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FLIGHT 800: TRAGEDY'S AFTERMATH

In Montoursville, the Welcome Signs Are Draped in Black

French club: The 16 students who died in the crash were, some say, the future of the town. 'They were the cream of the crop,' one says.

July 20, 1996|SAM FULWOOD III and ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MONTOURSVILLE, Pa. — On the day before Jody Loudenslager left for Paris with her high school French Club, she seemed anxious about the flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

"She had never flown before, and I think she was a little nervous about that," said Robin Miller, owner of Robin's Pit Stop, an ice cream shop where Loudenslager worked. "I feel so bad about saying it now. But I said to her: 'It's OK. I've flown several times. There's nothing to worry about.' Boy, I wish I could take that back now."

Described as "bubbly" and "cute," with short blond hair, a glittering smile and quick laugh, Loudenslager was "fun to work with because she was just a lovely person," Miller said.

Athletes and honor students, musicians and cheerleaders, teenagers who were quiet or fun or well-liked, the 16 students from Montoursville Area High School who died in Wednesday's explosion of TWA Flight 800 were honored in this stunned community as "the best and brightest." They were, as some said, the town's future.

"That group there was the cream of the crop," said Roger Bohner, owner of Roger's Barber Shop. "I know we probably shouldn't put it that way because of the others, but that's what they were, the cream of the crop."

Wendy Wolfson, for example, was featured in the local newspaper earlier this week for playing piano recently at New York's Carnegie Hall. A day later, Wolfson's photo was in the paper again, as one of the students on Flight 800.

Wolfson, 16, was a doctor's daughter who was a member of the National Honor Society, a finalist in a major statewide essay contest and a participant in a local theater. Her mother, Eleanor Wolfson, was one of the five adults who went on the trip as chaperons.

Amanda Karschner, 17, was so tall and blond that her friends called her "Barbie." She was a student leader, a district track champion and co-captain of the basketball team for the next school year.

"She was so bubbly, so outgoing," said Kathy Knott, 21, who worked with Karschner at Cellini's diner on Montoursville's main street. "And she was so excited to go. She had never flown before, but she was so excited about it."

Over the last two years, many of the students raised the money for their air tickets. They staged car washes and bake sales. They sold candy and peanuts. One sophomore, Cheryl Nibert, 16, picked raspberries to earn money for the trip.

Mayor John Dorin, who has presided for 15 years over this town in the valley of the Susquehanna mountain range, knew every one of the town residents on the plane. The kids, he said, "were the kind you'd like to call your own."

Montoursville is a farming and light-industry town in the center of Pennsylvania. The residents are close-knit and protective. Churches are as prominent as the neatly tended lawns and brightly colored potted flowers on front porches.

"We are here as a community to share one another's pain," the Rev. Jerry L. Uppling of the First Christian Church said at a community memorial service Thursday night.

Miller echoed that sentiment. "Thank God, we live in the kind of community where people care for one another," she said.

On the roads into Montoursville, the welcome signs are draped in black. Yellow and blue ribbons are attached to the doors of homes, showing the colors of the high school and support for its losses. Residents spoke softly to each other on the streets Friday or hugged neighbors and friends near the school. For many, this tragedy is only the latest to hit the community in a year filled with sadness.

Floods swept through the town earlier this year. In another incident, a 6-year-old slid on the ice and was killed by a school bus. And two high school students died--one in an automobile accident, the other by suicide.

"This has been a year of one accident after another," said the Rev. Gary Finn, pastor of Community Baptist Church. "It just doesn't seem to stop."

"This has been a lot bigger than any one church or one person can handle--a much broader tragedy," said Finn, who has counseled students at the school since the crash.

After the memorial service Thursday night, many of the more than 1,000 residents who attended held each other and sobbed. Some had pictures of the victims. The remaining members of the school cheerleading squad wore their uniforms in honor of two cheerleaders who died.

Their grief was shared outside the town as well. Dozens of flower arrangements arrived at the school--from friends and neighbors, from unknown grievers in Florida and California, and even from Japan. A system for receiving e-mail condolences set up by a local computer office was jammed.

Among the adults on the trip were French teacher Deborah Dickey and her husband, Douglas. They leave two children ages 5 and 7. The school's secretary, Judy Rupert, and Carol Fry, a nurse and former school board member, also were on the TWA jet.

Among the youths who died was Rance Hettler, a senior who played football and ran on the track team. Teachers described him as "well-liked, gentlemanly, polite." To the boys who lingered around the school this week, he was a local hero.

"He was very funny, Rance," said ninth-grader Mike Taylor. "Smart, too. They were all smart people. That's why they were there."

Taylor and a few of his friends said they saw the crash as a warning not to venture too far--especially by airplane. "Now I don't ever want to go on a plane trip," he said.

Others in the community decided that the tragedy should not deter them from seeing the world. Another class trip to Honduras was planned for this week. Before the crash, 14 signed up to go. When the plane left Friday morning, nine were aboard.

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