Wednesday, July 23, 2014 7:03 am
A kiss, a prayer: The last hours of MH17's victims
Samira Calehr wrapped her arms around her 11-year-old son, who'd been oddly agitated for days, peppering her with questions about death, about his soul, about God. The next morning, she would drop Miguel and his big brother Shaka at the airport so they could catch Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the first leg of their journey to Bali to visit their grandmother.
Her normally cheerful, well-traveled boy should have been excited. His silver suitcase sat in the living room, ready to go. Jetskiing and surfing in paradise awaited. But something was off. A day earlier, while playing soccer, Miguel had burst out: "How would you choose to die? What would happen to my body if I was buried? Would I not feel anything because our souls go back to God?"
And now, the night before his big trip, Miguel refused to release his mother from his grasp.
He's just going to miss me, Calehr told herself. So she stretched out beside him and held him all night.
It was 11 p.m. on Wednesday, July 16. Miguel, Shaka and the 296 other people aboard Flight 17 had about 15 hours left to live.
The Boeing 777 tasked with shepherding its passengers from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, held the promise of beginnings and endings for many on board: the thrill of a new adventure or dream vacation for some, and the comfort of going back home for others.
It was love and a fresh start that had lured Willem Grootscholten aboard. The burly, 53-year-old divorced former soldier from the Netherlands — a gentle giant of a man — had sold his house and was moving to Bali to build a new life with his darling Christine, a guesthouse owner.
He'd met her by chance on a trip to the Indonesian island last year.
Christine, who like many Indonesians has only one name, had heard through a friend that some guy had fallen off a cliff and hurt his back. She told her friend to take him to a traditional healer she knew. The next day, Grootscholten called Christine to thank her.
They connected over coffee. Grootscholten had to return to the Netherlands, where he was working as a bouncer at a pot-selling cafe. But the two stayed in touch online, and their relationship blossomed. On New Year's Eve, he surprised her by showing up at her doorstep. He stayed three weeks.
The father of Christine's two children, 14-year-old Dustin and 8-year-old Stephanie, had died six years ago, and they quickly bonded with Grootscholten, calling him "Daddy." The four stayed in touch online. Almost every day, they shared meals via Skype by placing their iPads on their tables during dinner for Christine's family and lunch for Grootscholten.
In May, Grootscholten returned to Bali to celebrate Christine's birthday and told her he wanted to spend the rest of his life beside her. She drove him to the airport on June 3 and kissed him goodbye.
It would be their last kiss.
For 29-year-old New Zealander Rob Ayley, Flight 17 marked both the end of a month-long European trip and the start of a new career.
Life hadn't always been easy for Ayley. Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome as a teen, he'd struggled to understand others' emotions. At 16, he dropped out of school and hopped from job to job — fast food, horticulture, cheese-making. He flitted between obsessions, from cars to drumming and eventually, to Rottweilers, after his parents bought him a puppy.
Along the way, he fell in love with a woman named Sharlene. They married and had two sons, Seth and Taylor. Fatherhood changed him; he was determined to provide for his family. He enrolled in college to study chemical engineering and decided to turn his Rottweiler fixation into a profit by becoming a breeder.
That dream prompted Ayley to book a trip to Europe with his friend Bill Patterson, a kennel owner. Ayley's goal: to look at Rottweilers and hopefully bring back breeding dogs to New Zealand.
The duo spent a month driving all over Europe, visiting kennels and grabbing a coffee, beer or meal with the owners. They delighted in speeding along the German autobahns in the small Peugeot they'd rented.
Finally, it was time to come home. On Wednesday night, Ayley sent his mother an email:
"It's been a long, long journey. We've seen the world's greatest Rottweilers, we have established contacts, and made life-long friends, but now I'm just ready to come home. I hope all is well, if we don't talk before hand, I will see you on Saturday. Lots of Love Rob"
Flight attendant Sanjid Singh was looking forward to getting home, too. He hadn't originally been scheduled for Flight 17, but he wanted to get back to Malaysia a day early to visit his parents in northern Penang state. So he asked a colleague to switch shifts.
Only five months ago, a similar last-minute switch had saved his family. His wife, also a flight attendant, had agreed to swap assignments with a colleague who wanted to be on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The plane vanished en route to Beijing.
The near-miss rattled Singh's parents, who fretted about the pair continuing to fly. But Singh was pragmatic. "If I am fated to die, I will die," he said. "You have to accept it."
