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Juda Angels remembered
Betty Hartwig, mother of Linda Hartwig who was one of the Juda students who was killed in 1967, holds the hand of Joann Goecks while looking at her daughter's senior class photo during a 50th anniversary memorial Thursday at Juda High School. Goecks, was the sister-in-law of Sandy Goecks, another student who died when an airplane crashed into a hotel in New Orleans. (Times photos: Marissa Weiher)
JUDA - A rainy spring afternoon derailed the plans Juda Superintendent Traci Davis had to commemorate the lives of nine Juda students who perished in an accident 50 years ago.

Organizers had planned to escort the entire school down to Juda Community Park on Thursday to release balloons and mark the 50th anniversary with a moment of remembrance, but a steady rain fell outside.

So Davis improvised. She and other staff put together a strategy within a small window of time to host all of the students, parents and former classmates in the gymnasium for the event.

As every student in the district from kindergartners to seniors quietly made a circle in the gymnasium, marching with clasped hands, senior class president Riley Adkins addressed the crowd by noting how the deaths of the "Nine Angels" still affect the district. A moment of silence fell over the group. One by one, the name of each student who had died was read aloud as nine senior girls silently walked to the door, each releasing a shiny purple balloon into the darkened sky.

Davis stood in the crowd with tears in her eyes.

"I wish I never had to do it, but it's a part of our Juda history," Davis said. "I'm glad we could do our part in honoring them."

The story of the deaths of nine Juda senior students in 1967, just six weeks before they were set to graduate, is well-known throughout the community. Sheila Babler, Sandra Goecks, Linda Hartwig, Joyce Kaderly, Linda Moe, Janice Siedschlag, Nancy Siegenthaler, Nelva Smith and Doreen Williams were part of a senior class trip, staying at the Hilton Hotel in New Orleans on March 30.

Rita Farris, who taught business education over three years for the district, was the senior class advisor that year. She accompanied the class on the trip. Farris said the day had been long because the students had spent time enjoying the warm weather and swimming in the pool of the hotel. It was nearly 1 a.m. when she put on her slippers, about to make the rounds to collect curfew slips when a Douglas DC-8 on a training flight at the New Orleans International Airport crashed into the hotel.

The girls, who had been in their rooms to adhere to the 1 a.m. curfew, never made it off the floor as fire engulfed the area after the crash. Farris said it was chaotic as complete darkness fell upon the building and no one knew what had happened, but instinct prompted them and other students to get out of the building.

Farris looked upon the ceremony with fondness for the students she remembers from five decades ago.

"I think it's commendable that these young people were here to commemorate those girls," Farris said. "They'll never forget it. I think the fact that people from town were here, part of the staff from the time were up here ... it lets you know they care."

Betty Hartwig, Linda Hartwig's mother, noted that the memorial event was bittersweet and somewhat unbelievable. Now in a wheelchair, she made the trip from Monroe with her son, Gary, who said the purple balloons were a touching piece of the proceedings.

Betty noted that even after so many years have passed, the memories are vivid of the day she found out her daughter had died.

"You can't believe it's real, but it is," Betty said. "You don't forget. You'd think you might, but you never do."