By CHRISTOPHER LEACH
On March 8th, contact was lost with Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a Boeing 777-200ER en route from Kuala Lampur to Beijing. The absence of facts as to the fate of the flight at first left a vacuum swiftly filled by speculation, guesswork and conspiracy theory splashed on the canvas of newspapers, television and the Internet and then triggered a multi-national search and rescue effort involving 26, the largest such operation in history.
In recent days, statements have been made that flight MH370 ended in the Indian Ocean and that there were no survivors. That is not true. There are survivors, thousands of them in 15 countries, and their journeys haven’t ended. Their journeys are just beginning.
Each of the 239 people who perished aboard that aircraft had families and loved ones. It is their lives that have been bent and broken. It is they who have to pick up the debris of shattered hopes and mangled dreams and struggle forward. They are the survivors of MH370.
Airline disasters are sensational by nature – the odds of them occurring are extreme and they represent human tragedy on a grand scale. This particular disaster was even worse than usual. Given today’s technology, where any of us can locate and identify our homes using Google Earth, how could we be unable to find any trace of an aircraft the size of a Boeing 777 for almost two weeks? It was these two weeks filled with what-ifs and maybes that gave extended life to the story and left us hungry for the next headline. In that indulgence, we seem to have forgotten about the survivors.
Unfortunately I know what they are forced to endure. Every airline disaster is unique and I know that my experiences will not be exactly the same as those of the survivors of MH370. However, I hope that the sharing of my memories will help you see beyond the headlines and through your television sets into the broken hearts of those left behind when MH370 fell from the sky and hit the surface of the Indian Ocean.
On the 12th of May 2010 I awoke early for no particular reason and looked at my watch. It was just after 6am. My first instinct was to roll over and curl into the body of my wife. Wondering why she wasn’t there, it took a moment to remember that the previous evening I had taken her to OR Tambo airport to catch a flight to London via Tripoli. It was the first time that we would be apart for more than the few hours that I was on shift at a local restaurant. Little did I know that we would be apart forever. I stretched across the empty bed but a feeling of disquiet made it impossible to go back to sleep and I was soon downstairs in the kitchen making coffee and listening to Radio 702.
I let the dogs out for their morning piddle and settled on the couch, lighting my first cigarette and planning the day ahead. Those plans were shattered when I heard the first report of many to come on the seven o’clock news: An Afriqiyah Airways Airbus had crashed en route from Johannesburg to Tripoli.
My first reaction was one of disbelief: It was a different airline, a different aircraft, Bree had missed the flight… I soon admitted to myself that the disbelief was denial. There was only one Afriqiyah flight out of OR Tambo that night and I knew that my wife was on board. I had spoken to her shortly before take-off. She had commented on the bright green livery and the fact that the cabin was relatively empty; she would be able to stretch across a row of seats and get some sleep.
The second emotion that flooded me was hope. She had survived the crash. Weren’t there always survivors? This triggered a desperate search for the facts. I was quickly online googling “Afriqiyah”, “plane crash” and “survivors”. Initially there was news that a few souls had survived and one fortunate child did. The rest of that morning was a manic ballet of emotions; extreme ups and worse downs all taking place on a stage of cold despair. Part of me urgently, anxiously, needed to know the truth and part of me was terrified of the finality that the truth would provide. If I turned off the radio and shut down my laptop, perhaps the hope would endure. On that morning hope was all that I had to hold on to.
And then the phone calls started. I made the first one. To my aunt. And I remember the words as if I had used them yesterday. It would be a long time until the tears started and even now remembering our conversation evokes a cold hollowness inside me. I tersely explained what had happened and was answered by an uncomfortable silence as Judy tried to process what I was telling her. I knew her well enough and had spent enough time in her home to know where she was sitting and that she wouldn’t reply with superficial platitudes. Her words were practical and useful at the time and although (being a thousand miles away) she was unable to be with me immediately she communicated with members of my family who were.
The second call that I made was to my sister-in-law. I didn’t know how to explain to Aideen that I believed her little sister had died alone and a continent away. I was saved from trying to phrase those feelings. She too listened to the radio. News of the disaster was slowly unfolding. Most of it was still speculation, so we shared our hope with each other, neither of us wanting to admit the truth that would later be laid bare. We ended our call and my phone didn’t stop ringing for three days.
Some of these calls I wanted and with hindsight realise that I needed. They were from friends and family; aunts and cousins whom I knew well and cared about. They offered support, emotional and otherwise. More importantly, they had known Bree; loved and respected the unique person that she was. They felt her loss on the same visceral level that I did and so their words were filled with truth and loaded with love. We attempted to console each other; we knew that we were suffering together. They kept me from withdrawing into myself, cutting myself off from the painful reality that I was dealing with and would have to deal with for days, months and years to come. Without their love I would have self-destructed, unable, unwilling to cope. I am forever grateful to all of them.
