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It happened again

Pa. town that lost 16 students in airplane crash knows German town’s pain

WHEN THE TOWN of Haltern am See in Germany lost 16 students and two adult chaperones last week in a plane crash in the French Alps, a small town a world away in central Pennsylvania knew how the people there felt.

On July 17, 1996, the town of Montoursville - located 180 miles northwest of Philadelphia in Lycoming County - lost 16 students and five adult chaperones when TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island on its way to Paris.

All 230 people on board perished, and the town - my town - was changed forever in an instant.

As I watched my classmates post on social media about last week's crash, in which all 150 people on board the Barcelona-to-Duesseldorf flight lost their lives, variations of the same phrase kept appearing over and over: "It happened again."

"History repeated itself in one of the most painful ways possible," my classmate Carrie Littlewood wrote.

Although every national and international disaster after Flight 800 seemed to hit us in Montoursville a bit harder because we couldn't say "It can't happen here" anymore, this tragedy hits even closer to home. That number - 16 - won't leave my head.

Sixteen kids. Sixteen lives. Sixteen families.

It happened again.

The 16 students Montoursville lost and the 16 students the Joseph Koenig Gymnasium school in Haltern am See lost shared those qualities that have advanced mankind through time - a sense of adventure and a thirst for knowledge.

The students from Germany were returning from an exchange program near Barcelona. The students from my school were traveling to Paris to put the French they'd learned to use and to see a world outside their own.

Now, it is the students' hometowns that share qualities few places do: a hole in the heart of the town that can never be filled or seen, a bond that can only be felt and firsthand knowledge that in the face of unmitigated tragedy, people are capable of small acts of great kindness.

"There is grief and there will always be grief," said Erika Grotto, a 1996 Montoursville grad. "But if you're lucky, that's not what stays."

In the aftermath of Flight 800, what stayed with Grotto was the memory of a small teddy bear displayed among the thousands of letters and gifts that were sent to the school from across the world.

If the individual who sent the bear identified himself, his name has been lost over time, but the bear's story endures. He was sent to Montoursville from Oklahoma City, where he had been left after the 1995 bombing. Whoever sent it included a note that said the bear was continuing his healing mission.

"Whenever something terrible would happen in the world, my thoughts would go to that bear," Grotto said. Last year, Grotto learned that the staff at Montoursville Area High School sent the bear on to Littleton, Colo., following the Columbine High School massacre. The people of Littleton then sent the bear on to another town in the wake of another tragedy and that town sent it on to another town in the wake of another tragedy.

After that, the bear's whereabouts are unknown.

So late last year, Grotto started the Traveling Bear Society, which sends teddy bears to those in need of compassion. The recipients of the bears are then asked to, at some future point, send their bears on to another in need.

This morning, Grotto, who now lives in the Chicago area, will send a traveling bear named Rodger and 18 letters penned by people from Montoursville to the German students' school.

"When word started to spread that there was a school group on board the plane, a lot of people from Montoursville were saying, 'What can we do?' " Grotto said.

The letters she received that touched Grotto most told the people of Haltern am See to look for the good amid the darkness.

"Because that's what stuck out for me after that experience," she said. "Just the feeling of being there for someone else and being there for your community."

Grotto can still recall the moment she knew Flight 800 would affect her and Montoursville forever. The day after the crash, there was a vigil at the school.

"I walked in, and a girl that I graduated with that I wasn't even friends with grabbed me and just started sobbing on my shoulder," she said. "I thought, 'We're not even friends,' but that's when it hit me that this was a shared loss among all of us."

For those of us who were students at the time, it was comforting when the townspeople would ask us how we were holding up and what they could do.

"I was ready to go off to college and start my life because I thought my life had not yet begun," Grotto said. "And all of a sudden for the next month before I left, I found this wonderful community I had lived in forever and never knew."

I remember talking with Donald Nibert, whose daughter, Cheryl, died aboard Flight 800, and the simple act of compassion he told me mattered most to him.

Nibert had gone into a tiny local market he'd frequented many times before and behind the counter was a young woman.

"She didn't say anything, she just reached over and patted my hand," Nibert told me. "That's all she had to do."

In memory of Flight 800, emblems were created, one with a teddy bear and one with a dove, surrounded by the words "Forever in our hearts" and that date in 1996 that nobody from Montoursville will forget. As Grotto said, in a way, "Forever in our hearts" became our town's motto.

Last week, Grotto had the emblem translated into German and included the date - March 24, 2015 - that nobody in Haltern am See will ever forget.

"I want them to know they are not alone," she said. "This is something all of us from Montoursville share - and now, we all know this is something we share with them."