Pastor: When our town lost 16 students in plane crash

Story highlights

  • 16 high school students and 5 chaperones from Montoursville, Pa., were aboard TWA Flight 800 in 1996
  • Haltern am See, Germany, lost 16 students and 2 teachers in Germanwings Flight 9525
  • Jerry Upling: Communities can find healing by reaching out to others, but the journey is a long one

Jerry Uppling is pastor at The Picture Rocks Baptist Church in Picture Rocks, Pennsylvania. He was the pastor of First Christian Church in Montoursville, a community that lost 21 of its citizens, including 16 high school students, in the crash of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)From the community of Montoursville, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., to the community of Haltern am See, Germany:

We offer our heartfelt condolences for the pain you must be feeling at this time after the loss of 16 students and two teachers in the horrendous crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. There are no words of comfort that we could express that would ever be adequate.
We know something about this sorrow.
    Jerry Uppling
    Almost 19 years ago our community lost 16 high school French Club students, along with five chaperones, in the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, New York. It is impossible to be prepared for such a horrific tragedy that touches so many so personally.
    During the dark hours of waiting for word of possible survivors from Flight 800, the pain for the family members was excruciating. As word came that there were no survivors, that all hope was extinguished, the anguish became almost unbearable.
    Students, former students, teachers and other community members began to fill the hallways of the high school building because they didn't know where else to go to find consolation. Local pastors, priests, teachers and counselors were also gathering at the school to offer whatever comfort could be offered in such a moment. Within hours, phone calls began pouring in from former students and teachers who were now living outside the area, offering condolences and prayers for all.
    German town mourns 16 students, 2 teachers
    pkg pleitgen germany mourning town_00000214

      JUST WATCHED

      German town mourns 16 students, 2 teachers

    MUST WATCH

    German town mourns 16 students, 2 teachers 02:22
    Since the disaster occurred over water, the recovery of loved ones took days, and even weeks in some cases. Positive identification of each individual lost took even longer, which only added to the anguish. The identifications came in one at a time over a period of several days; the waiting was nearly impossible to bear.
    School was not in session during the summer months, so students and school staff members were able to express their sense of loss as they felt necessary at any time. A community prayer service was arranged and held in the high school gymnasium to provide a place to weep together, and to share each other's pain.
    Local pastors and priests provided ongoing support to the families who had lost family members, and this continued for several months. Some struggled so deeply that professional counseling was suggested. Because we are a community of about 5,000 with just one high school, almost everyone opened their arms of support to those in deepest need by providing meals, baby-sitting, housecleaning and laundry services.
    Funeral services were held one at a time, some in the high school and others in local churches. Long lines of mourners waited in silence for the opportunity to at least offer condolences to family members. Twenty-one funeral services over a period of several days left many in the community without any more tears to cry.
    'TWA Flight 800 exploded right in front of me'
    'TWA Flight 800 exploded right in front of me'

      JUST WATCHED

      'TWA Flight 800 exploded right in front of me'

    MUST WATCH

    'TWA Flight 800 exploded right in front of me' 01:39
    Within a couple of months, a memorial service was held on the local athletic field and attended by thousands. The hope was to bring closure for the community so it could attempt to return to a somewhat normal daily routine.
    This helped for some, but families that experienced direct loss still had a long and painful journey ahead of them. When a parent, or someone serving as a parent, loses a child, an empty spot occurs in the heart that never heals.
    They may find comfort in the thought that their child is in the arms of a loving God, but that assurance does not mend the broken heart. Over time, the various families that lost their children in the tragedy formed support groups to share their loss. Many of the folks have reached out to others going through a similar type of loss to offer their comfort, and have found a little bit of personal healing in the process.
    In the years since the crash, many of the pastors and priests who served the families have moved away or retired from pastoral service. Those of us who counseled from the beginning have at times needed the support of one another to restore our strength and spirits to then be able to serve our own parishioners.
    This is the beginning of a very long journey for all those willing to serve those in such great pain at this time. At this writing I am shedding tears just recalling the events that started almost 19 years ago.
    If any of our experiences can assist your community of Haltern am See in getting through this horrible event, then know that it is in pain we achieve our greatest victories.