NEWPORT, R.I. -- He traveled from Egypt and they from Baltimore. Here, they shared a table, and some tears, for the person who brought them together but was present only in spirit yesterday.
"I still feel by sitting with you, Walaa is still here and I will bring her back home," Atef Labib El-Negmy said through an interpreter as he sat in the waterside hotel where relatives of the victims of EgyptAir Flight 990 gathered yesterday.
Yesterday morning, El-Negmy traveled from Egypt to the United States, where he was met by the Baltimore family and friends who had been hosts of his niece, Walaa Zeid, 19, on a two-week exchange program. Heading home to Egypt early Sunday, Zeid, three other students and a chaperon were among the 217 passengers lost when EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic off Nantucket.
Families and school representatives who had opened their East Baltimore community to the students traveled here -- where the investigation into the crash is headquartered -- to meet the students' relatives from Egypt. There was a language barrier, for sure, but few other obstacles.
"How do you say, 'Are you OK?' " Shantel Rose, 17, asked the interpreter, Dorreya "Didi" R. Elmenshawy, a native of Egypt who lives in Baltimore and is a member of the group that organized the exchange program that brought the students to Dunbar High School. She gave Rose the words; Rose repeated them well enough that El-Negmy was able to answer -- in English.
"I'm fine," he said with a broad smile.
His red-rimmed eyes, though,said otherwise.
Emotions spilled over as he and the Baltimoreans met at a hotel here that is providing temporary housing for those who lost family and friends in the unexplained airplane crash. The women openly cried, the men pulled out handkerchiefs and rubbed their eyes. As Elmenshawy, her husband Mohamed, and Abdelwahab Elabd -- all part of the organizing group -- interpreted, El-Negmy was able to communicate with the Baltimoreans who shared his niece's last two weeks.
"He was told by Walaa's family that she was very happy here," Didi Elmenshawy said. "He was expecting to have the same feeling for the [Baltimore] family as she did."
Throughout the hotel, grief was shared. Stricken faces and silent sorrow filled the hallways as stories were exchanged. This one's mother, that one's sister, a whole building of strangers were united by the fate of a single airplane.
The Red Cross and other organizations have set up shop to offer assistance and counseling. Signs in Arabic in the lobby direct those of the Muslim faith to a ballroom where they can join in the five-times-a-day prayer of Islam.
The Baltimoreans arrived here yesterday after getting word from EgyptAir that seats on a flight and rooms at the hotel were reserved for them. They had about two hours to get to the airport; five of them, plus the three members of the organizing group, made it. A later flight was supposed to bring other Dunbar families.
Shantel Rose and her mother, Patricia Rose, had opened their East Baltimore home to Walaa Zeid, and were both excited but anxious about meeting the relative of the girl they had become so fond of during her brief stay. On the plane yesterday from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Shantel wondered if they were flying over the same waters into which Flight 990 plummeted. "I was a little worried about flying. I'm nervous because I don't know what I'm going to say," Shantel Rose had said upon arriving in Rhode Island. Once she met El-Negmy, though, the bubbly teen-ager had no problem communicating, even with the language barrier. Her concern for him was beyond a need for words.
It has been a dreamlike blur for the Dunbar families since they learned Sunday that the airplane had crashed with their newfound friends on board: Zeid, three other students, Sameh Morkos, Ahmed Aboshamab and Geehad Mohamed, and Mohamed's father, Hosam Mohamed, their chaperon. Only El-Negmy and Adham Aboshamab, Ahmed's uncle, had arrived yesterday from Egypt as representatives of the Dunbar exchange students' families.
"I just want him to know that Walaa lived her last two weeks really well," said Kezia Garnett, 17, who like Shantel Rose is a senior at Dunbar. Garnett was wearing a chain with a cartouche and an ankh that one of the students, Morkos, had given her.
To prepare for meeting the relatives from Egypt, Garnett had written down phonetically the phrases she remembered Zeid teaching her, and she and Rose tried them on El-Negmy. "Good morning" apparently works no matter what the hour.
As they sat down to dinner in the hotel restaurant, Garnett kept marveling at how much Zeid's uncle reminded her of her own uncle. Almost at the same time, El-Negmy remarked how much Garnett looks like Zeid's younger sister.
As the teen-agers kept up the chatter, the adults sporadically broke down in tears. A picture of Zeid that El-Negmy brought, a newspaper that the Baltimoreans carried to show him -- everything seemed to unearth another memory, another wave of sorrow.
Although their table was full, it seemed as if there was an empty chair.
El-Negmy began to speak, gesticulating. The Egyptian natives who have now made the Baltimore area their home interpreted:
He wished that there could have been a recorder going for the two weeks that Zeid had spent in Baltimore, and that he could have been there for even two of those days.