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Town still mourns 10 years after TWA 800

By Ben Burnstein

Friends and family gathered in Montoursville to send off the high school French club before the flight.


New York
Missing Children

MONTOURSVILLE, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- On July 17, 1996, parents snapped photos of members of the Montoursville High School French club as they prepared to board a bus to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, and, ultimately, TWA Flight 800 to Paris.

Hours later, the plane exploded over the ocean off New York's Long Island, killing 16 students and five chaperones from the small tight-knit town of Montoursville, as well as 209 other passengers aboard.

A decade later, Montoursville outwardly remains largely unchanged. Little League is still king, residents still leave their front doors unlocked, and red, white and blue still dominate the town on Flag Day.

"We held these children very close," said Donna Nibert, who lost her daughter, Cheryl. "And when you hold something, it's forever a part of you and a part of your heart.

"And so you gradually evolve to treasuring all the things you did have, even though you still miss what you don't have." (Watch a town still mourns -- 2:31)

'They didn't know what to do'

For most of the fallen students, TWA 800 was their first plane ride and a great adventure.

But the tragedy shattered the collective heart of a town "that pretty much revolves around its children," according to Montoursville High Principal Ray Huff.

Overnight, families were faced with trying to resume lives that would never be quite right again. And, in many cases, a sudden chill replaced the small-town closeness.

"Some people are afraid of what they don't understand," said Nibert. "I think that's why they would avoid us. They felt their own pain, and they couldn't cope with ours." (Watch two mothers describe their pain -- 1:49)

Yvonne Mitchell, a piano teacher whose daughter Michelle died in the crash, said she lost a third of her students after the crash.

"One mother finally came up to me to say, 'Well, I don't know that it's good for my little girl to be around you, because I don't know how you're going to act,' " she remembered.

Nibert's husband, Donald, recalled how people would avoid him and his wife at church.

"No one would sit in the same row we were in. No one would sit behind us or in front of us," he recalled. "They didn't know what to say. They didn't know what to do."

Day-by-day struggle

The media swarm that descended on the town of 4,500 further complicated efforts to come to grips with the tragedy.

"As anyone got in and out of a vehicle, their microphones and cameras were in your face," said Donna Nibert. "We had someone crawl under a school bus to photograph our family."

Anger rising in his voice, Donna's husband, Don, recalled a photographer waiting in ambush at a cemetery.

"He either had a very powerful telescopic lens or he was hiding behind one of the tombstones," Donald said. "I can't even have the privacy to select a burial plot?"

The media eventually moved on, as bodies were laid to rest and other stories beckoned. Meanwhile, families were left with their grief.

Mitchell said she threw herself into her work, as a way to avoid the pain.

"You get up in the morning, and at four o'clock in the afternoon you're wandering around the house wondering where the day went," she said. "If you work hard enough, you can hold it off. You just work until you drop and then you get up the next day and you do that again. And you do it one day at a time."

Donna Nibert set up a support group of Montoursville parents who had lost children on TWA 800. Sometimes just the mothers got together. Other times it was just the fathers.

"We could look at each other and we knew how we felt," she says. "And it was OK to cry together. It was OK to laugh together. It was all right."

In time, the community came together to help families struggling to cope. But for a parent who has lost a child, there is an ache that never goes away.

Even now, Mitchell said, an innocent remark can set her off.

"I was at a concert last spring and during the intermission, someone said 'I lost my child,' " she recalled. "They meant their child was wandering in the crowd somewhere. But my heart stopped, because it has a whole different meaning for me.

"It just depends on who says what on a given day as to how you are going to be that day."

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