Too Many Tears

updated 08/25/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/25/1997 01:00AM

THE LAST TIME MEENA PARK TOOK her niece Tiffany shopping was in late June, just before the 8-year-old was to depart for a summer with relatives in Seoul. "I told her to get whatever she wanted," recalls Park, 41, of Glendale, Calif. Tiffany's choice: a box of Lucky Charms cereal and 24 packs of chewing gum. "Someone told me if I chew gum, I'll lose a tooth," she explained, frustrated at being the last in her class to still have all her baby teeth.

Tragically, Park will never see Tiffany flash a gap-toothed kid's grin. The youngster was aboard the Korean Air 747 that crashed into a Guam hillside on Aug. 6, killing 226 people, including the third grader, Park's sister Meejin, 34, Meejin's husband, their two children and six other relatives. The extended family had been en route from Seoul to Guam for a five-day vacation. For Park, the news was both devastating and eerily familiar. Fourteen years ago a Soviet missile shot one of the same airline's jumbo jets out of the sky, killing all aboard. Yang Ro Yoon, her husband, had been the flight-crew chief. So paralyzing was the notion of such a tragedy repeating itself that Park and her sister Kelly Kang, Tiffany's mother, at first refused to accept the horrible truth. "I want to hold her hand, I want her back home," Kang said of Tiffany two days after the crash. "Her dog is waiting; her turtle is waiting."

Even when they were told by airline officials that none of their relatives had survived, Kang, 43, and Park flew to Guam to see for themselves. Hoping she could somehow find her daughter alive in the wreckage, Kang brought Tiffany's favorite dress—a black knit with fluorescent green stripes—and a new pair of black suede loafers meant for school in September. Park too had convinced herself that her nieces and nephew were still living but too frightened to yell for help. "I thought if they could hear my voice calling for them, they would come out and say, 'Auntie, here I am.' " But on Aug. 8 on Nimitz Hill, where the plane had met its grim end, the sisters viewed the charred and mangled fuselage and finally surrendered hope. "I think she's an angel now," Kelly Kang said of her daughter.

Tiffany's death is only the latest tragedy for Kang and Park, who have both battled back from wrenching earlier heartaches. It had been Kang, then a KAL flight attendant based in Seoul, who in 1982 introduced Park to Yang Ro Yoon, a flight officer with whom she worked. Park had quit her science studies at Pasadena City College to move back to Seoul and marry Yoon in 1983—only to lose him to the Soviet missile attack four months later. Never quite recovering from her loss, she focused on her sisters' children, lately shuttling between the Glendale home of Kang and daughter Tiffany and the Seoul home of sister Meejin and her children Anika, 6, and Sean, 3. Park often walked the kids home from school and took them to the park and to bookstores. "Now," she says sadly, "no one will call me Auntie." Instead, she finds herself recalling for her sister the torturous process of mourning the dead. "You cry and you cry," she told Kang just hours after they arrived in Guam. "Your legs go numb."

Kang, however, needs no coaching in grief. In 1991, when Tiffany was 2, Kang's Korean-born husband took their son Andrew, then 4, out for a late night ice cream near their Glendale home. He never came back with the boy, but fled with him to Seoul. Kang, who was not allowed to speak to her son for two years, began to hold on to daughter Tiffany more tightly than ever. Following her divorce, Kang, an avid painter, started her own La Crescenta, Calif., art studio, where she still teaches, mostly children.

As it turned out, one of her most talented students was her own child Tiffany, a precocious artist who won a June L.A. City Council prize for her drawing of angels soaring above the city skyline. "She worked very hard to give her daughter everything," says Stephanie McReynolds, head of the Montrose Christian Montessori School that Tiffany attended. Tiffany also played the piano and was a top academic student, though she rebelled against the school uniform by wearing shiny red Doc Martens. "Mrs. Kang also wears Doc Martens," says McReynolds. "They were adorable together. They were almost like sisters."

Now Tiffany's body will come home to California. "So I can visit her," says Kelly Kang. Her one wish for her daughter's trip had been that she would learn some Korean and develop a love of the culture. Two days before she died, Tiffany had called, bubbling with excitement. "I lost a tooth," she had said, "while I was eating oy!" "That's Korean," says Kang, "for cucumber."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
KAREN EMMONS in Guam and PAULA YOO in Glendale

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