Hungarian students, minus two, return home to safety

Mayor Szabo Miklos of Mosonmagyarovar, Hungary, holds the suitcases of the two drowned students in Vienna, Austria.
Mayor Szabo Miklos of Mosonmagyarovar, Hungary, holds the suitcases of the two drowned students in Vienna, Austria.
Posted: July 15, 2010

MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary - They came from the safest of places.

The 13 students who left for America on July 1 to widen their world and perfect their English grew up in a small town where teenagers compete in etiquette contests and where there is no fear of being mugged at 2 a.m. on the neat residential streets of ochre-walled houses with terra-cotta roofs.

It is a place where pastry shops serve sublime apple strudel and afternoon coffee that is thick and strong, where summer-idled boys ride rusty bicycles, and bankers walk to work, and mothers push strollers.

Late Tuesday, 11 of the students returned home, shattered. Two of their friends had drowned when the sightseeing vessel that was taking them along the Delaware River in Philadelphia was hit by a barge, capsized, and sank.

The group, accompanied by the two exhausted teachers who had chaperoned, arrived shortly before 10 p.m. at Vienna International Airport, where they were met by their families, their principal, the Hungarian consul in Vienna and his wife, and Mosonmagyarovar Mayor Szabo Miklos.

When asked to recall the last tragedy that beset the community, Miklos had to think back decades.

"It was Oct. 26, 1956," he said, then told the story of how, at the start of the Hungarian revolution, Red Army troops gunned down a crowd of peaceful protesters in the cobblestone streets.

Last year, true, a woman had been killed when she rode her bicycle across a road and was hit by a young man speeding through town on a motorcycle. And there have been a few murders and countless instances of personal calamity.

In a town of 32,000 people, a 54-year unbroken record of peace and happiness is simply not possible. Still, Miklos said, life in Mosonmagyarovar is very, very good.

"This is a nice town," said Andras Miholics, 31, who grew up across the street from Lajos Kossuth Secondary School. "It's clean and silent and safe."

From his patio, he could see the steps of the school, an altar now, covered with red-glass votive jars, puddles of melted wax, and dried flower bouquets.

Three nights before, about 100 people had gathered there for a memorial ceremony. Among them were the parents of the students who survived.

The parents of the two students who died in Philadelphia, Szabolcs Prem and Dora Schwendtner, were too overcome to attend, said Miklos.

On the day of the accident, the mayor, a fit 52-year-old with sharp blue eyes and thick, graying hair parted in the middle, was vacationing with his family at a rented house on Lake Balaton.

He'd turned off his cell phone and didn't check his messages until after dinner. The town's communications director had called to say, "There's been a terrible accident."

One of his friends had a daughter on the trip, Miklos said, but Mosonmagyarovar is such a small community that it felt as if all the children were family. Since the students' cell phones had been lost in the river, everyone had to rely on the Internet for updates - a frustrating, whisper-down-the-lane process.

The entire town felt powerless, waiting for news.

"The host families gave the children a phone line, but it was always busy," said Karoly Hansagi, the students' high school principal, speaking through an interpreter who teaches English in the school. "Here in Hungary, we felt helpless. You can't do anything, and you can't explain why it happened."

The Kossuth School, with 750 students ages 13 to 20, has a special five-year bilingual program open to those who pass a competitive exam. About 40 are admitted each year, Hansagi said, and half the students on the trip to Philadelphia were in the program.

The school is particularly proud of its foreign-exchange programs, Hansagi said. Under socialist rule, students were limited to studying Russian and German. Since the 1990s, though, they have been able to choose from a wide range of languages. Exchanges have been organized with students in France, England, Germany, Spain, Croatia, and, in 2007, the United States.

"The main purpose of the exchange was to build bridges, break down walls," said Hansagi, a kind but serious man.

In March, he said, a group of American students spent several weeks in town, living with families, attending classes, and giving school presentations about their culture.

Although the Mosonmagyarovar students were traveling during summer vacation, they, too, were expected to teach their hosts about their country.

Their town, known for its thermal baths, dates to the Roman empire. A carved wooden spike marks the line where 70 years ago the village of Moson merged with Magyarovar. Along the small river winding along the town's edge, people canoe and kayak, fish and picnic.

"This town has nothing but dentists and hairdressers," said Anna Kovarczi, a 25-year-old bookkeeper and accountant. "The shops here are too expensive for us. They're really for the Austrian tourists."

Dentistry in most of Europe is expensive relative to Hungary, and Mosonmagyarovar has developed a thriving dental industry. Patients from France, Italy, Germany, and Austria fill the hotels, waiting for appointments with more than 200 dentists who practice in town.

For generations, the borders were closed to just about everywhere. Now, said Hansagi, students are eager to venture out.

Or they were.

"We organize all kinds of groups with the main goal of opening students to new experiences," he said. "You can never see in advance what will happen - what could happen. If you could, you would never organize anything."

He is grateful to Philadelphia, he said, for all the help and care. And he understands, he said, that accidents can happen anywhere.

But he worries, he can't help it, about his own two children's safety, and the long-term effects of a loss like this.

"Whenever people travel in their subconscious mind, they will take this experience with them. . . . Not only the parents but the students and teachers will feel the same emptiness. Wanting Dora and Szabolcs back. Wanting the impossible."

Tuesday evening, the mayor picked him up in a minivan, and they drove 45 minutes to the Vienna airport.

A few Hungarian reporters and several television cameramen had spent the entire day there.

Students' parents, who have assiduously refused to talk to reporters, formed a circle and talked animatedly. One mother held a flower bouquet with a teddy bear clutching the lacy rim. At 9:40, two green neon lights flashed, signaling that the flight had arrived early. The parents pressed toward the silver doors, rising on tiptoe whenever a passenger exited, trying to see if their sons and daughters were in view at the baggage claim.

At 10 p.m., the Mosonmagyarovar families surged. A mother cried out and pushed past the barrier to envelop her daughter in a desperate hug.

Within five minutes, they'd all collected each other and slipped away. The two teachers accepted kisses on the cheek from the principal and the mayor, then somberly handed over two enormous rolling suitcases.

Dora's was the blue one, Szabolcs's the black.

In silence, the two men pulled the bags behind them into the parking garage, wedged them into the trunk of the minivan, and drove back home.

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 717-350-2440 or