In New York, Adel Shehata, left, tries to comfort Soheir Makrey, whose brother, Samay Makrey, was a passenger on the downed EgyptAir flight.

Said Abaza of Alexandria, Egypt, displays his EgyptAir Flight 990 ticket as he poses with 1-year-old grandchild Islam Mohamed in his daughter's Brooklyn apartment. His daughter had persuaded him to stay in New York an extra week to visit with family members instead of taking the flight.

At 5 a.m. yesterday, employees started trickling into the Boston office of Grand Circle Travel to begin the grim task of telephoning the families of 54 Americans who had boarded EgyptAir Flight 990 for the first leg of a two-week tour called "Ancient Egypt and the Nile."

By 7 a.m., priests, rabbis and five Muslim clerics were arriving at a sixth-floor meeting room of the Ramada Plaza Hotel on the perimeter of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to comfort the family and friends of the ill-fated passengers, who would stream in--stunned and tearful--throughout the day.

In Egypt, meanwhile, a trio of airline representatives threw a cloth over a table in the restaurant of the Cairo airport and sat down with a list of confirmed passengers. Television crews, doctors and nurses hovered nearby, poised to chronicle--or to console--loved ones in their first moments of grief.

The rituals of mourning were scattered widely yesterday as the reality of the latest air disaster began sinking in. Of the 199 passengers, 15 crew members and three other airline employees who are believed to have perished when the aircraft plunged into the chilly waters off the New England coast, most were Americans. The plane also carried 62 Egyptians, three Syrians, two Sudanese and a Chilean. The assistant publisher of Montreal's daily newspaper, La Presse, and his wife were on board, as well.

A Maryland couple were believed to have been among the passengers. Arthur Simermeyer, 72, a retired deputy commissioner for Social Security, and his wife, Marie Simermeyer, 60, of Randallstown, were "loving and caring people" who were very involved with their church and tried to help people who were less fortunate, their family said in a statement.

"We have not received official word from the airline but we are awaiting word before making further comment," the statement said.

Others aboard included a Colorado House clerk from Denver, a retired Maine couple who celebrated their first wedding anniversary a week ago, a retired insurance executive, his wife and a widowed friend from Connecticut, and a Minnesota native whose son said she was taking the "trip of a lifetime," the Associated Press reported.

Standing outside the Ramada in New York at mid-afternoon, Adel Shehata clutched a photograph of a smiling young man wearing a goatee, a dark tuxedo and white rose boutonniere. It was his cousin Samay Makrey, a 28-year-old engineer, at a wedding overlooking the Hudson River less than two months ago. Makrey had been on the EgyptAir flight, heading home to Alexandria, Egypt, after a summer with his sister in New Jersey.

"Samay . . . loved everybody from his heart," Shehata told a crowd of reporters. Someone asked whether he still was hoping for a miracle. He swallowed hard. "Yes," he replied. But hours after the first bits of the broken plane had been found in the ocean, he didn't look as if he meant it.

Makrey's sister, Soheir Makrey, dressed in a long tunic, wailed, then collapsed in front of a thicket of television cameras outside the hotel.

"Sometimes, we face that we are helpless," said Ashrafuzzaman Khan, president of the Islamic Circle of North America, based in Queens, and one of the Muslim clerics who arrived at the Ramada yesterday morning to help soothe the grief-stricken with prayer.

Khan said he had met with "a woman who lost a sister and has no family now in the world. Another man lost his parents. Nobody knows anything. Everybody is sad. But we have to put our faith in God."

More than 100 people, friends and relatives of 16 of the plane's passengers, authorities said, happened upon an incongruously festive scene as they rushed into the Ramada. They threaded their way through guests costumed for a Halloween party and other boys and girls dressed for a children's beauty pageant.

At the airport itself, where Flight 990 had taken off at 1:19 a.m., the atmosphere was quieter. The terminal where EgyptAir is located was roped off, and a half-dozen security officers were lined up outside, admitting only people who had plane tickets. "This is a very hard day," said one airline employee, who declined to give his name. He said he had worked overnight and had watched the passengers of the doomed flight board their plane.

There was a smattering of brighter news. Ed McLaughlin is the sole passenger who is known to have boarded Flight 990 when it originated in Los Angeles but not to have continued on from New York. McLaughlin, a grief counselor, works for the Family Enterprise Institute, which helps airlines notify the relatives of accident victims. Yesterday afternoon, he participated in a New York news conference describing the company's role in the latest crash but did not mention that he had been on a leg of the flight.

There were fleeting glimpses of relief elsewhere, too. Mostafa Abu Ghar rushed to the airport in Cairo to check on the fate of a neighbor whose wife expected the worst. Her husband had been in New York on business and was thought to be coming home on Flight 990. He wasn't, it turned out.

But such moments were rare.

Fakry Hassan's 22-year-old nephew had telephoned from New York to tell his family that his flight, carrying him home from a business training seminar, would be slightly delayed. "He said, 'We will be flying in two hours,' " Hassan said at the Cairo airport. "Then I heard the news. . . . Everything has gone black. I don't know if he is alive . . . or under the water."

Nearby, women and men wailed and screamed. One man rubbed the neck of his friend, who bowed his head in silent grief after confirming that his brother had been on the flight. The company's beleaguered public relations director asked one of the waiting doctors to check his blood pressure.

The plane's disappearance was a shock, too, to the employees of Grand Circle Corp., a company that has specialized for more than four decades in what its marketing literature touts as "unique experiences for seasoned travelers" and caters to people over 50.

Yesterday, with its 54 Cairo-bound clients accounting for nearly half of the American passengers, the company found itself, instead, setting up a crisis team in New York and offering free transportation and hotel rooms to grieving relatives who wanted to gather there.

"It's shocking news to give somebody," said Alan E. Lewis, chief executive of the company, whose employees planned to keep making telephone calls throughout the night. "It's very hard stuff for us."

Staff writer Liz Leyden in New York and special correspondent Pamela Ferdinand in Boston contributed to this report. Goldstein reported from Washington, Schneider from Cairo.