As soon as I climbed into the van that sunny day in El Salvador last month, I knew they were from Ohio.

They had that same cheerful, well-scrubbed look of the women I see driving tractors or shopping in Kroger's when I visit my parents in southwestern Ohio.

Jean Donovan, 27, with her close-cropped blond hair looked like a member of the high school band.

Dorothy Kazel, 41, behind the wheel of the van, didn't look much older. She could have been a home economics teacher in my high school in suburban Cleveland.

Jean chuckled when I asked if they were from the Midwest and confirmed that Ohio was their home. Dorothy was an Ursuline nun and Jean a lay worker, both assigned to El Salvador by the archdiocese of Cleveland.

Yesterday morning Charles Kuralt looked out of my TV set and informed me that Jean, Dorothy and two other North American women had "disappeared" in El Salvador. Their crime apparently was that they were Catholic activists working with El Salvador's poor.

Later it was learned that the bodies of the two were discovered after they had been shot.

A friend in Washington said Jean and Dorothy had driven Tuesday night to the airport, about an hour from San Salvador, the country's capital, to pick up two Maryknoll sisters arriving from a meeting in Nicaragua. The Maryknolls, Ita Ford, 40, and Maura Clarke, 49, were based in Chalatenango, an area in northern El Salvador where the fighting between leftist guerrillas and government forces has been particulary heavy.

News reports say the burned-out van was found beside the road the next day.

The day Jean and Dorothy gave me a ride, we didn't have much time to delve into the question of why two young women from Cleveland were risking their lives in El Salvador, where thousands of people have been killed in political violence this year.

They knew that working with the poor as Catholic missionaries was considered subversive by the right-wing terrorists and their allies in the armed forces who are believed to have killed hundreds of men, women and children suspected of sympathizing with the left.

The two women even joked about the danger, saying they knew they weren't popular among "certain groups" in the country.

They said they had been doing community work in La Union, in the eastern part of El Salvador, but because of the persecution of Catholic community groups they had to suspend most of their pastoral activity.

"We're in transportation now," said Jean, explaining that much of their time was spent driving refugees from war-torn regions to church refuges like the one at the archdiocese office in San Salvador where they had picked me up.

Their homey, Midwestern accents were a refreshing change after interviewing defeated, weary Salvadoran women who told of seeing their husbands and children killed by government troops. Somehow it seemed safe in the van, even though Jean and Dorothy talked about threats they and the priests they worked with had received.

I called Sister Bartholomew, general superior of the Ursuline order in Cleveland, to ask the question I hadn't had time to ask Dorothy and Jean. Why did they stay to work in such a dangerous situation?

"They felt they were serving the people," Sister Bartholomew said, "bringing gospel values to people in turmoil and suffering. They loved the people."