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- August 05, 1996
- Vol. 46
- No. 6
Friends and Family of the 230 Who Perished on Flight 800 Carry On in the Face of Overwhelming Grief
Like so many of his schoolmates on that doomed Boeing 747, Hettler embodied unfulfilled promise—dashed by an explosion that investigators suspect was caused by a bomb. Bound for Northeastern University in Boston this fall, he was unfailingly polite, though a bit of a flirt, a leader of Students Against Driving Drunk and a longtime acolyte in the Faith United Methodist Church. Even his big brother looked up to him. "He was that kind of guy—everyone loved him," says Gary Hettler Jr., 21, a senior at nearby Lycoming College. "He was so excited about going to France. He was going to Wal-Mart every day, it seemed, to buy something—a shirt, sunglasses. He was always a sharp dresser."
Last week, Rance's parents—Gary Sr., 43, a self-employed machinist, and Jackie, 41, a homemaker—were in New York, waiting anxiously with his 14-year-old sister Katie for the recovery of their younger son's body. Gary Jr. stayed home in Montoursville, dealing with friends and relatives who came bearing flowers and their own overwhelming grief. Joining him was Kim Boyd, 18, his late brother's girlfriend of two years, eyelids puffy from crying, in her white Winnie the Pooh T-shirt, worn as a tribute to Rance. "Pooh Bear, that was his nickname..." she told PEOPLE before her voice trailed off and she hurried from the living room.
Sprawled below the Hettlers' airy hillside home, their dazed town of 5,000 people soldiers on, haltingly. Of Montoursville, which lies 80 miles west of Scranton, Gov. Tom Ridge had this to say at a service at Kennedy Airport five days after the catastrophe: "Life is a notch or two simpler there. Class plays are treated like Broadway plays. At bake sales, neighbors buy their goods."
Ribbons of blue and gold—the school colors—now deck the storefronts on Broad Street and the latticed Victorian houses on the manicured side streets. The high school has been open continuously, and grief counselors have been meeting regularly with family and friends of the victims. Last week a closed-casket funeral mass was held for 16-year-old Monica Cox at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, where her bowling trophies and softball mitt were displayed in a side chapel. In nearby Williamsport mourners lovingly recalled chaperone Carol Fry, 54, a registered nurse whose body had yet to be identified. And on a handful of special Web sites, more than 150,000 people from around the world have e-mailed their sympathy. "Don't worry and be happy," read a message all the way from Ankara, Turkey. From Atlanta, the U.S. Olympic women's softball team took time out to send condolences. One home web page, devised by Montoursville High School senior Robert Rupp, is devoted to personal memories of the victims. "Jordan Bower," he wrote of a 17-year-old track runner who perished on 800. "He and I go way back. We used to light smoke bombs on people's porches, then knock on the door." Two funds have been set up at Montoursville's Commonwealth Bank: One will help the families of survivors with travel and funeral expenses, the other may be used to start a memorial scholarship. And each day, it seems, local clergy strain to find scriptural comfort for a tragedy of biblical scale. "At one moment they were laughing, joking and kidding," Father Stephen McGough of Our Lady of Lourdes said of the crash victims in a July 21 homily. "The next instant they were laughing, joking and kidding with the Heavenly Father."
Still, the town struggles to come to grips with the apocalypse of Flight 800. Consider Wendy Wolfson, 16, a quiet but witty poet and concert pianist killed on 800 with her mother, Eleanor, 54, who was one of the chaperones—and the author of a children's book whose title now resonates eerily: One Night, Everything Disappeared.
In June, Wendy had realized her childhood dream—playing in a recital at Manhattan's Carnegié Hall complex, where she performed "Harlem Nocturne" and her own composition, "Two Sonnets." "She had this saying, 'carpe diem,' which means 'seize the day,' and she lived life to the fullest, she really did," says 18-year-old Andrea Weitlich, a close friend. Adds Drema Nesbitt, 17: "She didn't care what she looked like. She didn't care what people thought of her. She was the kind of person my mom would want as a daughter."
