The stark horror of TWA Flight 800 was revealed in two simple words on the arrivals board - Annule, Cancelled.
Confusion then uncontrollable grief gripped relatives gathered at Paris's main airport to meet their loved ones as they were told the jet had crashed.
Among the victims were 16 bright American high school students on their first visit to France.
The pals had all been eagerly looking forward to their week-long trip to Paris to absorb the culture and brush up on their language skills. But they never got to see the beautiful city.
The snuffing out of their young lives, along with five adults accompanying them, brought home to a grieving America the utter waste of the disaster.
Dan Chandler, principal of the pupils' Montoursville High School in Pennsylvania, said yesterday: "It is going to take us quite a while to recover from this.
"They were all very bright students and this trip was going to make the French language and culture come alive for them. We are deeply saddened, utterly devastated."
School superintendent David Black called their deaths a "monumental tragedy" that ripped through the local community.
As stunned students gathered outside the school, Ryan Kane, 20, slowly paced up and down with a friend. He said his girlfriend, Jessica Aikey, 17, was among the pupils aboard the plane.
"She was really excited, she talked about it for months,'' Kane said, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Her last words to him? "She told me she loved me,'' he said.
Lisa Williams, 15, who knew many of the pupils who died, said: "This is a little community. When someone is killed it affects everybody.
"``We're a lot of good people here and I didn't think that we deserved it - no one does. Just knowing I'll never see them again is going to be the hardest part.''
And Heather Scarborough, 16, said one of her friends had voiced her fear of flying shortly before leaving.
Heather said: "Her last words were: 'I don't even want to go anymore, I'm too scared.' She called another one of the kids that was going and she said 'Will you sit by me, because I'm too scared. I don't want to be by myself.'"
The pupils, aged from 15 to 18, had left their school in a motorcade of cars several hours before the flight for the 120-mile journey to JFK Airport.
When the news began breaking on TV late on Wednesday night the town of 5,200 people had its collective heart torn out.
Candles were lit in windows at midnight and flowers began arriving at the high school - wreaths to express the sadness that has consumed not just Montoursville, but the entire United States.
"We have clergy here," said Mr Black, "and counsellors to help people deal with the grief and uncertainty.
"The community is very much devastated by this tragedy. Most of the students know each other."
The school organised a crisis centre overnight that was attended by family and friends of victims, and staffed by trained counsellors.
The five chaperones who were accompanying the pupils were a French teacher and her husband, a school secretary, a student's parent and a friend of one of the chaperones.
Father Stephen McGough, who comforted the families of the youngsters, said: "This is a small community where the school plays an integral part.
"We have lost our most precious things on this earth - the innocent children. They have been taken from us and the grief in …