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TWA Flight 800: Montoursville, Pa., ‘hurts in its bones’ 20 years later

Montoursville resident Kevin Williams, sitting in his garage

Montoursville resident Kevin Williams, sitting in his garage on June 26, 2016, says he still has vivid dreams about his childhood girlfriend who perished along with 229 other people on TWA Fight 800. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

MONTOURSVILLE, Pa. — Some of this small Pennsylvania town’s best flew away on a July day 20 years ago, full of high school hope and wonder.

Then, in a twinkle in that sundown sky, they were gone.

On July 17, 1996, 16 of the town’s high school students plus five adult chaperones were aboard TWA Flight 800 when it exploded 12 miles off the coast of Long Island, and plunged into the Atlantic. All 230 aboard the Paris-bound Boeing 747-131 perished in an incident federal investigators attributed to a fuel tank explosion.

The loss of Flight 800 still pulls at the heart of this maple-shaded town of 4,161 people, which hunkers in a Susquehanna headwaters valley.

The townspeople who perished had been on an excursion to Paris with the Montoursville Area High School French Club.

“I do think of that, how terrifying it must have been . . . ,” said Kevin Williams, whose sister Lisa might have been on the flight had their parents not forbidden her to go. “You know, I couldn’t imagine, couldn’t imagine at all. That is the one thing I think about.”

Their members were a cross-section of this Rust-Belt hamlet, including Judy Rupert, a secretary who worked in the principal’s office almost since she graduated from the high school in 1961, Deborah and Douglas Dickey, who sometimes refereed for the local wrestling team, and Julia Grimm, 15, who sang at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, just past the high school football stadium.

Deborah Dickey, 41, a French teacher, had organized the trip. She had brimmed with stories of the Paris she would show her students — of narrow, Gallic streets perfumed by baking croissants, and broad avenues that looked to the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.

Dickey’s aunt Helen Lorson, 86, a smiling woman who makes pies at a local restaurant, still sheds tears when she talks about it.

Lorson feels this town’s hurt in her bones. Keepsakes of her lost loved ones, including a photograph in an upstairs bedroom, stir memories.

Some days, “when I go to clean the room where I have her picture, up in the middle room where I keep it . . . I cry.”

Like many of this Allegheny town’s people, Lorson has lived mostly within two miles of her side-by-side twin home since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

Many of the seven children she raised live close by — a daughter next door, a son catty corner across from her, others within a lusty shout or a brisk walk.

And like almost all the people living here, Lorson, or one of her relatives, knew every one of the 21 who died on Flight 800 — a cousin or a classmate, a kid who lived on Nicely Avenue and had gotten all A’s since kindergarten, the co-captain of girls basketball. Lorson shared the town’s collective worry about Dickey’s girls, Shannon, 5 and Lauren, 7, orphaned when both she and her husband, Douglas, perished in the disaster, and grew up wondering what had become of their parents.

“The eldest was old enough to understand, but the younger one wasn’t,” said Lorson, who still keeps a formal family portrait of the Dickeys — with their smiling little girls — in an upstairs bedroom.

Williams’ sister almost had gone on the trip after a cancellation left an available spot, but her parents wouldn’t let the 14-year-old take it. Larissa Uzupis, the 15-year-old sister of one of Williams’ homeroom classmates, went instead.

The former football player who now services gas rigs that drill nearby Marcellus Shale, mused in the June heat.

“A lot of people wondered, ‘Why did it happen to someone else and not me’,” said Williams, 37, who lives with his wife and two boys a quarter-mile from the high school that lost those 16 students two decades ago.

Memories of those on the Flight 800 remain everywhere in this town. There is a memorial garden by the high school, whose 21 trees, once spindly as a teenager’s legs, have grown full over the years. Parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes pass a list of names on their way into Mass.

Jerry Uppling, 73, said the emotional trauma he saw fellow residents go through reminded him of the post-traumatic stress he and fellow troops experienced following his three tours in Vietnam.

Uppling, now a pastor at Picture Rocks Baptist Church east of town, said tragedies, such as the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, force townspeople to experience old hurts anew. He said the killing of 49 victims at a nightclub frequented by gays caused him to have a flashback of the tearful town residents gathered at the high school hoping to hear of survivors.

“That tragedy in Orlando made me feel Flight 800 happened just yesterday,” said Uppling, who served with Douglas Dickey as a referee at high school wrestling matches, and attends Rotary Club meetings that include two fathers who each lost a child. “I started hearing some of the sounds of people crying and even smelling some of the odors I remembered from that night.”

It is still hard to move on, even for those who have moved away.

Stephanie Bedeson, 61, a high school faculty member in 1996 who coached the cross-country team then, retired a year ago and moved to a town 40 minutes west.

But she still comes back, still linked to Montoursville by the strange mixture of joy and grief that memory preserves. She is organizing a 5-kilometer memorial run/walk on Saturday, the day before the July 17 anniversary of the tragedy. Three weeks ago, she visited Montoursville Cemetery a half-mile east of the high school, where a hillside cluster of tombstones bearing the same date in 1996 attests to the enormity of the town’s loss.

“This town has suffered more than its share of sadness,” she said. “It’s part of our history now. I don’t think it will ever get over Flight 800.”

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