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Students Return to Crash Scene, Friends Pay Respects to Senator

April 8, 1991

MERION, Pa. (AP) _ Students were back at Merion Elementary School on Monday for the first time since the helicopter-plane crash that killed U.S. Sen. John Heinz rained debris on their schoolyard, also killing two first-graders.

Across the state in Pittsburgh, Heinz’s body lay in state in a simple, flag-draped casket at a chapel bearing his family name on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

In Merion, school Principal Marvin Gold said all but a few students returned to classes and discussed the Thursday crash first thing.

″They were saying how they saw the plane start to fall and then they saw the helicopter start to fall and they didn’t know which direction to go,″ said teacher Marlene Davis. ″And they heard the aide blowing the whistle and telling the children to run.″

Two girls were killed by debris and a second-grade boy was critically injured. Heinz, 52, a Republican from the Pittsburgh suburb of Fox Chapel and heir to the Heinz food empire, his two pilots and two helicopter pilots also died.

One of Ms. Davis’ pupils, 7-year-old David Rutenburg, was burned over two- thirds of his body and remained at Crozer-Chester Hospital on Monday in critical but stable condition.

Rutenburg’s clothing was on fire when he ran from the playground into the school. He was grabbed by a reading teacher and custodian who smothered the flames.

Ellen Madof was one of the psychologists at the school Monday to assist teachers and students in coming to terms with the tragedy.

″One little boy said that he had spent (his time) since Thursday counting airplanes that have gone over his house and the school that haven’t crashed and he’s up to 707,″ Madof said.

Over the weekend, landscapers removed all traces of the accident, including burned grass and singed trees and shrubs.

Funeral services were Sunday for the dead students, Lauren Freundlich, 6, and Rachel Blum, 6.

Services will be held Wednesday for Heinz, followed by a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington on Friday.

Heinz was remembered as a friend of the homeless Sunday night, when four dozen housing activists and residents of Wood Street Commons, a Pittsburgh center for poor and homeless men, gathered to pay homage.

Some in the crowd noted the senator’s effort three years ago to get $5.4 million in federal Housing and Urban Development funds awarded to the center.

The National Transportation Safety Board completed its on-site investigation over the weekend. It could take months for the board to issue its findings on the cause of the accident.

According to investigators, pilots of the Heinz plane were not sure that the landing gear was down because a cockpit indicator light did not show the nose gear as being locked in place. The Philadelphia airport tower had already told the pilots the gear appeared to be in place.

Pilots of a helicopter on the same radio frequency volunteered to take a look. The helicopter pilots said, on first inspection, that the gear was in place and went down for another look when the collision occurred, according to the safety board.

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