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Hotel Near JFK Airport is Familiar With Airline Tragedy

Aired November 17, 2001 - 09:55   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, when flight 587 went down, the red carpet rolled out for grief-stricken families at a facility that has lots of experience with airline tragedies.

CNN's Beth Nissen gives us an inside look at Heartbreak Hotel.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BETH NISSEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They call it the Heartbreak Hotel: the Ramada Plaza at JFK Airport in New York.

After the crash of American Airlines flight 587, the hotel became the gathering place for families of those lost. The families of plane crash victims have come here before. In 1996, after TWA flight 800 exploded off Long Island, two years later, after SwissAir flight 111 crashed in Nova Scotia, and in 1999, after EgyptAir flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic.

STEVEN BELMONTE, PRESIDENT AND CEO, RAMADA HOTELS: We have become very, very good, very sensitive about handling these situations.

NISSEN: Airport officials use a hotline to alert the staff that a plane has crashed.

GAIL GALLOWAY, FRONT DESK CLERK: When that red phone rings, my heart goes like this. It's a horrible feeling when that phone goes off.

BELMONTE: We have to bring in as many as 200 people immediately after that phone call and be fully up and operational within an hour and a half.

NISSEN: The hotel works off its own carefully crafted action plan. Hotel space is allocated for a chapel, child care, work space for airline officials, government authorities, the Red Cross. Rooms are readied for victims' families.

ANITA PUNCH, HOUSEKEEPING SUPERVISOR: Sometimes we put teddy bears in the rooms, we put candy in the rooms, and, you know, we have tissues and everything ready for them, because we know they're going to come in crying.

NISSEN: The kitchen starts working around the clock. After Monday's crash, Chef Michael Ciriaco cooked for 20 straight hours.

MICHAEL CIRIACO, EXECUTIVE CHEF: Because so many of the families were Dominican, we prepared items that were very traditional to their home. Their rices, their chickens, their meat dishes had that traditional style.

NISSEN: Staffers do what they can to make the families comfortable while they wait for answers and for the dead to be identified. They see and feel the families' anguish.

Housekeeper Maria Mateo (ph) says it pains her to see that many families don't sleep for days. "I notice that they haven't laid down on the beds, and that there a lot of tissues in the wastebaskets," she says.

Waiter Franklyn Polonia says many families stay isolated in their rooms, but when he brings them room service, they are grateful for his listening ear.

FRANKLYN POLONIA, WAITER: You know, they have somebody to talk to, they have somebody to lean on when they need to lean on somebody.

PUNCH: They show us pictures. They tell us who they lost in their families, their mom, their sister, their uncle.

NISSAN (on camera): Why do they turn to you?

PUNCH: Because we're there.

NISSAN (voice-over): Staffers are taught it's OK to talk with families, to offer a sympathetic hug, a tear-proof shoulder.

GALLOWAY: I had one lady, the last -- with the last disaster, there were no flights going out and she couldn't get home, and she just started crying. I came from behind the desk and just held her, because she wanted to get home.

BELMONTE: It's just pure grief and sorrow in the rawest form, and all you can do is hug these people, cry with them.

NISSEN: This time, some hotel staffers are themselves among the grieving. Flight 587 crashed just after it left JFK for the Dominican Republic. Twenty percent of the Ramada JFK staff is Dominican, including Franklin Diaz, who lost three friends on the flight but still came in to work a double shift.

FRANKLIN DIAZ, HOUSEKEEPER: That's why we're here for, to help. Ramada is not just a hotel to stay, it's a hotel to help.

NISSEN: Many staffers become very close to the crash families, stay in touch with them.

POLONIA: To this day, I think about each flight that we had. I think of those people from now and then, how are they doing, how are they feeling, you know, just like family members, you know. BELMONTE: As sad as it is, it's wonderful to know that people can -- total strangers can still bond and comfort each other. And the media has referred to this hotel as the Heartbreak Hotel. We kind of like to think of it as the hotel with a heart.

NISSEN: A heart with 478 chambers, ready for the next air disaster, hoping the red phone stays silent.

Beth Nissen, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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