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- September 19, 1983
- Vol. 20
- No. 12
Faces of Flight 007
The Untold Stories Behind The Lost Lives of The Korean Air Line Tragedy
On these pages are stories of a few of the people whom chance and circumstance put aboard Flight 007. Like those on any jetliner's manifest, they had little in common but their destination—excited tourists, harried businessmen, a mother taking her infant son to meet his father's relatives, a young lawyer on his way to a year's study in China, a Korean-American returning home for his sister's wedding. Their flight, until its calamitous end, was unremarkable. "It was a very, very silent flight," remembers Choi Sang Hyuk, 36, who served as purser on the New York-Anchorage leg. "Nothing special, just an ordinary flight. The cabin was very calm. Most of the passengers were asleep."
Before Becky Scruton boarded Flight 007 in New York, she told her friend Sandy Ulbrich that she planned to share the Lord" with whoever might be sitting next to her. The remark was characteristic of Mrs. Scruton, 28, a devout Baptist, who had met her husband, Dale, in a church in Del Rio, Texas. The Scrutons' deep faith sustained them last year while Dale was dying of cancer. As his pain grew ever more excruciating, Dale and Becky prayed together. Minutes after Dale's death last December, Becky stood in his Meriden, Conn. hospital room and sang It Is Well With My Soul in a fine soprano voice which moved nurses in the room to tears. Becky's faith buoyed her through the anxieties of raising two children—Todd, 6, and Alicia, 2—alone. She prayed for strength and she put all her energy into home-making, sewing curtains and clothes, repainting the inside of her home in Meriden, stenciling Winnie-the-Pooh characters on her son's bedroom walls. But not even prayer and near-constant activity could keep the pain and loneliness at bay. Six weeks ago Becky told a church friend, Debbie Somody, that she missed her parents, who were living in Seoul, South Korea, where her father worked as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army. "She really needed her mom to share those heart-to-heart talks," Somody says. So, after arranging for Todd to stay with the Ulbrichs and Alicia to stay with her in-laws, Becky Scruton took an airport limousine to Kennedy for a flight to Korea on Saturday, Aug. 27. There she found that she had neglected to bring her passport, and she booked passage on Tuesday's flight instead. "We laughed about the passport," remembers Sandy Ulbrich. "Becky said, 'I learned I needed a passport, but I know I have my passport to go to heaven.' " On Tuesday, Becky wore new jeans, a plaid blouse and white blazer to the airport. "She was real pretty, with shining strawberry blond hair," Sandy remembers. "We had one minute to spare and she hugged me and said, 'I love you'—and she did."
John Oldham, the occupant of seat 31H on Flight 007 that day, was also aboard only by mischance—stemming, in his case, from an act of kindness. Oldham, 27, a recent law-school graduate, was booked to fly on Monday night but postponed his trip for 24 hours so he could help some visiting Chinese scholars to find housing near New York's Columbia University. The former Fulbright scholar could sympathize with the plight of the visiting academics. He was on his way to China to spend a year studying Chinese language and law at Peking University. Oldham had postponed a lucrative job with a Washington law firm to go to Peking, and he had agonized over that decision. A week before leaving he spent a long night discussing his doubts with his sister, Nancy Oldham Raab, 23, at their mother's Bethesda, Md. home. But by the end of the evening he was sure of his decision. He saw it as the start of a lifelong involvement in the cause of friendship among nations. Before he left her that night, John turned to his sister and said, "Just think, at this time next week, I'll be in Hong Kong."
In seat 38A, Mary Jane Hendrie traveled with all the predictable hopes, fears and nerves of a young businesswoman heading to her first job on the other side of the world. At 25, she was, it seemed, destined for success. Fluent in Japanese, Spanish and French, she had breezed through the M.B.A. program at the University of Toronto in just eight months. Then she had sailed into a challenging job as an investment analyst in the Tokyo bureau of W.I. Carr Sons & Co., a Hong Kong-based international firm. "She had the world at her feet," says her father, Scottish-born Thomas Hendrie of Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. "She was in demand. They sought her out for this job." Mary Jane had already made three trips to Japan and she loved the country. But, her father says, she had no intention of staying there permanently. She planned instead a triumphant return home. "She wanted eventually to come back to the North American business world," he says. "She wanted to make a name for herself so she could do it."
In 27K, 11 rows forward of Mary Jane Hendrie in the nonsmoking section of the Boeing 747's floral decorated interior, was Han Tae Park, 42, for whom the trip was a homecoming. Park had settled in Audubon, Pa. in 1976 to pursue a career with an electronics firm. He dreamed of returning to his native Korea to start his own business but had decided to shelve the plan, at least long enough to allow his three sons—John, 14, Jesse, 12, and Chan, 8—to complete their education. It was the role of the first generation immigrant to defer his dream for the good of his children, Park told his friend and fellow Korean immigrant Hong Taek Chung. Park often confided in Chung. On the day of the flight, in fact, Park had asked Chung to take a walk with him. "To my surprise, he talked about dying," remembers Chung. "He told me that the most dreadful thing would be to die in a plane crash because in that kind of an accident, even though you were in danger, you can't do anything." The trip to his homeland was to be a combination of company business and the pleasure of attending his sister's wedding. In the brown suitcase he had checked at JFK, Park had packed a present for his parents, a supply of ground deerhorn, which some Asians believe promotes good health. Ten days ago his grieving relatives in Korea attended the wedding of his sister without him.
