Dawning clear and bright across Pennsylvania, Thursday, April 4, began as a typical day in the life of United States Sen. John Heinz, 52. The popular Republican—known for his tireless hopping from one small-town gathering to another—had started his rounds at 8 A.M., discussing environmental laws with business and community leaders in Williamsport. Then came a press conference at the Lycoming County Courthouse before he headed to the airport en route to Philadelphia and nearby Media for yet another meeting with constituents. He was upbeat, engaging and folksy as always—never a man whose manner would remind people that he was the sole heir to the Heinz pick-le-and-ketchup fortune and one of the country's richest politicians. Chatting at the courthouse with Lycoming Planning Commission Director Jerry Walls, Heinz said he was looking forward to going trout fishing with him. "I asked, 'When are you going to set a date?' " says Walls. "And he said, 'Twist my arm.' So I twisted it, and he said, 'Okay, I'll be back.' "

Around noon, as Heinz's chartered twin-engine Piper Aerostar neared Philadelphia International Airport, the day was in full bloom, the air warm with the promise of spring. Some 10 miles north, in the suburb of Merion, first-and second-grade students at the Merion Elementary School had just finished their lunch in the cafeteria. Casting their jackets aside, they went out to play as bright sunshine fell on the school's Tudor-style buildings, its pine trees and well-tended lawns.

In the sky above, the pilots of Heinz's plane were coping with an in-flight emergency. They had reported trouble locking the landing gear, and despite assurances from the airport control tower that the equipment looked fine, they were still concerned. Overhearing the Piper's radio transmission, the pilot and copilot of private Bell 412 helicopter flying in the area offered to pass by and make a visual inspection. After receiving the go-ahead from an air-traffic controller, they did so once and reported the landing gear down. But the Piper pilot asked them to look again. At 12:11, one of the chopper's rotor blades apparently slashed into the right wing of the Piper Aerostar. The midair collision ruptured a fuel tank on one of the aircraft, unleashing a fireball that blasted both out of the sky.

"There was an enormous explosion of black smoke, out of which dropped the helicopter," says Jill Bressler, a therapist who was driving to her office in Bala Cynwyd. "The copter came off intact, but the plane, it seemed, exploded." She slammed on her brakes and jumped out of her car. Then, suddenly, the nightmare image came to her—the flaming wreckage would fall over Merion Elementary. By the time Bressler ran to the grassy field behind the school, it was all ablaze. The helicopter had crashed there and the plane in front of the school, raining fire and debris over a five-block area of the prosperous Main Line suburb. On one side of a huge wall of flame and smoke, she immediately spotted a little girl facedown, her body burning. "When I came to her, she was already gone," says Bressler. "I thought it was someone from the plane. I didn't even think there might be anybody on the playground."

Teacher Ivy Weeks, 49, was sitting at her computer desk, waiting for her fourth graders to come to reading class, when she heard the terrifying boom and ran into the hallway. "I looked left, down the ramp, and the double doors to the playground opened," she recalls. "There was this horrible wall of orange flame." Then she saw an even more ghastly sight: 7-year-old David Rutenberg emerging from the inferno. "He ran, and I ran toward him and tried to smother the fire. I hugged him a lot, we rolled on the ground, I patted and tried to beat it out. But I'd look and it was back again," says Weeks. "I had a silk sweater on, and it was starting to melt." Custodian John Fowler, 48, heard Week's screams for help. "David had flames from the ankles to his chest. He was lit up like a candle," says Fowler. "I don't know what this stuff was on him—I think some kind of fuel—but even when it was out, it was hot." Finally, Fowler was able to extinguish the flames with his jacket. "All this time, the boy didn't scream. He was just whimpering and pleading for this whole thing to go away."

Firemen soon arrived on the scene and began searching the school grounds for students, while panicked parents helped lead the children to safety over the back fence and off the property. Then came the grisly body count. Heinz and his two hired pilots, Richard Shreck and Trond Stegen, both 30, were burned beyond recognition. Michael Pozzani, 43, and Charles Burke, 42, the pilot and copilot of the Bell helicopter—which was owned by Sun Company, a Radnor, Pa.-based oil and coal firm—also perished. And two first graders, Lauren Freundlich and Rachel Blum, were missing. After their names were called over the school loudspeakers—to no avail-police found their bodies near the site of the crashed helicopter. For more than an hour fire fighters hosed down the smoldering wreckage and charred ground as the sun eerily burned through the smoky haze. A helicopter arrived to take young David Rutenberg, who was burned over two-thirds of his body, to Crozer-Chester Medical Center in nearby Upland. "He never cried," says Weeks, who suffered third-degree burns on her hands. "He just kept asking where his mommy and daddy were. He was such a brave little boy."

