Friday, July 19, 1996
Montoursville mourns loss of 21 killed in crashBy ERICA PROSSER
and PAULA SHAKI
Collegian Staff Writer
MONTOURSVILLE -- A small close-knit community became a media playground
yesterday as press from all over the country descended upon Montoursville
But the Montoursville Warriors showed just how strong they are.
"What do they think, we're having a party here?" said
one Montoursville High School student.
"How am I supposed to act?" he asked.
"Like we lost some friends," answered Luiz Engle, a
Montoursville High School graduate and friend of Flight 800 victims.
With flags flying at half mast and ribbons adorning trees, high
school students and friends of the 21 passengers -- 16 students
and five adult chaperones -- from Montoursville gathered together
to grieve and give each other support. Most wore blue and gold
ribbons made by mothers of students in the band association.
About 15 students sat with tearful eyes and solemn faces on the
street corner opposite the school, trying to avoid the entourage
of cameras and reporters. One student had been there since 10
a.m. and said he had not talked to his family all day.
"The cameras are annoying," another student said. "We'd
be better off if everyone would just leave. We don't need all
these people here. We want to kick their asses."
Some reporters desperately trying to obtain the names of the French
Club members who were on Flight 800 offered up to $300 for a copy
of the students' yearbook.
And when Andrea Weitlich, a Montoursville High School graduate,
approached the school clutching a letter dated June 21 from her
best friend who was on the flight, the press pack bombarded her
Weitlich, who had been praying with friends earlier, said she
was in shock.
"I just found out one of my best friends died," she
said. Weitlich was so numb she said she could not even cry.
Patricia Weigle, a counselor from Susquehanna Health Systems,
said the students' reactions were expected.
"They're not believing that this is real," Weigle said.
"It's starting to penetrate on some avenues and then it goes
back to numbing."
And she said the media attention was causing an inner struggle
for the students.
"They are struggling within themselves. They want to be a
part of all of this, and share their stories. But on the other
hand, they are afraid they will betray their friends," Weigle
The media made it even more difficult for the grieving students
to open up to counselors and pastors. But one professional that
seemed to bring out the emotions of the numb students was Star,
a black Labrador and German Shepherd mix. She is a registered
service dog for the Behavioral Health Center of Susquehanna Health
"When I first enter the building, I'm not going to approach
(the students)," Weigle said. "We let Star loose and
they pet her and love her. At some point they open up to us."
But students spent most of the day walking around the high school,
talking, hugging, crying with friends and spending time with their
families. Many high school students entered the building clutching
a parent's hand for support and assurance.
The town of Montoursville has a population of about 5,000, with
the school district encompassing about seven other townships.
Eight hundred of the 2,500 school-aged children in the district
attend the high school.
Most students and school administrators outside the school said
they knew the crash victims.
David Black, Montoursville School District Superintendent, said
the students were very motivated academically and involved in
Of the three seniors on the trip, School Board President Richard
Gray said one boy may have been bound for Penn State.
"I think his dad is a Penn State graduate," he said.
And Pastor Finn of the Community Baptist Church said the closeness
of the community would be apparent at the vigil held from 8 to
9 p.m. last night.
During the vigil, the 1,600-seat gymnasium was packed with a standing-room-only
crowd. As friends began to see each other, they hugged and cried
together. The brother of one crash victim was welcomed to the
vigil by a lineup of friends ready to lend a shoulder to cry on.
Five girls walked arm-in-arm and with tears in their eyes, clutching
each other tightly throughout the ceremony. The high school cheerleaders,
dressed in uniform, passed around pictures of friends who were
on the flight.
Gov. Tom Ridge and his wife attended, wishing that the residents,
"Be well." Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok was
also in attendance.
And throughout the vigil, local pastors shared inspiring scriptures
with the residents, each followed by a long silence.
"We're here as a community to share one another's pain, to
share the pain of tragedy as well as the tragedy of pain,"
one pastor said.
"Twenty-four hours ago the sun went down. It did so in far
greater ways for some in this township," said another pastor.
"The last 24 hours, if there is one word that marked this
township, it is comfort."