Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Some recent book reviews

I periodically review books for The Providence Journal. Here are two recent ones:

Hood’s latest explores loss and redemption
‘The Book That Matters Most,’ by Ann Hood. Norton. 360 pages. $25.95.

G. Wayne Miller
Publication Date: August 14, 2016  Page: 1  Section: F

In “The Book That Matters Most,” Ann Hood has given us a remarkable musing on memory, loss, regret and, to an extent, redemption and salvation. She does so with elegant prose and gentle but appropriate tugs on the heartstrings. The sentiments of the characters ring true. We know these people. You or I may be one of them.

Hood’s latest is told primarily through the alternating perspectives of middle-age Ava; her daughter Maggie, a college student spending a year abroad; the (now) retired police detective Hank; and, toward the end,

Ava’s aunt Beatrice. A ghostly presence throughout is Beatrice’s sister, Charlotte, Ava’s mother. Deeply depressed but creative, a bookstore owner and pseudonymous author, Charlotte found her world destroyed, seemingly forever, by a long-ago tragedy that fragmented an already fragile personal and family existence.

Set partly in Providence, where Hood lives, the novel opens as longtime husband Jim has just announced his surprise intention to divorce Ava (falling, pathetically, for a hippy-dippy yarn-bomber). Reeling, doubting herself, uncertain how or if she will survive emotionally, Ava joins a book club which has decided that members will announce their most important book, each of which will be discussed in meetings over the year. The list is revered, if predictable: “Catcher in the Rye,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Great Gatsby” and other classics. Ava chooses “From Clare To Here,” a long-out-of-print book by an obscure writer whose name does not get even a single Google hit. Not until the final pages do we learn why.

Hood interweaves her many plotlines flawlessly, and is most masterful when she takes the point of view of Ava and wayward Maggie, whose overseas adventures spiral into anonymous sex and opioid addiction in Paris and elsewhere. It is disturbing to read, particularly if you are a parent — but spot-on. Having written about addiction for The Journal, I can tell you that Hood has captured its destructive tyranny in a way that nonfiction often adequately cannot.

“The Book That Matters Most” suffers slightly from a few novelistic contrivances, notably the one that closes the novel (although a romantic would surely root for just such an ending, and if a movie results, as it should, Hood made the right choice). But these are minor objections, which do little to diminish the heft of this depiction of vividly rendered people.

So what book really matters most? Not the one with Holden Caulfield or Jay Gatsby, of course, as Hood’s tale confirms. It’s your own: your story, the one by and about you, the one that is being written every day you draw breath, and for years after.

“The burden, the weight, of memories,” as one of this book’s minor characters puts it, are inescapable. And as Ava and her cohorts know painfully, they endure. But while we are here, they need not define or control, which is the welcome truth of “The Book That Matters Most.”

—Staff writer G. Wayne Miller is the author of 16 nonfiction and fiction books, most recently “Car Crazy: The Battle for Supremacy between Ford and Olds and the Dawn of the Automobile Age.”


Remarkable voice for victims of injustice | ‘The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland,’ by Dan Barry. Harper. 352 pages. $26.99.

G. Wayne Miller
Publication Date: May 15, 2016  Page: 5  Section: F

In “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland,” New York Times staff writer Dan Barry has achieved the remarkable. He has written an unforgettable story of degradation, suffering, and eventual triumph rendered in a velvet style that blends poetry with colloquialism.

He has given powerful voice to intellectually disabled people — and, by extension, all people with vulnerabilities. He has told us something vitally important about us, all of us, regardless of label or life station.

The bunkhouse is a former school building in the small Iowa town of Atalissa where 32 formerly institutionalized developmentally disabled men — the “boys” — lived as virtual slaves behind plywooded windows in squalid conditions during the decades they worked at a nearby turkey processing plant. Their jobs punished body and soul. Their wages, such as they were, were essentially stolen by their boss. They were physically and emotionally abused and neglected, their lives stolen.

When their situation finally was brought to full public light by a crusading newspaper reporter, even the veteran social workers and others who took action were horrified. The bunkhouse was closed, in 2009, and the men transitioned into new circumstances, where they could be people, not slaves. Triumph, finally.

Yet, there was more to the story: for example, the brotherly fraternity and the touches of affection, if not love, amid the squalor and abuse that another writer might have ignored in building a justifiably damning case. Also, the feel of the quiet Plains community and its proud history. And the townspeople who welcomed the boys not knowing what really went on when they retreated to their house of horrors. And the house itself, which opened its doors annually for a Christmas party that was the antithesis of existence the other 364 days. Barry found and presents these and other nuances, in which can be found larger commentary about our shared humanity.

Barry set aside the ordinary rules of nonfiction narrative in deciding to bring us inside the heads of his many characters, developmentally disabled and not. Attempting such a high-wire act is a dangerous proposition for even an accomplished writer, but Barry needed no net.

With his command of inner voice, we come to know Levi, the “boy” who had a knack for quieting birds before slaughter; Raymond Vaughn, who has no memory of his parents though a dim one of abandonment before he wound up in an institution; Texan T.H. Johnson, the seemingly heartless boss who actually did have heart, of a sort; Ed George, the social worker who sounded an alarm in 1974 that tragically was ignored. And many more.

The net result is an extraordinary contribution to the literature of social injustice. In his years at The New York Times, Barry, twice a finalist there for the Pulitzer Prize and once a member of a Providence Journal team that won one, has written extensively of social issues, of servitude and salvation of many kinds.

Barry has written three other books: “City Lights,” essays about New York; “Lift Me Up,” a memoir; and “Bottom of the 33rd,” about baseball’s longest game, won by the Pawtucket Red Sox. All fine books, but his latest overshadows them all. We still have months to go in 2016, but “The Boys in the Bunkhouse” surely will emerge as one of the landmark books of the year.

