Air crash cuts to the heart of a small Pennsylvania town High school French club, five adult chaperones were on field trip to Paris; TRAGEDY OF FLIGHT 800


MONTOURSVILLE, Pa. -- All day long, they came to the single-story stone schoolhouse. Some left in tears, but more seemed dazed.

They came to face the most deflating in a string of tragedies this year in this Susquehanna Valley town. In Montoursville, they still talk of the third-grader killed by a school bus. They remember the high school senior who died in a car crash, and the student who committed suicide.

And now, a jet goes down in a fireball and takes 16 students from the school's French club with it. Also on board for the ill-fated field trip are a teacher, her husband and three other adult chaperones.

"I don't understand any of it," said Josh Miller, a 16-year-old senior and a football player who sat glumly in front of the school.

Said the town's mayor, John Dorin: "We have these tragedies one after another. It's only the fabric that holds this community together."

It is a fabric spun of small-town ways. "You can't hardly sneeze without everyone else knowing about it," said Douglas Boyles, ,, whose family has owned a department store in downtown Montoursville for decades.

It is a town where nearly everyone considered at least one of those lost to be a friend, or a friend of a friend. As the day wore on, teen-agers could be seen outside the school, embracing and crying. Others left counseling sessions in the school and stood in clusters, stunned.

Residents filled the 1,600-seat school gymnasium and spilled into the lobby for a prayer service last night. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge attended the service.

David Black, the district school superintendent, said the school's French club traveled to France every three years. The students sold pizzas and staged car washes to raise money for the 10-day trip that cost $1,500 for each student.

Montoursville is a town of 4,500 residents set beside the Susquehanna River and in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains, 120 miles northwest of Philadelphia and 150 miles north of Baltimore.

This is farm country, but Montoursville is also a sort of satellite town to Williamsport, which is famous as the home of the Little League World Series and big enough to be known around here as "Little Philadelphia."

It is the kind of town where the Friday night high school football game is a major event.

Montoursville is also the home town of Baltimore Orioles star Mike Mussina. Bob Marshalek, owner of a downtown hardware store, may remember Mussina for his well-documented cockiness, but the Oriole pitcher is clearly a local hero at Cellini's Sub House.

There, posters and photos of Mussina -- including one showing him as an assistant coach for the Montoursville High School football team -- decorate the walls.

Mussina said yesterday he knew some of the students in the French club and some of the adults who were on the plane. One boy, whom he would not identify, played football and basketball for him.

"All these kids were obviously special kids," Mussina said. "Where I come from, you don't just pick up and go to Paris every year. They had been looking forward to this trip for a long time."

The Orioles traveled to Boston after Wednesday night's game with Toronto, and when Mussina arrived at the team hotel at 3: 15 a.m., he received the news from his brother Mark.

"I've watched the news as much as I can. Obviously, things come in slowly," he said. "I made some of my own calls to get some details. When you start knowing names, it really just gets closer to you. It's hard. What I can do is offer my condolences and tell them that I'm thinking about them."

At the sub shop, they are mourning the loss of a 17-year-old waitress who was among the students. Owner Charlie DeSanto spent the morning consoling his employees.

Curtis Johnson, a salesman who said he introduced the French teacher to her husband, sat on a counter stool. "This town," he said, "is crushed."

The televisions in the shop showed President Clinton offering his condolences to the residents of the small Pennsylvania town. Later, the president talked to the mayor by telephone.

On Broad Street, 20-year-old Yvonne Meuse wrapped gold crepe paper around poles. She knew three of the young women on the plane because she works at Diane's Slender You salon, where Montoursville girls come to get a tan before their prom.

Blue ribbons and gold hearts forming the number 21 were on the salon's window. Blue and gold are the colors of the Montoursville High Warriors.

By 4 a.m. yesterday, most parents of the victims were headed to New York. School became a crisis center, and counselors and clergymen helped townsfolk face the grim news.

Psychotherapist Patricia Weigle said students have been slow to digest the tragedy.

"It's starting to penetrate on some avenues, and then it's back to numbness," she said. "They're expecting their friends to walk in the door right now."

Kevin Williams, a 17-year-old who will be a senior at the school this fall, said he comforted a friend whose sister was on the plane.

"It didn't hit him yet. He's going into the Marines and that's all he talked about," Williams said. He added that words are tough to come by.

"What's there to say when 16 of your friends die?"

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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