(WYTV) – It has been 25 years since Flight 427 fell from the sky above Hopewell Township, Beaver County, during a routine flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh.
A local couple, Anthony and Paula Rich, along with their unborn child, were among the 127 passengers and five crew members killed when the Boeing 737 nose-dived into a wooded hillside seven miles short of the runway at Pittsburgh International Airport.
It took four and a half years for federal investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board to determine that a stuck valve had jammed a rudder, causing the devastating crash.
The couple had just celebrated their second wedding anniversary and was returning home from visiting the Rubino family’s village in Italy with Paula’s parents, Fernando (Fred) and Rose Rubino. The two couples got separated for their flight home.
The Rubinos flew home on TWA. The airline wouldn’t accept Anthony and Paula’s tickets, so they came home on USAir Flight 427. Ironically, Anthony was a pilot for USAir.
In the days leading up to the crash’s 25th anniversary on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, 33 News anchor Lindsey Watson sat down with members of both families as they reflected on the time that has passed.
While their loss will always remain fresh in their minds, a lot has also changed.
“It feels like it was yesterday, but then at times it feels like forever because you crave hearing their voice and just being with them. Every year has been significant. Every day we think of them but to reach a milestone like this is bittersweet,” said Jackie Marchionda, Paula’s sister.
“They were this young, good-looking couple, very vibrant, and they died suddenly,” said Daniel Ricchiuti, Anthony’s brother.
“And as time goes on, you don’t miss them any less,” said Julie Mark, Anthony’s sister.
“Still think about them and still can’t talk about it too much. You know, it’s hard to believe 25 years later, it still brings back all those memories,” said Vincent Ricchiuti, Anthony’s brother.
“You go through the grief of 25 years. You go from grieving what you lost with them, the memories you had with them, to grieving what you didn’t get,” said JoAnna Schiraldi, Paula’s sister.
While the years continue to go by, the tragedy of Flight 427 remains for the families.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we have maintained our strength and our faith through this whole thing. It was so difficult to get through,” said Rose Rubino, Paula’s mom.
“But you know, we’re OK because we have each other and we have that bond,” said Phyllis Ricchiuti, Anthony’s mom.
That bond has only grown over time, but it all started with a beautiful love story.
Anthony and Paula were set up on a blind date, thanks in part to Anthony’s mom after running into Paula at Youngstown State University and suggesting her son give her a call.
“Two weeks later, he calls me and he said, ‘I’m coming home, I have a date.’ So that started it,” Phyllis said.
“As the little sister, I was the spy, you know, the go-to. So, she’s back getting dressed and getting ready and I go back and I’m like, ‘He’s here and he’s really cute.’ She’s like, ‘OK, what’s he have on?’ You know, this and that, so immediately when she walked out and he saw her, sparks flew,” JoAnna said.
What followed were more dates, an engagement and a wedding.
“When Paula and Tony were engaged, the Ricchuittis were generous enough to give Paula a beautiful gold and diamond cross bangle bracelet, and after the crash it was one of the only things that was found,” Jackie said.
In five pieces, each of the crosses was still intact. Phyllis later made the pieces into charms, one for each of the women in both families.
“It’s part of Paula that we always have with us, so I don’t believe that was an accident. I believe that was something that was meant for us to have,” Jackie said.
“You do like to think there’s some greater force out here connecting us all, and something like that really makes you wonder,” Julie said.
Some other personal items were also found among the wreckage, including Anthony’s wedding ring.
“I’ve said before that I don’t think that there’s been a day that’s gone by for the last 25 years where we haven’t thought of them and this helps, and they also had found his wristwatch,” Vincent said.
JoAnna remembers Anthony being extremely proud of that wristwatch.
“He always wore an aviator watch, obviously, because he was a pilot and he got this new watch and he was all, you know, proud of all this technical stuff it did. So I would joke around and he’d walk in and I’d say, ‘I really need to know what the altitude is right now’ and he’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you asked,”‘ JoAnna said.
“It’s very special to have, especially every time we fly. I wear the watch as sort of my guardian, that they’re with us every time, protecting us,” Vincent said.
Now, Paula and Anthony are also the guardian angels of their 17 nieces and nephews, 15 of which never met their aunt and uncle. However, this next generation has learned a lot about them and many are their namesakes.
“That, I think about often. I just think of all these children that came after Paula and Tony passed away and I often wonder how many kids would they have had,” Rose said.
“Our kids all know who they were and what type of people they were and things that they did and it means a lot that our kids are aware of that,” Daniel said.
“We remind them, ‘Oh, that’s something Aunt Paula would have done’ or ‘that’s something Uncle Tony would have loved’ or ‘they would have been so proud of you’ or ‘say a little prayer to Aunt Paula and Uncle Tony, they’ll help you out,”‘ Jackie said.
For each of these families, it’s been incredibly important to share the love Paula and Anthony had for them with the community after they passed.
They said two things emerged from their grief: a strong, continuing bond and the Rich Center for Autism on YSU’s campus.
“We weren’t going to just shelve it and put things away and put those memories away,” JoAnna said.
“This community came around us so well and because of that, the Rich Center came about. The money that people donated so generously was used to start the Rich Center,” Daniel said.
“We are very, very proud of the fact that the Rich Center, which was established in 1995 in their name, has been able to help countless children and families navigate through the diagnosis of autism. It helped our son Christopher. It continues to help many, many children in this area, this region. We are humbled and so proud of that legacy,” Jackie said.
Over the years, the Rich Center has done a beautiful job of dignifying the autism community here in the Valley. It has reassured families that no matter where their child falls on the spectrum, they are loved, heard and understood.
“Hold the people that you love dear. Hold them close because you never know from day to day what’s going to happen. These two were coming home from Italy from a wonderful family trip and you know, who would have ever thought that something like this would happen? And we’re not the only ones. I’m convinced that we don’t get off this Earth unless we have some major challenge, and this was our major challenge. So, you know, you deal with it and you try to make a positive out of a negative and I hope that’s what we’ve done. I hope we’ve helped a lot of families in the community,” Phyllis said.
This year marks one of the first that the families weren’t able to all be together to mark the anniversary of Paula and Anthony’s passing.
However, they do plan on getting together as they always do to talk, reminisce and share stories of the two.
The families also have several other traditions to mark special holidays together throughout the year.
Between Paula’s sisters — Jackie and JoAnna — Fred and Rose Rubino have eight grandchildren.
Between Anthony’s siblings — Vincent, Daniel and Julie — Robert and Phyllis Ricchiuti have nine grandchildren.
Following their deaths, Anthony’s family went back to their ancestral name of Ricchiuti because Anthony and Paula had talked about making the change. It was another way to honor their life and legacy.