To hear Barry discuss “The Boys in the Bunkhouse” and his other writing, watch an episode of “Story in the Public Square TV,” a monthly feature of the national PBS show White House Chronicle: whchronicle.com/?p=3265

—Journal staff writer and “Story in the Public Square” director G. Wayne Miller is the author, most recently, of “Car Crazy: The Battle for Supremacy between Ford and Olds and the Dawn of the Automobile Age.” 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Another failed promise

I have spent much of my career in journalism writing about social-justice issues, highlighting programs and people who have done good, and exposing systems that have failed those needy and vulnerable members of society they were intended to serve.

My continuing series "Mental Health in Rhode Island" examines the current status of the treatment and care of children and adults living with mental illness -- many of them poor and lacking the means themselves to better their lives. A total system failure. Total disgrace.

This year, I turned my attention to the system that is supposed to serve intellectually and developmentally disabled people. That system was once a national model -- but, like the parallel system that serves people living with mental illness, is now in shambles.

Here is my exposé, published in The Providence Journal online on May 20, 2016, and on the front page of the Sunday Journal on May 22, 2016.

Care in crisis for R.I.'s intellectually and developmentally disabled
The way R.I. cares for people with developmental disabilities was once a model for the nation. Today it's a system in crisis.

Caregivers Rachel Morgan, supervisor for a Perspectives group home, and Carrie Manne, a direct support professional, interact with group home resident Danielle DeGregorio, right, by playing the drums. Providence Journal/Bob Breidenbach

By G. Wayne Miller
Journal Staff Writer  Posted May. 20, 2016 at 6:22 pmUpdated May 20, 2016 at 6:23 PM

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Years of budget cuts and failed government leadership have diminished Rhode Island's system of care for intellectually and developmentally disabled people from a national model two decades ago into a deeply troubled system today where financial considerations, not quality of life, often are the deciding factor.

And many individuals and families largely without voice, wealth or political power – some of them among Rhode Island's most vulnerable residents – have been imperiled.

That is the conclusion of a Providence Journal investigation that began following the February death, allegedly from staff abuse, of Barbara A. Annis, 70. She was a resident of a group home run by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH), which funds and regulates the state's developmental disabilities system.

Among The Journal's findings:

— From 2008 through today, funding for services to the intellectually and developmentally disabled dropped from $260.2 million to $230.9 million even as the statewide numbers of those people remained roughly the same. That is an inflation-adjusted decrease of almost $60 million, as measured by the Consumer Price Index.

— A $26.1-million cut from 2011 to 2012 — a decrease of nearly 11 percent in that single year – proved particularly punishing to private agencies that rely on funding set by BHDDH. These agencies, which serve about 4,000 people, have never fully recovered.

— Pay for direct-care staff in the private sector of the BHDDH-funded system averages under $12 an hour, or less than $23,000 annually, for a full-time position. The average janitor in America earns more, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

— As a result, hundreds of these direct-care workers — some with life-and-death responsibilities — must work second or third jobs. Many receive government assistance such as from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

— Motivated by the humanitarian "desire to support people with special and unique needs," a majority of these private workers want to stay in the field but more than half say the low pay may give them no choice but to leave, a 2015 Community Providers Network of Rhode Island survey found.

— The state still does not comply with a 2014 federal Department of Justice consent decree in which it agreed to correct gross violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last week, District Court Judge John J. McConnell Jr. threatened fines of up to $1 million a year if the state does not meet a series of more than 20 compliance benchmarks, most in the next few weeks.

— These factors have combined to place Rhode Island 39th overall of the 50 states and District of Columbia, according to United Cerebral Palsy's 2015 Case for Inclusion study, which measures quality of life. The state ranked 36th in the critical Reaching Those in Need metric.

One of the nation's leading experts on developmental disability, A. Anthony Antosh, professor of special education at Rhode Island College and director of the school's Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities, summarizes the situation this way:

"We went from a decently functioning system that was community-based, that was humane, that encouraged individual choice and that was considered to be one of the best in the country to a system that is underfunded, has poorly paid staff and a significant number of staff shortages, mostly because of budget cuts over several years and a set of regulations and policies that limited options, decreased supports for many people, and made it really hard to run a quality system."

For much of the 20th century, the Ladd Center, in Exeter, was the primary provider of care to many of the state's developmentally disabled residents. Founded in 1907 as a compassionate alternative to prisons and poorhouses, Ladd degenerated into an institution where indignity, neglect and abuse were rife. At its height, more than 1,000 people were warehoused there.

In 1956, The Providence Journal began publishing investigative stories. A new Journal series started in 1977 revealed that the institution remained underfunded and understaffed, fire protection was dangerously deficient, residents’ teeth were routinely extracted without anesthetic and doctors failed to diagnose infections, diabetes and broken limbs. Several deaths had resulted.

Relatives filed a federal class-action lawsuit, advocates pressured, legislators and governors responded, and the Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals (MHRH), BHDDH's predecessor, built a model community system which statewide voters endorsed – not only philosophically, but with tens of millions of bond dollars. On March 25, 1994, Ladd closed.

"The beast is dead," Robert L. Carl Jr., who headed MHRH's Division of Developmental Disabilities, said on that final day. "Nazi Germany killed these people. Rhode Island made a commitment to treat them with dignity and respect."

For years, the community system remained a national leader as shocking headlines receded into the past. Then, as the economy soured, "fiscal responsibility" became a mantra.

Developmental disability services received $260.2 million in 2008 for a caseload of 4,381 individuals. During the next four years, funding declined annually, dropping to $216.5 million in 2012 – a decrease of $43.7 million, or nearly 20 percent. The caseload was relatively stable.