Back in Washington, D.C., stunned staff members stood outside John Heinz's darkened office, where a black ribbon hung on the door. By the weekend, hundreds of friends and relatives had gathered in the downstairs rooms of the Heinzes' five-story brick colonial home in Georgetown. His widow, Teresa, 53, remained behind closed doors, tearily telling loved ones, "If only I could see his blue eyes again." She stayed in Washington with son Christopher, 18, while 24-year-old Henry John IV and 21-year-old Andre left for Philadelphia to escort their father home. The funeral was planned for April 10 at the Heinz Memorial Chapel at the University of Pittsburgh, and all who knew him were sifting through their memories of the Senator as devoted family man and tennis buff and as a lawmaker who defended the elderly and the environment.

Born in Pittsburgh, Heinz was the only child of Henry John Heinz II and Joan Diehl, who divorced when he was 4. Heinz graduated with honors from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, earned a B.A. in arts and humanities at Yale and graduated near the top of his Harvard Business School class in 1963. After serving in the Air Force Reserve, he spent five years in the financial and marketing departments of the Heinz food company founded by his great-grandfathers in 1869. But his heart was in politics, and in 1971 he easily captured the vacant congressional seat in his home district. Five years later, Heinz won a tough race for the Senate-thanks in no small part to the $2.5 million he personally spent on the campaign. He was re-elected in 1982 and 1988 by handy margins.

Although Heinz was the largest individual shareholder in his family's company, with a personal worth of some $560 million, he resented being regarded solely as a man of privilege. Indeed, much of his congressional career seemed aimed at dispelling that image. He worked endlessly for legislation to protect steelworkers, children and the aged. "John was absolutely kind, a gentleman," says Colorado's Democratic Sen. Tim Wirth, who met Heinz at Exeter and remained his closest friend in Congress. "He was extremely polished and informed. But under it all was a Little Boy Blue kind of naïveté—a wide-eyed, innocent belief that the world could be a better place. That was his feeling of mission."

By Monday, the scene at Merion Elementary School appeared deceptively normal. The wreckage and debris were cleared away, and landscapers had worked through the night, uprooting charred trees, bulldozing the scorched earth, planting new sod and fresh flowers in front of the main building. Parents and children had returned to the site of the tragedy—some to count their blessings, others to grieve for little Lauren Freundlich and Rachel Blum. "We came back here because we really need each other," said Mary Frances Connelly, a close friend of Lauren's mother, Andrea. Tears welled in her eyes as she looked down at the yellow daffodils strewn on the ground. Meantime, David Rutenberg, who was splattered with burning fuel, underwent a four-hour skin graft operation; he now has a 50-50 chance of surviving. "He's covered head to toe with bandages and has a breathing tube in," says his father, Joel, a neurologist at Delaware County Memorial Hospital. "But he can shake his head yes or no, and his personality comes through." While David remembers what happened, neither his father nor mother, Rebecca, has told him of the seven lives lost that afternoon. Both are keeping vigil and hoping for the best. "We're asking everyone to just pray," says Joel, "as much as they can." Custodian John Fowler is doing just that. "The only image that's going through my mind is of this boy on fire, lying on his back, looking at me," he says. "If I could will him to live, he would live."

Everyone at Merion is struggling to move on. A support center has been opened at Lower Merion High School and a telephone hotline set up to advise parents on how to help their children cope—but the wounds of memory will not heal easily. Scampering about the school grounds, Karl "Scooter" Pettit, a classmate of Rachel's who ran for cover in a gully alongside the field as it erupted into flames, extends his hand to show a small burn caused by what he calls "little bits of fire" that filled the air. "I saw my best friend's stuffed bunny blow up, and I thought, 'Wow. cool! " he says with a 7-year-old's bravado. Then, as a plane buzzes overhead, Scooter squints upward, squeezes his hands over his ears and shakes his head to banish the sound. "It's going to crash!" he cries. "I'm afraid another one will happen. I had a bad dream last night." Scooter isn't the only one. "The worst thing was seeing the kids screaming," says Andrew Martella, an electrician who witnessed the tragedy. "I can deal with death, but some of these children—they won't sleep well for a long time."

—Paula Chin, Andrea Fine and Eileen Dzik in Merion, Jane Sims Podesta in Washington and Jane Beckwith in Pittsburgh

  • Contributors:
  • Andrea Fine,
  • Eileen Dzik,
  • Jane Sims Podesta,
  • Jane Beckwith.