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Boating accident brings tragic halt to summer exchange program

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
Hungarian youths in Wednesday's boat accident were on a cultural exchange organized by Atlantic Bridge.
Hungarian youths in Wednesday's boat accident were on a cultural exchange organized by Atlantic Bridge.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bodies of Dora Schwendtner, Szabolcs Prem, found near site of Pennsylvania boating accident
  • They were among 15 Hungarians on cultural exchange program with Pennsylvania church
  • They arrived in the United States July 2 to experience American culture
  • It is unclear if the rest of the group will stay until scheduled return date of July 23

(CNN) -- The group of Hungarian teens and young adults had traveled to the United States to experience American culture during a three-week trip of hiking excursions, overnight retreats, home-stays and tourist stops.

Now, the group will return home without two of its members, carrying memories of the tragic boating accident that took their lives.

The bodies of Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, were recovered from the site of the boating accident in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Friday and identified later in the day, according to authorities.

The discoveries came two days after a tour boat the group was on collided with a barge in the Delaware River. Rescuers saved 35 people on the tour boat, popularly known as a duck boat, an amphibious vehicle that takes passengers on land and sea to major destinations on Philadelphia's tourist track.

Among those rescued were some of the Hungarians and their hosts from Marshallton United Methodist Church of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Schwendtner and Prem were missing for more than two days before their fate was confirmed.

The 15 Hungarians arrived in the United States on July 2 on a cultural exchange program organized by Atlantic Bridge, a Netherlands-based group that describes itself as "a Christian, international, cross-cultural team with a passion for young people."

The team of Hungarian "BridgeBuilders" came from Mosonmagyarovar, a town in northwest Hungary known for its hot baths and large number of dentists, drawing Austrians from across the border in search of cheap dental work, according to Atlantic Bridge's website.

The leaders of Atlantic Bridge did not respond to e-mails for comment Friday night, but the group's website provides a loose timeline of the youths' travels. Representatives from Marshallton United Methodist Church did not return requests for comment Friday night.

After the youths arrived in New York they spent the Fourth of July weekend visiting ground zero, Central Park and Chinatown, and celebrating the nation's birthday with host families, Atlantic Bridge's director, John Oostdyk, wrote on the organization's website.

On July 6, they set out in five cars to West Chester, Pennsylvania, to meet their hosts from the Marshallton United Methodist Church for the next leg of their trip. Marshallton sent a youth group to Hungary through Atlantic Bridge in 2006, and a team from Hungary first came in 2007, the church said on its website.

"Together the two youth groups share in Christian fellowship and fun, while the visitors stay with host families, and enjoy tours to various cultural and historic places in their respective countries," a statement said.

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The next day, seven members of the church accompanied their Hungarian counterparts on a trip to Philadelphia, where they boarded the "Ride the Ducks" tour boat at Penn's Landing.

The boat had mechanical trouble and the engine shut down after a fire onboard, Lt. Frank Vanore of the Philadelphia Police Department said Wednesday.

While the boat was waiting for help in the river, the barge hit it, Vanore said. The boat overturned and passengers were spilled into the river.

"When I saw the picture I realized how true it was when someone earlier said 'it is a miracle anyone survived this,' " Oostdyk said on Atlantic Bridge's website.

"Ride the Ducks" voluntarily shut down operations at all its locations across the country, and the NTSB is investigating the incident.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with our Philadelphia tour guests, crew members and their families. We are attending to their needs first," the company said on its website.

After the passengers were brought to land, a count was taken and it was discovered that Schwendtner and Prem were missing, the church said.

The group went back to Marshallton, where they were looked after by the Rev. Scott Widmer, the church's pastor, and members of the congregation and community.

"The church is continuing to provide comfort, prayer, pastoral care and sanctuary for the spiritual needs of the youth groups in the midst of their shock and grief," Marshallton said on its website.

The Hungarian youths are still in Pennsylvania, according to an employee in Atlantic Bridge's Netherlands office, but it was unclear whether they would stay until their scheduled return on July 23.

On Wednesday, Oostdyk flew to the United States to be with the group. On Thursday, prayer vigils were held at two United Methodist churches in the region, drawing attendees from churches and communities throughout the area.

"It was a world of grief, but also a world of compassion and prayer and of gathering around the team of Hungarian students who had seen their summer of high expectations destroyed in a matter of minutes just 24 hours earlier," Oostdyk said.

 
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