Meanwhile, several senior developmental disabilities officials – people who carried institutional wisdom from Ladd's dark days – left BHDDH, lost to retirement or objection to what was happening. A similar scenario was unfolding in the state's once-proud community mental-health system, which today also is troubled.

And legislative champions had all but disappeared from the General Assembly. The last tireless one, Rep. Paul Sherlock, considered the father of special education in Rhode Island, died in 2004 after serving for a quarter of a century.

After that, says Antosh, whose workplace bears the late representative's name, "there essentially were no more legislative advocates, at least not with the oomph that Sherlock had."

The director of BHDDH during much of this period was Craig S. Stenning, who became director in 2008 after joining the department in 2000. Previously, he was founder and CEO of CODAC Behavioral Healthcare, which specializes in substance-abuse treatment, and a politician: Cranston School Committee chairman from 1978 to 1982, a member of the Cranston City Council from 1982 to 1992.

Lincoln D. Chafee had not yet begun his term as governor when he announced, in December 2010, that he was retaining Stenning.

"BHDDH is one of the state's most important departments, providing care and support for some of our most vulnerable citizens," Chafee said. "With our state facing fiscal uncertainty, we must seek out reduced costs and savings — but not at the expense of the services disadvantaged Rhode Islanders depend on. I feel confident that Craig can accomplish that difficult but necessary task."

Stenning, left, and Chafee, center.

On Chafee's and Stenning's watch, funding for BHDDH's Developmental Disabilities Program declined from $242.6 million in the 2011 fiscal year to $239.5 million in 2015, while the caseload dropped from 4,381 to 4,018. The 2012 year, however, told the critical story.

That's when the $26.1-million cut forced private providers to lay off staff, cut wages, reduce training and eliminate or reduce services including speech and physical therapy. In his proposed 2012 budget, Chafee had recommended a less severe cut: of $18.2 million, or 7.5 percent. But under the leadership of former Speaker Gordon Fox, now serving time in prison on federal corruption charges, the House approved the larger decrease. The BHDDH budget climbed incrementally in each of the next three years.

Stenning, now an executive with New York-based Fedcap, a social-services organization, declined a request for an interview but said he would consider questions submitted in writing. When he received seven questions by email, he declined to answer any.

Chafee, however, was willing to comment.

In an interview last week, he said that the 2012 budget year was an unusually "tough" one, and his priority was reversing certain policies adopted by his predecessor, Donald Carcieri. "Higher education and the cities and towns had just taken massive cuts.”

The Department of Justice's involvement in Rhode Island's system of care to intellectually and developmentally disabled people began in January 2013, when its Civil Rights Division initiated an investigation. A year later, the division concluded the state was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act — which had passed in 1990 with the enthusiastic support of the late Sen. John H. Chafee, Lincoln's father.

"Over twenty years ago," the Department wrote in a 32-page report, "Rhode Island was a national leader in shifting its state service system away from segregated residential care. The State closed its state institution for individuals with developmental disabilities, the Ladd School, ‘through strong collaboration with multiple stakeholders, including self-advocates, family members … providers, and community leaders.'"

That was then.

Citing the "the state's failure to develop a sufficient quantity of integrated transition, employment, vocational and day services and supports for individuals with I/DD," the department on Jan. 6, 2014, threatened to sue if the state did not move toward ADA compliance.

Three months later, Rhode Island signed a 36-page consent decree outlining a 10-year-plan of correction. Today, it still does not comply with the decree, and that prompted Judge McConnell to issue last week’s stern warning.

"The violation of the ADA is essentially caused by the failure of the state to provide resources," says Antosh. Had there not been this chronic "absence," he asserts, "I do not believe the Department of Justice would have ever come to the state."

Budget cuts have been especially harsh on Rhode Island's roughly 30 state-funded private providers, which serve the vast majority of the state's intellectually and developmentally disabled population.

The largest provider, North Kingstown-based Perspectives Corporation, saw revenues for its 24-hour programs decline from $14 million in 2006 to $10.5 million last year. During the period, the residential population actually rose – from 139 to 149 – while staff declined, from 439 to 326.
More staff reductions, Perspectives founder and CEO David C. Ruppell believed, would have jeopardized safety. Even though it prides itself on the quality of its staff training, Perspectives was forced to reduce it, while also eliminating or cutting back on occupational, physical and speech therapies.

Perspectives group home resident Robert Rendine, right, with Ruppell.

"You can't get rid of all your direct-care staff and all your administrators," says Ruppell. "You can't get rid of your financial people because they have to do the crazy billing. So a lot of training was cut."

And wages stagnated. Starting pay for direct-care staff at Perspectives is $11 an hour, one of the more generous rates among private providers.

"We're competing with McDonalds," Ruppell says. "That's who is helping and taking care of our most disabled people in the state."

Among them is Danielle DeGregorio, 33, who lives in a Perspectives group home in East Greenwich. Danielle has a severe developmental disability, along with anxiety and mood disorders. She has lived at the home since she was a teenager. She enjoys drumming and animals, visits with her father, and is known for her sense of humor.

Some consumers, advocates and relatives have protested the cuts, but fear of retribution has silenced others, Ruppell says. "Under the last administration, parents found if they complained too much the funding to their child was suddenly cut. They didn't have to do it very many times to scare the bejesus out of these moms and dads."

Approximately 4,000 people are employed in the private system, according to the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island; they serve about 3,800 people.

A much smaller number of employees, approximately 370, work in BHDDH's Rhode Island Community Living and Supports (RICLAS) division, which ran the group home, since closed, where Barbara Annis lived. They serve an even smaller number of people: 152, according to BHDDH.

