ARLINGTON, VA. -- One by one, the makeshift charts went up along the wall until they numbered 132.

On the long, gray conference table, two dozen phones rang again and again as frantic families called, seeking shreds of information.

In the hours after Flight 427 plunged into a hillside outside Pittsburgh, more than two dozen USAir workers assembled behind the double glass doors in an eighth-floor conference area they call "the next-of-kin room."

Summoned by phone and beepers from dinner tables and Little League games, they came to begin the almost unfathomable task of telling families their loved ones had perished.

"It was total chaos," said Fred Fagan, who supervised the efforts at USAir's corporate headquarters here.

"There were a million questions -- questions we often couldn't answer."

They were not counselors, priests or psychologists, but USAir cargo handlers, ad salesmen and ticket agents -- all volunteers ,, predesignated for next-of-kin-room duty if a crash should occur.

And their only training for the job had come from experience -- talking to grief-stricken strangers after other crashes, some all too recent.

Yet how USAir workers handled those first, delicate hours on the evening of Sept. 8 -- and the days that followed -- was critical to confused and devastated families.

And it was crucial to the public perception of a struggling airline that was facing its fifth disaster in as many years.

In a sense, an airline is like almost no other corporation, for it sells a service that can, however rarely, mean sudden destruction to those who buy it.

It is a distinction that ultimately makes the airline's workers unique as well.

The grief of USAir employees is nothing compared with the families'.

Yet the crash of Flight 427 has left a corporate family stunned, feeling a responsibility that has little to do with blame or causes.

"You almost feel guilty not doing more," said Ralph Miller, a USAir manager who worked all night the evening of the tragedy.

While crews prepared to haul truckloads of aircraft pieces to a hangar -- and fragments of bodies to the coroner -- calls began to flood the switchboard of headquarters here in Crystal City and reservation lines across the country.

"The families wanted to know what you knew, when you knew it," Mr. Fagan said.

"But for awhile, we could only tell them that it didn't look good."

From the flurry of news reports that flashed across television screens all evening, most knew there had been no survivors. Yet, in the first few hours following the 7 p.m. crash, workers could only promise to call back.

They took names, jotted phone numbers and quickly built files for each passenger, adding new information as it arrived.

But for the next few hours, anxious families would wait -- some sitting in the dark with other family members -- until the call came from the next-of-kin room.

"The worst thing we could do is tell someone that a friend wasn't on the airplane and then have to call them back and say he was," said Mr. Miller, director of the airline's properties and facilities.

Arriving at USAir's headquarters shortly after 8 p.m., Mr. Miller quickly called Chicago O'Hare Airport to secure the ticket stubs that two agents at Gate F6 had taken from passengers, one by one, as they walked down the ramp to Flight 427.

Early on, workers had a reservations list. But the tickets were the only sure way of knowing exactly who was on the flight.

One woman on the reservation list missed Flight 427 -- by two minutes.

Shortly before midnight, the list was final. Each volunteer was assigned seven families. The callbacks began.

With markers, they scrawled in passenger names on the charts taped to the wall, along with the identification number of the volunteer assigned to the victim's family.

Underneath each name were lines to update the passenger's status. In an age of computers, it was a rudimentary system -- the same one that had been used in previous crashes when many survived and the injured were taken to as many as six hospitals.

But early on, Flight 427 assumed a grim simplicity. It was clear that no one was going to hospitals, that no one would walk away. The status lines would remain blank.

Only the death tally was changed that evening, updated from 131 to 132.

A lap child with no ticket had not been counted.

As night crawled on, the phones beeped again and again in the first-floor reception room. Calls came from friends, from consulates in Washington wanting to know if foreign nationals had been on board, from business associates -- and from the families.

"They'd say, 'I think my dad was on there. I think my sister was working that flight. Can you tell me something, anything?' " said Barbara Toureau, a 17-year veteran receptionist who rushed back to her post only hours after going to her Falls Church home.

She quickly scanned the confirmed passenger list in front of her.