On Wednesday, he called his mother and told her the good news — he'd nabbed a spot on Flight 17 and would be there on Friday. Take care of yourself, he told his mother.
After they hung up, she said a prayer for Singh, the way she always did.
Family was also the reason Irene Gunawan had booked a seat on Flight 17.
She was headed to an annual family reunion in the Philippines: a major event held at a resort that would include specially-designed shirts, drinking, singing and dancing. And 53-year-old Gunawan would — as always — be the star.
Gunawan was the light and laughter of her clan. The fifth of six children, the bubbly, music-loving girl had wanted to see the world outside her sleepy rural village. After high school, she moved to Japan to sing and drum in a band. There, she met Budy, a fellow band member.
They toured Europe together, playing music and eventually falling in love. They married and settled in the Netherlands, where she gave birth to Daryll and Sheryll, now 19 and 14. Gunawan took up office work, and sent money to her family in the Philippines. Budy worked as a supervisor at Malaysia Airlines in Amsterdam.
Gunawan flew back occasionally to the family's neighborhood, called "Heaven," in the town of Pagbilao, outside Manila. At reunions, she belted out songs by Norah Jones and Diana Ross. When neighbors heard the music, they knew she was in town.
This year, the couple and their two children were flying to Pagbilao, and Daryll was bringing his DJ equipment. They'd planned to leave earlier, but a typhoon was lashing the Philippines, so they delayed their trip until it subsided.
By chance, they nabbed seats on Flight 17.
Albert and Maree Rizk weren't supposed to be on that flight either.
Every year, the fun-loving 50-somethings from Melbourne, Australia, went on a month-long vacation with friends. They had hopscotched the globe, from Thailand to Fiji to Europe.
This time, the Rizks had nearly skipped the trip due to family commitments. Family came first for Albert, a real estate agent, and Maree, parents of two and beloved fixtures in their community.
A change of plans freed them up to join their friends, Ross and Sue Campbell, but they weren't able to snag a seat on the Campbells' return flight. So they bought tickets for the same route, a day later: Flight 17.
The Rizks and the Campbells had become more like family than friends since Sue and Maree met at a mother's group when their now-grown children were babies. They had a ball traveling through Italy, Switzerland and Germany. It felt like they'd laughed for a solid month. Together, they realized a lifelong goal: climbing to the top of the Klein Matterhorn in Switzerland.
On Tuesday night, the four gathered at an Italian restaurant for a final meal. They reminisced about their latest adventure — one of their best — and made plans for a reunion back in Australia. On Saturday, they would get together to feast on the delicious Dutch cheese they'd bought, drink wine and pore over their vacation photos.
The four headed back to the hotel, exchanged hugs and retired to their rooms.
Some friends were surprised that the Rizks were willing to fly Malaysia Airlines, after the disappearance of Flight 370. Maree's stepmother, Kaylene Mann, had lost her brother and sister-in-law in the disaster.
Albert's buddy of 30 years, Jack Medcraft, got in a friendly dig: Why Malaysia Airlines?
"Lightning never strikes twice," Albert replied.
They burst out laughing. The nonchalant explanation had a double meaning.
Albert's house had been struck by lightning last year.
Thursday, July 17, dawned warm and sunny in Amsterdam.
Before leaving his house for Schiphol Airport, Grootscholten called Christine and the children for one last Skype chat. He was so excited, he began to dance.
"Daddy's flying to see you!" he told the kids. "We will be together forever!"
Meanwhile, Ayley was struggling. Patterson, his Rottweiler business partner, had flown out Wednesday, so he had to get himself to the airport — and it was not going well. "Missed the airport bus," he wrote to his wife on Facebook. "Waiting for the next one."
Back in Malaysia, Singh's excited parents awaited their flight attendant son's arrival. His mother had prepared his favorite dishes — spicy prawns, blue crab curry, roast pork and vegetables.
Irene Gunawan couldn't wait to get home to Heaven to see her own family. She asked her sister-in-law to make that syrupy custard cake she loved. Gunawan's daughter was eager to stop at Jollibee, a popular burger chain.
Samira Calehr and her friend Aan had ushered her sons onto the train to the airport. They were joking and laughing, excited to spend time with their grandmother in the mountains of Bali. Shaka, 19, had just finished his first year of college, where he was studying textile engineering, and promised to keep an eye on Miguel. Their other brother, Mika, 16, hadn't been able to get a seat on Flight 17 and would travel to Bali the next day.
At the check-in counter, Calehr fussed over her boys' luggage. Shaka, meanwhile, realized he'd forgotten to pack socks. Calehr promised to buy him some and send them along with Mika.
