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Tragedy Envelops Small Town 16 Students, Five Adults Were Headed For Tour Of France

Fri., July 19, 1996

They knew them as the girl who spilled the fries in the car. Knew them as the boy who shot baskets and lighted the candles at church. Knew them as the girl who wrote poetry and played the piano.

In this small central Pennsylvania town, they knew them all, knew them as the kids who sold them pizza or a hoagie or washed their cars to raise the money for a trip to France - a trip that ended in tragedy Wednesday night when TWA Flight 800 exploded, taking the lives of 21 people from this tight-knit community.

“Everybody knows everybody,” said Ron Paulhamus, a print shop owner.

And now everybody grieves. Sixteen dead high-school students, five dead adults. Twenty-one dead friends.

“There will be very few people not affected by it,” said Paulhamus, whose 16-year-old son, Ross, attends the local high school.

Ross’ mother, Ginger, said her son is devastated. “These are kids he grew up with and he’s known and pals around with every day. … Everybody you know has either a friend or a family who’s been affected.”

Ginger and Ron Paulhamus attended a hastily called noontime prayer vigil with other community residents at Bethany Lutheran Church for 16 members of the high-school French club and five adult chaperons who boarded the fatal flight to Paris for a 10-day trip during summer break. Some victims were high school athletes. Others, musicians. One was an acolyte at the Methodist church.

They left behind sisters and brothers, girlfriends, boyfriends and best friends.

The crash was like a knife through the heart of this central Pennsylvania community of about 5,000.

“I’m still shaking,” Michelle Follmer, 19, told friends outside the high school late Thursday morning.

“Brock lost his girlfriend,” Josh Lewis, 17, told her, speaking about a mutual friend.

Follmer already knew: “She was in my car Tuesday night. She spilled her fries all over my seat,” Follmer said, forcing a laugh.

They were talking about Michelle Bohlin, 16, a swimmer who had just finished her sophomore year. They recalled how excited Michelle had been about the trip. And the others: Jody Loudenslager, a distance runner on the girl’s track team. There was Rance Hettler, the church acolyte and a basketball player, and Wendy Wolfson, who played the piano and wrote poetry. The airline had not released their names, but several residents and friends identified people they knew who had taken the trip.

And then there were the adults: Judith Rupert, a secretary at the school practically since she graduated in 1961. Rupert was asked to join an overseas school trip for the first time after enthusiastically helping so many classes with fund raisers; French teacher Debbie Dickey and her husband, Douglas, a salesman. The couple left behind two children, ages 5 and 7; two others include a former school board member and a mother of one of the students on the trip.

By the afternoon, a somber mood had descended on this community, just east of Williamsport, where many residents work. There was a holding out of hope, with many of the bodies not yet identified, of someone miraculously surviving the crash. There was disbelief. And there was shock.

Experts said it was a lull before the full outpouring of grief that will undoubtedly come.

“It’s been eerily quiet in there,” said Dan Chandler, the high school principal who emerged for a news conference outside the front entrance before two dozen television cameras and many more reporters and photographers. “You almost think too quiet. It’s early in the process, we’re told, and I think there will be much more grieving later.”

Downtown, walking distance away in this compact community, the mood also was subdued. At Turkey Hill Minit Markets, a gas station and convenience store, clerks said that they had bought a sympathy card for their manager, who had a niece on the plane. One customer said his cousin was a passenger. And a worker from the tire shop across the street said his friend’s wife also was aboard. “I don’t know anybody in this town who isn’t thinking about it,” said Tanya Kelley, one of the clerks.

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