She remembers the day in 1962 vividly — even though it was fifty years ago. Sitting in her room in Paris doing school work,19-year-old Penny Hart had just said goodbye to her mother, who had come to Paris to see her and to take part in a European art tour with the Atlanta Arts Association. Penny, a college exchange student, had much school work to do, though, and had chosen not to go to the airport to see her mother off.
As she studied, a small, old fashioned radio could be heard softly in the background. The two French speaking announcers seemed to be speaking frantically but the volume was too low for her to hear what they were saying. A short time later she received a long distance call from her step-father, a call that would alter her life dramatically.
She learned that her mother, Henrietta Collier Armstrong Ayer, 44, died in a plane crash at the Orly Airport in Paris. At the time, it was considered the worst aviation disaster of all time.
"It was in the middle of my exams and I was cramming away," said Penny, now 69. "I didnt have time to go to the airport. My life would probably be considerably different if I had gone."
The plane had malfunctioned during take off and burst into flame, killing all 122 passengers on board. Many were art patrons from Buckhead and other parts of Atlanta, and the community went into shock. June 3 marks the 50th anniversary of the crash.
Penny and her mother had shared meals together during their visit and had a wonderful time.
"It was dreadful," Penny said of finding out the news about the crash. "I hardly remember anything for a while after that."
Hart said she knew something was wrong when she realized her step-father had made an expensive overseas call. The radio announcers had been reporting it, of course, but the radio was too low for her to hear. No one ever expects big news to be about them, she said.
The next day she flew home in an Air France plane exactly like the one that had crashed the day before. She remembers Buckhead seeming strange, and noticing the large number of cars in her neighborhood. Each home had a slew of visitors Penny said, because so many familes in her neighborhood had been affected.
She stayed home for two weeks while they waited for her mother's body to be flown back for a memorial service. After that, Hart said she knew she had to go back to Paris.
"Honestly, it was easier to do that than to stay here and suddenly have a house with no mother in it," she said.
Her step-father was supportive of the decision and she had no brothers or sisters tying her to Atlanta. Penny had lost her biological father five years prior and was already a strong individul.
"It was much more theraputic to leave. In those days, you just simply did not wollow in your trouble. To get up and do what you were supposed to do anyway was what everybody did in that day," she said.
While everyone she knew handled the tragedy differently, Penny chose to think about it as little as possible. In years since, when she and someone else she knows that was affected have gotten together, they haven't talked about the accident unless it was brought up by someone else.
Penny even chose to become a flight attendant for Pan American airlines, a job that took her all over the world. She said that her decision to become a flight attendant could have been a way to deal with the tragedy on a subconscious level.
"I never had a fear of flying," she said. "It didn't strike as ironic at the time but it very much was."
Penny is a sixth generation Buckhead resident and is involved in nonprofit work through various organizations around Atlanta with her husband, George. While Penny has devoted her life to worthy causes, it is her positive outlook and strength she displays despite the tragedies that occurred in her life that truly sets her apart.
"Im very much at peace with the whole thing now," she said. "It was an event that belongs to everyone."