These unionized state workers are paid more than private staff: a community living aide, for example, earns from $35,668 to $38,744 a year (not including overtime), compared with less than $23,000 annually for the a direct-care worker in the non-unionized private sector.

According to House Finance Committee data, BHDDH currently spends $51,257 per person for services provided by community-based programs. The cost per person for programs operated directly by the state – including the 152 individuals in RICLAS homes – was more than triple, $175,383 per person. The substantial medical needs of some of these people in RICLAS homes account for some of the greater costs.

Nonetheless, this disparity has been a factor in the state's improper use of the Supports Intensity Scale (SIS) assessment tool, endorsed by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, a professional organization headquartered in Washington. Designed to determine an individual's needs, not the cost of services required to meet them, the state has used the scale to move some people to a lower-need tier only to save dollars.

In its January 2014 report, the Department of Justice chastised the state for this misuse of SIS, noting that BHDDH both administers the SIS system and determines funding: "This is a seeming conflict of interest because the need to keep consumers' resource allocations within budget may influence staff to administer the SIS in a way that reaches the pre-determined budgetary result."

Providers and many families assert that BHDHH continues to do just that by arbitrarily recategorizing. And while appeals are possible and sometimes granted, the appeal process, they say, is frustratingly complex and can take weeks or months – during which needed services may be withheld.

Governor Raimondo was in office just hours in January 2015 when she announced she would not reappoint Stenning. His successor, Maria Montanaro — former CEO of Thundermist Health Center and then CEO of Magellan Healthcare of Iowa — was similarly disturbed by what she found inside the department, even before she officially started work.

"It's a challenging environment, made all the more challenging by some of the crises that greeted me when I came in the door," Montanaro said on Feb. 26, 2015, when the Senate Health and Human Services Committee unanimously recommended her confirmation.

The reality was worse than she imagined, Montanaro says she discovered after a few weeks on the job.

"I didn't realize the state of affairs that I was inheriting in DD, which was a system that had been chronically underfunded for the better part of a decade," she said last week. "Some of those cuts were so devastating to the private-sector system that the capacity for us to actually care for individuals as we are required under the Medicaid rules was really in serious jeopardy."

Today, she says, "we have a lot of challenges in the DD department to take the existing resources that are budgeted to us and really meet the mandates of service. That has been noted by the court monitor for the DOJ consent decree as well as the judge as well as all of us within the department. And that is: we really need investments made in the DD system."

The Developmental Disabilities Program enacted budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30 was $230.9 million, a decrease of $8.6 million, or 3.5 percent, from the year before. Funding rises $4.3 million, or almost 2 percent, in the governor's proposed 2017 budget, now before the General Assembly; the increase would support a 45-cent hourly raise in the private sector. Reductions in residential programs would free almost $16.2 million for other private-provider programs.

"We have an administration now that recognizes the problems resulting from chronic reductions in funding and is taking steps to correct the current trajectory," Donna Martin, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, tells The Journal. "Unfortunately, it will take some time to rebound from so many years of fiscal deprivation and the lack of a clear vision for integrated, community-based services."
By the numbers:
$260.2 million: R.I. spending in 2008 on developmental disabilities
$230.9 million: What state will spend in fiscal 2016
$58.2 million: Inflation-adjusted decrease
$1 million: Potential annual federal fine
— gwmiller@providencejournal.com
(401) 277-7380
On Twitter: @GWayneMiller

And this ran as a sidebar:

Abused former Ladd resident loves current group home, upset by cut

By G. Wayne Miller
Journal Staff Writer  Posted May. 20, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Richard Rendine's alcoholic mother treated him cruelly when he was a young child.

"She smacked me, hit me. She vacuum-broomed me," he says. "That's why my godfather put me in Ladd School. Because I kind of hurt."

Along with his brother, Rendine, 66, was sent to the Ladd Center, Rhode Island's now-closed institution for intellectually and developmentally disabled people, in 1958. He stayed two decades, coming of age during a period when Ladd residents were routinely abused and neglected. Some died as a result.

Rendine was not spared.

"They were doing bad things to me down there when I was a kid," he says. "I was child-abused by my mother. And I was child-abused by them down there."

In 1978, Rendine moved from Ladd to a group home. He lives in one now, in Wakefield, operated by Perspectives Corporation.

He has a girlfriend. He enjoys hiking, walking on the beach, listening to his albums.

Favorite groups?

"The Beach Boys. The Monkees. The Four Tops. The Beatles. Elvis Presley. And Michael Jackson. And Steve Wonder. And the one who died in the last month: Prince."
Life is good. But it used to be better.

"When the budget cuts came, we had less staff," says Perspectives CEO David Ruppell. "Richard would come to me and say, 'I feel like I'd like to get out in the community a little bit more. What can you do about the staffing?' And I didn't have a good answer for him because we had gotten rid of extra hours. We had to maintain safety at the house."

Gone, too, was another hope.

"I don't have much money," Rendine says. "I need a job. I don't have one."

"He would need a lot of support" in the workplace, says Ruppell. "And those supports aren't really there."

"We need more staff at my house," Rendine says. "We have six clients. Before, we had a big room.

Now they cut my room in half. I used to have a big room, now they made it half and half."
His reaction to the millions in statewide budget reductions that have led him here?

"It's just the state throwing these cuts. I don't know why. It's about money, I guess. Money, yup."

— gwmiller@providencejournal.com
(4010 277-7380
On Twitter: @GWayneMiller

Friday, May 20, 2016

EgyptAir now, EgyptAir then

The crash this week of EgyptAir Flight 804 brings to mind the 1999 crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, in waters off Rhode Island, as fellow journalists and former Projo staffers including Farnaz Fassihi, now with The Wall Street Journal, have reminded me. Herewith two stories -- one by me, another by Farnaz --from that long-ago crash.

