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Flowers Adorn Empty School Desks of Crash Victims

April 11, 1991 GMT

MERION, Pa. (AP) _ The desks where little Lauren Freundlich and Rachel Blum used to sit are now classroom memorials to the young victims of an aircraft collision over their school playground.

A week after the 6-year-olds were killed in the crash in which Sen. John Heinz also died, Merion Elementary School is trying to cope with the loss.

″It’s comforting to the children to have the reminder,″ said Marvin Gold, principal of the 570-pupil school in this well-to-do Philadelphia suburb.

All traces of the helicopter-plane collision were removed from outside the stone school building by the time pupils returned to classes on Monday. Gone was the burned playground grass, debris and singed trees and shrubs from last Thursday’s accident.

The desks were left vacant.

″We’re not trying to erase and pretend it didn’t happen. It did and it’s very meaningful,″ said Gold.

Flowers and plants have been heaped on the desks. Their classmates have placed flowers on the spot where the two first-graders died.

″From the youngest children on up they will stand by the place silently and then go back and play,″ Gold said Wednesday.

A basket of flowers also appeared on Heinz’s desk in the Senate chamber in Washington on Thursday, the day after his funeral.

Heinz, R-Pa., his two pilots, and two helicopter pilots died when the aircraft collided. Lauren and Rachel were playing outside during a lunchtime break and were killed by fiery debris that rained down on the schoolyard.

Rachel’s father, Larry Blum, told mourners at his daughter’s funeral to ″take a deeper look at all of our children ... because tomorrow it could all be gone.″ Dr. Bruce Freundlich said it is still unthinkable to him that a child - his child - could die in such a ″protected environment like a schoolyard.″

A third desk at Merion also sits vacant. At least for now.

Second-grader David Rutenberg, 7, suffered burns over two-thirds of his body. The flames that engulfed him were smothered by a teacher and a school custodian.

Doctors said initially there was hope, but ever so tenuous.

He’s undergone a skin graft and faces more operations. But he’s breathing on his own and has taken other important steps to recovery in recent days.

David was in critical but stable condition Thursday at Crozer Chester Medical Center, said spokeswoman Molly Tritt.

Principal Gold said the schoolchildren have many questions, including why the aircraft were over the school and how the girls died, questions their parents have also raised.

The pilots for Heinz’s plane had reported trouble with landing gear indicator lights and aborted a landing at Philadelphia International Airport. The tower said it appeared the gear was OK but the helicopter pilots volunteered to take a close look. They collided when the helicopter dropped down for a second look.

Gold said he has been trying to assure the other children this week that their friends and classmates did not suffer. To help set aside their fears, five psychologists joined the district’s psychologist and counselor at the school this week.

Teachers have been using daily ″circle time″ discussions to let their pupils talk about whatever is on their minds. And the students also have been busy answering letters of sympathy from schools all over the country.

In the meantime, Gold has closed the school and its grounds to reporters and photographers. He and the school board have made the decision to protect the privacy of the students in every way they can.