And what grand design could include the death of 15-year-old sophomore Julia Grimm, the aspiring marine biologist? "She was ecstatic about the trip," says her mother, Glenda, a nurse. "She was looking forward to tasting French food, and she just got her father's permission to have a little wine while she was over there." Adds Julia's father, Charles, 51, a market representative for an insurance company: "This was a chance for her to do something totally on her own.... We've been asked, both of us, if we have any regrets about letting her go, and I don't. She wanted to do it." The Grimms speak from their home in Montoursville, having returned from Long Island, so far without Julia's body, to be with their daughter Jessica, 12. They seem remarkably composed—until Glenda is asked for a view of Julia's bedroom. "Oh no," she says softly, battling tears, "I haven't been up there yet."
Michele Uzupis had her own way of dealing with the news that her daughter, Larissa, had gone down on Flight 800: She slept in the girl's bed, just to feel closer to her. "I've never had a middle name, so I'm going to make sure my name is legally changed to Michele Larissa," says Uzupis, a marketing assistant for a local bank. "That will keep her close."
A headstrong, straight-A student, Larissa, 15, was a cheerleader—apparently with a dark gift of prophecy. "She said she didn't want to live past 40—and when she died, she wanted it to be in the headlines," says Uzupis, smiling sadly at the irony. On July 22, Larissa's 16th birthday, her mother and her father, Steve, a vice president of a library-supply company, were in East Moriches, N.Y., with the other grieving families, and Michele, true to form, was wearing her dead daughter's sweat pants and sweater. Later that day, Larissa's body was brought home to Montoursville, where her funeral was planned for July 26. "If someone told me...that I was going to have this little girl, and she was going to be so neat, but I'd have to give her back in 16 years," she says, stroking Larissa's school picture, "I would still have taken her. I just want to hold her. I really think she's okay. It's just that we will never be okay."
Those sentiments had been achingly expressed earlier, inside a large helicopter from which Ron Dwyer was surveying the crash site. Somewhere below, his 11-year-old daughter, Larkyn, had plummeted into the Atlantic. " 'Daddy's here, everything's going to be okay,' " he recalls murmuring, at the time unaware that his daughter's body had been recovered. A Phoenix businessman, Dwyer has never been to Montoursville. But, like devastated survivors around the globe, he now has a grim bond with the town—and few tales of Flight 800 are more poignant than the life and death of Larkyn Lynn Dwyer. Though she had suffered from attention-deficit disorder, Larkyn was an accomplished equestrian and violinist, with a passion for Mozart. She was flying to Paris alone, to spend three weeks with a friend, and her parents had agonized over allowing her to go.
"This is the first time I let my daughter away from me," says her mother, Ann, wistfully. When they saw her off at the gate on July 17, Larkyn was wearing bib overalls and high-top sneakers and carrying a Mariah Carey tape. "We'd tucked some money in her sock," Ann says, "so she could have a really memorable time." On July 22 the little girl's body became the 42nd to be identified by medical examiners—in large part because of the money still tucked in her sock. "I asked the Lord, 'Why didn't you take me?' " her mother says. Then she articulates the confusion of a horrified nation: "I don't understand any of this. I hope I do in time."
For the Dwyers, Larkyn's death is a compound tragedy. Their other child, 13-year-old Kyle, suffers from mosaic tetraploidy, a rare birth defect resulting in speech, cognitive and motor problems. Highly intelligent, the boy is a fine swimmer, and he can recite the statistics of almost every player in the National Basketball Association. On the other hand, he only recently—with Larkyn's help—learned to tie his shoelaces, and he has been slow to grasp the reality of his little sister's death. When he first heard the news, all he could do was ask, "Does that mean I'm the only child now?"
"They were so close," says his mother. "Larkyn was his beacon. Of all the people to have this happen to, I think it's crudest to him, even more than to me or Ron." On July 22, the day Larkyn's remains were identified, her family joined with hundreds of other shattered families in an oceanside memorial service on Fire Island. The skies were overcast at first, but they soon cleared, and the New York Boys Choir sang "The Wind Beneath My Wings," one of Larkyn's favorite songs. "When they started singing, it was just the voice I needed to hear," says Ann. "I stopped crying, and I felt I was going to be okay.
"I think Larkyn was just waiting for us to get there," she adds. "I felt at such peace. Kyle wrote, 'I love you Larkyn' in the sand. He said, 'I had the best 11 years with Larkyn, Mom.' "
ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA and RON ARIAS in Montoursville and ANNE LONGLEY in New York
- Anthony Duignan-Cabrera,
- Ron Arias,
- Anne Longley.
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