Students in Shoreline, Wash., took an Internet field trip with climber Scott Fischer as he ascended Mount Everest. But the high-fives they shared when he reached the summit vanished when he died on the mountain.
Their computer project became a lesson about life and human tragedy.They celebrated his feat Friday, just before a sudden blizzard killed Fischer and seven other climbers.
As they walked into class Monday morning, all five students approached their teacher, Jim Riley.
"Did you hear that Scott Fischer is lost on the mountain?" they asked. "Mr. Riley, did you hear about Scott Fischer? Is it true?"
Fischer, 40, of Seattle, apparently became lost while descending the 29,028-foot mountain. The father of two, who started climbing in his teens, was found unconscious.
"I felt like I knew the guy even though I didn't. It made me feel really sad," said sixth grader Jamie Vallejo, one of five students at Echo Lake Elementary School near Seattle who tracked the expedition on the Internet. "I was checking it online every day."
All weekend, Riley wondered how he would impart the bad news about Fischer. He worried about how the students would react.
Still, he believes computer field trips are a great way to get students involved in schoolwork.
Ann Flynn, manager of technology programs for the National School Boards Association, said schools should be prepared to offer students counseling to help them cope with troubling issues just as they would if a student, teacher or administrator dies.
Thousands of schoolchildren across the nation were watching television in January 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, she recalled.
"This is all so new, however, my sense in talking to educators is that the advantages outweigh the remote possibility that something could happen," Flynn said. "Bad experiences happen to real kids in real life."
Gary Schumacher, executive producer at TerraQuest, an El Cerrito, Calif.-based producer of Internet travel trips to exotic lands, said ones for schoolchildren should emphasize science and geography and other lessons over adventure and danger.
"I think it's a good thing that schoolchildren can participate because it extends their horizons," Schumacher said. "I think there is inherent danger in all travel. We can't put too many disclaimers on it."
Libby Adams, a computer resource teacher at Troost Communications Academy, a magnet public school in Kansas City, Mo., agreed.
She said her students who also followed the climbers on the In-ter-net had to cope with the tragedy but also learned about the Himalayas, geography, survival skills and aspects of team work and cooperation.
For days, the students tracked the expedition with Sandy Hill Pitt-man, an experienced climber from New York. They were relieved to hear that she survived.
"I felt sad because I know they were really brave to climb a mountain that high," said 9-year-old Alexis Fulwiley, a student at the academy.
She said she knew mountaineering was dangerous but didn't understand that climbers could get stuck on the mountain and freeze to death.
The students sent Pittman an e-mail last month: "Dear Sandy, Are you scared or excited about your climb? How long have you been getting ready to climb up Mount Everest?"
On April 12, Pittman typed an e-mail reply: "Wow! I'm thrilled all of you are able to follow along. . . . For this particular expedition, I started working out seriously about six months ago. Am I scared? Not really. This is my third time up - mostly excited."
On Monday, following the deaths, Adams asked the students if they had heard any news about the climbers. One third-grader said he'd heard about the deaths. But she said the student didn't realize that the victims were with the mountaineers he had been following on the Internet.
"It was very difficult for our kids. Their first question was `How is Sandy?' They were very relieved that she was OK," Adams said. "Now, they're wondering why does anyone do this in the first place?"
Despite the tragedy, Brandy Tyler, 9, said watching Pittman successfully scale the world's tallest mountain taught her a lesson she can make use in her life: "If you believe that you can do it, you can."