Sunday, July 21, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
MY heart and prayers go out to the families of those who died in the crash of TWA Flight 800.
No words can adequately express the shock, grief and sense of loss.
Although I did not know anyone on the flight, I had an eerie feeling when I learned about the students aboard the plane -- especially those from the Montoursville, Pa., high school who were on a French club trip to Paris.
One month ago, I boarded a TWA 747 in St. Louis for a flight to London and Paris with a group of Cimarron-Memorial High School French and history students, teachers and parents on an EF educational tour.
There was a large school EF group from another state also on the plane.
The kids were excited. For most, it was their first trip out of the country. For a few, it was their first long flight. For all, it was the beginning of an exciting adventure.
The plane was packed; there must have been more than 400 passengers. There was a lot of commotion during the boarding process because friends and families didn't have seats together, and they bargained and pleaded with passengers to change seat assignments. I was one of them.
I'm not the most comfortable flier. (Thank heaven for Dramamine.) I relax a bit when the plane reaches its cruising altitude. A friend told me that you really only have to fear takeoffs and landings.
I still get nervous during turbulence, wondering if the shaking and bumping are normal or a malfunction.
Our journey began with a three-hour delay at McCarran International Airport. We were told there was a malfunction with the plane. Although TWA said it didn't take long to replace the part, they needed to wait for a representative of the Federal Aviation Administration to check it out "to see if what we did was OK." The plane, a spokesman said, could not take off until the FAA representative (who was being flown in to Las Vegas) gave his OK.
An FAA spokesman has to inspect the repair job to make sure it was done properly?
Holy Mary Mother of God ... bring in another plane.
I cornered a steward.
"How can we be sure that what was fixed is really fixed and something won't come loose?" I asked.
"We wouldn't fly an unsafe plane," he replied, trying to reassure me.
He left the gate area to attend to a chore, and when he returned, I asked him again if everything would be all right.
"Do I look like I have a death wish?" he asked, smiling. "If I thought it was unsafe, I wouldn't get on it myself."
As I was getting off the plane in St. Louis -- where we changed planes for London -- he smiled at me. "See, I told you everything would be all right."
A few people grumbled about the delay, saying TWA's "never on time."
Hey, any time a plane lands safely, it's "on time."
As the 747 taxied on the St. Louis runway, awaiting takeoff to London, I thought about Lockerbie and the doomed Pan Am flight.
I felt a sense of dread.
Maybe it was the destination. Maybe it was a sign of anxious times. Maybe I worry too much.
I looked around at the passengers, many of them teenagers and younger. There were several families on board -- some with three and four children.
I listened to our kids talking about what they were going to do first when they arrived in London. I watched a mother get her two young daughters settled in their seats, smiling over at her husband and son seated on the other side of the aisle. I chuckled as two girls hatched a scheme to become friendly with the cool-looking dude sitting next to them.
It was horrifying to think all this life could be destroyed in the blink of an eye.
The 747 revved its engines and we were ready for takeoff.
My fear subsided into a resignation of sorts.
If "it" happens, "it" happens, I thought. There was nothing I could do now. It was out of my hands. I was worrying too much.
My experience and feelings in no way compare to those of the families of Flight 800's passengers. I share this only because I remember the faces of the Cimarron kids and those in the other EF group -- their anticipation, laughter and excitement.
I wonder if Flight 800's passengers, especially the Montoursville students from my home state, felt the same sensations.
Somehow, they have become more than faceless names on a death roster.
As of this writing, a cause of the crash has not been confirmed, even though speculation mounts with each hour.
Officials -- from the president on down -- cautioned us not to jump to conclusions about terrorism. Funny, but if we exercised as much caution with regard to security measures and airplane safety, maybe this human tragedy wouldn't have happened.
SANDRA THOMPSON is managing editor of the Las Vegas SUN.