And at the end, a few photos from that terrible time...

EgyptAir Flight 990 - Amid the grief, recovery begins - Jetliner's crash sparks outpouring of support
Publication Date: November 2, 1999  Page: A-01  Section: News  Edition: All  

With the world its audience, Rhode Island yesterday became the stage for one of the most heart-wrenching dramas of the modern age: the aftermath of a jetliner crash in which all aboard perished.

Grieving relatives, crowds of officials, and a crush of journalists converged on the state as the last hope of finding any survivors of the 217 people on EgyptAir Flight 990 was officially extinguished.

Efforts now turn to recovering wreckage and human remains, consoling the bereaved, and attempting to solve the mystery of what happened early Halloween morning in the moonlit sky off Massachusetts.

Having just buried a favorite son, Sen. John H. Chafee, Rhode Island now is experiencing a more gruesome and protracted ritual of death. Recovery and identification of victims, in a temporary morgue being opened at the former Navy complex at Quonset Point/Davisville, could take weeks.

Determining what caused the Boeing 767 jet to suddenly plunge more than six miles to destruction south of Nantucket, after leaving New York on a flight to Cairo, almost certainly will take longer. No distress call was received from the doomed jetliner and data recorders have not been recovered, although officials are hopeful they will be.

"I know all of Rhode Island will open its hearts to the victims from wherever they come, and do what it can to make this less painful," Governor Almond said during a late-afternoon news conference at search headquarters at the Navy base in Newport. Apparently, no victims were from Rhode Island.

"After events like this, there are hundreds of people who have suffered the ultimate loss," said James T. Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which has charge of the investigation. "Many of these people are coming to the scene."

By nightfall, some two dozen relatives and friends, many carrying medical records and photographs and accompanied by clergy, Red Cross counselors, police officers, and representatives of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani already had arrived by chartered plane from New York and traveled by bus to Newport's Doubletree Islander Hotel, which the NTSB designated a Family Assistance Center. More relatives are expected to arrive in Rhode Island today, including some accompanying the president of EgyptAir, and state officials were busy finding more rooms at other hotels and inns.

Cairo resident Tamer Omar was with the first group to reach Rhode Island; his brother, Hashem Omar, an EgyptAir pilot, was a passenger on Flight 990.

"Did I ever imagine I would come to this foreign place in search of my brother's body?" Omar said as he rode the bus to Newport. "If we ever find a body?"

"A lot of the family members probably haven't slept," said Red Cross spokesman Brett Davey. "They're in disbelief, shock, angry. They probably need someone to talk to."

MEANWHILE, as operations shifted from rescue to recovery, the government mobilized the sophisticated equipment and vessels needed for a long, treacherous mission in waters that are some 250 feet deep. They also prepared a hangar at Quonset to receive pieces of the doomed aircraft what Hall called a "jigsaw puzzle of 50,000 pieces." Another official said that no reconstruction of the aircraft is planned, at least not at this time.

Although weather in the area where the jet went down has been fair since Sunday, seas were expected to pick up today as rain and possible gale-force wind approaches. And winter is coming in an area of the Atlantic notorious for its vicious northeasters and nautical disasters.

Bill Campbell, a veteran diver and undersea photographer who has been to the bottom near the roughly 40-square-mile search area about 50 miles south of Nantucket, said the environment poses the biggest challenge.

"If there's a strong tide or groundswell," said Campbell, "it can be tough out there."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel Whiting has already arrived in Newport, carrying side scan sonar that will allow it to look for debris on the ocean floor. The Navy vessel Grapple is expected to arrive this morning and load a remote operating vehicle that will allow it to explore possible targets picked by the Whiting, officers said.

Also, the Navy vessel Mohawk is en route - carrying special instruments to allow it to find the "ping" emitted by the jetliner's flight recorder. It, too, is armed with side scan sonar and a submersible vehicle. Searchers have located a signal, most likely from one of the plane's so-called black boxes.

They also recovered one body, its identity so far undisclosed and apparently unknown. The body was taken to Quonset Point yesterday morning by the Coast Guard Cutter Monomoy, an officer said.

Assisted by student sailors from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who happened to be in the area, crews of Coast Guard ships and aircraft have also recovered debris including what one Coast Guard officer described as a "significant piece" of the aircraft, large enough to require a crane.

They also have found evacuation slides, life preservers and shoes, purses, and teddy bears.

"It basically looked like somebody had emptied their trash Dumpster," said one of the Merchant Academy student sailors, Chris Kincaid.

None of the retrieved debris has any burn marks that might indicate a fire or explosion, said officials, who refused to speculate on the cause.

Authorities stressed there was no evidence of foul play but because terrorism has not been ruled out, the FBI said it is sending bomb experts and other investigators to Newport. Starting early Sunday, FBI agents swarmed over airports in Los Angeles and the New York metropolitan area where the jetliner landed and took off on what was intended to be a long journey from Cairo to the United States and back.

"Nothing has been ruled in, nothing has been ruled out," President Clinton said in Oslo, Norway, where he was attending Middle East peace talks.

Among the passengers on Flight 990 which went down without any indication of trouble from the pilots were about 30 Egyptian military officers who had been training in the United States, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.

The passengers also included several Egyptians and Canadians, and 106 Americans including 54 people bound for a two-week trip to Egypt and the Nile. None apparently was from Rhode Island, but at least five lived in Connecticut. A couple who split their time between homes in Vermont and Maine also died.

RHODE ISLAND is enveloped in this emerging drama by virtue of its proximity to the crash site, and the existence of large air and sea bases on both sides of deepwater Narragansett Bay capable of supporting such a massive operation. The early search was run from Coast Guard headquarters in Boston and a station on Cape Cod.

