Sea of Tears

updated 09/21/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

They came onboard for love and for money, for adventure, for all the reasons that lead people to travel. Two hundred twenty-nine lives converged aboard Swissair Flight 111 on the night of Sept. 2. The MD-11 jet, bound for Geneva, took off from New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport but turned back an hour later over the Atlantic when smoke began seeping into the cockpit. Ten minutes from the safety of Halifax airport, the plane plunged into the sea off Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, leaving no survivors. The tragedy served as a shocking reminder of the fragility, and preciousness, of life. Friends and family of some of the victims shared their memories with PEOPLE.

AN OHIO COUPLE LEAVES BEHIND TWO BABY BOYS

Before setting off on a two-week European vacation that he had won at work, Barry Colmery, 33, a Youngstown, Ohio, financial planner, and his wife, Julie, 32, an accountant turned full-time mother, huddled with their 2-year-old twins, Scott and Kyle. " 'Boys,' " Barry's father, Samuel, recalls him saying, " 'Mom and Dad are going on a trip, and you'll have two grandmas and granddads to take care of you, and we'll be coming back.' "

But the Colmerys' flight to New York City from Pittsburgh was delayed, and they ended up on Swiss-air 111. The boys' surviving relatives have not yet found the words to tell them the hard truth: that Barry and Julie Colmery will never be coming home. "They were kind of two peas in a pod, both very athletic and both very devoted to their kids," Samuel says of the Christian couple, who met at Wheaton College outside Chicago and married in 1991. Julie was six months pregnant at the time of her death; she and her husband hadn't yet decided on a name for the daughter they were expecting, but they were taking suggestions from family and friends.

Samuel Colmery and his family have turned down Swissair's offer to fly them to Nova Scotia, at least for now. "At this point," says Samuel, who manages a Christian family bookstore in Youngstown, "the family has to gather around two little boys."

AMID THE FIGHT TO HALT AIDS, THEY DISCOVERED EACH OTHER

Drs. Jonathan Mann and Mary Lou Clements-Mann, both 51, accomplished much in their lives, but what seemed equally important in the last few years was that they had found each other. Mann, an epidemiologist and former head of the World Health Organization's AIDS program, was a pioneer in the fight against the disease. At a 1995 London meeting, the divorced father of three happened to sit next to Mary Lou Clements of Johns Hopkins University, one of the world's leading experts on the quest for an AIDS vaccine. They married in 1996. "That was the piece that was missing in her life," colleague Dr. Ruth Karron says of Clements, "and she just seemed so incredibly happy." So committed was Mann to the marriage that last January he left his job heading Harvard's Center for Health and Human Rights to take a position in Philadelphia, closer to his wife's Baltimore base.

On Sept. 2, they were bound for Geneva for an AIDS meeting. Patricia Thomas, a journalist who knew both well, says that after the initial shock of hearing about the crash, "My second thought was that at least they were together. It was hard to imagine one without the other."

THEIR FRENCH HOMECOMING SHOULD HAVE DEEN JOYFUL

Denis Maillet was a French engineer who moved to Baton Rouge shortly after the pharmaceutical manufacturer he was working for bought an American company in 1989; engineer Karen Domingue was a local who fell in love with her new European colleague after only two lunch dates. "He was her first love," says one of Karen's six siblings, Theresa McKnight, 40.

Denis, outgoing and helpful, fit in easily among Karen's friends in Baton Rouge; "If I was raking leaves, I'd hesitate to let him know, because he'd show up with a rake," says Kevin Thibodeaux, 37. The same could be said for Karen. "She was always the one who had change for the parking meter and a spare Band-Aid," Thibodeaux adds.

The Maillets, both 37, married three years ago and were taking their 14-month-old son, Robert, to meet his French relatives for the first time. Afterward, Denis's mother and sister, Isabelle Maillet, 29, made the trip from France to Canada to be near the crash site. "It was hard, very hard, but something we had to do," says Isabelle.

A YOUNG FLORIDIAN SAW THE WORLD AS HIS MISSION

Jonathan Wilson was a man with a mission. "I don't know how else to put it," says his best friend, Mark Chadwell. "He wanted to save the world."

For Wilson, 22, the eldest son of Brandon, Fla., sonographer Judy Wilson and her husband, Tim, a former Baptist pastor who now works with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, that meant buying a one-way ticket to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he planned to train Christian missionaries for three months. From there, he hoped to spread the gospel around the world.

Wilson had studied history and English at the University of Florida but dropped out in 1996 after a year. That was when he made his first trip as a missionary, to Turkey.

At the beginning of the month, Wilson left home again after saying farewell to his parents, two younger siblings and a girlfriend. "He bought a one-way ticket," says Jay Lippy, "Wilson's former youth pastor. "And God upgraded it to a round-trip home to glory."

AN ONLY CHILD, DEVOTED TO HER WORK AND HER MOTHER

Ingrid Acevedo, 32, had begun a successful career in public relations for the fashion industry when she concluded that her real purpose in life was to help people. "She just knew where her heart was and where she was going to be fulfilled," says Lynn Stratford, a coworker who had shared a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with her since 1997. In 1993, Acevedo had started working for the Christian anti-hunger lobby Bread for the World, based in Washington, D.C. But after her father, Julian, died in 1994, leaving her mother, Dinorah, alone, Ingrid moved back to New York to be near her and became PR director for the U.S. Committee for UNICEF.

The day after Dinorah, 65, learned that her only child had been on Flight 111—en route to meet with colleagues in Geneva to plan a conference—she received an envelope Ingrid had mailed containing a note. "I love you very much," she had written. "See you soon."

IN GENEVA, A DOCTOR WAITED FOR THE WOMAN HE LOVED

Edward Firouztale had almost given up on love when he met Tara Nelson late last year. "We met through my mother, of all things," recalls the Iranian-born neurology resident at New York's Long Island Jewish Medical Center. Firouztale's mother had gone to a New York City lecture given by Nelson, a naturopathic physician, and pushed to the front of the crowd to ask for her phone number. Firouztale and Nelson went out on a date and fell for each other.

Nelson was traveling to Europe to be with her sister Judith, who was expecting her first child, in the French city of Grenoble. But Firouztale, who was already in Europe, planned to greet her at the Geneva airport with an engagement ring. "She was," he says, "an angel."

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