Families return to Maryland to remember Pan Am Flight 214
By Krishana Davis and The Baltimore Sun
Dec 08, 2013 | 8:37 PM
Fifty years ago Sunday, mere days before the Christmas holiday, dozens of families from Elkton and north along the northeast corridor to Staten Island, N.Y., were changed in an instant. The mid-air explosion of Pan Am Flight 214 over Elkton became Maryland's largest loss-of-life disaster.
The plane, a Boeing 707, returning from San Juan, Puerto Rico, made a stop in Baltimore to refuel before continuing to Philadelphia to drop off the last of its passengers. But, Pan Am Flight 214 never made it past Elkton.
Minutes before 9 p.m., as the plane was circling at 5,000 feet, lightning struck. The aircraft was turned into a fiery ball, instantly killing the 81 people aboard, including passengers, pilot and flight crew.
On Sunday, hundreds of family members of the passengers and flight crew trudged through a winter storm to meet with those who were the first responders, state troopers and volunteer fire fighters, some as young as 16 and 17 at the time of the crash.
They met at the Singerly Fire Station in Elkton, just miles from the crash site, to remember those who lost their lives in the crash.
Sara Knuth, 61, daughter of Capt. George F. Knuth, pilot of Flight 214, said her father had been a 25-year veteran pilot at Pan Am. Knuth said her father had flown numerous trips around the globe, including some of Pan Am's early flights to Africa.
At the end of his career, however, he was looking for flights closer to home to be with his wife and four children, Knuth said, adding, that is how her father ended up flying the New York to San Juan route.
"As a child, going into your teenage years, of course you think about losing your parents," said Knuth, who was 11 at the time of the accident. "But, I don't think we ever thought he would die at work."
Knuth said her mother found out about the crash on the 11 o'clock news and alerted her two older sisters and their neighbors. She said she and her younger brother slept through the night and weren't told until the next morning.
"My mom was completely overwhelmed," Knuth said. "I think you are just numb, the first level of acceptance is denial."
Knuth said that because the accident happened when she was so young, she was spared many of the details of the explosion. Now, 50 years later, she and her siblings made the drive to the Elkton crash site for the first time to add closure to the grieving process.
The Knuth family lost a dad, but they did not lose their love of travel or exploring the world.
A year after the accident, in 1964, the pilot's widow and her four children took a four-month trip around the world, stopping in places like Portugal, India, Pakistan, San Francisco, Sweden and Germany.
"It was a good distraction," Knuth said, adding, "That trip changed our lives because we were exposed to cultures and people. It was another world to travel in those days before things were so touristy."
Margaret Kantlehner, 83, became a widow when Flight 214 exploded. Her husband, John Richard Kantlehner, was a flight engineer. Kantlehner said her husband was not scheduled to fly on Flight 214, but had filled in for another engineer who called out sick.
"I was driving to the airport and it was pouring rain and I was listening to the radio," said Kantlehner, who recalled driving to pick up her husband after work while their eight children were back at home. "I parked and was asking people around about Flight 214 and people kept telling me it was not in yet."
Kantlehner said she remembers waiting by some newsstands for the flight to come in when she overheard two people questioning each other if they heard the details of Flight 214.
"Someone finally told me what had happened," Kantlehner said. "When I got back home, the neighbors were outside and the minister came by the house."
Kantlehner said it took three weeks to get her husband's body back from the crash site. She said he was one of 12 people whose remains came back intact, aside from a severed leg.
After the crash, Kantlehner, a stay-at-home mother, went to work at a local restaurant and eventually ended up owning a restaurant herself.
Many of the families, who flew or drove hundreds of miles to remember loved ones lost in the explosion of flight 214, were halted in Elkton Sunday afternoon due to snowfall, sleet and icy road conditions. The flights of several family members were canceled and many would be spending the night in the Elkton area.
The commemorative tribute at the memorial on the site of the crash on Delancy Road was postponed until 10 a.m. today.