A kiss, a prayer, a haunting premonition — the final, fateful days of MH17’s victims

One young passenger asked his mother if ‘‍souls go back to God’


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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 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, Ms. Calehr told herself. So she stretched out beside him and held him all night.

It was 11 p.m. 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.

Ms. 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, Mr. Grootscholten called to thank her.

They connected over coffee. Mr. 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 Ms. Christine’s two children, 14-year-old Dustin and 8-year-old Stephanie, had died six years ago, and they quickly bonded with Mr. 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 Ms. Christine’s family and lunch for Mr. Grootscholten.

In May,Mr. Grootscholten returned to Bali to celebrate Ms. Christine’s birthday and told her he wanted to spend the rest of his life beside her. She drove him to the airport 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Ayley to book a trip to Europe with his friend Bill Patterson, a kennel owner. Mr. 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, Mr. 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 lifelong 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 Mr. Singh’s parents, who fretted about the pair continuing to fly. But Mr. 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 Friday. Take care of yourself, he told his mother. After they hung up, she said a prayer for Mr. 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 Ms. Gunawan would — as always — be the star. Ms. 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. Ms. Gunawan took up office work, and sent money to her family in the Philippines. Budy worked as a supervisor at Malaysia Airlines in Amsterdam.

Ms. 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.

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, Ms. Calehr fussed over her boys’ luggage. Shaka, meanwhile, realized he’d forgotten to pack socks. Ms. Calehr promised to buy him some and send them along with Mika. Finally, they were outside customs. The boys hugged Ms. 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.

Asia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Southeast Asia - Western Europe - Australia - Oceania - Norah Jones - Ukraine - New Zealand - Netherlands - Malaysia - Philippines - Indonesia - Bali - Amsterdam - Diana Ross


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