and vegetables that he grew in their garden. A file cabinet next to her side of the bed contained folders of recipes, and the light switch in the kitchen said "Susan's Kitchen." There were the scrapbooks, too, half a dozen of them Susan had made and saved from 1943 through their wedding in 1951, with faded photos and crumbling corsages.
The son of Italian immigrants and the daughter of Yankee bluebloods, they had met in 10th grade English in New Britain, Conn. "I've never really known another woman," Fusco said, and friends who tried to fill the void said they still acted like newlyweds after three decades of marriage.
Fellow teachers who visited Saturday night joked with Gene about her nickname at school, "Mama Fusco." "She was a stabilizing force," said Ed Diggs. "She was like the rock of Gibraltar," said Bernice Goldich. "You're like your mom, you know that, Adam?" she said. "You look like her and you have the same staying power." Adam smiled at that.
Susan Fusco, although she did not herself have a drinking problem, devoted much of her energies to helping others through Alcoholics Anonymous, and recollections of several persons she helped filled the kitchen Sunday night. "Susan showed me what love really is," one woman said. "When I was at my lowest, she would just know and call," said a second. "She invited me to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner," a man said. "Nobody ever did that for me."
Adam, who had been listening, left the room, to cry. His sister returned with a message. "Adam wanted you to know," she told a visitor, the testimonials were "not just talk; they're for real."
A few minutes later, people put on their coats to go, and Pamela said, "I'll tell you, what's hard for me is when people start leaving."
Once the body had been identified, there were details and decisions to give form and structure to the lives of the Fusco family. They chose six pallbearers. They chose a walnut casket and red roses. And, although the casket would be closed, they had to choose the garment in which she would be buried. They settled on the black evening dress she loved, the one she wore New Year's Eve. She would wear no shoes, Gene Fusco reported.
"Whenever I've thought of this, it all seems so overwhelming," said Fusco. "I've been at funerals and wondered how it all went so smoothly."
Tuesday and Wednesday, his three brothers drove down from Connecticut along with their 79-year-old mother. Late Wednesday, friends and relatives gathered at the Beall Funeral Home in Bowie to view the casket. Yesterday, they returned for the service before driving to the Maryland Veterans Cemetery in Cheltenham for the burial.
An overnight snow had closed Prince George's schools, so several of Susan Fusco's fellow teachers and her principal were able to attend. Some of her kindergarten pupils had discussed the crash, the substitute teacher said, but others were too upset and covered their ears.
Ed Diggs, her teaching colleague, gave the eulogy. At the Fuscos' request, the Rev. Daniel C. Henderson, a family friend, read Susan Fusco's favorite prayer. It was the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, and to all those who knew her, it seemed to best express her view of life.
"Lord," Henderson recited, "make me a channel of peace that where there is hatred, I may bring love . . . where there is despair I may bring hope . . . where there is sadness I may bring joy . . . Lord, grant that I may seek to comfort, rather than to be comforted . . . It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life."