July 17, 1996 Heidi Snow said goodbye to her fiancé Michel Breistroff as he boarded a Paris-bound plane at JFK airport. She was to meet him in Europe a few weeks later. But Heidi never got that chance. That night, Michel and two hundred and twenty-nine others died aboard Trans World Airlines Flight 800 when it exploded over Long Island Sound. Heidi and thousands of loved ones of those lost were left in unspeakable grief and torment; their lives forever changed.
In the immediate aftermath, the American Red Cross, the airlines, and other organizations provided crisis intervention to families and friends of the victims. However, the help was only temporary, and after a few weeks, the disaster teams disbanded. When the initial shock subsided, the agonizing process of grieving intensified and Heidi needed a place to turn. She and the others, now scattered around the world, felt abandoned and isolated with no organization to connect them. Like others affected by air crashes, Heidi found it hard to cope with what had happened. How could anyone who was not affected by this disaster understand the enormous impact of the tragedy?
Mayor Rudy Giuliani suggested that she attend a support group meeting of families who had lost loved ones in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland eight years earlier. They were survivors who understood Heidi’s pain because they had lived through it. More importantly, they were living models that she too would survive. Heidi was inspired by this first gleam of hope and immediately began working to set up an organization to connect the loved ones of air disaster victims to those who had survived similar losses years earlier. She vowed that no one would have to suffer the pain and loneliness she had experienced without the support of others who understood. With the help of many, including the wonderful volunteers from the Pan Am 103 meeting, Heidi founded AirCraft Casualty Emotional Support Services (ACCESS) in the fall of 1996.
The first Board of Directors and Advisory Board included New York’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki, as well as Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, author of the best seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Later many others, including Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, joined the Board of Directors. Heidi raised the necessary resources through grants, capital campaigns, and fundraising events to enable ACCESS to grow. Contributions came from hundreds of companies and foundations including Morgan Stanley Foundation, Wells Fargo Foundation, JetBlue Airways, the United Way, and many other major corporations nationwide.