More than a week after a New York-bound jet crashed on takeoff here, relatives of its American passengers still shuttle between a resort hotel in nearby Torremolinos and the cemetery chapel's sacristy where a Spanish forensic team continues the grim task of identifying the remains.
"There are two kinds of relatives" left here, said a U.S. official: "Those of the living, who are simply grateful, and those of the dead, who are totally distraught and casting about."
By Monday night, only 28 of the 51 victims had been identified. That same day, 32 injured U.S. nationals had been flown out along with 37 relatives on a C141 Medevac Air Force jet to McGuire Air Force Base, N.J. The relatives of the dead stayed here.
The DC10 owned by the Spanish charter company Spantax crashed when the pilot aborted takeoff and overshot the runway onto a sugar-cane field. The jet was carrying a full load of 380 passengers and a crew of 13. The tail section ignited and the victims were trapped in the rear, where the doors failed to open. Three Spantax stewardesses who tried to open them were among the dead.
Eva Bohorquez, 28, a Colombian national long resident in Queens, N.Y., is a relative still in Malaga who has experienced the joy that her sister Cristina, 20, survived and the shock that their mother, Elvia, sitting in the row behind Cristina, died.
Arriving in Malaga within 24 hours of the crash, Eva Bohorquez had the advantage of being able to make herself understood in Spanish. She vividly recalls nonetheless the confused anguish over who had survived, who was in what hospital, who was missing and presumed dead. It took her four full days to identify her mother and another two to collect the necessary papers for transportation of the coffin back to New York.
Initially some U.S. nationals, arriving in Malaga to search for their loved ones, phoned back horror stories to their relatives in America. They told of autopsies being performed in front of relatives, of morticians ignorant of how to carry out dental identifications, of bodies being released without proper identification, of widespread despair that there would ever be identifications at all.
As days went by, the first impression of frustrating horror was rectified.
"The investigation is being handled beautifully. We're very pleased," said one earlier complainer.
Bohorquez bitterly recalled that at first she mistakenly -- and with some doubts -- identified her mother: "They opened a coffin to show me a woman who was not burned and who looked just like her," she said.
A dental bridge and fingerprints brought from New York established that her mother was in another coffin.
Said a Spanish police forensic expert at the cemetery: "People so much want to identify as soon as possible and few can cope [with the fact]that whatever it is they are looking for is completely charred and unrecognizable."
A particular horror in the days that followed the crash was the absence until Friday of any semblance of an accurate passenger list. Said an American living near Malaga who volunteered to help arriving relatives as a translator: "On the Tuesday night there was an American in the Spantax office at the airport crying, 'The list, the list, they won't give me the list.' His sister was identified dead on Friday and his brother-in-law is in intensive care."
In any event, the list was hardly a valid one. It was incomplete because some passengers had boarded the plane in Madrid and others at the Malaga stopover en route to New York. When it was pieced together it was a jumble of misspelled and incomplete names.
Said an official assisting the survivors: "Airlines ought to be required to have a more detailed and comprehensive passenger list. A degree of extraordinary distress could have been averted had this been a standing regulation."
One of the problems was that several survivors, in the absence of lists, were classified as missing. Some had wandered off in a daze without reporting to authorities. Two U.S. citizens made their way to the Riviera Hotel in Torremolinos, where a U.S. State Department command post had been established, and locked themselves up in a room for two days before being identified.
Compounding the horror was the strangeness felt by relatives in a foreign country. The general feeling was there were delays and incompetence.
"A lot of people said, why don't they do this or that," said an American volunteer in Malaga, "why doesn't this or that happen like in the States?" Eva Bohorquez recalled: "There were no timetables; you didn't know when the hangar [where the corpses were first placed] would open for us to inspect personal effects, or when the judge's office would review identifications" for the death certificates.
Hospital facilities drew strong praise, however, from U.S. officials and particular tribute was paid to the manner in which all 32 patients, several of them stretcher cases, were smoothly brought on time to the Medevac flight.
For those relatives who remain, the chapel and sacristy of the San Miguel cemetery have become a gruesome focal point.
In the chapel is a semicircle of coffins with the bodies still unidentified. Laid out on a table in the adjoining sacristy are numbered plastic boxes containing about 20 jawbones. The police hand relatives two photo albums. One contains shots of, in most cases, charcoal human forms. Most of the bodies were not discovered until the blaze was fully under control, four hours after the crash. The other album has shots of watches, rings, earrings -- each with numbers corresponding to the photographs in the first album and the plastic boxes containing the jawbones.
The police appear sympathetic, the relatives resigned. At the sugar cane field where the plane crashed, the burned stalks have already been rolled over with new earth.