By Dan Barry
Eat dinner with Mary, have a beer, and watch some sitcom’s rerun on television. These were my goals for that July evening in 1996, and I felt that I deserved at least that much. I had passed my probation, during which I discovered that working for the Times was not much different from working for the Providence Journal, or the Journal Inquirer. Aside from obeying the newspaper’s strict rules of style, such as using “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” and “Ms.” on second references — except, of course, for sports figures and pre-eminent dead celebrities — my job had remained the same: report the news accurately, with clear and compelling writing. If there was a boilerplate Times way of writing a story, I avoided it.
I was now the newspaper’s Long Island bureau chief, which sounded more important than it actually was, since the Times only had two other full-time reporters on the island, and neither answered to me. After thirteen years in journalism, I had gotten my big break with a national newspaper, only to be returned to the land of my childhood — Massapequa and Wyandanch, Patchogue and Deer Park — a land that from the Times newsroom seemed so foreign. Privately, I was hoping for a more exotic port of call than Rockville Centre, where Mary and I were renting a house. Publicly, I reassured my editors that they had made the right choice. I’m fluent in Buttafuoco, I told them; I know these parts. And I did. How Jones Beach in winter is better than Jones Beach in summer. How, as you travel the North Fork’s truck route east to Greenport, the smell of the air turns from that of the farm to that of the sea. How my best friend, Don Seibert, beside me at St. Cyril’s, St. Anthony’s, and St. Bonaventure, was beside me again, in Rockville Centre. How my mother’s offbeat stories and my father’s oddball insights are but a half-hour’s drive away. No question: I know these parts of the oyster.
But on this night, all I wanted of Long Island was again what my father had always strived for, his holy grail. Jesus Mary and Joseph, all I want is a little peace, he would say then, and what I was thinking now. Mary by my side, a beer in my hand, and a little peace.
The ring of the telephone said not tonight. It was Gerry Mullany, the night editor, sounding a little winded, telling me that I had to go — right now — to eastern Long Island. But he could not tell me where exactly, or even why. All he knew was that there were reports of an airplane vanishing from radar screens, somewhere off the South Shore.
I had just cracked open that beer, and now my well-deserved evening of relaxation was being interrupted with news of possible mayhem. How many times in my career had breathless reports of catastrophe turned out to be a fender bender with minor injuries? How many times had some police sergeant told me during one of my cop-check calls in Providence that five officers were dead and four wounded in a shootout at police headquarters? (Had you goin’, Jimmy Olsen, didn’t I?) Here we go again.
Jesus, Gerry, it’s 9:30 at night, I whined. Isn’t there anyone else to send?
But Mullany told me that everyone was being deployed and that I had to get there as fast as possible.
Where’s there? I snapped.
We don’t know yet. Just start driving.
I got in my car and started driving, too annoyed to think about packing clothes or toiletries. I gunned my gray Pontiac east on the nearly deserted Southern State Parkway, past the signposts of my childhood — Bellmore, Bethpage, Deer Park — pounding my palm against the steering wheel and spitting expletives into the steamy night. All the while, I twisted my radio dial back and forth between two all-news stations for the latest reports about a downed jetliner, but my annoyance at being put out prevented the words from sinking in: TWA Flight 800, out of Kennedy International Airport; bound for Paris; more than two hundred aboard; lost off the shores of the Moriches; flames in the water.
Exactly where my Damascus was along Sunrise Highway, I am not sure; somewhere near Sayville, I think. There, with the radio shouting and the car speeding at eighty miles an hour and the humid air blowing damp through the windows, I felt a sudden shame to be in my own skin. The words had seeped into my consciousness by now, waking me to the realization that at the same time the radio was telling me of 230 people likely dead, I was having a private tantrum because I had been inconvenienced. Oh my God. A jetliner filled with people had fallen from the sky? And crashed into the waters off Long Island? My Long Island? Two-hundred-and-thirty people? Holy Mother of God.
A reporter, is it? For The New York Times.
Well. Aren’t we something.
Another epiphany, only the kind that strips you bare. With Long Island becoming a blur through my tears, I felt the need to ask forgiveness of the jetliner’s passengers, most assuredly dead. And I pressed my foot against the gas pedal, clear-minded now and determined to tell the story of a catastrophe off my homeland’s shores.
I was a conduit through which experience is shared, through which the acrid smell of burning jet fuel is inhaled, and the sight of a child, borne on the water, asleep in death, is seen.That quest led me a day or two later to the East Moriches storefronts along Montauk Highway, which led me to a liquor store, whose owner led me to the kitchen of a man named Michael O’Reilly. The liquor store owner had confided that the crash of Flight 800 had affected people all over town: Heck, a local guy named O’Reilly’s been coming in here and buying vodka all of a sudden. I think he saw some things.
Now this bearish O’Reilly was acknowledging with nods that, yes, he had acquired a sudden thirst in the last two days, and yes, he had seen some things. But he was fine, just fine, he said, as he took another sip from a morning mug of vodka and cranberry juice. And no, he didn’t mind sitting down with a stranger and telling his story. It would help, actually. Want some coffee?
On the night of the plane crash, he and a buddy were watching the Yankee game in his TV room when news of a plane crash flashed on the screen. They hustled down to the twenty-seven-foot fishing boat that O’Reilly kept docked at the edge of his waterfront property and headed out to sea. It was probably a small plane, and some survivors might need to be rescued; that is what they figured.
Instead, they came upon what O’Reilly called a “ring of hell”: flames of burning jet fuel dancing on the black and still waters; bobbing sections of airplane silver; suitcases and ghostly white bodies floating past — including that of a child who appeared to be sleeping. The two men shouted into the fiery stillness: Hello? Anybody out there?
Only the slight slaps of waves against their hull answered back.
Finally, the two men realized that all they could do was retrieve some of what floated past; they reached for a gaff and some rope. A couple of hours later, O’Reilly’s boat, Chasin’ Charlie, slick with jet fuel and loaded down with three bodies, motored over to the Coast Guard station. They watched as others removed the bodies, and then they returned home, where they could find no rest.
Regular guy O’Reilly sat at his kitchen table, sipping some more vodka and assuring me again that he was okay. He handed me a piece of paper and asked if I could pass it on to the proper authorities. His son had found it stuck to the boat’s floor a few hours earlier, a luggage tag for a woman from Bordeaux, one of the 230 victims.
Holding the damp piece of paper in my hand, I felt the singe of shame again on the back of my neck; just a little peace, that’s what I had wanted. My shame soon gave way to an entirely different emotion, an emotion that so overwhelmed me I struggled to identify it. The rush of feeling, I finally decided, was a sense of humbling privilege, granted to me by this sapped man before me, this Michael O’Reilly. He had just been to that ring of hell, and now he needed to be alone with his family and his thoughts. But he knew instinctively that something larger than Michael O’Reilly had taken place, and that was why he had granted me his time. He understood my role in the societal compact perhaps better than I did. I was a conduit through which experience is shared, through which the acrid smell of burning jet fuel is inhaled, and the sight of a child, borne on the water, asleep in death, is seen. I lived these things and now so have you, he was saying; tell others.
I tucked the luggage tag from Bordeaux inside my notebook, and I told Michael O’Reilly that I would take care of it.