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Quiet Resort Town Transformed By Search Effort

July 18, 1996

EAST MORICHES, N.Y. (AP) _ The residents of this Long Island resort town with a single stoplight were enjoying a lazy summer evening when suddenly, a fleet of ambulances screamed down Main Street.

``The town pretty much was a buzz after that, trying to find out what was going on,″ said David Hall, who was working in Deery’s Restaurant when he heard the sirens about 8:45 p.m. Wednesday.

Five minutes earlier, a jumbo jet had exploded in the sky and fallen into the Atlantic, with 229 people aboard. The ambulances signaled the start of a frantic search for survivors that soon became a gruesome search for human remains.

``I looked up and saw a trail of fire, and then it disappeared, and I heard an explosion,″ said Craig Squiers, who was surfing in the warm water when the plane blew up.

Some residents thought the blast might have been a car backfiring, or thunder _ or even a celebration.

``My first reaction is fireworks,″ said Eileen Daly, who saw the fireball and heard the boom. Then she realized: ``Oh my God, it’s an airplane.″

By midnight, East Moriches _ a combination of a small town populated by fishermen and a fashionable resort for beach-lovers _ had become a series of checkpoints and roadblocks swarming with rescue workers, police and journalists.

The effort was headquartered in East Moriches because it is opposite Moriches Inlet, a narrow waterway with the best access to the crash scene. The plane went down 200 yards south of Fire Island, a skinny strip of land parallel to Long Island.

The sky and the sea were pitch-black once darkness fell on the nearly moonless night and fog rolled in. Parachute flares and floodlights were used to illuminate the area; helicopters buzzed up and down.

Coast Guard trawlers with nets sifted the water, forming the first leg of a grim assembly line. Body parts and corpses were brought to the shore on rafts, and workers in jumpsuits put them in body bags and took them to a makeshift morgue in a Coast Guard hangar.

``It’s the darkest night. But the ocean is calm,″ said Ralph Lettieri, a local firefighter who was out on the water. The wreckage was so scattered, he said, ``you couldn’t tell it was a plane.″

Many technological devices that could help the recovery effort were brought in, from so-called ``midnight-sun floodlights,″ to night-vision goggles, to infrared heat-sensing radar mounted on the helicopters’ undersides. Coast Guard personnel said they would call it a ``rescue operation″ for 12 hours after the crash, but the body count continued to rise as the hours passed and no survivors were reported.

Back on Main Street, FBI agents poured in, then a military convoy towing a boat roared by.

Ralph Stears, the East Moriches barber for 35 years, watched the parade and said: ``It’s a quiet nice little town. But not tonight. Not tonight.″


Associated Press Writer Pat Milton contributed to this report.

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