Initially, the Coast Guard looked for survivors regardless of how remote that possibility seemed, especially in light of how precipitously the jetliner left the sky. Radar showed that the aircraft dropped more than two miles in just over half a minute a descent one aviation expert described as falling "like a rock."

Any lingering hope that anyone could have lived disappeared early yesterday afternoon when Rear Adm. Richard M. Larrabee, commander of the First Coast Guard District, stepped to the microphones and told reporters in Newport: "We believe at this point it is in everyone's best interest to no longer expect to find survivors."

Larrabee confirmed the recovery of one body, and said Coast Guard searchers "have begun to see evidence of further human remains," but he declined to elaborate.

"Our frustration is we would have liked to find people who survived," said Larrabee. "I can't express our feelings more strongly."

NOT FOUR HOURS after Larrabee spoke, NTSB chief Hall convened a second news conference at the Navy base in Newport.

By then, the media throng was reminiscent of three other air tragedies in recent years in the region: the downing of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, N.Y., in July 1996; the loss of Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia in September 1998; and the crash of the small plane carrying John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister off Martha's Vineyard this past July.

Support staff at the Newport base said they've added 140 phone lines for journalists and 39 television cameras greeted speakers at the second news conference. Every major American newspaper and network was represented, along with journalists from Spain, France, Canada and Japan and untold others certain to arrive overnight and today.

In his remarks, Hall introduced some of the 500 to 1,000 NTSB, Navy, NOAA, FBI and Coast Guard personnel who eventually will be in Rhode Island or working with those who are.

"The primary purpose that I came to Rhode Island today was to ask Governor Almond if his state would open their communities to the families of this terrible tragedy," Hall said. "The governor and I discussed the arrival of family members from Egypt and around the world who will appear in Rhode Island tomorrow."

Almond said Hall called him Sunday and told him Rhode Island would be at the center of the investigation.

Barry Mawn, a special agent for the FBI, asked local people to keep their eyes open for possible debris. "If any washed up on shore, citizens are asked to call local police," he said.

A spokesman for Seattle-based Boeing who arrived just before the news conference, John Derr, said Boeing has an air safety investigator here who will work with the NTSB.

Peter Goeltz, a managing director of the NTSB, said the Family Assistance Center at the Newport Islander Doubletree Hotel will be staffed by professionals from EgyptAir, the Red Cross and NTSB, and they will provide family briefings twice a day. Reporters were not permitted inside the Doubletree.

"We'll also work with the Rhode Island medical examiner on the difficult process of identifying victims," Goeltz said.

Hall said he thought it would take 36 to 48 hours to get equipment to the scene that can pinpoint pinging from the jetliner's flight recorder. Noting that the water is twice as deep as that in which the TWA Flight 800 was recovered three years ago, he said: "This will be a long investigation."

Lead NTSB investigator Gregory Phillips said he is prepared for a probe that could stretch out over "the next coming months and maybe even years."

Added Coast Guard Capt. Russell Webster: "It will be our job to safely and compassionately recover human remains and wreckage."

And judging by the response to a solicitation for help, the state's hospitality industry seemingly has decided its job is to house grieving relatives and friends. "A lot of people, good people, are calling for the right reasons," Robert Rosenberg, president of the Newport County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in an interview.

Touro Synagogue offered the nation's first synagogue as a place for prayer and nondenominational services, while Middletown's Norman Bird Sanctuary offered its nature trails to people needing quiet solitude.

With staff reports from Peter B. Lord, Gerald M. Carbone, Maria Miro Johnson, Farnaz Fassihi, Robert L. Smith, Karen Lee Ziner, Jody McPhillips and Elizabeth Schaefer, and the Associated Press.

EgyptAir Flight 990 - 'We will never know the truth' - In Cairo, suspicion clouds view of crash
Publication Date: December 5, 1999  Page: A-01  Section: News  Edition: All  

CAIRO, Egypt - Under the curved archway of a narrow alley, a peddler wearing a long gray Arabic gown pushes a cart of fresh vegetables through the crowd, two young boys chase away a yellow stray cat and a female shopper haggles loudly over a pound of dates.

Inside a traditional teahouse nearby, the aroma of burning incense and tobacco from the glass water pipes, together with the smell of rich Eastern tea and Turkish coffee, create the illusion of timelessness.

Here, shadows of past glories from an ancient civilization meet the present realities of a developing country.

Three men take puffs on the long stem of their water pipes, which emit a ring of smoke into the misty air.

The hypnotic effect of the apple-scented smoke is disrupted when the conversation shifts to the worst tragedy this nation has seen in recent years.

Talk of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 triggers an eruption of emotional reactions.

"Why is there no news this week?" asks Mahdouh Fahmy, 41, setting aside his water pipe. The phrase "In the name of God" is inscribed in bold pink Arabic letters on the wall behind him.

"They are hiding something and now they will tell us a new lie," he said, wagging a finger in the air as he leaned forward to emphasize his point.

"We all know it's terrorist against Egypt - Khalass (the end)," continues Abdullah Hassan,67, "Why listen to more news? Thirty-three of the best military people trained in the United States were killed at once. Does America think we are stupid and illiterate?" he said, his voice rising with every word.

Hassan points to a copy of an Arabic daily newspaper that is spread atop a cracked metal table nearby to indicate that he is updated with the current events.

The men, on a midday tea and shisheh (water pipe) break from their jobs, engage in a heated debate.

"Suicide? An Egyptian pilot, a Muslim doing suicide? Not in one million years," Hassan says.

At the sandwich stand next door, a mother and three daughters wait in line for a quick lunch of falafels.

"We have reached our conclusion that this is a terrorist act and we will never, ever know the truth," said Wafa Anwar, 40, the mother.