"There was such joy in being able to say, 'No, she wasn't on it.' You can't believe the relief. But when I saw the name, I felt sick, empty, like it was a member of my own family."

To those she would say: "Let me connect you."

It was a code for "yes." And the call went directly to the next-of-kin room.

"We had people crying their hearts out and people so mad they used every cuss word imaginable," said Mr. Fagan, a retired Marine colonel who is the airline's director of sales development.

"You understood, and you just had to get through it."

It was the fourth time Mr. Fagan -- a veteran of two tours of duty in Vietnam -- had worked the next-of-kin room since he joined USAir four years ago. Still rolled up in the corner of his office are the passenger charts that were taped to the wall following the airline's crash July 2 in Charlotte, N.C.

Employee relations manager Bill Jugus was accustomed to listening to problems. But only the experience in handling families of three other USAir crashes had prepared him for this one.

Just as Mr. Jugus was handed the final list of confirmed dead, the phone in front of him rang. It was an employee of USAir's express subsidiary, Jetstream, who gave a friend a free airline ticket; she used it on Flight 427.

"Hers was the toughest call for me," he said. "She was so devastated. She felt so responsible."

Throughout the night, there were other painful twists to the mounting human tragedy.

A young woman, home alone and hysterical, called to say she knew her husband had been on board. She was afraid, she explained. He had been a federal undercover agent, preparing to testify in a racketeering trial.

By Saturday at 7 a.m., the next-of-kin room shut down in Crystal City.

But in Pittsburgh, the even more difficult job of facing the families in person had only begun for other USAir workers.

"As emotional as this was," said Mr. Fagan, "it didn't hold a candle to what awaited the family coordinators in Pittsburgh."

Pittsburgh meeting

On a normal day, Deborah Thompson would have been listening to complaints about late flights, lost baggage and ticket prices at her Winston-Salem, N.C., office.

On the day of the crash, the airline's director of consumer affairs had flown to Pittsburgh, joining 1,000 other managers who were briefed by top company officials on a new airline service designed to provide more frills for business travelers.

Ms. Thompson returned to Winston-Salem on a 4 p.m. flight. Only moments after she walked into her home, the phone rang. Her 11-year-old daughter handed her the receiver. It was the systems control center in Pittsburgh.

"We had an aircraft down. My role was to get to the site as soon as possible."

She left on the first flight to Pittsburgh the next day, joining several hundred workers from around the country. There, one USAir volunteer coordinator would be assigned to each of the 132 families.

USAir officials had already booked blocks of rooms at numerous hotels near the airport for the arriving friends and families. It also closed two of the exclusive airport clubs, or lounges, used for business travelers.

One was opened for victims' families and friends arriving at the airport; the other was a command center where 50 USAir workers sat at computer terminals booking flights for families.

In the next three days, nearly 2,000 people would be flown to Pittsburgh from as far away as Germany and India. Family and close friends traveled free; others were offered reduced rates.

Several refused to fly USAir and were flown by Delta, instead. Still others wouldn't fly at all. Vans were rented, and tickets booked on trains and buses.

Many wanted to be as close to the crash site as possible, though they couldn't visit it; others came for the memorial service in Market Square downtown. Some simply didn't know where else to go.

Many families chose to stay home.

And USAir flew friends and relatives to memorial services all over the country. From an airport in Roanoke, Va., the airline took many by limousine to Lexington, Va., where they would join the 800 people attending a memorial service for DeWitt Worrell.

"They sent flowers, gave us a Visa card and told us to buy whatever we needed," said Carolyn Worrell, the widow of the 54-year-old carpet company executive, who died returning from a business trip. "They could not have been more helpful. They did everything."

In many ways, the most USAir did was the least it should have done. Yet, it often did even more. Airline workers ran errands, picked up prescriptions, took food to families and attended memorial services. Some spent the weekend in the morgue.

The airline paid a speeding ticket that Joseph Koon's daughter-in-law received as she rushed from a South Carolina vacation to the family's home in Parkersburg, W.Va. Mr. Koon had caught Flight 427 early to get home to his wife.

"Whatever we needed, they provided," said his son, Joseph Koon Jr.

