Sunday, April 6, 2008

"A Small Town Mourns 21 Dead" by Ken Moritsugu

1997 Pulitzer Prize winner - spot news

Montoursville, Pa. -- They knew them as the girl who spilled the fries in the car. Knew them as the boy who shot baskets and lighted the candles at church. Knew them as the girl who wrote poetry and played the piano.
In this small central Pennsylvania town they knew them all, knew them as the kids who sold them pizza or a hoagie or washed their cars to raise the money for a trip to France - a trip that ended in tragedy, when TWA Flight 800 exploded, taking the lives of 21 people from this tight-knit community.
"Everybody knows everybody," said Ron Paulhamus, a print shop owner.
And now everybody grieves. Sixteen dead high school students, five dead adults. Twenty-one dead friends.
"There will be very few people not affected by it," said Paulhamus, whose 16-year-old son, Ross, attends the local high school.
Ross's mother, Ginger, said her son is devastated. "These are kids he grew up with and he's known and pals around with everyday ... Everybody you know has either a friend or a family who's been affected."
Ginger and Ron Paulhamus attended a hastily called noontime prayer vigil with other community residents at Bethany Lutheran Church for members of the high school French club and their adult chaperones who boarded the fatal TWA flight to Paris Wednesday night for a 10-day trip during summer break. Some victims were high school athletes. Others, musicians. One was an acolyte at the Methodist church.
They left behind sisters and brothers, girlfriends, boyfriends and best friends.
The crash was like a knife through the heart of this central Pennsylvania community of about 5,000.
"I'm still shaking," Michelle Follmer, 19, told friends outside the high school late Thursday morning.
"Brock lost his girlfriend," Josh Lewis, 17, told her, speaking about a mutual friend.
Follmer already knew: "She was in my car Tuesday night. She spilled her fries all over my seat," Follmer said, forcing a laugh.
They were talking about Michelle Bohlin, 16, a swimmer who had just finished her sophomore year. They recalled how excited Michelle had been about the trip. And the others: Jody Loudenslager, a distance runner on the girl's track team. There was Rance Hettler, the church acolyte and a basketball player and Wendy Wolfson, who played the piano and wrote poetry. The airline had not released their names, but several residents and friends identified people they knew who had taken the trip.
And then there were the adults: Judith Rupert, a secretary at the school practically since she graduated in 1961. Rupert was asked to join an overseas school trip for the first time after enthusiastically helping so many classes with fund raisers; French teacher Debbie Dickey and her husband, Douglas, a salesman. The couple left behind two children, ages 5 and 7; two others include a former school board member and a mother of one of the students on the trip.
BrenDena Trick, 27, an assistant girls track coach at the high school and a 1987 graduate, heard the news on the radio as she and her husband drove to work. "I just couldn't talk, I felt like someone punched me in the stomach," said Trick. "We went on to work," she continued. "We were just a wreck. We were in tears."
By the afternoon, a somber mood had descended on this community, just east of Williamsport, where many residents work. There was a holding out of hope, with many of the bodies not yet identified, of someone miraculously surviving the crash. There was disbelief. And there was shock.
Experts said it was a lull before the full outpouring of grief that will undoubtably come.
"It's been eerily quiet in there," said Dan Chandler, the high school principal. "You almost think too quiet. It's early in the process, we're told, and I think there will be much more grieving later."
"We really didn't believe that all was lost," said Gary Hettler, whose younger brother, Rance, was aboard the plane. "We never really gave up hope and we still haven't given up hope yet." As of Thursday afternoon, Hettler said his parents still had not received the official confirmation from the airline that Rance had been killed. "I just couldn't believe it happened to such a perfect role model student as my brother. He was the epitome of a role model."
At the high school, which has 800 students for grades 9 to 12, counselors talked to grieving students and adults as the media hovered outside. The flag was at half staff, and students tied red and white ribbons and blue and gold ribbons around the flagpole and nearby signposts. A few bouquets of flowers were left outside the entrance.
Downtown, walking distance away in this compact community, the mood also was subdued. At Turkey Hill Minit Markets, a gas station and convenience store, clerks said that they had bought a sympathy card for their manager, who had a niece on the plane. One customer said his cousin was a passenger. And a worker from the tire shop across the street said his friend's wife also was aboard. "I don't know anybody in this town who isn't thinking about it," said Tanya Kelley, one of the clerks.
The students were described almost universally as an outgoing, fun-loving crowd, the types who never hesitated to raise their hands to volunteer for this or that project. The trip cost $1,200 to $1,500 per person, Chandler estimated, and the students paid for it with their fund-raising and family contributions. None of the money came from the school.
"They are an amazing combination of talent," Chandler said. "We look at them as real leaders, both in our school and in our community."
Fourteen of them were still in high school, and two had already graduated. The French Club tries to take a trip to France every three or four years, so each student has a chance to go during his or her high school career.
The community pulled together for the victims and their families. Clergy planned to hold another prayer vigil in the high school gymnasium last night. A local bank offered to set up a relief fund and a memorial fund. Local hospitals sent psychotherapists to the school to work as counselors.
The crash followed an unusual number of tragedies for the community this year. A January flood caused $1.5-million in damage and took eight lives in the surrounding county. One high school student dropped out and committed suicide. Another died in a car crash on an icy night. And a third-grade student was killed by a school bus.
"Stuff don't happen just in the big towns," said Josh Lewis, a 17-year-old student. "It happens in Montoursville."

Olivia Winslow contributed to this story.

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