IT'S BEEN MORE than a month since Egyptair Flight 990, en route to Cairo, plunged into the Atlantic 60 miles off the coast of Nantucket killing all 217 aboard.

Among the passengers were 33 Egyptian military officers who were returning from training seminars in the United States.

In the first days after the crash, Rhode Island was at center stage, hosting both the investigation and the families and friends of victims. Since then, news of the crash has slipped off the front pages in the United States.

But in Egypt, it's still a prime topic of conversation, amid theories of international conspiracy.

To most Egyptians, the riddle of Flight 990 has a simple answer: The United States has the technology and experience to investigate mechanical problems. When the National Transportation Safety Board announced the crash was not a result of aircraft failure, especially one that would involve EgyptAir, the news was readily accepted.

On the other hand, when the foreign media started reporting speculation of suicide on the part of the Muslim pilot, the reaction was that Americans lack the understanding required for interpreting Arabic words in their cultural context.

Add to this a history of resentment against the West for stereotyping Arabs and Muslims, the tendency toward creating conspiracy in the absence of facts and the pride that stems from being a part of an ancient civilization.

The result poses one question for the majority of Egyptians: What else could have caused EgyptAir Flight 990 to plunge into the Atlantic but an act of terrorism against their nation?

"We can't look into much rationality. This is the Egyptian's gut reaction that stems from culture, history and psychology," said Barbara Ibrahim, an American resident of Cairo for 30 years who holds a doctorate in sociology.

In this region of the world, intrigue is ingrained in the interactions of daily life. If a guest refuses an offer of a cup of tea, a second and third offering will follow, because the host believes that true intentions are never revealed upon the first account.

In a broader sense, to the eyes of an average Egyptian, nothing is what it appears to be, from the run-down shabby buildings that house marble-floored luxury apartments, furnished with French velvet and gold furniture, to the political scene of the country and the region.

For the masses, the 1952 revolution, which overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk and resulted in the creation of the Republic of Egypt, did not deliver its early promise of economic prosperity and international recognition.

Today, with a population of 62 million and a growth rate of 1.2 million people a year, the unemployment rate is approaching 30 percent, according to the CIA world fact book.

Fifty-five percent of Egyptians are rural residents and 66 percent are illiterate, according to the country's 1996 census data.

"As with every revolution, the middle class has disappeared, the rich got richer and the poor, poorer," said Maher Asal, a 49-year-old American-trained architect, lounging in the exclusive Gezira Country Club.

Economic frustrations and a lack of aspiration for the majority have resulted in what experts call "heightened religiosity" in the country.

"These people are the margins of society. Modernization and development has left them aside," explained Enid Hill, chairwoman of the political science department at the American University of Cairo."You can't live with this kind of alienation and the Islamic movement incorporates them into an alternative form of community. Then their life means something."

THE STRONG FAITH and Islamic values observed by Egyptians was yet another reason to denounce with such rigorous intensity the suggestion that a Muslim Egyptian of the highest clan, a pilot, could commit suicide.

A Muslim is prohibited by the Koran from taking his own life; suicide is considered a sin and, culturally, a disgrace.

In a society where most people invest more heavily in social relations than individual success, any act that would bestow public shame on a person and the honor of the family name is regarded as the worst affront one can suffer.

"There is not anger against humanity and society here that you see in the West, where someone randomly walks into a McDonald's and [shoots] children and then kills himself. These things just do not happen here," said Nadine Boctor, 42, who recently moved back to Cairo from a decade of living in Canada.

Egypt receives $1.2 billion annually - equal to 10 percent of its gross national product - in economic and military aid from the United States, making it the second-largest recipient of foreign aid after Israel.

In return, Egypt is considered the number-one ally of the United States in the Arab world and a key player in the Middle East peace process.

The course of politics in the region has led Egyptians of all political persuasions to believe that their country and all Third-World countries are manipulated and exploited for purposes that may be secret at the time but become apparent later.

Among examples Egyptians cite are the Iran-Contra scandal and the Arab-Israel peace process, in which the Arabs feel that the terms of negotiations often favor Israel.

On the flip side of feeling powerless about their political fate, Egyptians place much more emphasis on the importance of Middle East affairs in American foreign policy than is the case in reality. This leads to a public opinion that the West is never without an agenda in its dealings with the region.

"There is no real understanding of their true place in the emerging global world order where the Arabs are mostly marginalized" explained Ibrahim.

These perceptions, whether true or false, are heartfelt and create a foundation for conspiracy theories involving the United States and Israel, in the absence of factual information.

THE STORY of Egyptair has a familiar ring to the ears of Cairo residents. They compare the mystery of the crash to the deaths of princess Diana and her Egyptian boyfriend, Dodi Al-Fayad, in a car crash in a Paris tunnel in 1997.

"Everyone was convinced that the British monarchy killed them," said Yasmine El Rashidi, an American-trained journalist for Al Ahram, an English-language weekly newspaper. "We have an obsession with conspiracy. Every disaster they can't find answers for is a result of outside meddling and conspiracy."

Reports in the Western media, based on leaks from officials in Washington suggesting that the copilot of Flight 990, Gamil al-Batouty, had brought down the plane in an act of suicide because he was heard uttering an Arabic prayer, only heightened the paranoia in this country.

"These leaks were an attempt to compromise the whole overall process of the investigation," said Nabil Osman, the chairman of the State Information Service, and the official spokesman for the Egyptian government. "These leaks were erroneous in content and in intent both and this led to a reaction.

"Now as it stands, the idea of suicide is completely out of the window, there is no trace of it whatsoever, this is ridiculous," Osman said emotionally.

"They are looking into mechanics and whether it is mechanical due to bad manufacturing or mechanical due to human fault," said Osman.

