MONTOURSVILLE — A soft breeze rattles the intertwined limbs and leaves of 21 trees planted in a circuit at Montoursville Memorial Gardens.
Inside the ring on a grassy plot is a four-sided monument, an angel statue perched high atop. It’s dedicated to memorializing the lives and loss of the 16 Montoursville High School students and 5 chaperones killed aboard TWA Flight 800.
The Paris-bound jetliner exploded off the coast of Long Island, New York, on July 17, 1996. All 230 passengers and crew died.
In an instant, the sleepy small town of Montoursville found itself in a period of collective mourning that stings and saddens 25 years later.
“We lost too many people on Flight 800, people that were making our community a much better place,” borough Mayor Stephen Bagwell said. “I am confident that the Flight 800 memorial will speak to generations to come and they will share the same belief that nothing is more important than each other and our children. We will always be a loving community.”
The Montoursville students were members of the school’s French Club. They and their chaperones set off by bus to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Jessica Aikey, Daniel Baszczewski, Michelle Bohlin, Jordan Bower, Monica Cox, Claire Gallagher, Julia Grimm, Rance Hettler, Amanda Karschner, Jody Loudenslager, Cheryl Nibert, Kim Rogers, Larissa Uzupis, Jacqueline Watson, Monica Weaver and Wendy Wolfson were the students. The chaperones were Deborah Dickey, Douglas Dickey, Carol Fry, Judith Rupert and Eleanor Wolfson.
Before they departed, they posed for a group photo. A copy of that photo is on display inside a room dedicated to the group, and their tragic loss, at The General John Burrows Historical Society in Montoursville.
“They were all excited and happy, waiting for a trip of a lifetime, and then, boom, it all went to pieces,” said Maynard Bogart, Historical Society president and retired math teacher who worked 35 years at the school. “I knew everyone. … I still get a little emotional.”
Bogart and his family were in the Outer Banks on July 17, 1996. He said his youngest daughter was upset because she wasn’t allowed to go overseas with the French Club. The family had long before planned their vacation, Bogart explained.
That night, Bogart saw coverage of a plane crash on the nightly news. It didn’t connect until the next morning when the phone began to ring.
“All our relatives were afraid one of our children was on it,” Bogart said.
Preserving the memories
There are four finely crafted floor-to-ceiling wooden display cabinets set up on one side of the memorial room at the Historical Society. Nibert’s brother built them. Her parents, Don Nibert and the late Donna Nibert, were among the main backers to create the space.
It holds the group photo, individual photos of the victims, a model of the plane, pamphlets from memorial services and the dedication for Montoursville Memorial Gardens, prayer sheets and candles.
On a tabletop rests a small angel statue like that in the park and a copy of the 1996 high school yearbook. A quilt with 21 angels adorns a wall. It partially covers a large wooden cutout of a teddy bear marked with words of comfort and love signed by strangers from Oklahoma City. Two megaphones with similar messages sent from New Jersey rest on the floor nearby. Above them hangs an oil painting of a Coast Guard crew searching for victims among the flaming wreckage.
“I get chills thinking about it,” Ray Harmon, Historical Society vice president, said of when the oil painting was hand-delivered by a captain with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who served in the search.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded an electrical spark ignited fumes inside a fuel tank on the plane. Many eyewitness accounts from the day of the crash claim what appeared to be a rocket or missile launching someplace on the ocean horizon was observed just moments before the explosion. The U.S. Navy conducted exercises in the area the day prior, but a military accident was ruled out by investigators. So, too, was terrorism, a theory considered since the Olympic Games in Atlanta were approaching.
The wreckage collected from the Atlantic Ocean was pieced together, largely rebuilding the plane, to investigate the cause and use as a teaching tool. The federal agency announced it would be disassembled and destroyed this year out of respect for the victims and their families.
Running with love
Like Bogart, Stephanie Bedison worked at the high school when the Flight 800 tragedy occurred. She was a special education teacher and coached track and cross-country. Bower and Loudenslager were two of her cross-country runners.
Bedison organizes the Flight 800 Memorial Run/Walk held every five years. The latest was held Saturday on the 25th anniversary of the crash. The first one in 1997 came together with help from relatives of the victims.
“We thought of the idea back when we were trying to find something to talk about. After doing it the first year, we realized how much was involved and what a toll it took on us to put together,” Bedison said in explaining why it’s held every five years.
The run/walk proved a good outlet, she said. It allowed people to remember the lives the victims lived and the personal impact they had on others. It seemed like everyone in the community had at least one connection with them, she said.
“That was a better way of dealing with it instead of sitting at home and thinking of it on our own,” Bedison said.
Saturday’s event was capped at 200 runners and walkers. The first-place awards for males and females are named in honor of Bower and Loudenslager, respectively. Funds raised support ThinkBig and Helping Hands from Hudson, both pediatric cancer organizations, along with Revibe Outdoors, a nonprofit that creates and funds outdoor opportunities for kids.
Many friends and family of the victims now have children of their own in Montoursville Area schools. Bedison said it’s important for them to learn not just the history of the crash but the people who were lost.
“It’s hard to believe it’s 25 years later. I still think it’s so fresh in so many of our minds,” Bedison said. “We want them to know who these kids were. By doing this, we still get to talk about them.”