A woman from Pennsylvania can’t let go of a “healing bear” from Oklahoma City.
On July 17, 1996, a TWA flight bound for Paris from New York crashed off the coast of Long Island, taking the lives of all 230 people on board. Among the dead were 21 residents of Montoursville, Pa., including 16 members of the town’s high school French club.
Soon after the crash, a small, light brown teddy bear arrived in Montoursville with a note attached. The note explained that the bear had come from Oklahoma City, where it had provided comfort following the 1995 bombing and was now being sent to Pennsylvania to continue its work.
On Thursday, the 18th anniversary of the crash, Erika Grotto thought of the bear again.
Grotto had just graduated high school in Montoursville when the TWA plane crashed. Some of the students who died had been her classmates since preschool. She recalled the outpouring of support for her hometown, including a bear sent from a place that understood heartache: Oklahoma City.
“For weeks after the tragedy, Montoursville received letters and mementos expressing sympathy, comfort, and love,” said Grotto, 35, who now lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and daughter. “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.”
Today, Grotto wants to know: Who sent the bear from Oklahoma City, and where is it now? They’re questions she can’t shake.
Seeking a memory
“Over the years, I’ve often wondered what happened to the bear,” she said. “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 revealed that the healing bear had visited tragedies. Montoursville had sent him to another place: Littleton, Colo., after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Later that year, Columbine forwarded the bear to Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, after a shooting there. The bear continued his journey in 2001, to Santee, Calif., after a shooting at Santana High School.
Then, the trail went cold.
Questions remain about the TWA 800 disaster. The National Transportation Safety Board eventually found that a fuel-tank spark caused the explosion that brought down the aircraft. Where did the spark come from? There are plenty of theories but no definitive answer.
On days like Thursday, the minds of the people from Montoursville wander back to that day that altered the course of so many lives. Because of the kindness and love that followed the tragedy — simple acts like the mailing of a ready-to-hug teddy bear from Oklahoma City — they’ll have something to remember beyond just the 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,” Grotto said.
The fact that the bear came from Oklahoma City made it mean even more, she said.
“That had a big effect on me; it made me want to reach out to others who had been affected by tragedy,” Grotto said.
The bear brought a 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, she said.