• U.S.


5 minute read
David Van Biema

Beth Peet had never been on a roller coaster. But she had a friend named Julia Grimm. Julia was a little more adventurous than Beth, or perhaps just more curious. Last Memorial Day, reported USA Today, the two high school students traveled from their hometown of Montoursville, Pennsylvania, to Hershey Park, for a Weird Al Yankovic concert; while there, Julia took Beth up on one of the park’s wild rides. Last week adventure beckoned again. Both girls had a chance to go on the Montoursville High School French club’s excursion to France. Beth, given a choice by her parents, opted out: instead, they bought her a Dodge Lancer. Julia chose the trip. This time, the roller coaster flared so it could be seen for miles and plummeted into the sea, taking Julia Grimm with it.

When TWA Flight 800’s passenger list was finally released, the grief it itemized was distributed evenly, with two exceptions: Stevenson, Alabama, which lost five citizens; and Montoursville. The French club sent 16 kids, ranging in age from 14 to 18, to fly to Paris, along with five adult chaperones. Since then, America has seen a hundred snapshots of the town’s grief: a boy in a turned-back baseball cap ducks his head in silent contemplation; a woman comforts a girl in front of a sign exhorting students to have a safe summer. A boy who played sports with one victim and the brother of a second, and shared a class with a third, asked to describe them, can only summon up, “They were cool.” Teenagers lack the public vocabulary for multiple death and massive sorrow. With some exceptions. “I feel like hell,” snapped the sister of one victim. “How am I supposed to feel?”

Montoursville has a population of 5,000, including 800 high school students. So it lives very much through its children. “The school is the hub of the community,” says parent Donita Rodarmel. Groups of teenagers cried last week on its grounds. Beyond them, turn-of-the-century gingerbread houses lined the streets. From many of these homes fly small flags. Some are American flags, now at half-mast. But some are happy, multi-hued pennants, bearing sunflowers, bluebirds or other motifs. They are nothing necessary; just a little extracurricular effort to make life more pleasant and varied.

Something very much in the spirit of the French club trip. The American public has read a lot about the country’s poisonous inversion; about militia groups and hatred of immigrants. Montoursville would seem to have a different approach. It is hardly cosmopolitan, nor especially wealthy. Yet for decades it has found a way to send its teens all over the world. The trips leave every three years, so that everyone will have a chance to travel at some point during high school. There is a German club and a Spanish club, and an environmental-science club scheduled to fly to Honduras to study the rain forest. The trips are not paid for by the school. Somehow the town parents have consistently bought enough bake-sale cookies, patronized enough car washes or simply laid out enough cash to buy Montoursville’s kids a small slice of the wider world.

As the Paris trip approached, one boy remembered, his friends “were, like, ‘Yeah, I can’t wait to go.'” Another said his girlfriend was “real excited–she talked about it for months.” Only one voyager had second thoughts, telling a friend, “I’m too scared.” In the end, she gathered her courage, persuaded another French club member to sit next to her on the flight, and boarded TWA 800.

It has been a bad year for Montoursville. One teen dropped out of school and later committed suicide. There were two fatal traffic accidents, one killing a well-known high school student and the other a grade school child. When a vigil for the dead French club members took place on Thursday night in the school gym, 2,100 weary souls, a little less than half the town, showed up and wept in the bleachers. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge attended. A group of cheerleaders, in uniform, placed photographs of the town’s 21 dead on a makeshift altar. The first speaker, the Rev. Jerry Uppling, began his invocation with Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

At a press conference, Montoursville Mayor John Dorin, who had earlier received a condolence call from President Clinton, observed, “No matter how secluded and how innocent we are, once we leave our community, we’re subject to the troubles of the outside world.” For now his town will turn inward, if only to tend its hurts. It would be understandable if it never looked outward again.

But not inevitable. On the day after their classmates died, wrote the New York Times, the members of the science club gathered with their adviser in the school library. They had a terrible choice: they were scheduled to leave at midnight for their flight to Honduras. They convened several times during the day, and students changed their mind frequently. But by nightfall at least 10 of the 15 decided to go ahead. To take another chance on the roller coaster.

–Reported by Mubarak Dahir/Montoursville

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com