Tied by fate to the tragedy off their shore, hundreds of residents of this tiny beach community gathered at the leafy town green Sunday to pay an emotional tribute to the 230 victims of TWA Flight 800.
Residents wept openly and clung to each other as gentle sea breezes rustled a giant U.S. flag behind the podium in Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Park, where several representatives of religious groups offered words of solace.
The Rev. John Fleischmann, chaplain for the Center Moriches Fire Co., said that God will watch over the victims.
"The Bible tells us he knows when a sparrow falls from the sky, let alone a 747," Fleischmann said.
Among those who had taken the time to join the gathering was Helen Corradengo, who said she could not stop thinking about the mothers who had lost their children in the crash.
"All I can think of is those poor kids strapped to their seats under the water," she said. "It really hurts. I feel for those families. They're so close to all of us."
David Call, a former fire chief, said he and other residents will never again be able to gaze out into the Atlantic without remembering, for a moment, those lost in it.
"In a small town like this, an event this big is going to be indelibly etched into our minds," he said. "It's almost like a dream, but I'm awake during this. The reality is starting to set in more and more."
Thrust into the national spotlight as the town nearest the crash site--and the location of the Coast Guard station from which the recovery operation was launched--East Moriches has been overrun by investigators, reporters, photographers and broadcast crews ever since.
It has been an uncomfortable role for the community, which is far less well-known than some of its more famous neighbors along the southern Long Island shore.
Wealthy New Yorkers use East Moriches as little more than a rest stop on their way down Montauk Highway to the Hamptons 10 miles east. Even the name of the town has not stuck over the years. Various historical records alternately refer to it as Meritche, Merquices, Meritces and Muriches.
"Nothing happens here," said Mary Field, who wrote a book on the town and has lived in the area since 1936. "This is quite traumatic for us. We're all involved in this even if we don't know anybody on that plane."
The community's capacity for compassion has been clear from the first moments after the crash.
"When word got out that the plane came down off our quiet community, I was amazed at how many people came out to help," said Fleischmann. The community came together--yet there was really nothing we could do."
On Saturday night, at the Great Gatsby Ball, a local charity dance, townsfolk paused for a moment of silence.
Some local restaurants have stayed open all night making sandwiches for the hundreds of recovery workers camped out at the Coast Guard station near the town pier.
A local Boy Scout troop walked up and down the main road Sunday, decorating street signs with purple ribbons to honor those who lost their lives.
"We wanted to show some respect for the victims, since it looks like some of them are going to be with us forever," said troop leader Tom Thompson.
During the memorial service, most downtown businesses closed their doors as a sign of respect. At Deery's Restaurant, the menu board contained a message just below the daily special: "God Bless the Search and Recovery Workers. Thank You."
* LOCAL MEMORIALS
Services held in Hollywood Hills and Bel-Air. B1