Remembering the John Heinz Tragedy, Twenty-Five Years Later

On April 4, 1991, a freak midair collision above Merion Elementary School killed seven, including two schoolchildren and a Pennsylvania senator. For some, the wounds may never heal.

The grim scene outside Merion Elementary School the day of the crash//Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

For the past 20 years on Thanksgiving weekend, Nancy and Russ Henkin have hosted brunch for Todd and his longtime school friends. “When they scattered to college, we thought we could be a meeting place,” says Russ. “I’m the family cook, and I made a deal with Todd that, if he could get them together, the boys could dictate a menu.”

It’s a raucous, diverse group. One owns a pretzel factory, another is a dean at Princeton University. There’s a lawyer, an environmentalist—Todd is a musician and an English-literacy teacher. They debate a gamut of topics. No subject—or opinion—is off-limits. 

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But there’s never been a single mention of the crash. 

Six of them first met at Merion Elementary School, where a tragic midair collision took seven lives 25 years ago this April 4, killing two first-grade girls, four pilots, and Sen. John Heinz, a Pennsylvania Republican who may have gone on to become governor or even president. A second-grade boy survived, despite burns over 80 percent of his body.

“It’s not the elephant in the room, but … not a word,” Russ says of the crash. 

“Maybe because many of them now have children of their own,” adds Nancy.

In truth, it’s a miracle the disaster wasn’t worse.

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Now 34, Todd was in third grade at the time. Today, he’s living in Nashville, Tenn. His parents still live a block from the school—so close that a wheel from one of the aircraft that was involved in the collision landed on their front lawn. 

“It never comes up,” says Todd. “With the crash, there’s no room for debate. It’s there, and it ties us together—so much so that you don’t have to talk about it. But if any of us say Austin’s name, it’s really there.”

Austin Freundlich was the older brother of Lauren Nicole Freundlich, the first-grader who died with Rachel Tillie Blum during recess. Inside the school’s auditorium at the time, the fourth grade was practicing My Country, ’ Tis of Thee. In the chaos, Austin couldn’t find his sister, who was on a school list of missing people. Todd did his best to comfort him. “As a friend, I kept telling him I was sure she was going to be OK,” he says now. “As a kid, you don’t have a lot of tools. Then, I remember how bad I felt after. I told him that I was 100-percent sure that his sister was OK. It was like I lied to him.”

In the wake of the accident, Austin left the school. “I felt guilty. My friend was gone, and the last thing I told him wasn’t true,” Todd says. “When we reconnected, we didn’t talk about it. He dealt with it in his own way. I have no idea how often he thinks about it. Not everyone has it as a raw wound. I do because of how I dealt with it at the time. It was one of my first lessons in compassion and consoling a friend. I don’t think [my wound] will ever close.”

His mother concurs. “It’s haunted him for a while.”

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Family members of the deceased either didn’t return our calls or politely requested privacy and declined interviews. On behalf of her son, Rebecca Rutenberg knew the 25th-anniversary calls would start coming. David was the Wynnewood boy whose life was saved by school personnel and the Crozer-Chester Medical Center Burn Treatment Center. She has honored her son’s wishes to withhold comments—other than this: “No one could have stopped this from happening. It was an act of God.”

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

There are lasting images—intermingled with lesser-known facts—from the aftermath of the air collision between the two-engine Piper Aerostar carrying Sen. Heinz and the Sun Co. helicopter that had just dropped off executives at Philadelphia International Airport and was returning to the corporate site in Radnor.

A scarf was found in a burning oak tree. A stroller engulfed in flames was empty, thanks to a female passerby who saved a toddler by scaling a cyclone fence. David Rutenberg’s footprints were seared into the carpet inside the school where he had run for help.

Heinz could be identified only by his American Express card and a piece of his watch’s wristband. A medevac scattered the senator’s personal papers all over Merion Elementary’s front lawn.

“The burn smell was awful,” recalls Lita Cohen, a former five-term Pennsylvania House of Representatives member and two-term Lower Merion Township commissioner. 

Cohen was shopping at Ardmore’s Suburban Square when news of the tragedy broke. “For the next six months, I smelled burn, but [the school] didn’t smell,” she says. “It was my brain smelling it—not my nose.”

