A small town tends to have an identity and character that makes it as real as any person who calls it home. Montoursville, Pa., is such a place. Only now, the town's personality and the character of its residents has been altered by the recent act of burying too many of its citizens.
Montoursville has the distinction of being the home to many of the passengers who met their deaths in an explosion in the sky on TWA Flight 800 this summer.
"Normal," is a word they shy away from using now. How can life be normal after so much concentrated death? But slowly, normal is seeping back into the bloodstream of the town.
On July 17, 21 members of the Montoursville High School French club - 16 students, their teacher, and four chaperons - eagerly anticipated their New York-to-Paris trip. Instead, the last of the 21 victims, Monica Weaver, 16, was recovered from the Atlantic and returned to Montoursville the week before Labor Day.
A borough of just 5,000 on the banks of the Susquehanna River, deep in the rustic Pennsylvania interior, Montoursville is a mere drive across Loyalsock Creek from Williamsport. It is largely an indigenous community, where everybody grew up knowing everybody, and now their children are repeating the process, said the Rev. Jerry Uppling, 54, who has been the pastor of First Christian Church for three years.
The people of Montoursville share a hardscrabble individualism that sometimes brings reluctance to ask for help, but at the same time it is a close-knit, neighborly, religious community that always takes care of its own in time of need. Thus, through this tragedy the people are pulling closer both to one another and to God.
Actually the crash is just one of several tragedies to beset Montoursville in the past year. Last winter a record snowfall and January thaw brought sudden flooding throughout northeast Pennsylvania that killed 13 living along the creeks feeding into the Susquehanna. Also last winter, a bus struck and killed a grade schooler. In the spring, a high school student committed suicide and another died in a car accident.
"The flood, in a tragic way, helped prepare the community for the plane crash," said Uppling. "Then with the suicide, and the car and bus accidents, we never moved out of our rescue mode."
In the face of so much tragedy, those without faith wonder when it will all end and question why it all happened, according to Mayor John Morin, 60, who attended all but one of the funerals.
However, he said, for the most part Montoursville is a religious community that understands its need for God and knows how to turn to prayer, to churches, and to each other to ease the burden.
Still, cautioned Uppling, people must be allowed to grieve. Too often well-meaning but misguided people, offer positive platitudes, expecting affected families to bury the tragedy too quickly. This may result in post traumatic stress disorder in the future, he said.
"There's been so much urgency to move on, we didn't allow the natural grieving process to take place," he said. "I read of one lady who lost someone in the Pan Am explosion over Lockerbie who said she was sick of hearing positive, uplifting statements pushing her to closure. 'Let me alone and let me cry' was her plea."
A mother of one of the first Montoursville victims to be identified came to Uppling for counseling, "highly concerned she was not further down the grieving road," he said, "struggling to find a reason to wake up in the morning." She had no spiritual support, just a curious seeker after Christ still confused by her strict, legalistic upbringing.
"When she described where she was, I realized she was still at the shock stage," he said. "I just affirmed her that she was where she needed to be."
Neither family members nor Montoursville residents at large are at the stage where they are blaming God, nor are they asking profound spiritual questions on the reasons for the crash Uppling explained. It's still too early. Instead, they are now seeking God for comfort and for strength.
"When a kid falls and skins his knee, he doesn't want to know the scientific process: the epidermis, and the medication and sterilization," he said. "He wants someone to hold him and tell him he will be all right. That's where we are. It's not a lot different than what we find in battle zones where people turn to the God of comfort when there's no other solution. It's amazing how we have a homing device in us that says there's no other place to turn."
They are also grasping for solace in other ways, ascribing divine meaning to an unusual-looking rainbow that appeared in a rainless sky during one of the two memorial services, said Morin. A large gap in the rainbow's middle gradually filled up as the proceedings continued.
Also, the Sunday evening after the crash, a cloud formation that was said to resemble an angel appeared over the high school. A city councilman ran to take a photo, which is selling briskly around town, with all proceeds going to the memorial fund.
"Everyone who sees it sees some sort of divine expression," said the mayor. "They see it as some sort of sign - that we're in good hands."
In the meantime, recovery of the last of the 21 victims has brought relief and a sense of closure to the community, said Morin. What is encouraging so far, according to Uppling, is that the families are gradually beginning to take back control of their lives, no longer captive to the next funeral, FBI review, or media demand. And with the resumption of the school year, a degree of normalcy has returned.
"We're survivors here," said the mayor. "We'll take it a day at a time. We'll survive. We won't attain the normalcy we had before, but we'll get close. Life has to go on."
Related Sites on the Internet
Copyright © 1998 Villagelife.org Inc. All Rights Reserved