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'We're trying to make it normal' School that lost 21 on Flight 800 tries to move beyond grief


MONTOURSVILLE, Pa. -- For her first day of 10th grade at Montoursville High School yesterday morning, Desiree Phillips sported fresh white sneakers, a glinting mouthful of braces and a pin in the shape of an angel.

The sneakers were the kind Desiree, 15, might wear for track-team practice. The braces shone when she chatted excitedly with other girls before the first bell. The angel was for one of the girls who would not be playing on the tennis team, going to the art room during study hall or wrestling with subjunctives in French class this year.

"Claire Gallagher," Desiree said, drawing in a quick, soft breath. "She was my best friend."

This was one of the few overt signs of the deep, dislocating sorrow brought upon this little town by the explosion of TWA Flight 800, which took the lives of 16 students -- members of the high school French Club headed for a long-anticipated trip to Paris -- and their five chaperons.

"We're not planning anything," said David P. Black, the superintendent of the Montoursville Area School District. Black was greeting students and working hard to keep reporters and television cameras from turning a day of fresh starts into yet another sad memorial. "We're trying to make it normal, as normal as possible."

Normal. That is the word people in Montoursville have begun pushing themselves to intone in the past few days, said at times with such a frail wistfulness or with such deliberate resolve that it only seems to underline the pain felt by this community of 5,000, where nearly everyone, and especially the young people, had some connection to one of the dead.

Still, the American flag on the school's dewy green lawn was back at full staff. The lobby that had overflowed for more than a month with flowers, cards, wreaths and hundreds of keepsakes and donations sent from around the nation was now unadorned.

"These kids, they've had 21 opportunities to go to funerals," said Sheila Lomax, whose daughters, Christine and Katherine, lost several friends in the crash. Mrs. Lomax said Katherine, 17, who started her senior year yesterday, "really didn't want to go back to school because of all the kids who wouldn't be there."

"But I told her the victims would not want them to be grieving forever," she said. "We just kind of want our kids to be able to stabilize."

Only one not found

To Irenay Weaver, these sentiments soak in but she cannot really embrace them. The Weavers lost their 16-year-old daughter, Monica, in the Flight 800 crash, and her body is the only one from the Montoursville group that has not been recovered.

"It's been six weeks, and it is very hard to hear the hundreds of people who tell me they are praying for her and know she will be found," Mrs. Weaver said. "And I listen to them and I hope, too, but I'm trying to be realistic. You see, it's all mixed up together. And every time the phone rings, you can imagine what I hope it is. But the phone rings less and less now."

Her husband, Robert, has begun working half-days at his job as a project manager for an engineering and architecture firm, wearing Monica's class ring wedged onto his pinky. Each day, they care for their daughter Elissa, 19, who is paralyzed from cerebral palsy. Yesterday morning, Mrs. Weaver took her 11-year-old son, Ryan, to middle school for his first day.

As usual, but different

"Life as usual, but very different," she said.

For weeks, this quiet village has been deluged with international sympathy.

There have been thousands of e-mail messages, all logged in and printed out by the company that provides the town's computer link to the Internet. There have been church commemorations and a memorial service attended by the mayor of New York, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Montoursville, used to being an unknown neighbor to Williamsport, the nearest large town and the home of Little League baseball, has suddenly become a public reservoir for the outpouring of grief and horror over the explosion.

Now it seems that many in town are ready to break from the cycle of daily funerals and memorials. The black bunting that draped the "Welcome to Montoursville" signs has been removed.

"The support has been amazing," said Mrs. Weaver, who has been getting five or six visitors to her house every day bringing food and comfort. "We are concerned that when it ends, that will be strange because you feel people have forgotten."

Lasting help

Last week, Montoursville started trying to cope with its sorrow in a quieter, more lasting way. The school district organized a private supper for the families, a prelude to helping them form their own support group.

The Rotary Club has plans to put together a book of the e-mail condolences and sell it to raise money for scholarships in the victims' names.

Catholic Social Services of Lycoming County is studying the ways other communities dealt with tragedy in the months and years after the events drop out of the headlines and fade from public view.

Yesterday morning, at about the time the school day was starting, Rance Hettler's mother, Jackie, was at the Montoursville Cemetery, crouching before her son's grave on a grassy crest where most of the group has been buried together. The graves are marked with pots of chrysanthemums and marigolds and with the trappings of teen-agers.

Three golf tees sit in the ground at the right of Rance's grave. For Amanda Karschner, who was supposed to have been this year's basketball team co-captain, there is a miniature Final Four basketball along with a teddy bear tucked into a plastic bag to keep it from getting wet. And somebody placed a package of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups by Larissa Uzupis' grave.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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