Like every other airline, USAir has a manual about how to deal with a crash. Required by the Federal Aviation Administration, it is detailed, updated every two months, and outlines virtually every scenario.

Yet for all its exactness, the manual couldn't help volunteers explain to a 3-year-old at Pittsburgh International why his mother wouldn't be getting off the plane. "Talking with the children was the hardest part," said Ms. Thompson, herself the mother of two.

Though she had done it all before, the job was no easier; if anything, it was more difficult -- even for those who brought a special expertise to the task.

Capt. Don Moore, a USAir pilot, was assigned to the family of 45-year-old Capt. Peter Germano, whom he knew when the two were pilots at now-defunct Braniff International Airlines.

Mr. Moore, one of two pilots who are also licensed funeral directors, said he has learned to keep his composure around grieving families.

"Everyone has a different defense mechanism," he said, "a different way of dealing with it."

Visibly upset

Nearly a week after the crash, employees at the Arlington headquarters were still visibly upset, their voices shaking as they recalled the night of the crash. In Pittsburgh, sales managers broke down and sobbed. A volunteer who had worked the next-of-kin room begged off in case of future crashes, telling Mr. Fagan, "I can't do it anymore."

Yet, amid its grief, USAir is a corporation, a business that must deal with the stark truth: The crash of Flight 427 is the airline's fifth since 1989. Its record of fatalities is the worst among major airlines, a fact that will haunt it in the months ahead.

At a time when it struggles to overcome serious financial problems, questions about the very way it operates will linger.

"You say, 'How could this possibly happen again? We work so hard,' " said Dave Shipley, the airline's spokesman. "You feel a certain numbness, a remorse. You know you're a good airline. You say, 'Why us?'

"Yet, we're in an industry that something like this can happen," he said.

Indeed, there was a compassionate recognition of that fact from USAir's competitors. Fruit baskets arrived here from United and Continental Airlines. Five hundred United Airlines employees signed a 2-foot-by-2-foot card.

"When tragedy strikes, it is easy to look down on ourselves. Don't," the card read. "The world's best airlines come from this great country of ours. And you, our friends at USAir, truly are among the best."

Coming from another airline in a fiercely competitive business, it was a touching reminder that few in the industry had escaped such tragedies.

While an advertising campaign touting USAir's safety will undoubtedly come later, the airline's initial response was its best hope of blunting the devastating public relations impact of a crash.

In Pittsburgh, USAir Chairman Seth E. Schofield immediately acknowledged public doubts, but said he wouldn't hesitate to fly his own family on USAir. "If I thought USAir was an unsafe airline, I would put the entire fleet on the ground today," he said.

The airline suspended ads for two weeks but ran a full-page ad thanking the Pittsburgh community. At the same time, it began efforts to purchase the crash site for a permanent memorial to the 132 victims.

"We want them to know we are a caring, compassionate airline," said Ms. Thompson, the consumer affairs director.

Compassion notwithstanding, USAir's response may also soften the sentiments of the victims' families, who inevitably will file lawsuits seeking millions of dollars. Almost as soon as the rescue workers arrived on the scene, so did the lawyers.

"Maybe some people will look at our response in a coldhearted way," said Ms. Thompson. "We believe the families benefited, not that we benefited and can deflect lawsuits."

"The true culture of an airline comes out in a disaster," she said. "We would like for the traveling public to believe this is the heart of USAir."

Work nearly complete

The memorial services are over. The gruesome work in Pittsburgh is nearly complete.

By tomorrow, families will claim remains painstakingly removed from the charred site. They will receive the mementos -- a watch, an inscribed wedding ring, a college ring, a well-worn briefcase.

In the next-of-kin room, the 132 makeshift charts have been ripped from the cream-colored walls, leaving splotches of peeled paint behind.

There is talk of shifting the next-of-kin room to a bigger room, perhaps the cafeteria -- if there is a next time.

"We hope we will never, ever have to go through another one," said Mr. Miller. "For us, it's been like a death in the family."

"But if it happens again," he said, "I'll be there."

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