Heidi Snow: Out of Grief, a Life's Work
By Lela Moore
Heidi Snow said goodbye to her fiance, French hockey player Michel Breistoff, on July 17, 1996, at Kennedy Airport as he boarded a flight to Paris. Snow planned to meet him in Europe the following week. But tragedy intervened. TWA Flight 800 exploded over Long Island Sound just minutes after takeoff, killing all 212 people on board.
Devastated by her loss, Snow, now 30, refused to become mired in grief. Instead, she turned her energy toward helping others in the same situation. About a year after Breistoff died, Snow attended a support group for relatives and friends of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. After the meeting, she kept in touch with some of the members of the group and eventually asked them if they would mind talking to people she knew who lost loved ones on Flight 800. She paired mothers with other mothers, orphans with orphans, fiancees with fiancees. Groups of survivors met in Albany in September 1996.
Snow received positive feedback from her fellow survivors. In 2000, she incorporated. Snow's matchmaking plan became AirCraft Casualty Emotional Support Services, or Access.
Snow acknowledges that anger fueled the formation of Access. That anger was rooted not only in grief, but also in people's refusal to recognize the significance of her relationship with Breistoff. "There's a definite lack of acknowledgement," she said. "Partly because I was not the next of kin, to lots of people, you're not that important."
Snow was born and raised in New York. She attended Tulane University, where she graduated in 1994.
After she heard that Flight 800 had crashed just minutes after takeoff, Snow gathered with other relatives and friends in a Ramada Inn in Queens near Kennedy Airport, where the flight originated. At the hotel, she met a Red Cross counselor who helped her through the first dark hours.
"I became very dependent on her," said Snow.
A few days later, the site was closed so an investigation into the cause of the crash -- which remains uncertain to this day -- could begin. Snow approached the counselor to ask if the woman could continue talking with her.
"I said, 'You've been helping me. Where do I go from here?' She said, 'You're going to have to find your own help.'" The counselor explained that volunteers from the Red Cross were dispatched only for the short term.
Snow, frustrated, called then-mayor Rudy Giuliani's office to see if there was a support group for airline-crash victims. They said no, but directed her to a meeting of Pan Am Flight 103 survivors in Albany. She met the president of the group and explained her situation, and was invited to join the meeting.
"I talked for three hours," Snow said about that meeting. "I met another fiancee. They were glad to have somebody new."
Snow said the reaction of people at the meeting was a relief after the reactions of well-meaning friends in New York. "All my friends said, move on," said Snow. "They were trying to push me into someone's arms right away." Other air-crash survivors told her to take things slowly. "It's a process," she said. "They helped me learn that."
Snow took people's names after the meeting and asked for volunteers to counsel others she knew from Flight 800. "A bunch of people wrote their names down," she said. Over the next few months, Snow organized meetings between Flight 103 and Flight 800 families and friends.
Eventually, she decided to make her organization official. She went back to Giuliani's office and met with the mayor and other business officials. She founded Access in the fall of 1996. The incorporation process took about a year.
Snow continued to provide help by matching people based on their relationships to crash victims. Her system was praised by volunteers who felt that providing support was just as helpful as receiving it. "We got lots of volunteers," she said. "This way, everyone is getting care."
Access first provided services after the crash of Swissair Flight 111 in Nova Scotia in September 1998. Then came EgyptAir Flight 990, which crashed over Nantucket in 1999, and Alaska Air Flight 261, which crashed into the Pacific Ocean north of Los Angeles in 2000. Then, of course, came 9/11.
Snow has met several times with groups of women and men who lost fiancees and fiances on September 11, 2001. She said all of them had experienced friends and relatives who wanted them to move on more quickly than they were. "I've met so many 9/11 fiancees," Snow said. "People say to them, 'oh, you're so young, you're so pretty, you'll meet someone.'"
She characterizes this reaction as well meaning, but says it can be difficult for the grief-stricken to see that. "They mean well," she said, "but it kind of belittles what they're going through." She said such comments could actually compound grief. "It's that secondary grief," she said. "You're devastated after the loss, and outsiders' comments can be very hurtful."
Snow said that after Breistoff died, many people urged her to put her grief aside. "I heard, imagine how his parents feel," she said. "The loss is very diminished when people aren't willing to understand the relationship." She believes her lack of a wedding ring caused people to see her relationship as impermanent. Snow dated Breistoff for two years prior to their engagement. "The importance of a relationship is whatever criteria you have for it," she said.
Losing a fiancee, Snow said, is something few people can relate to.
"Your whole future is cut off," she said. "You don't know what the negatives might have been." She said her youth at the time made people think it would be easier for her to bounce back from her loss. She said it was more difficult. "There's a lot going on at that age," she said. "What it is about this loss, it makes it stand out more."
Snow married Arthur Cinader, Jr., last August. She first met Cinader in 1992 on a trip to Colorado while she was dating Breistoff. The two met again in 1997 in Manhattan. Their wedding received a write-up by author Laura Zigman in The New York Times' "Vows" column. Zigman discussed Snow's previous relationship and her work with Access. Snow bluntly acknowledges that dating again was difficult for her, but admires her husband for sticking with her.
Access remains Breistoff's legacy. "I founded Access to recognize him," said Snow. "It means having a place in it all."