Interestingly, there was a little-known small-plane crash in 1936 on the same property where the school was built—this, according to Joe Daly, the police chief in Lower Merion from 1994 to 2009. Now chief in Springfield, he was a captain back then and the accident’s incident commander. Soon after, the community called for a change in regulations—or at least a moratorium on aircraft performing emergency procedures over populated areas. 

Cohen recalls the U.S. Army operation out of Fort Dix, N.J., that was caught filming a commercial with aircraft near Merion Elementary shortly after the accident. Complaints followed. An informal ban on flights in Lower Merion during school hours lasted for a while. Even the media agreed not to fly traffic or news helicopters above the school. 

“Over the next two years in Little League, if anyone heard the sound of a plane or helicopter, everything stopped,” recalls Todd Henkin’s dad.

It was that very sound, however, that alerted 100 or more first- and second-graders at recess that day. Vietnamese school volunteer Tho Oldham helped herd children as the helicopter landed 10 feet from a first-floor classroom. Had the crash occurred 15 minutes later, hundreds more children might have been in the schoolyard. “She heard the sound of the helicopter and plane, and it made her think of Vietnam,” Cohen recalls. “She blew [her playground] whistle and gathered the kids up on the hill by Rockland Avenue. It was muscle memory of the sound of a low-flying helicopter.”

Had she not done that, says Daly, “our ground losses would’ve been more than two. It was fortunate the helicopter missed the school roof; it cleared it by inches. If it had struck the roof over all those children, with all that gas, we would’ve had a catastrophe.”

Other school personnel were heroes, too. Custodian John Fowler—who is still employed by the district—and reading specialist Ivy Weeks suffered burns and injuries as they tried to help Rutenberg out of his fuel-permeated jacket, a death suit. “The only image that’s going through my mind is of this boy on fire, lying on his back, looking at me,” Fowler told People magazine at the time. “If I could will him to live, he would live.”

His survival may have been another act of God.

Two benches at the school are among the memorials to the young victims.

Sen. John Heinz was a 52-year-old moderate Republican who’d enjoyed a secure grip on his seat since 1976. Part of the H.J. Heinz Company family in Pittsburgh, he was on his way to a meeting with the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer that afternoon. Later, he was to appear at a town meeting in Media.

Known for his attention to detail, Heinz was himself a pilot, though he was licensed to fly only single-engine planes. Reportedly, he was leery of the inexperience of hired pilots Richard Shreck and Trond Stegen that day. “It was almost a premonition,” says Daly. 

Heinz grew increasingly concerned with a cockpit light that suggested a problem with the aircraft’s landing gear. The Sun helicopter was summoned to do a flyby to assess the situation. Despite air-traffic commands and crowded airspace, the plane’s wings intersected with the rotor blades of the helicopter, a bulk of which fell behind the school, torching everything in sight. Heinz’s plane disintegrated in front of the building. 

No one could have stopped this from happening. It was an act of God.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the tragedy on “appallingly poor judgment” by both crews. Stegen, 31, was buried in Norway. Shreck was buried in Lewisburg, Pa., on what would’ve been his 31st birthday.

“I never felt anything for the people in the helicopter or plane,” Todd Henkin says. “Maybe I blamed them at the time for doing something so stupid over our elementary school. Because of this rich politician guy, we lost friends. The whole thing was wrong—just stupid.”

John Ellis is the senior director of communications for Heinz Endowments, the family foundation in Pittsburgh that awards over $75 million in grants annually. He says the anniversary of the senator’s death will be memorialized privately. His legacy, however, is celebrated daily.

“That crash changed the history of this country,” says attorney Jim Mundy, who represented the widows of the Sun pilots and whose now-deceased mother—a lifelong Democrat—was planning to see Heinz speak at the Granite Run Mall the night of the accident. “I’m absolutely sure that we lost a future president.”

A Center City personal injury litigator for 40 years who now practices in Scranton, Mundy was able to get the wives of the Sun pilots a split of a $5 million settlement. He hasn’t been in touch with the widows since, figuring they’ve desired to move on. “Everyone wants this door to be closed,” says Mundy. “When it opens, there’s nothing but pain.” 

