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Community Mourns Tornado Victims

November 20, 1989

NEWBURGH, N.Y. (AP) _ About 3,000 people, including weeping police officers and firefighters, jammed a memorial service Sunday for seven children whose lives ended suddenly when a tornado tore into their elementary school.

″We gather here because, despite the inadequacy of our words, so great a grief cannot be borne without being shared,″ Gov. Mario Cuomo told mourners at Valley Central High School.

″Death, like life, is a mystery ... a mystery that deepens when the people taken from us are like Amy, Joanna, Larae, Peter, Charles, Adam and Maria,″ said Cuomo, naming the youngsters crushed under a wall Thursday. ″So young, so bright, so innocent, so loved and so lovely.″

Many residents greeted each other with silent hugs as they arrived for the service.

″We have come together in response to an experience that has shattered us and unified us,″ the Rev. John Rottenberg of the First Reformed Church in Walden said.

The school’s auditorium, which seats 1,200, was packed with 1,500 people. About 1,500 more mourners crowded around loudspeakers in cafeterias, classrooms and hallways of the school, straining to hear the service.

Some inside the auditorium wept, including police officers and firefighters who were among the first to reach the disaster.

″Everybody hurts deeply and we need each other now,″ said Elena Stahl, a sixth-grade teacher at Valley Central Elementary School, before the service. ″By being together we will find some solace.″

Vera DiBitetto stroked the blond hair of her 5-year-old son Michael. She said it will be a sad Thanksgiving Day for the community.

″It will be a terrible memory for the families every year about this time,″ she said. ″Maybe it will make us all a little more thankful for what we have right now.″

Several speakers urged mourners to be hopeful in the face of tragedy.

The Rev. Raymond McCracken of the Coldenham Reformed Presbyterian Church said he’d been able to rejoice for the families whose children had been saved as well as weep for the children who died and their families.

″By God’s grace, may be all be able to do that: Rejoice for those who rejoice and weep for those who weep,″ McCracken said.

The seven students, aged 7 or 8, were killed at the East Coldenham Elementary School when the wall of the cafeteria room where they were lunching gave way during a tornado. Eighteen others were injured, two critically.

On Saturday, hundreds of mourners, many of them young children who wept uncontrollably, filled funeral chapels to hear services for two young victims of the tornado, Peter Orsino Jr. and Larae Marie Litchhult, both 8. Five of their classmates will be buried Monday.

More bad luck struck Newburgh on Sunday when a 5-year-old student at the East Coldenham school was critically injured in an automobile accident. A vehicle struck the car she was riding in a few hundred yards from the school.

A car driven by Rosalie Sbordone’s mother was hit by a vehicle driven by Roland Hoehn, 44, of Savannah, Ga. Hoehn was charged with reckless driving and failure to keep right. Rosalie was in critical condition at St. Luke’s Hospital in Newburgh.

A steady stream of parents and children also flocked to the East Coldenham Elementary School Sunday, many carrying flowers, candles and letters to the victims.

″Our Hearts Go Out To Those Who Have Lost,″ read a heart-shaped plaque that leaned against a wooden wall that now serves as the cafeteria wall.

″Please Pray For The Children″ was painted in blue on three panels of that wall.

Flowers adorned the trodden ground outside the cafeteria. Letters were also placed near the now-demolished cafeteria wall encouraging families to be strong.

″Children - The Greatest Gift God Can Give Us,″ read one note.

″God never promised us that we would not have these terrible times in our lives ... that there would not be hurricanes and tornados, earthquakes and floods,″ Bechtel said during the services for Peter Orsino. ″But it is in our sorrow and grief, our anger and our frustration that we need to find a way to help us live our todays and our tomorrows.″

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