On a brilliantly sunny, late summer morning last August 2000, two women met for the ï¬rst time to share an iced coffee and croissant near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Manhattans Morningside Heights. They could have been mother and daughter having a mundane conversation or enjoying a leisurely outing. Instead they were meeting to discuss their mutual losses from two plane crashes: TWA Flight 800 in 1996, and Swissair Flight 111 in 1998. One woman was Heidi Snow who lost her ï¬ancÃ©, Michel Breistroff on the TWA Flight. The other was Nancy Wight, who lost her sole daughter, Rowenna Wight White, in the Swissair crash. Since there is a TWA memorial in the Cathedral and Rowenna is interred in the columbarium, the two women paid a visit to the largest Gothic ediï¬ce in the world.
St. John the Divine, still unï¬nished, is the size of two football ï¬elds and has the height of a 12-story building. The nave consists of ï¬ve aisles and lofty piers, which rise gracefully from ï¬‚oor to ceiling. The chief architect was Ralph Adams Cram from Boston and ground was broken in 1916. The engineering principles he used were 700 years old, but the design was virtually new. Entering this enormous space, one ï¬nds the TWA memorial about two thirds of the way down the left aisle just behind the tomb of Bishop Manning. Three brass plaques on the wall list the 230 names of the TWA Flight 800 victims, including that of Breistroffs. An engrave quotation from Psalm 139 reads:
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea
Even there shall thy hand lead me,
And thy right hand shall hold me.
Usually there is a candle burning on a pedestal and even sometimes, fresh ï¬‚owers.
Above the brass names is a small, stained glass window in memory of the victims of the Titanic. Continuing further along, one passes the gift shop entrance, contemporary art exhibits, a short stairway, and, with a turn to the left, one comes across a large baptismal font.
Finally one enters St. Ansgars Chapel, named for the great Apostle to the North, and one of seven chapels that rings the high altar. Here is the columbarium chamber where Rowenna Wight Whites limited identiï¬ed remains are buried. She was one of the 229 victims aboard Swissair Flight 111 crash that, like TWA Flight 800 had no survivors. Had Rowennas mother had accompanied her as originally planned, the fatalities would have been 230, the very same number as TWA Flight 800. The caretaker of the Columbarium requested a picture of Rowenna, framed it, and attached it to the burial site underneath her dates:
May 17, 1980 ” called back ” September 2, 1998
St. John the Divine is the chief seat of the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in New York, but anyone may be buried in the columbarium, Episcopalian or not. One notes many Asian names, a prominent choreographer, a former cathedral usher, several premature deaths due to AIDS, a relative of Jacqueline Onnassis, and baby Antonia, who lived all of one day. Sometimes a violinist plays and the school children of the Cathedral gather on All Saints Day in October for a discussion of death. The columbarium is a peaceful place where people can visit their loved ones during cathedral hours. For Heidi Snow and Nancy Wight, it was an opportunity to get to know one another and to share a sorrow that only others in their circumstances can comprehend.
Nancy Wight lost her daughter Rowenna, 18, aboard Swissair Flight 111 on September 2, 1998