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Tragic news came 36 hours after crash

As he watched a CNN video of the wreckage of TWA Flight 800 smoldering on the dark ocean Wednesday night, Leonard Romagna instantly thought of his wife, Barbara.

She had left earlier that afternoon for a two-week trip to France. Romagna grabbed her itinerary. The flight numbers matched.

"I said, "Oh, God, she's on,' " he recalled Friday.

But it would not be until 36 hours later _ after he saw his wife's name on a list of casualties in the newspaper _ that Romagna could get his fears confirmed by TWA. He was furious at the delay, which he says added to the pain of his tragedy.

Romagna tried calling the airline through the night, but the line was busy. When he finally got through Thursday morning, the TWA representative refused to tell him anything, he said.

Later, the company that booked his wife's tour told him she was on the plane. Then he saw her name, slightly misspelled, in a list of passengers in Friday's newspaper.

Only then, when Romagna called the airline at 8 a.m. Friday and told them he had seen the list, did TWA confirm Barbara Romagna, 75, was on Flight 800.

The 76-year-old retired corporate advertising and communications manager was furious over what he considered a terrible public relations effort.

"I flipped my lid all over them," he said. "It was inhuman, really."

Romagna's frustration echoed that of other relatives and friends of the 230 people aboard the Boeing 747, which exploded in the air Wednesday night over the Atlantic Ocean near Long Island en route to Paris from New York's Kennedy Airport. They have criticized the airline's handling of the disaster, especially the delay in releasing a list of passengers and crew and notifying relatives.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who lost a friend on the flight, said Friday that the airline did not tell the truth Thursday morning when officials said the complete passenger list had been compiled and family notifications were under way.

TWA officials said they have done the best they can. "The mayor seems to be giving the impression that we just left and turned the lights off, but that's not true," said Jonathan Clarke, a TWA spokesman.

Although the need to ensure the passenger and crew list's accuracy is critical, crisis experts said the airline did not explain the reasons for the delay.

"People will be understanding if they can see how much effort is being put into a difficult effort, but that hasn't happened here," said David Schmittlein, who evaluates corporate crisis response at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

In contrast, after ValuJet Flight 592 plunged into the Everglades on May 11, the company was praised for its efforts to help families.

Legislation is being drafted in Congress that would give the National Transportation Safety Board greater control over when and how victim's families are notified.

The last time Leonard Romagna saw his wife was Wednesday afternoon as she walked through the gate at Tampa International Airport.

"I dropped her off, kissed her goodbye and said have a wonderful time," he said. "She said, "I will.' "

Barbara Romagna grew up in Sidney, Iowa, where 50 years ago she was a rodeo queen. She never lost her love for sports, her husband said, and was doubles champion in tennis at Sun City Center for three years until arthritis forced her to stop.

She and Leonard met during World War II in Washington, where she worked for the Maritime Commission and he served in the Coast Guard.

They married in 1946 and settled in Port Washington, N.Y., on Long Island's north coast. Ten years ago, they moved to Sun City Center.

Barbara loved to travel, even after retirement, her husband said. She would take annual trips, to Egypt and Great Britain, among other places. The two-week trip to France was to have been her last one, he said.

"She said, "I'm getting too old for this. I'm not going to do it anymore,' " her husband said.

_ Information from Times staff writer Bill Adair and Times wires was used in this story.