On Jan. 8, Paul Stidham and Mark Congdon, both Howard County transplants, were aboard a plane to South Carolina on a routine business trip.

Stidham, a 46-year-old new employee of Columbia-based chemicals firm W.R. Grace & Co., and two of his colleagues, Joseph M. Spiak, 46, and Richard Lyons, 56, of Massachusetts, were en route to check the safety of a mining plant in Enoree, S.C. On the same plane, Congdon, 38, chief information officer for Columbia food distribution firm U.S. Foodservice, was heading to Greenville, S.C., to meet with members of his staff.

But the commuter plane crashed shortly after takeoff in Charlotte, killing all 21 passengers aboard US Express Flight 5481. Back in Howard, the relatives and friends of Stidham and Congdon were bonded by grief.

This week, W.R. Grace contributed $10,000 to a scholarship fund created for Stidham's two daughters, ages 6 and 12, and another $10,000 went toward a scholarship fund for Spiak's children, said William Corcoran, Grace's vice president of public and regulatory affairs. The company also established a memorial fund with $10,000 for Lyons to benefit charities picked by his family. It also has agreed to match employee contributions to all three funds.

U.S. Foodservice has set up an educational trust fund with an undisclosed amount for Congdon's four children, ages 4 to 12.

Today, W.R. Grace employees plan to attend Stidham's funeral service in Hopewell, Va., Corcoran said. The company hired Stidham in July as its environmental health and safety director. He was a native of the Richmond area who worked for a chemicals company outside Philadelphia before moving to Maryland. Just before Christmas, Stidham, his wife, Dora, and their daughters moved into a new house in Dayton in western Howard. In the beginning months of his new job, Stidham had flown to plants across the United States and in Asia.

He was a "very conscientious, very family-oriented and quiet" man who displayed photos of his family in his Columbia office and talked about wanting to improve his golf game, Corcoran said. He had made new friends at the company.

"He was the kind of person that when he went out, you were proud he was representing Grace," said Corcoran, whose office was near Stidham's, allowing him to see him two to three times a day. "It's a huge hole."

Since learning of their colleagues' deaths, W.R. Grace employees have been offered on-site counseling through the company's employee-assistance program. Employees at Grace and members of the family's church, St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville, took food to the Stidham family. County school officials also sent a team of crisis intervention counselors to comfort the classmates and friends of Stidham's children who attend Triadelphia Ridge Elementary and Glenwood Middle schools, said school system spokeswoman Patti Caplan. In a memorial to Stidham, contributions have been collected at Triadelphia Ridge for the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Mark Congdon, a native of the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda in New York, and his family had recently moved to Howard to live in the Glenwood area. Congdon had been working in a managerial job for Kmart Corp. in Michigan when he was hired last fall as U.S. Foodservice's public information officer. He was responsible for managing the company's technology information systems and had traveled about every month to visit his employees in offices across the country, said Mark Kaiser, U.S. Foodservice's chief marketing officer. The company is providing counseling to his staffers and other workers, Kaiser said.

"He was a consummate professional and very engaging," Kaiser said. "We were fortunate that our grief was limited to one [person], but it was very deep grief."

W.R. Grace is accepting donations for its employees' scholarship/memorial funds at W.R. Grace & Co. c/o William Corcoran, 7500 Grace Dr., Columbia, Md. 21044. U.S. Foodservice is also accepting contributions for an educational fund at U.S. Foodservice, c/o David Abramson, 9755 Patuxent Woods Dr., Columbia 21046.