More than a dozen lawsuits followed the crash. Most were settled out of court. Rutenberg’s lawyer was his uncle, Marvin Lessin, who died three years after the accident. Mundy says that widow Teresa Heinz—now married to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry—didn’t want her claim pursued until all others were resolved.

A Permanent exhibit honors another life cut short at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.

Today, behind Merion Elementary, on the Rockland Avenue side of the two-time National Blue Ribbon School, a memorial garden contains a Crimson King maple, a weeping cherry, and two benches with plaques. Classes plant bulbs at the site, which is where the two first-grade girls died. 

Out front, seven memorial trees stand in honor of all the crash victims. “Every year, spring break hits, and someone leaves a bouquet of flowers [in the garden], but no notes,” says Anne Heffron, now in her 20th year as principal.

The school library is named after Heffron’s predecessor, Marvin Gold, another hero from that day, who retired in 1996 and has since passed away. Investment income from the Lauren N. Freundlich Memorial has gone to help 13 students. Rachel Tillie Blum’s parents set up a book fund that’s still active to this day. Initially, her 30 favorite books—Charlotte’s Web, Days with Frog and Toad, and The Boxcar Children among them—were ordered.

For the first few years, Rachel’s mother visited Daly on the April 4 anniversary. “It helped her in some way,” he says. “I had two tours in Vietnam, so I’ve witnessed carnage—but the children bother you. You always carry them with you; you don’t forget them.”

At press time, no memorial was planned for the 25th anniversary. “We want to honor people, but we don’t want to dredge up something that the kids have no connection to,” says Heffron. “You try to protect 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds to the greatest extent that you can, but maybe there’s something we can do that’s developmentally appropriate.”

Not long after the crash, children would be writing, a pencil point would snap, and tears would come. Kids drew pictures of helicopters and war. At first, some resisted going outside for recess or lunch. “They asked us to talk about it and write about it, but all I could focus on was Austin,” recalls former student Todd Henkin. “I also think about an assembly we had when we were shown pictures of what happened to David Rutenberg before he came back to school. They wanted to prepare us for what he’d gone through and what he looked like. He was basically lit on fire. They showed us a video of him playing video games, so we’d think, ‘Oh, he’s still a kid, doing normal kid things, and not a freak.’”

The day he returned, his mother, Rebecca, reportedly told him to lie down on the car seat out of the view of cameras. She took David in through a side entrance. There was a party for him in the classroom of teacher David Katz. Wearing a bodysuit and a clear face mask to keep his skin flat, Rutenberg was a curiosity. A winter later, he’d already had his 11th operation. He tried learning to write with his left hand, after losing two fingers on his right. “It was a long haul for David, and so fulfilling to see him graduate,” says Bob Schultz, still the grounds foreman in the operations department of the Lower Merion School District. 

Schultz coordinated the massive cleanup effort the weekend after the tragedy, which allowed the school to reopen by Tuesday. With funding help from Sun Co., the district removed and replaced fuel-contaminated topsoil, resodded 6,000-8,000 square feet of turf, planted flowers, spread mulch, removed scorched trees, and fixed curbing and sidewalks. Inside, carpets were replaced. Later, the emergency-evacuation plan was redeveloped and became a model for other districts. “We literally erased all the physical scars,” Schultz says.

Schultz still has a folder with articles about the accident, along with invoices—one for a mint-scented odor-control chemical typically used for paint fumes. That weekend, it was mixed with mulch to efface the pungent smell of engine fuel. “From an operational standpoint, it was very therapeutic to contribute when there was nothing else we could do,” he says. “School continued, and to see buses roll in was a powerful message that there was a strong community inside the school that had come together and rallied.” 

Arriving home just after the accident, Schultz hugged his kids and cried. It became one of the more memorable events that helped grow his relationship with his two girls, who are now in their 30s. “There were still some people saying, ‘You can’t hide what happened,’” Schultz recalls. “That’s true, but our position was to welcome the kids back.”

Even now, low-flying aircraft make former Lower Merion Commissioner Lita Cohen’s stomach turn. “It brings back all those memories,” she says. “No one will forget—and we shouldn’t. In my mind’s eye, I still see the sheets covering those two little bodies. Over and over, I heard the comment that we send our children to school to be safe—and they weren’t safe. But what was so telling was the professionalism of everyone. It was an extraordinary tribute to people.” 

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