In the hours after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down from the sky, crashing in a wheat field in a rebel-held corner of Ukraine, two American women in the Midwest began to contemplate the ripple effect of the disaster. They understood, with sickening certainty, the pain of the victims' families. They thought too about how hard it would be for the families of passengers on Malaysia Airlines 370, which vanished in March, to experience another crash so soon. They deplored the images of passports -- and human remains -- being broadcast by the media.

They were concerned for the safety of the responders and investigators at the scene of the crash. And they worried about the well-being of MH17 family members who may never be able to visit the site, located in the middle of a war zone.

“We have fought for family members to be able to visit crash sites,” says Jennifer Stansberry Miller, speaking by telephone from Indianapolis. “In this incident, I personally don’t see how that will be possible.”

“It’s a piece of the process for how to move forward in the grieving stages,” says Miller’s friend Terri Severin, on the call in Chicago. “It’s like seeing the body – that’s a piece of it. Where they perish, that’s a piece of it.”

For Miller and Severin, leaders of ongoing efforts to aid people who’ve lost loved ones in air disasters, the recent spate of crashes has been not only wrenching but also intensely personal.

On Oct. 31, 1994, American Eagle Flight 4184 crashed just outside the small town of Roselawn, Indiana. All 68 people aboard were killed, among them Severin’s sister, Patty Henry; her 4-year-old nephew, Patrick; and Miller’s brother, Brad Stansberry, who was 27.

To speak with Severin and Miller by phone is to join in a daily ritual of two close friends bonded by the tragedy, activists who helped win passage of the 1996 Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. The law mandated better coordination among federal authorities and airlines in order to aid victims’ families after commercial aircraft disasters in the U.S.

This year they are planning the 20th-anniversary gathering for families of Flight 4184 in Roselawn, and founded a nonprofit to serve as an educational resource for anyone affected by the trauma of transportation accidents, called Connections, A Disaster Resource Consortium.  

Terri & Jen Terri Severin (left) and Jennifer Stansberry Miller became friends and advocates after the 1994 crash of American Eagle Flight 4184. They talk on the phone every day. Photo: Courtesy Jennifer Stansberry Miller

“Families need an eclectic array of support to help them through this,” says Severin, who wrote the book "In the Wake of the Storm: Living Beyond the Tragedy of Flight 4184."

Their own families met at the airport that windy, rainy Halloween day in 1994. The weather was miserable. Miller’s father drove her brother Brad to the Indianapolis airport, where they encountered Severin’s sister Patty with her two sons, Patrick and 7-year-old Jonathon. All were bound for Chicago, but Jonathon had a seat on an earlier flight. Brad, hoping to catch an earlier flight himself, asked Patty about swapping his ticket with Jonathon’s, but Patty decided to send her oldest child on ahead, accompanied by a family friend.

Miller’s dad, Bruce, drove home from the airport. He sat down to dinner and then heard the terrible news on television. For months, Miller recalled, his thoughts kept returning to Jonathon. “My dad would just mention, I wonder what happened to that little boy who was waiting for his mom?”     

Then, in February 1995, Miller and Severin attended a preliminary hearing on the crash held by the National Transportation Safety Board in Indianapolis. Severin recounted Miller’s greeting the moment they met: “It’s like the first words were, 'You’re the one!'” The rest, as they say, is history.

In the months that followed, the two women bonded in a common fight: challenging the horrors wrought by the airline’s mismanagement. The burial of remains in a common grave, without informing family members or seeking their consent. Personal effects destroyed rather than returned. Miller’s family held a burial for Brad, only to learn afterward that the remains had been misidentified and were not his.

Severin longed to see the crash site. But the airline had told families not to visit the area, and so she waited four months, until the hearing in Indianapolis, before going. She expected to find a clean, empty field. Instead, she saw pieces of plane wreckage, a luggage tag, a watchband, a pearl -- and human remains. “In my mind at that time, I didn’t know if that was my sister or nephew lying in the field,” she says. “The thought of leaving them wasn’t even an option.” She wrapped up the remains and the personal effects and brought them back to her hotel. She shared her disturbing discovery with a news crew from CNN, and turned over the remains to the coroner.  

Severin and Miller weren’t alone in their fight for a more compassionate, and organized, response. They joined with families of USAir Flight 427, which crashed outside Pittsburgh on Sept. 8, 1994, killing 132 people. All told, family representatives from a dozen different accidents banded together in reform efforts. The 1996 law forced airlines to address the families’ specific complaints about the notification process, the identification of victims, receiving updates and logistical support, and the return of personal effects.

Families -- even those affected by different crashes -- have found solace in their “behind-the-scenes community,” Severin says. “You call them up like it’s a relative.” Some have told her they find more comfort from talking to one another than they would from a therapist.

Getting to know each other “is one of the greatest silver linings of being in this situation,” Miller adds.

Earlier this year, families of Southern Airways Flight 242 contacted Miller and Severin for advice on how to build a memorial, 37 years after that flight crashed during a severe thunderstorm in New Hope, Georgia. The two women have been in touch with some of the families of MH370 through social media. On July 17, Miller tweeted a note of remembrance to the families of TWA Flight 800, which that day marked the 18th anniversary of the flight that exploded off the Long Island coast.

