On the windswept tarmac of John F. Kennedy International Airport today, Adel Shehata squinted in the sunlight as he led a procession of mourners toward the next phase of their grief.
Shehata, whose cousin Samy Makary was among the 217 passengers who died in the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 early Sunday, was among scores of other relatives boarding a flight to Providence, R.I., where they hope to be united with the remains of their loved ones and to get answers to what caused the aircraft to plunge into the Atlantic Ocean.
Like hundreds of other families in the six home countries of Flight 990's passengers, these relatives had been told to prepare for the long and heartbreaking period to come. They must gather medical and dental records to help identify the dead--"anything that would be helpful in identifying their loved ones," said New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who sat with and spoke to the relatives before today's departure.
Similar rituals, intensely personal but starkly public, are being played out in other cities around the world that have been touched by the crash. On board the Boeing 767-300ER jet were 106 Americans, 62 Egyptians, 22 Canadians, three Syrians, two Sudanese and one passenger from Chile.
Two infants were on board, as were two Egyptian generals who were among about 30 Egyptian military personnel aboard the flight who had been in the United States to discuss helicopter contracting issues.
There was an 80-year-old woman from Chicago who was headed to Egypt as a birthday gift to herself, two couples from Maryland's Eastern Shore and another from outside of Baltimore. And four Egyptian teenagers and their adult chaperon were headed home to Luxor after a two-week exchange program at a Baltimore high school.
Government investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board, now overseeing the search effort from a command center in Providence, said today that their operation is a search, not a rescue, indicating little hope that survivors would be found. As of this afternoon, only one body had been recovered.
But people who have spoken with several relatives said some of the families cannot grasp the uncertainties of this ritual of grief. Even as they moved closer to the scene of the crash, families held out hope that they would at least encounter their loved one's remains in Rhode Island. The recovery of bodies could take days if not weeks--if remains are recovered at all.
"We just pray to God [that] we can find his body," Sayed Ismail of Los Angeles said of his 33-year-old brother, Hussein Ismail, an Egyptian businessman who was among the downed plane's passengers. "We hope we find the bodies and I take him to his mother. . . . She will drop dead, but we hope in God."
Tamer Omar's brother, Hesham Omar, 38, a flight officer who was not part of the crew, died in the crash. Tamer Omar also intended to recover his relative's body and return it home. The two brothers traveled to the United States together and had taken pictures while sightseeing around New York before separating for individual travel. Hasham Omar went to Los Angeles with fellow EgyptAir crew members; Tamer was in Cleveland when he learned of the EgyptAir crash.
"I've just come here to know what happened," Tamer Omar said. "I don't know a lot of things."
His friend, George Arian, publisher of an Egyptian newspaper, Donia Al-Arab News, in New Jersey and New York, said many relatives do not yet understand what lies ahead of them.
"They think it's gonna be, like, a day," said Arian, who helped to console several of the relatives here. Some people here expect that searchers "are going to go find bodies and wait for them [the families] to just ID them," he said.
In private discussions with families at the Ramada Plaza Hotel near Kennedy airport, experts on disasters and grief counseled the bereaved on what to expect. And medical personnel are here for relatives of the victims who need relief from headache pain or who cannot sleep.
Most of the family concerns center on when they will learn more information about the crash and when they will be able to see their loved ones' remains.
"For many families, the recovery of remains becomes a major priority because it is tangible evidence" of death, said Robert Wingate, a counselor with the Red Cross. "Sometimes it helps families realize tangibly what has happened."
Four of the dead had spent the past two weeks at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore. Fawzy Sameh, 15, Sameer Walaa, 19, Badaway Ahmed, 13, and Hossameldin Gihad, 13, had their farewell dinner on Friday. Afterward, they had one last request, and that was to go shopping once more before leaving the United States.
"They loved the malls. They went all the time, to several of them," said Dunbar Principal Joyce Jennings.
The quartet was popular at school, she said. Today, over the school's public announcement system, Jennings told the student body that "It's okay to grieve. It's okay to cry. It's part of the healing process."
Three Maryland couples also were killed: Arthur Simermeyer, 72, and his wife, Marie Simermeyer, 60, of Randallstown near Baltimore; Donald and Jeanne "Bea" Heck and John and Joann Schelpert, all of Chestertown.
Among themselves, some families have discussed their fears about why such a series of crashes has occurred with planes pursuing a northeast flight path on liftoff from Kennedy. Arian said relatives were discussing the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, which crashed in an area near Flight 990, and the Swissair crash of 1998, which went down off the Nova Scotia coast in Canada, but also had flown the northeast path out of Kennedy.
"There's something going on up there," Arian said. "The families are talking about it, even a policeman is talking about it." Another man, Mohamed Hakim, a Brooklyn travel agent who said he had ticketed a few of the passengers on flight 990, compared the crash area to the so-called Bermuda Triangle. Both men were alluding to the conspiracy theories about the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, in which 230 people died. Conspiracy theories have abounded that a missile caused it to explode. That crash, however, was ruled to have been caused by a gas tank explosion.
After that TWA crash, as well as after the crash of the Swissair flight, this hotel also served as a headquarters for grieving families. It is here, in a scene rendered surreal by the hush of grief in the hotel corridors contrasted with the roar of jets flying low in the skies, that families have come to grope for answers.
Staff writers William Claiborne in Chicago, Raja Mishra in Washington and research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Relatives of EgyptAir crash victims board flight to Providence, R.I., and command center of the search for remains.