Joe Stiley, 43, of Manassas had been out of the water less than 24 hours when the first call from his office reached his hospital room. "The first question was 'How are you?' " Stiley remembers. "The second was 'What now?' "

For Stiley, in addition to directing development of new telephone and computer systems for General Telephone and Electronics in McLean, managed and directed three telecommunication-based businesses of his own--businesses leaderless without him.

"I had good people, but they were technical people," he says. "They weren't marketing people. They couldn't sign contracts. Nobody could do that but me."

A week and a thousand phone calls later, doped for the pain of his multiple leg and arm fractures and the pleurisy in his lungs, he realized from his hospital bed that 6 1/2 years of entrepreneurial "sweat equity" was "down the tube." His cash flow had vanished. He would have to lay off employes and shut down two of the companies, just as they were poised for growth.

The economic losses then and since have overshadowed for Joe Stiley many of his physical injuries. He still walks with a cane but appears more concerned that "my stamina and ability to concentrate have been substantially impacted." He is newly conscious of impermanence in general.

"When I reached the surface after the crash, all I saw were a few pieces of paper . . . ," he says. "There was no plane. It was just--gone." The starkness of that moment stays with him, Stiley says. "That was reality . . . that and the water . . . the cold."

Twenty yards away on the bridge were crowds of people dangling ropes a few agonizing feet too short, urging him to hold on and not give up. Between the survivors and those on the bridge, Stiley says, was an unspannable gulf not merely of distance but of comprehension. "What they were shouting," he says, "had no relation to the reality of our situation."