The healing bear first appeared in Oklahoma City.
Timothy McVeigh parked a moving truck packed with ammonia nitrate and fuel oil in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, the truck blew up. His actions resulted in the deaths of 168 people.
This healing bear — like bears before it and bears since — found itself sorely needed. It was hugged, a fluffy symbol of comfort and love. More than a year passed. Something bad happened, again.
It was 1996 and the middle of a summer heat wave in Montoursville, Pa., a town of 5,000. There, my friend, Erika Grotto, had just graduated high school. All she could think about was getting through the next six weeks, departing for college and starting her adult life.
On July 17, 1996, TWA 800 took off from JFK en route to Charles de Gaulle in Paris. Twelve minutes in and eight miles off of the coast of Long Island, the 747 exploded. There were 230 on board, including 21 people from Erika’s small Pennsylvania town. Among the dead were 16 French Club students, some of them Erika’s peers since preschool. Nobody survived.
Today marks that tragedy’s 18th anniversary.
Erika explains on her blog, what happened next in the town.
The healing bear arrived in Montoursville from Oklahoma City with a note attached.
The bear’s note explained he’d been sent there after the 1995 bombing to offer comfort and was now being sent on to continue his work.
She describes how gestures, like the healing bear, brought her and others so much comfort:
For weeks after the tragedy, Montoursville received letters and mementos expressing sympathy, comfort, and love. Never before or since have I felt so connected to other human beings–united in grief with my town, united by love with the rest of the world.
I did not know any of this when I met Erika in early 2004 in the Chicago area. Our lives intersected in a drab, beige building that had once been a department store, but was, then, a newsroom. Shortly after I arrived, the company sent an e-mail to notify us it was shutting down the escalator to save electricity. Red flag. Just a few years later, that newspaper would cease to exist.
The newspaper industry, shuttered papers, pending layoffs — none of those things were on our minds. We were doing journalism! Erika and I shared a desk divided by a low wall in the beige building.
Right away, we bonded because we were both outsiders. She from Pennsylvania, me from Michigan. We arrived in Chicago with the ink barely dry on our college degrees, ready to take on journalism. Ready to take on the world. Chicago Tribune, here we come.
In the populous, competitive metro, we instead clawed our way in from the fringe, the suburban Chicago Southland. It was new and exciting. I didn’t get it, the thick Chicago accent — “Da Bears” — the obsessive White Sox culture. I didn’t get it, but I loved it — Italian beef, Portillos. The corruption! My God, it’s everywhere! You throw a stone and hit corruption. It was a journalist’s paradise, and we were going to uproot it all — just as soon as we got through with the story on the new stop sign.
We both worked in the suburbs but spurned the idea that we would ever live there, choosing instead an hour-long commute (on a good day) to solidify our status as urban-dwellers. In Chicago, Erika made her home in a brick apartment complex. Off of her el stop sat a porn-slash-bakery shop. Business was brisk, she reported. There is so much absurdity in a city. I loved it.
We served Trader Joe’s Two-buck Chuck (That’s $2 wine) and Old Style at weekend parties. She met her future husband, Matt — a photographer at our paper she to this day describes as “dreamy.” I dated my future husband, Mark, who I had met at a party that carried a “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” theme. Times were good.
There was something about Erika I didn’t know. I can’t remember when or how she told me. Maybe it was on a day like today. An anniversary. Her life had been marked with tragedy. The TWA 800 disaster killed 16 of her high school classmates.
Erika was in bed at home the morning after the crash when her mother woke her up with the news: Students from her school had just been killed in a plane crash.
In the years since, the tragedies haven’t stopped.
That’s meant the healing bear’s mission continued. In fact, the healing bear became the Flat Stanley of tragedies.
Over the years, I’ve often wondered what happened to the bear. Was he still sitting in the display case in the high school lobby, or had he been sent to one of the many places who could use him in the years since 1996? Last year, I decided to try to find out.
