Susan Smith says she knows there are people who might not understand why she wants to hear the tape of the final terrifying minutes of the ValuJet flight that caught fire and crashed in the Everglades in May, killing all 110 on board, including her 24-year-old son, Jay.
According to a transcript of the tape, which has been released, the passengers were screaming that the plane was on fire.
"If it hadn't happened to me, I might have felt, 'Well, I wonder why they want to hear it,' " Smith said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Montgomery, Ala.
"I'd think that I wouldn't want to hear the horrific things that are on the tape. But when it's someone you love, you want to hear every detail to put every puzzle piece together. You want to know everything. Nothing seems morbid anymore."
Susan Smith is one of several relatives of ValuJet crash victims who have been pressing for more details about the flight's last moments. Family members of those killed when a TWA plane crashed off the coast of New York's Long Island in July have also been seeking such details.
But in wanting to hear the tape, some of the ValuJet families have pushed further, saying that for them, part of grieving is wanting to know every detail, even those that others might find unbearable.
Marilyn Chamberlin, the mother of the ValuJet pilot, 35-year-old Candalyn Kubeck, said in an interview that she wanted to hear her daughter's voice one last time.
"A mother can tell better than anyone her state of mind, how
frightened she was," Chamberlin said.
Chamberlin and Smith were among some 30 families of the Valu-Jet crash victims who attended a hearing held in Miami last week by the National Transportation Safety Board to look into the accident.
The board released an edited transcript of the tape, made from the cockpit voice recording, at that hearing. But the board has said it could not release the tape because of a law that codifies an agreement with the pilots' unions, which considers the cockpit voice recorder an intrusion of privacy in the workplace.
Also at the hearing, a safety board expert showed a videotape of a white-hot fire fed by oxygen generators of the kind that the ValuJet DC-9 was carrying and that investigators suspect ignited the blaze.
Although officials suggested that the families might want to leave the room during the video, all but one or two remained.
"Everybody's different," said Chamberlin, who spoke by telephone from Miami after the hearing and was one of those who watched the video. "A lot of people just want to put this behind them. They don't want to know the details. I and so many other mothers here feel just the opposite."
As painful as it was, she said, the five-day hearing provided a kind of solace. "You can't believe what we've gone through in our imaginations," said Chamberlin, who is 65 and has one surviving child, a 36-year-old son. "Did they die by fire? By impact? By fumes? How long did they scream? In other words, how long was the terror? Now we have a pretty good idea: It was not very long."
Information from the flight data recorder and from radar shows that the aircraft went from 7,500 feet to ground level in just more than half a minute.
The quest for details is a normal part of mourning, said Edie Stark, a grief counselor who has worked with some of the ValuJet families. "They want to hear exactly what happened," she said. "It's part of their accepting that it really happened. They want to know the horror of it. People become very protective of grieving people. They say, 'Oh, they shouldn't know; it's going to make them feel worse.' They can't feel worse."
It is the same for some of the families who lost loved ones aboard the TWA flight. Although they have not tried to obtain a tape of the cockpit voice recording, a few families are trying to get autopsy reports.
Aurelie Becker's 19-year-old daughter, Michelle, was among those killed in the crash. The cause of her death has been listed as an airline accident. That is too vague for Becker.
"I want to be able to know that my daughter died quickly, whether or not the cause of death was a broken neck," said
Becker, a nurse. "Were her lungs full of smoke? Were they full of water? What exactly has happened here?"
Joseph Lychner, whose wife, Pam, 37, and two daughters, Katie, 8, and Shannon, 10, were killed in the TWA crash, says he feels deeply torn about what he does, and does not, want to know. He is fairly certain he does not want to see the autopsy reports, he said. But he wants the facts.
"I want to know what happened on that plane -- what they experienced," Lychner, 38, said in a telephone interview from Houston, where last month, for the first time since the crash, he returned to his job in computer software sales.
"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "The information I get may prove more painful than comforting. That's a conflict."
Drawn-out Lockerbie case
It took several years and a court order before Wendy Giebler Sefcik was allowed to see the autopsy photographs of her husband, Jay Giebler, who was 29 when he died as Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, eight years ago. Scottish authorities did not want to release the pictures.
"I needed to know him in death, too," said Sefcik, who has since remarried. "I wanted to share that. After Jay was killed, I kept having a recurring dream of his face at the time of death. His face in the picture was exactly the face I had dreamed -- that terrible look of fear."
Sefcik said she has never regretted looking at that picture. "I truly was in tune with him."
Laura Sawyer is one of those who wants to hear the tape of the ValuJet flight. Her grandparents, Conway and Anna Laurie Hamilton, were on the plane. They were heading to Atlanta for Laura's graduation -- with top honors -- from Emory University.
"My grandfather was extremely loud," said Sawyer. "He was very, very hard of hearing. You could hear him across a room. As morbid as it might sound, I am really interested in hearing what their last words were."
On the transcript, she said, an unidentified male is screaming, "Fire! Fire!"
"We don't know who that male is," Sawyer said. Maybe, she said, he was her grandfather.
Pub Date: 12/01/96