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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Center for Mourning Gives Space to Grieve

PARIS -- "Did you have someone on board?" a Paris airport attendant gently asked an elderly woman staring up at the "Cancelled" notice alongside TWA Flight 800.


It was her first contact with the hurriedly mustered "trauma response team" set up at Charles de Gaulle airport to comfort relatives or friends of passengers aboard the airliner which exploded and crashed off New York.


For some 100 psychologists, medical staff and airline officials, it was the first test of a system set up following the hijacking of an Air France passenger airliner to Marseille by Algerian Moslem fundamentalists in December 1994.


In two quiet rooms sealed off from the bustling arrivals hall, psychologists, doctors, Red Cross nurses and TWA staff strove to ease the agonizing wait for news.


About 30 friends or relatives came to the airport, crowded with vacationers, in search of news of some of the 228 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 747 plane which plunged into the Atlantic off Long Island on Wednesday evening.


Some of the relatives fainted, many broke down in tears, and all suffered shock. Uncertainty compounded -- or alleviated -- their ordeal as for several hours the airline was unable to confirm the names of victims.


"Half of the relatives and friends refused to accept the accident. They went on hoping," said Michel Clerel, the airport's chief medical officer.


"The aim is to listen to them, to help them talk. It's a catharsis for them. We have to give them psychological contact, so that they are not isolated," he said.


Clerel acknowledged that for several hours they could not be told whether their relatives or friends were alive or dead.


Many of those arriving at the airport were already aware of the tragedy -- the shuttle bus from the Roissy rail station to the airport had its radio tuned in to a 24-hour news channel.


Medical personnel spoke to arriving relatives individually in the center for 10 to 15 minutes each, without telling them initially that their loved ones were dead.


"Afterwards we leave them alone and then come back to see what state they are in. That's the best method," Clerel said.


Three police officers stood guard at the entrance to the center, but little was done to shield the relatives -- easily spotted because of a distinctive red badge stuck on their lapels by airport staff -- from the media as they came and went.


Anyone entering or leaving the "crisis cell" not dressed in uniform was subjected to a barrage of photographic flashes.


"Whether it was an accident or not, this is only the beginning," said Francoise Rudetsky, head of SOS Attentats, or Attacks, which cares for the relatives of terrorism victims.


She said many of the bodies would probably never be recovered, making it harder for the next of kin to come to terms with the loss.