About 400 mourners filled a Los Angeles church auditorium to standing-room-only yesterday evening, praying and paying tribute to two Chinese teenagers they had never met.
Two white wreaths adorned a platform at West Valley Christian Church, holding the names of the 16-year-old students, Ye Meng Yuan and Wang Lin Jia, who died in the July 6 Asiana Airlines Inc. plane crash in San Francisco. Pictures of the two girls, close friends who attended the same high school, were shown on big screens. A nearby red wreath, symbolizing the nation of China, said, “Our Love.”
The sweet, sad sounds of “Amazing Grace,” sung in Mandarin by 10 Chinese members of a nearby church, drifted over the assembly, held about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of downtown. The crowd included worshipers, members of the public and media. Attendees signed posters with messages of support for the victims’ families.
“In the blink of an eye, everything changes,” Eliu Elisara, chairman of the church, said at the event, his voice cracking. “We do what we always do. We pray.”
Americans identify with the Chinese parents who were striving to give their children opportunities, Elisara said.
The girls were members of a group of 35 Chinese students scheduled to begin a three-week summer camp to be held on the premises of West Valley Christian, which houses both a church and a school. They were the only fatalities among 307 passengers and crew on Asiana Flight 214, a Boeing Co. 777 that crash landed at San Francisco International Airport. One may have been killed by a rescue vehicle, said Mindy Talmadge, a San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman.
The girls attended the same high school in Zhejiang province, according to the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets, which cited the Beijing Morning Post. Wang was an outgoing student leader who, authorities said, may have been run over during the rescue. Ye was described as an outstanding student who played piano and competed in aerobics.
Summer camp abroad has grown in popularity for Chinese students as parents with means look for ways to expose their children to other cultures. One of the girls liked Latin dancing and the other played ping pong, Elisara said.
“The more we find out about these two girls, the more we feel like they lived down the street,” Elisara said. “I never even met them but I feel like they were two of our own.”
The church rents its facilities to groups such as the one the girls belonged to, school administrator Derek Swales said in an interview. This group hired its own teachers for the planned summer camp and selected families to stay with, he said.
“They were primarily here for the academics,” Swales said. “They show up on Monday. In the morning they have two classes, language arts and math. In the afternoon, they go sightseeing.”
After the plane crash, the group decided to cancel the summer session, Swales said. As a result, no one in the church or school met any of the members of the Chinese delegation, which was arranged by an agent. He said before the vigil that he didn’t expect anyone associated with the group to attend.
Members of the church and school community wanted to demonstrate their sorrow and offer support for the Chinese families, according to Swale. Empty classroom chairs represented the missing students.
“I was going to greet them when they came in,” said Tuesday Bowen, 14, who just finished eighth grade at West Valley Christian School. “My mom told me about the plane crash.”
The purpose of the trip was to “broaden students’ views of life, let them personally experience a different culture, customs and habits, and to learn authentic American spoken English,” according to a statement from the Chinese delegation provided to West Valley Christian.
The students were to stay with host families who had been vetted by advance scouts to make sure they were acceptable. The requirements included not having large dogs.
On weekends, such groups usually traveled to San Diego or to Silicon Valley where they would visit the headquarters of companies including Google Inc. and Intel Corp., Swales said.
West Valley Christian Church is a non-denominational church with a school providing education from pre-school to eighth grade. During the vigil, Swales discussed the effect of losing children, including when his 10-year-old niece, Jennie, died.
Some of the host families were in attendance at the memorial, Swales said. The school is hosting a fundraiser for the victims. A video of the ceremony will be given to the girls’ parents, Swales said.
“We wanted them to know we care for their children when they are in our homes,” Swales told reporters after the service.