The couple was sitting over the right wing, which caught fire, but managed to slide down the emergency chute to safety. Those in the back of the Spantax DC-10 perished.
Today, at 52, Pankiewicz is still not completely comfortable with air travel but insists the family fly together when they go on vacation.
"I wouldn't want to live without them," she said. "I don't like to fly, but I like to travel. And there's nothing you can do about it. You can't live your life afraid."
But many parents who have never come close to an air disaster choose to split up the family on separate flights, hoping to soften the tragedy in case of a disaster.
Swedish Mother and Son on Air France Flight
Just this week, a 34-year-old Christine Badre Schnabl and her 5-year-old son Philipe were two of the presumed dead aboard the Air France flight that crashed over the Atlantic Ocean. The Swedish woman's husband and 3-year-old daughter traveled separately.
The European press reported that the family wanted to use up air miles and booked two flights.
The news touched a nerve in parents who worry about the safest way to travel as a family.
"And rightfully so," said Alison Rhodes, a national child safety expert known as the Safety Mom.
"I think 9/11 changed the way we think about air safety," she told ABCNews.com. "There is something to be said for the two philosophies. My point of view is every safety decision is a personal matter."
What is important, she said, is clearly communicating with relatives about "what needs to happen" if there is an emergency when one or both parents perish in a crash.
Stacy DeBroff, 48, of Boston was unprepared for the loss of both her parents in the 1974 Pan American crash in Pago Pago, American Samoa. The pair was coming home after visiting relatives in New Zealand when the Boeing 747 landed short of the runway in a tropical storm.
Chemicals in the hold exploded and only nine people were able to escape over the wings.
Air Crash Orphan Never Flies With Husband
Ever since having two children -- aged 16 and 15 -- she and her husband always take separate flights, arriving within a half hour of each other.
"Our policy is that we will fly together if the whole family travels together," she told ABCNews.com. "And the truth is, it's worked great."
But without the children, the couple takes two flights. "It gives us peace of mind that if tragedy should strike, we have one of us left standing to raise our kids," DeBroff said.
Just days before their trip to Hawaii after the terrorist attacks of 2001, Sandra Grimshaw, 49, and her husband changed their long-standing flight and since then travel separately.
She would like to split the family up when the children travel, but worries, "It's Sophie's Choice, however, deciding who goes with whom."
"I'm not comfy with it, but that's how it has worked since then," she told ABCNews.com. "It seems to always be a discussion."
Shiva Sarram, 37, of New Canaan, Conn., views this decision as her responsibility as a parent.
"Most people think I'm crazy, but I view my husband and I as the CEO and COO of our family and in most corporations, those two executives travel separately," she told ABCNews.com.
The couple typically flies with their two children, aged 6 and 3, but never as a couple.
"We already do this even with car travel," said Sarram. "If we go out on a Saturday night without our kids to meet adult friends for dinner, we drive separately."
Others, like Pankiewicz, find the idea of losing half a family as "unbearable" and travel together.
"Why would a family split up?" asked Kelcey Kintner, 38, of New York City. "Wouldn't it better to just all be together in the event of a horrible tragedy like this?"
"I would never want to lose half my family," said Kintner, who writes the parenting blog The Mama Bird Diaries. "That is a lifetime of pain and sorrow."
Close Your Eyes and Say I Love You
"If the plane is going down, then just wrap your arms around each other, say I love yous and close your eyes," said Ellyn Saunders of Seattle, Wash., "What else can one do in such a tragic situation that is out of one's hands?"
"I never even consider that we'll be the unlucky ones," said mother Nicole Greenfield of Plano, Texas. "I think our chances of being on terrorist targeted plane are equal to our chances of hitting the lottery, which I don't play because the odds are astronomical."
But others are more cynical about separate flights.
"We never talk about this," said Piyush Mittal, 47, of Naperville, Ill., who has two girls, aged 16 and 13. "But I feel that part of the fun, especially for a vacation, is getting there, and if you split the family up, part of the fun is lost."
And those who fly for a living are skeptical of those who go to extraordinary lengths to prepare for a remote disaster.
Mary LeRose of Independence, Mo., raised her children while working as a flight attendant.
"We always travel together," she told ABCNews.com. "I needed to be there to make sure they did everything they could to stay safe."
Julie Angarone, of Trenton, N.J., has planned a trip to Disney World in August and she and her 9-year-old son will do the 16-hour drive and her husband and younger child will fly.
"My 6-year-old gets sick and I don't like to fly," she told ABCNews.com.
But retired American Airlines pilot Al Sineksy says that choice is "irrational" because driving a car is statistically more dangerous than flying.
"In a car you are flying at someone else at 60 miles per hour or faster, only separated by the paint on the tarmac and you think nothing of it," the 61-year-old Chesterfield, N.J., resident told ABCNews.com. "Flying is safer than ever before."
"You learn to have trust in your instruments and your training," he said. "I have as much regard for my safety as yours, maybe more."
Gone are the days when flyers bought flight insurance at airport kiosks. "They have done the threat analysis and done the calculus and come up with the conclusion that you don't need it," said Sinesky, who always flies with his wife and two daughters, now grown.
Still, air accidents do happen, like the disappearance of the Air France jet this week.
"Life is unpredictable, and stuff happens," said DeBroff, who was orphaned at the age of 12.
"We all assume that it will not happen to us, that the odds are a billion to one," she said. "And if it happens, the consequences for kids can be overwhelming."
DeBroff and her brother spent two decades "working through the intensity of the loss" and recommend parents have wills and all legal directives about guardianship in place -- with or without children.
"The last thing you want is for a court to decide who raises your kids and run the risk that they get placed in foster care pending a resolution."
She said when couples split flights, it "acts as a powerful insurance policy."
Meanwhile, Nancy Pankiewicz, a crash survivor, is still a bit nervous, but prepares her family before they fly, always checking for the emergency exits before take-off.
"I guess we always thought, what are odds of that happening again?" she said. "They are pretty slim, and it's totally out of your hands."
To learn more about directives for families traveling domestically or overseas, go to Forms4Parents.com.