That tweet went out just hours before MH17 crashed in the Ukraine.    

“The effects of these accidents, these tragedies, do not go away in people’s lives,” Severin says.

The pair also became close with another policy advocate and fellow family member: Hans Ephraimson-Abt, whose 23-year-old daughter was aboard Korean Airlines Flight 007 when it was shot down by Soviet fighter planes in 1983. He learned of the crash that killed her from a hotel manager; according to the New York Times, the airline never once called to inform Ephraimson-Abt of her death.

Ephraimson-Abt spent the next three decades lobbying for the rights of victims’ families. He worked with families affected by the Lockerbie bombing (Pan Am Flight 103) and by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He helped compel the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2001 to issue guidance on how each of its 191 member states should respond to aviation disasters.

Last fall, ICAO gave that guidance more weight, endorsing it as official policy. Ephraimson-Abt was in Montreal for the official event. A few weeks later, he died in Short Hills, N.J., at age 91.

Family Members Speak

In 2011, 15 years after President Bill Clinton signed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance law into effect, Severin and Miller wanted to see if it was actually working. Were families getting the help they needed? They created a survey of 72 questions on topics ranging from “initial notification and contact” to “victim recovery/disaster victim identification” to “one-year memorial service and beyond.”

Many families felt they couldn’t participate in the survey because it was too painful. Ultimately, 43 people responded, representing at least nine different crashes. In discussing the notification process, for example, respondents detailed experiences such as:

“A friend saw the news report and called me. I then drove to the airport to find out if it was actually my husband’s flight.”

“The agent who gave me the tragic new spoke in a very businesslike manner.”

“When you’re being told you lost a loved one and you’re waiting for confirmation and there isn’t anyone who can answer your questions and you have to wait, I feel it is the most horrible, devastating thing a mom could ever hear.”

Overwhelmingly, families said visiting the crash site was important; 85 percent “strongly agreed.”

“One needs something tangible to begin the acceptance process, and I believe this is definitely the start of it.”

“It was disorienting to talk about the crash and not to see it. It was traumatic to go there, but it was optional and for us very important.”

Severin and Miller published the results of the survey on their website. They determined that the family assistance model, by and large, had proven effective, but some areas needed improvement, “such as enhancing communications during the first 24 hours, or a more clear-cut description of the process to assist families.”

“Areas for further examination,” they continued, “might include detailed protocols regarding the decision to arrange a common burial; a compassionate approach to families during antemortem interviews; inclusion of Web-based family briefings; and assisting families that wish to gather for long-term support.”

Severin and Miller say that Connections -- their nonprofit group -- will address the gaps they still see in long-term support, from how to select attorneys, to how to form a family association, to how to handle anniversaries, and how to grieve in a “mass casualty event.”

“There is no textbook outline for it,” Severin says. “Everyone’s got their own time frames.” Neither friend believes there's such a thing as “closure.”

Miller works in a Level II trauma center in an Indianapolis hospital, a detail of her life she does not normally share publicly. But that is where she continues to interact with emergency responders, where she is “still able to grasp and see the effects of trauma and loss, and know that whether it’s a bus accident or mass fatality with a plane crash, the support is vital.”

Various first responders have reached out to Severin and Miller over the years. “Their PTSD is so unfortunate,” Miller says, “to know they did what they did, responding to our loved ones, and yet they have not had the resources they need to facilitate their own healing.”

The circle of those affected by transportation crashes is very wide, the women say. And it includes the community where the crash took place. Consider Roselawn, Indiana, a town of about 4,000, that sees the loss of Flight 4184 as the town’s own tragedy. Twenty years later, people continue to visit the memorial site and pay their respects. Roselawn is part of aviation history, Miller says.

If Roselawn is on a special, tragic map, so now is Grabovo, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region; and Taiwan’s Penghu county, near the Magong Airport; and a spot of desert in Mali, near the village of Boulikessi. For MH370, that place on the map remains elusive.

Sacred Ground

From Interstate 65 in northern Indiana, you make your way to a road called N 400 E and drive until you come to the spot where, for many years, 68 white crosses with 68 names have stood in four rows near the roadside. Behind the crosses is a field, and beyond it, another field, the one that many families consider sacred ground.

Severin used to drive down with a friend from Chicago to mow the lawn and weed the memorial site. In winter, they would store the crosses with the painted-on names, and switch them with a smaller set for the cold months. Over the years, local residents have taken on much of this work. They did not know anyone aboard Flight 4184, but they know the families. 

This year, for the 20th anniversary, a new memorial, a curved stone wall with the names carved into it, will replace the 68 crosses. Lately, family members have been visiting to collect their loved ones' crosses. Rose bushes and desert scrub will fill a garden. This way, Severin says, the site will be easier to maintain for future generations.

For the night before the anniversary, the women have organized a town hall meeting with NTSB officials past and present, and the local fire chief. They want relatives who were only children at the time of the crash to have a chance to ask questions.

Then on that Friday, October 31, the families will gather at the stone wall. They will light candles. They will bless the new memorial.

“This year we thought it was important to emphasize the legacy from the loss of our loved ones,” says Severin.

“That there were something positive coming from our losses,” Miller says.

“And that they did not die in vain,” Severin adds. “I think that helps families too… that in recognition of their family members, these changes have been made.”