There were other calls. Those that I neither wanted nor needed. Unable to discern who would be on the other side of a ring tone, I was forced to take them all. There were reporters from eight different countries representing dozens of newspapers wanting to know; “How are you feeling?” I still don’t know what stopped me from screaming at them. Their questions were inane and a violation of my privacy. They triggered a primal anger. But I answered them all, wondering how they had obtained my telephone number. I still wonder from whom and how they had managed to manipulate those ten digits.
Then there calls from distant “friends” and nodding acquaintances. They all offered their condolences and I politely accepted but knew the truth. They wanted to stake their claim to a part of the tragedy, be able to believe that they owned a share in the latest international drama playing out in the press. I indulged them all.
That first week was exhausting, draining on every level. I felt depleted emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically. The sedatives that my doctor prescribed me did nothing to help me sleep but I enjoyed the darkness and silence of the mornings’ early hours. No phone calls. No visitors. No need to pretend. I curled up on a couch in the lounge surrounded by our dogs, my dogs now, I supposed, and wondered how I was going to explain to them that their mom wasn’t coming home. They would jump at the sound of every car that drove past and run to the gate barking with expectation. My hope was fading fast and I envied them their optimism. But we eventually did have that talk. I owed them that and called them onto the couch. With my arms around the girls I told them what had happened, trusting that they would understand. It was the first time that I was able to cry, and the tears poured out until there weren’t any left.
For months I lived on that couch, it would be a long time before I would once again sleep in the bed that Bree and I had shared – more than a year. It represented the intimacy that we had shared and was an empty, desolate and lonely place without her. Instead I took the pillows from her side of the bed and her nightie downstairs to my couch and would press them to my face as I breathed deeply, inhaling the essence of her. I would fill my head with the smells of her long titian red hair and her musky perfume and drown in the memories that the scents would spark – my last link to the reality of her physical presence. I wish that I had been able to bottle those scents, but four years later they are long gone and thinking about that saddens me.
The days turned into weeks and the numbness that had largely anaesthetised me at first wore off and I was forced to deal with the practical reality of picking up the pieces that Bree’s death had left behind. All of it was necessary and a lot was awful to contemplate. Ten days after the crash I was contacted by members of an agency that specialised in a morbid aspect of disaster management: identifying the bodies or, more honestly, the body parts left behind. Granted, the woman that I dealt with was a highly trained psychologist and incredibly empathetic, but she needed to collect medical and dental records and anything that could give an accurate DNA sample or help to identify my wife’s body. The crash had been “high impact” and apart from the tail and a few rows of seats, nothing had been left intact. I had looked at the photographs of the debris field left behind. It was shocking. Processing that information on a cognitive level was awful. I knew that I wasn’t going to get the body of my wife back and thinking about the reality of her remains and what might be left was horrific.
I went through the motions, bagging a hairbrush and a toothbrush that Bree had used and my sister-in-law gave a blood sample. The agency’s representative visited our doctor and dentist and eventually left with the information that she had come for. It would be weeks before I would hear from her again and almost a month before Aideen would return from Libya with Bree’s jewellery in her bag, bent and burned, and Bree’s coffin in the hold of the aircraft. Perhaps I should have made the trip instead of Aideen but I am grateful to her; I didn’t feel emotionally capable of going to Tripoli.
Five weeks passed before I was able to have my wife’s remains cremated and hold a memorial service for friends and family. Aideen wanted Bree’s coffin to be at the service but I insisted on the cremation beforehand. I couldn’t sit there wondering what had survived, what was in the box and chose what felt like a cleaner, less complicated and emotionally safer option.
It had been a long haul from the date of the crash until it felt as if the ordeal had finally finished. The service over, friends and family returned to their respective homes in South Africa and overseas and my life seemed to settle down. I returned to work, slowly stood up and started to walk. Baby steps at first, my existence had been redefined, my life completely changed. I needed to regroup and rebuild which in time I did. I had waited until I was 37 before getting married. I had waited that long until I was sure that I had found my soul-mate. I had shared the most fulfilling years of my life with Bree and now she was gone. Nothing would ever be the same.
I know that the survivors of MH370 have an arduous, painful journey ahead. They have already endured weeks of hell as the world has searched for their friends and relatives and they have many more painful weeks ahead as they wait for answers, wait for the truth. It saddens me that given the circumstances of their disaster, many of their questions will never be answered, and if they are, it will take months, perhaps years for the facts to be established.
These people are more than just soundbites, more than just YouTube downloads of hysterical emotion. They are real human beings experiencing real pain and they are many. They deserve our empathy and they deserve our prayers.