Fear of death before flying
In a bedroom in a townhouse near Amsterdam, Miguel Panduwinata reached out for his mother. “Mama, may I hug you?”
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 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 next day, the two boys were joking and laughing. Shaka, 19, had just finished his first year of college, where he was studying textile engineering. Their other brother, Mika, 16, hadn’t been able to get a seat on Flight 17 and would travel to Bali the next day.
The boys hugged Calehr goodbye and walked toward passport control.
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?”
“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.
A few hours later, Calehr had just finished buying Shaka socks when her phone rang. “The plane crashed!” a friend screamed.
Calehr made it home just in time to faint.
She grapples now with the what-ifs. “I should have listened to him,” she says softly.
New career cut short
For New Zealander Rob Ayley, 29, 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, married and he and Sharlene had two sons. 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 to bring breeding dogs to New Zealand.
The duo spent a month driving all over Europe, visiting kennels.
Finally, it was time to come home.
The men were taking different flights back.
Ayley’s frantic family began sending him messages after hearing about the crash, hoping his earlier email about missing a bus to the airport meant he’d also missed his 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.”
A switch to see parents
Flight attendant Sanjid Singh hadn’t originally been scheduled for Flight 17, but he wanted to get back to Malaysia a day early to visit his parents. 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.”
Typhoon forces delay
Irene Gunawan, 53, 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.
Gunawan was the light and laughter of her clan.
She and her future husband, Budy, met playing in a band in Japan, married and settled in the Netherlands, where she gave birth to Daryll and Sheryll, now 19 and 14. Gunawan took up office work. Budy worked as a supervisor at Malaysia Airlines in Amsterdam.
The family was supposed to leave earlier, but a typhoon delayed their trip. By chance, they nabbed seats on Flight 17.
Lightning can strike twice
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 Ross and Sue Campbell. 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, but on a different flight.
On Tuesday night, the four gathered at an Italian restaurant and reminisced about their latest adventure — one of their best — and made plans for a reunion back in Australia to look at their vacation photos.
Some friends were surprised 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.
“Lightning never strikes twice,” Albert had told a friend.
They burst out laughing. The nonchalant explanation had a double meaning. Albert’s house had been struck by lightning last year.
Visions of tragedy
Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand said she sent her son Bryce and his girlfriend, Daisy Oehlers, on vacation to Bali to get over the grief of Daisy’s mother dying two and a half months ago.
“It’s a tragedy on top of a tragedy,” Fredriksz-Hoogzand said. “She was such a kind girl,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “And she has been murdered, together with my son. They were totally innocent.”
Fredriksz-Hoogzand said her grief was overwhelming.
“When I am in my bed at night, I see my son lying on the ground,” she said. “I see Daisy. I see Bryce. I see them in my head. I see it!”