Finally, they were outside customs. The boys hugged Calehr goodbye and walked toward passport control. Suddenly, Miguel whirled around and ran back, throwing his arms around his mother.
"Mama, I'm going to miss you," he said. "What will happen if the airplane crashes?"
What was this all about? she wondered.
"Don't say that," she said, squeezing him. "Everything will be OK."
Shaka tried to reassure them both. "I will take care of him," he said to his mom. "He's my baby."
She watched the two boys walk away. But Miguel kept looking back at his mother. His big brown eyes looked sad.
Then he vanished from view.
They all converged at Gate G3.
Singh and his fellow flight attendants finished their preparations. The announcement finally rang out. It was time to board.
Miguel and Shaka made their way to their seats in the first row of economy. Grootscholten was in the same row, two seats to their left. He'd just changed his Facebook cover photo to an image of Schiphol's air traffic control tower.
Farther back, Ayley settled into his seat. Against all odds, he'd made it. The anxious flier had shot one final message to his friend Patterson: "Gidday mate, leaving Amsterdam now. Great trip, not looking forward to the plane."
Up front, Albert and Maree Rizk slid into the first row of business class. Budy Gunawan sat down next to Maree. His wife Irene and their children settled in a few rows behind them. They'd been among the last to check in.
Irene, still worried about how her family was coping with the typhoon, sent one last text to her sister-in-law: "Hehehe Lov u, turning off cellphone, time to take off...take care always, you may get hit by falling trees."
She was on her way to Heaven.
Flight 17 took off around 12:15 p.m. on what should have been an 11 hour and 45 minute flight.
It lasted two hours.
The bodies began to fall. The phones began to ring. The confusion erupted, the hearts broke. And the twists of fate or happenstance that brought these people to this plane on this day unfurled.
In New Zealand, Ayley's frantic family began sending him messages, hoping his email about missing the bus meant he'd also missed the flight.
"Your booked plane has been blown up, literally," his mother Wendie wrote. "So wherever you are, whatever mess you're finding yourself in, we'd be delighted to hear that you missed your flight. ... We love you heaps and heaps and we just want to know you're alive my darling."
In Australia, the Campbells had just arrived when they heard that a Malaysia Airlines plane had been shot down over Ukraine. Fearing the worst, they rushed over to the Rizks' house to check on their kids. And for the second time in five months, Maree's stepmother learned she'd lost a loved one to a Malaysia Airlines disaster.
In Bali, Christine prayed. "Hope you will be fine... ohhhhhhhhhh GODDDDDDDDDDDD... PLEASEEEEEEEEEE!!! I beg You..." she posted on Facebook.
And in Amsterdam, Calehr had just finished buying Shaka's socks when her phone rang. It was her friend Aan. "Where are you?" he screamed. "The plane crashed!"
She made it home just in time to faint.
They grapple now with the what-ifs, the astronomical odds, the realization that the world they knew has turned alien in a blink.
In the Philippines, the Gunawan family home has grown quiet. Irene is gone, and with her, the community's joy.
Friends stop by to offer condolences and pray. Irene smiles out of an old picture on an altar ringed by candles. A videoke machine and microphone she bought on her last visit lie idle in the corner.
Her best friend, Zenaida Ecal, is furious. What does she want as punishment for those who stole Irene?
"What is worse than death?" she replies.
In Malaysia, the food Singh's mother had so lovingly prepared remains in the fridge. She cannot bear to look at it.
The parents cannot comprehend how something as simple as a swapped shift could have proven so kind to their daughter-in-law and so cruel to their son.
"It saved her life," Jihar Singh says. "Now my son has saved someone else's life."
In New Zealand, Wendie Ayley's work as a hospice nurse has given her a different perspective. She knows the end must come for everyone, including her son, who missed the bus but not the flight.
"When he died he was 30,000 feet closer to God. He would have known he was dead, and opened his wings," she says. "I believe his first thought would have been, 'This is awesome.'"
In the Netherlands, Samira Calehr thinks about how her baby boy seemed to sense that his time on earth was running short. She imagines the futures that will never be: Shaka's dream of becoming a textile engineer, gone. Miguel's dream of becoming a go-kart race driver, gone.
How could he have known? How could she have known?
"I should have listened to him," she says softly. "I should have listened to him."
Associated Press writers Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; Jim Gomez in Pagbilao, Philippines; Firdia Lisnawati in Bali, Indonesia; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia contributed to this report.