"He said, 'Mum, I don't want to fly. I don't want to end up like those ValueJet people,' and I just said to him, 'Don't be silly, it will be a wonderful trip'."
The ValueJet flight to which Ashton Allen was referring crashed into the Florida Everglades last May killing 110 people. Two months later, on 17 July 1996, TWA flight 800 followed suit over Long Island. Both Ashton and his father Lamar were on the plane.
TWA have just agreed to disclose the autopsy reports to the relatives of the deceased and Anne is considering filling in the forms required to receive details of her husband's post mortem, but for her son there are no forms to be filled in. His body is one of the 15 that have never been found. "The idea of him being there, in the sea," she says gesticulating downwards, "is ... um ... quite difficult."
A Meryl Streep lookalike in her early forties, poised, anguish at first disguised by eloquence and perfect make-up, Anne Allen begins to talk.
"Lamar and I wanted the children, Ashton, Amberley and Cameron, to see Paris, to have a taste of European culture. I called my mother and I asked her to join us as a birthday treat."
Anne left with her mother, Amberley and Cameron on 16 July. "My husband had to conclude a business deal. He was coming to join us the next day. We thought it it would be nice for Ashton to wait and travel with him, to spend the time on the trip to get closer to his father. I suppose you could say they did get closer. I mean they're still together aren't they?"
The Allens were staying in a romantic little hotel in St Germain. They spent the night before the crash in celebration of Anne's mother's birthday and in anticipation of Lamar and Ashton's arrival.
"'There's been a plane crash.' Those were the words Lamar's business partner used when he called me in the room the next morning. But he said he couldn't get through to TWA and he wasn't sure that Lamar and Ashton were on the flight. I just sank to my knees and said, 'Oh God'."
Then I took my 86-year-old mother outside and told her quietly what might have happened. I didn't want her to have a heart attack. I told her we didn't know yet. And I told Amberley and Cameron what might have happened, but we didn't know yet and we walked to the Eiffel tower and we climbed to the top to try and get some energy from somewhere. Cameron rollerbladed around Paris and Amberley and I just walked and walked and walked. We didn't want to go back to the hotel because we knew we'd have to face the truth and at some point we looked up and there was this extraordinary rainbow in the sky. I saw it as a sign and I knew."
But official confirmation that Anne's husband and son had perished took its time in coming. The false information igniting false hope that followed the initial disclosure of an aviation disaster served only to make the experience more tortuous. Lamar's business partner spent many hours trying to get through to the TWA helpline. Eventually they told him Lamar and Ashton were not on the flight. Lamar's nephew spent all day trying to reach TWA. When he finally succeeded they informed him they had no record of his uncle and cousin having boarded the flight. The hotel concierge in Paris spent his day in a similar fashion, also to be told there was no record of Lamar and Ashton having been passengers. In the middle of the night the phone rang in Anne's hotel room. "They were on the plane," said the voice. It was Lamar's father.
Anne is currently not among the dozens of relatives of victims who have filed law suits against TWA since the accident. Her time to date has been spent simply "coping" for the sake of her other two children.
She is the stoic type, religious even: "I just have to believe that there is some reason for this," she says. Not one for sympathy, she doesn't volunteer details of the devastation in her daily life during our meeting. But later during telephone conversations they slip out one by one. She can no longer bear to sleep in the bedroom she shared with Lamar. Instead, she spends her nights in the guest room and often, unable to sleep, Amberley will creep into her mother's bed and the two will hold each other till morning.
She finds it tough going into Lamar's study, too. His signature on the piles of papers she has not yet had the heart to touch brings back too many memories. But it is when she spends time sitting alone in her dead son's room that she feels the greatest agony.
"The pain is different," she says. "You know the pain of losing a child and the pain of losing a husband. We all at sometime will lose the man or the woman we love or they will us and it's terrible ... but a child. A child is different. Ashton and I were very similar. We looked similar. Sometimes I would know what he was thinking without talking to him and you feel cheated ... cheated that you haven't seen them date or graduate or have children. Yes, it is a different kind of pain from losing my husband, but sometimes the two mesh of course."
She seeks no answers on an emotional level. There can be none. But on a practical level she wants a precise response as to why the plane exploded. To date TWA has provided no conclusive information, but the latest theory is that a static spark from a fuel leak in the central tank caused the explosion. As an ex-stewardess with an understanding of the mechanical structure of the 747, Anne Allen doesn't buy it. "I think the pilot would have noticed something was going on. But they found the black box and the pilot never said 'Mayday'. Pierre Salinger [a respected journalist and former press aide to John F Kennedy] suggested the accident might have been caused by US navy missile practices in the area, but they found no evidence and the theory just sort of disappeared. But now that the initial shock has passed I think that there are many of us who will begin investigating."
And Anne Allen, so involved in helping her two surviving children to find some semblance of normality has only just begun to address her own grief. "I did approach TWA and ask them to pay for my counselling. After a few weeks they wrote to my therapist asking her how many sessions she thought I would need."
Anne Allen clutches her glass tighter and laughs a very sad laugh. "I guess a lifetime might be an appropriate answer," she says.Reuse content