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Relatives of Crash Victims Want Access to Photos, Recordings

January 5, 1995

UPPER ST. CLAIR, Pa. (AP) _ Four months after Carol McSherry’s husband and 131 others were smashed to pieces in a USAir plane crash, disturbing questions continue to haunt her.

Whose remains are in 40 coffins at a memorial not far from the crash site, and why didn’t many relatives know about the burial? What do photographs of remains show? What do recordings of the last seconds of the flight sound like?

McSherry and the relatives of at least a handful of other victims want the option of knowing everything _ no matter how gruesome. They want full access to unidentified remains, photographs of those body parts and cockpit voice recordings.

And they resent what they see as censorship by the airline, coroners and the federal government.

``They think they want to protect us,″ McSherry said. ``But nothing can protect us from what we’ve already seen, from what we see when we close our eyes.″

On Sept. 8, USAir Flight 427 nose-dived into a hill at 300 mph a few miles short of Pittsburgh International Airport. The Boeing 737-300 shattered into thousands of pieces, killing all 132 people aboard. The cause of the crash has not been determined.

The devastation was so complete that the county coroner initially predicted only 20 percent of the victims would be identified. All but seven have now been identified.

McSherry was given some of her husband’s remains and buried them. Then, while attending a support group several weeks later, she was told that 40 coffins containing additional remains had been buried at a crash memorial site established by USAir at Sewickley Cemetery near Pittsburgh.

That means survivors must face the prospect that their loved ones might be resting in three separate locations: the crash site, their family cemetery and Sewickley.

``Do you know how horrible it is to have part of a spouse here and part of a spouse there?″ said Joanne Shortley, who buried remains of her husband, Stephen, in Ross Township.

She, McSherry and others said they would have wanted to try to identify the body parts in the 40 coffins. But Beaver County Coroner Wayne Tatalovich, whose office turned over the remains to USAir, said they were ``unidentifiable and could not by any stretch of the imagination be identified,″ even with DNA testing.

``You’re not only talking hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, but if you figure that there were 132 passengers and multiply that by the parts of human remains found, it would probably take hundreds of years to determine if this piece of flesh belonged to John Doe,″ he said.

USAir spokesman Richard Weintraub said airline executives decided not to volunteer information about the 40 coffins because they thought it would create even more distress for relatives.

``It was just a feeling that it would be too traumatic and overwhelming at the time,″ he said.

Some relatives also are upset that the coroner has not released photographs of the remains, and that the government has kept the ``black box″ recording of the flight’s last seconds from them. Federal officials said they withheld parts of the recording out of compassion for the families of the pilots.

``Not knowing is worse than whatever the reality could be,″ said Marita Brunner, whose brother-in-law, Jeffrey Gingerich, died in the crash.

For McSherry, looking at the photographs and listening to the flight recording would be a way to share her husband’s last moments.

``We’re not into gore,″ McSherry said. ``We’re into needing to walk that last mile with them.″

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