Missing pair part of student-exchange group from Hungary

Pastor Scott Widmer, of Marshalltown United Methodist.
Pastor Scott Widmer, of Marshalltown United Methodist.
Posted: July 09, 2010

DORA SCHWENDTNER, 16, Szablcs Prem, 20, and their young friends set out from their centuries-old town in Hungary only last week to visit Philadelphia and the cradle of American liberty.

It appears now that the pair will never get to tell exciting stories to their friends and family back home about their adventures.

They were identified late yesterday by the Coast Guard as the two members of a Hungarian student cultural-exchange program with a West Chester church who were still missing after a Duck boat was struck by a barge on the Delaware River.

The students and two teachers from the Lajos Kossuth High School, in Mosonmagyarovar, near the Hungarian border with Austria, arrived only last Friday for a three-week exchange program with the Marshallton United Methodist Church.

Wednesday afternoon, they toured Philadelphia's historic area aboard an amphibious Ride the Ducks vehicle and then slid into the Delaware River for a view of Philadelphia's skyline. The Ride the Ducks vehicle stalled and was hit by a city-owned barge pushed by a tugboat.

The amphibious vehicle went down in 50 feet of murky water, and 35 tourists and crew were rescued from the river after the collision.

Efforts to bring the Duck boat to the surface, and perhaps find the bodies of the missing young people, were to begin today.

It wasn't until they were taken to the nearby Independence Seaport Museum that the adults among the student group took a head count and realized the awful truth - Schwendtner and Prem were not with them.

Their hosts from the West Chester church, officials of Atlantic Bridge in the Netherlands - the group that arranged the tour - and even police in their hometown in Hungary were mum about the rest of the students' identities.

The Red Cross brought the rescued Hungarians to the West Chester church late Wednesday. Church members opened their arms to comfort the students and help them make contact with their families back in Hungary. Most had lost their passports, wallets and credit cards in the accident.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Scott Widmer, said yesterday that when the students got back to the church, "They were all in shock. They watched what was recorded on the news and shared their stories, and they would go through waves of grief."

"There was one group. There wasn't a group of youth from America and youth from Hungary," he said. "There was one group, walking, praying, hugging each other through this ordeal."

The students were kept out of the public eye, and yesterday the husband of church youth leader Jackie Kennedy said they would have no comment.

A prayer service was held at the church in support of the missing youngsters last night.

The West Chester church sent its own youth group to Hungary in 2006, and a previous group of Hungarian youngsters visited here in 2007.

The current group was originally scheduled to return home July 23, but it isn't known now when they will go back.

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