The Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn was bracing for a tear-filled day of funerals after learning that the bodies of five vacationers killed in a Grand Canyon helicopter crash were expected to be flown home early today.
After an agonizing delay, medical examiners in Arizona finished identifying the remains of the badly burned victims through dental records early this morning and they were being put onto a chartered jet, Rabbi Edgar Gluck said.
Relatives hoped the bodies would be back in Brooklyn in time for four funerals — each one an hour apart — at Shomrei Hadas Chapels on 14th Avenue in Borough Park.
"The parents have been calling, asking, 'Is the body coming?' It's a very anxious time for them," said City Councilman Noach Dear, who knew the victims.
Jewish law demands that the deceased be buried as quickly as possible, but the coroner in Kingman, Ariz., had trouble identifying the bodies.
The corpses were flown to Phoenix, where better-equipped medical examiners worked through the night to finish the grim task.
The tragedy occurred Friday afternoon when a group of friends vacationing in Las Vegas decided to take a sightseeing ride over the canyon.
They went up in a convoy of six helicopters, one of which crashed on the way back to Vegas.
Avi Wajsbaum and his wife, Barbara, were killed, along with Shaya Lichtenstein, 31, Steve Fastag, 30, and David Daskal, 29.
Daskal's wife, Chana, 23, survived, but was in critical condition with severe burns in a Las Vegas hospital, where nine relatives kept an all-night bedside vigil.
Lichtenstein's and Fastag's wives were in a separate helicopter, along with other friends.
Pilot Kevin Innocenti, 27, was also killed.
Widows Nitza Lichtenstein and Hillary Fastag flew home to Brooklyn yesterday and were in seclusion with their stunned families.
"There's a pall throughout the community — Williamsburg, Borough Park, Flatbush," said Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who was close to the Lichtenstein and Daskal families.
"This is an unbelievable tragedy.
"I was sitting with Yidel Lichtenstein [Shaya's father], and he was just saying to me, 'Everyone out there takes things for granted. Love your kids every moment.'"
Hikind said the long wait for the funerals was an added burden.
"The burying of the dead as fast as possible is part of giving honor to the dead. That is Jewish law," Hikind said.
"Mr. Lichtenstein expressed the fact that his son died on Friday, and now it is three days later. He made the comment that this adds to the grief, the fact the burial has not yet happened."
The American Eurocopter AS350 helicopter, belonging to Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, crashed and burned in the Grand Wash Cliffs just outside Grand Canyon National Park.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, said there was no distress call from the helicopter before it went down.
NTSB records show Papillon has had three previous accidents in the last three years, including one in which a pilot was killed.