Pain never fades for TWA Flight 800 families

Anniversary of crash, new film rekindle sad memories

Monty Siekerman of Ada, Ohio, is the father of Amy Miller, one of 230 who died in 1996 when TWA Flight 800 to Paris exploded shortly after takeoff in New York.
Monty Siekerman of Ada, Ohio, is the father of Amy Miller, one of 230 who died in 1996 when TWA Flight 800 to Paris exploded shortly after takeoff in New York.

ADA, Ohio — Clairmont “Monty” Siekerman’s voice cracks as he leans back in a creaky rocking chair on the porch of his one-room cedar cabin on the outskirts of this northwest Ohio college town.

He’s trying to explain the range of emotions he’s had in the 17 years since one of his daughters, Amy Miller, perished in the crash of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996, shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Amy and her husband, Kyle Miller, were among 230 people who died on that flight, which was headed to Paris. The couple, celebrating their fifth anniversary, was hoping to start a family in Paris.

Mr. Siekerman’s daughter studied French at Wheaton College in Illinois. She was on track for a bright future, a likeable woman, one of the youngest promoted to vice president of the bank where she worked.

She and her husband lived in Tamaqua, Pa., population 7,100, in the coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Millers own a local hardware store. She left her job at the bank to help them run the business and, at age 29, was elected to the local school board, shortly before the crash.

Mr. Siekerman, who was Ohio Northern University’s public relations director from 1967 to 1973 and again from 1985 to 1997, is a man with much experience talking to the media.

One might think that now, nearly two decades after the crash, words would roll off his lips.

They don’t.

He confessed to being a little uncomfortable talking about how he’s managed to hold his life together.

“You really don’t know how difficult it is to lose a child until you lose one,” Mr. Siekerman, 73, said as he looked into the distance from the rocking chair.

Efforts under way to reopen the investigation into the crash aren’t greeted with joy.

They evoke “sadness and tearfulness because it brings back some pretty strong memories,” Mr. Siekerman said during a telephone interview a day earlier. He repeated the sentiment in person.

Not all relatives of those 230 people who died on TWA Flight 800 are as forgiving as Mr. Siekerman.

Though he was a party to litigation in the aftermath of the crash, Mr. Siekerman said he has come to accept the government’s explanation — after four years of investigation — that the crash was caused by a center fuel tank explosion, most likely the result of a spark from a short-circuit in the wiring.

He said he wants nothing to do with theories that a missile might have shot down the plane.

Those are the centerpiece of a film to be released July 17, the crash anniversary.

Two retired National Transportation Safety Board investigators, Hank Hughes and Bob Young, are among those calling for the case to be reopened, based on alleged new evidence.

“Whatever will be, will be,” Mr. Siekerman said. “I won’t be a party to it.”

He said he has no intention of watching the film or reading books about the tragedy.

“So much of this is motivated by money,” he said.

The cabin where Mr. Siekerman agreed to be interviewed is in a 5.5-acre community park called Cedar Cove.

He and his late wife, Carole, purchased the land in 2001 and opened it as a park in 2002, five years after Amy’s death.

It has been their getaway for quiet reflection. He said they needed it.

“In the back of my mind, I was looking for a quiet place,” he said.

But the park is also a place where they have given back to the community.

Countless strangers came forward immediately after his daughter’s death. Their support continued with flowers, gifts, and other tributes, even well after the park opened.

Above a walkway that leads from the parking lot to the main section of the park is a wooden sign with a Latin motto, Non Nobis Selum. Below it is the translation: Not for Us Alone.

The park has been used for weddings, family reunions, Frisbee, volleyball, fishing, Bible studies, and garden club meetings.

The park is free and open to the public from dawn to dusk.

Besides the cabin and the pond, the Siekermans had a tree house with a cool breezeway built 20 feet off the ground.

They also built a series of short trails lined with white oaks, hemlocks, and other picturesque trees.

“A person plans in life what college they will attend, what career they will have, what person they will marry,” he said.

“But there are such big curves in the road. You need to adjust.”

Adjustment has been difficult, not just because of Amy’s death.

Two decades before the plane crash, in 1976, the Siekermans lost what would have been their third daughter. Baby Meg died at birth.

In 2006, a decade after the TWA plane crash, Mrs. Siekerman died of a rare and aggressive lymphoma. She was gone five months after her diagnosis.

Three or four years after his wife’s death, Mr. Siekerman’s other daughter, Beth Siekerman Downing, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Mr. Siekerman said his ability to cope with setbacks comes down to two things: Faith and gardening.

 He’s long had a passion for horticulture.

For the 12 years in which he was away from Ohio Northern, from 1973 to 1985, he owned a local greenhouse.

Gardening puts him in touch with nature — the beauty of God’s work, Mr. Siekerman said.

He now has his park up for sale, hoping he can pass it along to a buyer who will keep it intact as a place of peace and serenity for future generations, as well as a community gathering spot that promotes fellowship.

“I made the best I could of my life. It’s hard. It’s a struggle,” Mr. Siekerman said. “You never move on. There’s never a closure. They’re gone. They’re missed.”

Contact Tom Henry at: or 419-724-6079.