A Google search taught me that Montoursville had, indeed, sent him to another place: Littleton, Colorado after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Later that year, Columbine had forwarded him along to Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, after a shooting there. I contacted the church, and someone there informed me that the bear continued his journey in 2001, traveling to Santee, California after a shooting at Santana High School.
From there, the trail went cold.
I wondered why the bear was important to her. Why had she made the healing bear her own personal caper? Via Facebook, our primary mode of communication these days, second to Twitter, she explains:
“I thought about that bear many times over the years and hoped he had been sent somewhere else to bring comfort to those who needed it. Tragedy unites people in ways nothing else can, and the bear is a symbol of that.”
Erika isn’t a journalist today. She works in quality assurance at an online learning company. She’s still got that “dreamy” man, plus their brand new baby Eleanor, plus a Boston terrier named Stella. Erika’s still got that journalist’s heart. With that heart comes curiosity.
That curiosity nags her, and it becomes louder on days like today, the anniversary.
She wants to know two things:
1. Where is the bear?
2. Who sent the bear from Oklahoma City?
I saw her post on Facebook this morning and promised to help her out. That’s why I’m writing this now. Will you help her? Will you forward this column around in search of the bear and the person who sent it from Oklahoma City?
In the meantime, Erika is pulling some detective work in order to find a picture of the healing bear that started its mission in Oklahoma City.
If she does find one, I’ll post it right away.
There were so many questions that followed TWA 800. Who did this? Why did this happen?
The National Transportation Safety Board eventually a spark in the center fuel tank led to the explosion that brought down the aircraft. Where did the spark come from? There has never been an answer.
Where is that healing bear? Erika would like to know.
On days like today, the anniversaries, the minds of the people from Montoursville will wander back today that day, today, 18 years ago, to the tragic plane crash that altered the course of so many lives.
Because of acts of kindness and love that followed this tragedy — acts like the simple mailing of a teddy bear ready to hug from Oklahoma City — the people of Montoursville will have something to think about, other than a horrifying plane crash and senseless death.
“People who didn’t know any of us, hadn’t known any of the victims, probably didn’t even know where Montoursville was, were reaching out to us with messages of comfort and love,” Erika says.
This bear was special. This bear came from Oklahoma City, a community that understands tragedy more than most.
“That had a big effect on me; it made me want to reach out to others who had been affected by tragedy.”
She wants to find the bear. She wants to make sure the bear is not in semi-retirement, imprisoned in a glass display in a high school lobby somewhere, gathering dust.
No, it can’t be, for the healing bear still has work to do. The healing bear should be sent somewhere else to comfort those who need it. School shootings, campus shootings, natural disasters — the list of work for the healing bear to do goes on and on and on. Unfortunately, the healing bear just can’t afford to retire, or even spend winters in Florida!
The bear serves to remind us that while we can’t control everything, we can choose to express love. We can unite and try to prevent a tragedy from every happening again. We can send a teddy bear, ready for a hug. Maybe enough hugs from enough bears – an Army of teddy bears — will finally make all the senseless tragedies stop. We just can’t let the bear Army retire! We can’t lock them up in glass cases, where they’ll be forgotten, where their strengths will go unused and no one will care who put that dusty, sad old bear there in the first place, or why.
The healing bear from Oklahoma City arrived in Montoursville in 1996. Along with the bear came the feeling that no one is alone in suffering, that the world cares, that there is love in the face of it all, and love is the stronger force.
It can’t be touched.
It can’t be shot, or blown up.
Whether or not we find the healing bear, it will always serve to remind us: Love conquers all.
Besides help finding that bear, the people of Montoursville were wondering if you could complete 21 acts of kindness today as a remembrance for those who were lost.
Juliana Keeping is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman and blogs about life at hithisiseli.com, a chronicle she started after having her son, Eli, a cheeky fellow, 1, who happens to have cystic fibrosis. Follow Juliana on Twitter @julianakeeping or, follow the blog @hithisiseli. Erika Grotto writes at United States of Bewarika. Follow her on Twitter @bewarika.