Rosemarie McGrath Testa still wears her oldest son’s wedding ring on her finger. She also wears a silver necklace with the words engraved on it that she is known to often say: Let go and let God.
Her son was Ron Geiger, whose family of four from Gilbert was aboard Northwest Flight 255 that crashed seconds after takeoff from the Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport on Aug. 16, 1987, killing 154 of 155 people on board and two motorists on the ground in Romulus, Mich.
At 8:46 p.m. that evening, Ron, 36, and his wife, Valerie, also 36, and their two daughters, Lisa, 7, and Lauren, 5, were returning home to Phoenix via Detroit after visiting family in Pittsburgh when their connecting flight — Northwest Flight 255 took off, its left wing clipped an Avis car rental sign and came crashing down onto Interstate 94, exploding into dozens of pieces. It was the second-worst airplane disaster in U.S. history, and 110 people on the plane who died were from Arizona and 32 were from the East Valley. Of those on the plane, 76 were 35 or younger. Miraculously, there was one survivor — Cecelia Cichan (now Crocker), formerly of Tempe, who now is 29.
Ron and Valerie’s wedding rings were the only items that were retrieved from the crash site where a black granite memorial now contains the crash victims’ names, but Rosemarie McGrath Testa and her family still hold on to a lot more. Every day.
On Thursday, family members and friends were at Sisk Park in the Sun Lakes community in Chandler, where the Geiger family held a memorial celebration for Ron and his family that included a touching DVD with pictures put to music. Rosemarie said, “It’s a sad day when you wake up in the morning. Then, you realize you’re blessed with a wonderful family and that I had a wonderful son, daughter-in-law and two wonderful granddaughters for as long as I did. I don’t think the Lord gives you more than you can handle; he always gives you more than he takes away.”
Rosemarie had planned to make it up to the Pittsburgh area to spend some time with Ron and her other children who still were living there at the time, but didn’t make the trip. She last saw Ron about a week before he left the Valley never to return. Ron’s sister, Carolann, took Ron and his family to the airport that tragic Sunday.
“We never live without it,” Rosemarie said of that tragic day 25 years ago. “It’s something that never leaves you. It doesn’t seem like it’s been 25 years, that’s for sure.”
Like Ron’s ring on Rosemarie’s finger, Ron and Valerie Geiger and their two daughters, Lisa and Lauren, a second-grader and kindergartner at Gilbert’s Patterson Elementary School, respectively, were golden.
Ron’s father, Albert, a pipefitter at the J & L Steel mill in Pittsburgh died of a massive coronary at the age of 38 leaving a wife and five children behind. When Ron was 16, he wanted to quit school and help support the family, including four siblings — Gary, A.J., Carolann and Rick. His mother wouldn’t let Ron quit and told him to go on to college. Ron joined the U.S. Navy, worked for the CIA before he had a family and later worked IT and computer jobs for First Interstate Bank and AVNET.
And although Ron traveled a lot in his job, spending time with his family always was important to him. On his gravestone are the words: Always together, together forever.
On Thursday morning, Ron’s former sister-in-law, Deanna Brewer, who adopted the Geiger’s dog, Shamus, placed three pink roses with baby’s breath each for Lisa and Lauren in front of the tree planted at Patterson Elementary School in their memory soon after the crash.
Ron’s youngest brother, Rick Geiger, 46, of Tampa, Fla., who works as a supply chain director for Rhode Island-based Schneider Electric, also was in the Valley this week to spend a few days with his family during the 25-year commemoration of the crash.
A 21-year-old fresh out of Slippery Rock (Pa.) University, Rick had worked as a producer for KDKA, television and radio stations in Pittsburgh at the time of the crash. He was the first in his family to find out about it. Rick said he was talking on the telephone with a friend when he saw the Northwest Airlines logo appear on the television screen and the image of a crash site in the background.
“The sound was turned down, and before they said anything, you just had that feeling,” said Rick, who last saw Ron the day before the crash. I was going to go to the airport with him and my sister that day, but I was playing softball. I just said, ‘I’ll see ya the next time.’ Aug. 16, 1987 was the day I stopped being a kid.”
Rick still has fond memories of the day Ron took him to the Pittsburgh Pirates game on Oct. 3, 1972, for his fifthbirthday. Before the game, Rick got a baseball autographed by Pirates superstar Roberto Clemente, who got his 3,000th hit that day in what was to be his last game. On Dec. 31, 1972, Clemente perished in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico attempting to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. His body was never found.
Rick, who also travels a lot by plane for business, said he recently surpassed one million miles riding with Delta Airlines.
“I think about the crash every time I go up,” Rick said. “I still count to 90 seconds when the plane takes off. Ron’s plane was in the air less than 60 seconds. Going up, I know every sound and how high we are.”
“I fly through Detroit a lot,” Rick added. “I still go see the memorial when I can. Ron was my role model. I’ve spent 25 years trying to live up to him.”
Rosemarie was quick to say on Thursday, “Today is not a sad occasion. This is a celebration of their lives. Ron was an awesome son, Valerie was a great daughter-in-law and Lisa and Lauren were wonderful. We still love them and miss them. But they’re with us every day.”
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