IN THE CROWDED streets of Cairo, a city of 18 million people, traffic is at a standstill regularly and the honking of horns sings a background melody in the warm desert climate.

At the corner of every other block on Corniche Road, which stretches along the Nile River and cuts through the buzzing downtown area, a blue and white square sign hangs from metal light poles.

The sign depicts a white falcon on a sky blue background. Above it reads, "Mesr al-Tayaran," or EgyptAir.

In the United States, an airline logo represents a private business, perhaps evoking thoughts of what the best deal of the week may be. In Egypt, where the government owns the airline, the falcon is a reminder of national glory and pride.

The falcon, which was kept in palaces by the sultans of the East, symbolizes power and superiority in this region. It's regarded as a strong bird that can endure the hardships of a desert life.

Naturally, pilots who are entrusted with the country's glorious bird of the modern era, the aircraft, are equally looked upon as men of honor.

"We are the elite in Cairo. To attack one of us is like attacking national pride, we are government employees of the highest rank," said Walid Morad, the chairman of the Egyptian Pilots Association and an EgyptAir pilot, in his luxury apartment in an upscale suburb of Cairo.

Egyptair often recruits its pilots from the air force, said Morad, adding that each candidate's personal, criminal and physical background is thoroughly researched to ensure perfection.

Morad and his wife and two children, who attend private American schools and are chauffeured around, speak flawless English. They have traveled to most countries in the world and comment on art and culture in New York City, which is a favorite spot.

Morad's wife asks the live-in maid to prepare tea and flips through the TV satellite channels for an entertaining show. Their 8-year old son and 11-year-old daughter go off to play computer games. The phone rings and husband and wife both reach for their cellular phones.

A similar scene takes place at the apartment of Walid al-Batouty, the nephew of the accused copilot. Walid, who went to high school in the United States, dismisses the possibility of his uncle being associated with an Islamic extremist group that may have taken the plane down in an act of martyrdom.

"I think my uncle's mission was to break the American stereotyping of Arabs; you think we are still on camels, that we are either terrorists or secularists. That to have a balanced, modern Arab Muslim is not possible," Walid adds.

At one o'clock in the afternoon on a weekday, Walid, who is an Egyptologist, has not left home for work yet. The morning was spent surfing the Internet, defending his uncle on the phone to foreign journalists and taking care of other personal matters. Engulfed in the relaxed pace that governs Egypt when it comes to punctuality, he is in no particular rush either.

Arriving late for appointments, canceling events on the spur of the moment and taking one's time to deliver a task are allcommon.

The Western obsession to find clear and definite reasons for everything in supersonic time by using the latest technology, is absent from the Egyptian mentality.

Here, the answer to every question has only one answer: "Insha-allah," or simply, "God willingly."

"Americans have this illusion that they can conquer and control everything, while the Egyptians believe God has a plan that they don't understand, which often leads to a sense of resignation in the face of a tragedy," said Ibrahim, the American sociologist in Egypt.

IN RETROSPECT, suggestions that in a matter of less than a week, the United States could come up with explanations for such a complicated mystery as a plane crash, especially explanations that blamed an Egyptian, are incomprehensible.

The majority of the victim's families interviewed in Cairo said they have shut off the flow of information regarding the crash to grieve in private with the support of other family members.

The only source of official information comes through a hot line established by Egyptair for the families, but victims' relatives do not aggressively pursue even that channel.

Since victims' families returned from their vigil in Newport, only one conference call has been scheduled that put families in Egypt in direct contact with NTSB officials, according to Shahra Khali, who lost her uncle, Madgy Geish, 50, in the crash.

"My uncle's wife and two children have completely stopped listening to any news about the crash," said Khali.

"What difference does it make," she asked. "At the end they will find some political explanation that won't be the truth. Do we know to this day who killed JFK? This is the same. They seek comfort in God."

* * *


The Smit Pioneer, a civilian salvage ship chartered by the Navy, is expected to arrive at Quonset Point this week from Lisbon to help with the search for human remains and wreckage from EgyptAir Flight 990.

The recovery operation, scheduled to start within the next couple of weeks, will be conducted by the FBI and National Transportation Safety Board.

The FBI and NTSB are working closely in the investigation of the crash. Last Wednesday, FBI Director Louis Freeh said the only practical difference in a change of leadership would be in the release of information.

The NTSB has a statutory mandate to release information that is relevant to safety, whereas in a criminal context, the FBI would keep the information confidential.

A team of American investigators from the FBI, NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration left Egypt on Nov. 26 after a week-long probe into the aircraft records and personnel records of EgyptAir.


* * *

TALK OF THE CITY: In Egypt's cafes, such as this one in downtown Cairo, where a man smokes a water pipe last month, the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 remains a prime topic of conversation. Below, Egyptians wait for transport on the banks of the Nile.


AP photo / AMR NABIL

Journal photo / FARNAZ FASSIHI

STREET SCENE: Fatima Ibrahim and her daughter, Heba Wahid, sell vegetables Thursday in a Cairo street market. Egypt has a population of 62 million people, more than half of whom live in rural areas. The unemployment rate is approaching 30 percent.

OFFICIAL VIEW: Nabil Osman, chairman of the State Information Service, says speculation that the copilot brought down the plane in an act of suicide is ridiculous.

Journal photo / FARNAZ FASSIHI


FAMILY PORTRAITS: A photograph of EgyptAir Flight 990's copilot, Capt. Gamil al-Batouty, is displayed last month at the family house in Cairo. At right, Wafa Anwar, with her daughters, Dina, left, and Rania, in Cairo Thursday, says she believes the plane was downed by a terrorist attack.

Journal photo / FARNAZ FASSIHI