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Survivors' hotel houses sympathy, sorrow

Softly, respectfully, Noreen knocks on their doors, inquiring after their needs.

"Miss," the maid tells a hotel guest whose door seems to be jammed, "I think your daughter is playing with the door."

The silence is followed by the awful truth:

"How I wish my daughter was playing with the door."

Noreen, who asked that her last name not be used, works at an airport hotel where the families of Flight 800 are sequestered.

"Who did you lose?" she says in her soft Jamaican lilt to a woman, head in hands, crumpled in an armchair near the elevator.

"My only daughter; my only daughter," comes the reply. A daughter whose birthday would have been Saturday.

Sometimes, as she goes around dispensing her soap and towels and sympathies, the doors stay shut, keeping the world at bay.

Sometimes she is allowed in, and finds them huddled on the bed, clutching their photos for dear life.

"It's a deep emptiness," Noreen says. "It's the worst thing I've ever felt."

She feels the emptiness for herself, as well. Over the past decade, she has come to know many of the TWA pilots and flight attendants who have stayed at this hotel. Her mind is a jumble of the faces of some of those who died.

In the lobby, survivors drag themselves out of elevators in threes and fours, holding each other, sometimes crying. One minute, they look fine. A moment later, they are heaped up against each other.

Around the clock, they drift in and out of a sparsely furnished ballroom, seeking the comfort of counselors, ministers, priests, rabbis, Red Cross workers.

Spanish, French, English and other languages intermingle.

Some families gather around the bar's TV. Tear bursts are unleashed by footage of their loved ones' belongings being dragged from the water.

There are moments, too, for the good memories.

"She was finishing a house for herself in Pittsburgh," real estate developer Richard Penzer, 38, says proudly of his late sister, Judy Penzer. "She made it into an artistic statement."

Judy Penzer, 49, was famous for her murals, he says. Most notably for a sports mural on Pittsburgh's Blue Cross building, featured on Monday Night Football.

Right about now, she and her friend, architect Jill Watson, 31, would have been driving through the French countryside.

"Last week, I was with Judy," says Penzer, looking strained but dry-eyed. "She was happy _ because she was on her way to Paris."