Sixteen rows ahead of Park, in the Prestige Class, seat 8H, was Aiden Lombard, 43, who also seemed in retrospect to have had a premonition of danger. In the days before he left for Seoul with his brother and business partner, Donald, to repair a computer system, Aiden seemed unusually affectionate, his wife recalls. "He'd only been home for about five days in two months because he'd been traveling a lot," says Julia Lombard, 31. "And he just kept telling me over and over how much he loved me. He said, 'I just want you to know that I love you.' And I kept teasing him that maybe he had a girlfriend on the side or something. We've just celebrated our sixth anniversary. He said, 'No, I just want you to know that's how I feel.' "
For Jan Hjalmarsson, the occupant of seat 18G, Flight 007 was an unexpected convenience. A globe-trotting Swedish entrepreneur who lived in Queens, N.Y., Hjalmarsson, 38, was originally booked on a flight scheduled to leave New York at 5 p.m. When he discovered that Flight 007 would take off seven hours later yet arrive in Seoul at almost the same time, he eagerly changed his reservation. Now he would have a few more hours to spend with his wife, Olga, 30, daughter Olivia, 3, and 3-week-old son Alexander. Hjalmarsson spent part of his last night in New York filling out the papers necessary to become a permanent United States resident. "He was very pro-American," says Olga, a native New Yorker who met Jan in Spain. "He always talked about how bad oppression was for people in the Soviet Union. I guess you could say he was anti-Soviet..."
Far more vehemently anti-Soviet was Lawrence McDonald. The Democratic Congressman from Georgia and chairman of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, McDonald was scheduled to be part of an official six-member Congressional delegation representing the United States at a Seoul conference to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the defense treaty between the two nations. Rep. McDonald—a medical doctor before he became an articulate and highly controversial Congressman—was originally scheduled to fly on Sunday night. He missed that plane by just three or four minutes when his connecting flight from Atlanta was diverted to Baltimore during a thunderstorm. McDonald could have caught a Pan Am flight to Seoul but decided instead to wait in a New York hotel in order to take advantage of a sponsored ticket.
"Congressman McDonald slept through the whole flight," recalls Choi Sang Hyuk. "He was the only passenger in first class. He did not eat anything during the flight, only a little bit of cake and a cool bottle of mineral water. All the way, he was sleeping."
In seats 37G and 37D were Stuart and Irene Steckler, both 32 and both transplanted New Yorkers on their way to a home they loved near Osaka, Japan. With its collection of well-kept plants and their two bicycles standing side by side, the cheerful little apartment mirrored the love the couple shared. After working in Japan for two years as part-time English teachers, the Stecklers were due to take up regular jobs as language instructors at the International Buddhist University near Osaka this month.
The Stecklers were traveling through India 10 years ago when they happened to stop at a Vipassana meditation center. Fascinated, they stayed three months. "The first time they came back from India, there was a mosquito in the room," remembers Irene's mother, Eve Bigotte. "I tried to get rid of it, and Irene said, 'Mother, must you kill it?' "
Stuart and Irene spent the week before boarding Flight 007 with her parents, the Bigottes, in suburban Rye, N.Y. "They had no fear of dying," says Irene's father, Jean-Pierre Bigotte. "It was part of their creed. They were probably better prepared to die than anyone else I know. Their philosophy was such that they were preparing in this life for the next life."
Travel agent Margaret Zarif, 59, had recruited five other Detroit women for a 16-day Asian excursion, touching down in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Zarif, a retired public school teacher and a Black Muslim, opened her travel agency three years ago as a way of financing her own desire to see the world.
A believer in the occult, she always consulted with close friend and psychic reader Bobbie Brooks before setting off on her jaunts. Would it be a safe journey? Would she meet someone special? she would ask. "She was a great metaphysician," Brooks remarks. But this time, Brooks notes, Zarif failed to consult her. Zarif sat in row 27 in the nonsmoking section of 007 with Joyce Chambers, Jessie Slaton and Frances Swift.
"Momma, I'm going to travel light," autoworker Joyce Chambers, 34, had told Dorothy Mae Jones before setting out from their modest west side Detroit home. But she took the biggest suitcase in the house, the big bag on wheels, and clearly was preparing to plunder the Orient. "Joyce loved shopping," says Mrs. Jones.
Judge Jessie Slaton, 75, was respected throughout the Motor City as a tough-talking, no-nonsense justice. Like Zarif, she was a civil rights activist and a determined world traveler. Ordinarily, the widowed judge left her family a detailed itinerary. But this time, for some reason, she did not.
Frances Swift, 43, was walking on air, even before the plane took off. "Everything is moving so nicely for me," she told close friend Ida Beard. "The Lord is taking care of everything." Come September 19, she would be moving to a new job, heading up an occupational therapy unit at Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Atlanta. And now, there was this junket to Taiwan and Japan. Usually a jeans-and-casual-wear traveler, Frances was dressed to the nines for the flight to Seoul. She boarded the plane in pearls and her best white dinner dress. Her hair and nails were beauty-salon perfect.
Marie Culp, 75, and Hazel James, 50, were the smokers in the Detroit contingent and were therefore seated in the rear of the plane. A Pontiac, Mich. widow and retired owner of a beauty salon, Marie had met a 21-year-old Japanese student in Paris five years earlier, and the two of them had become constant pen pals; she was planning to visit him in Tokyo. For Hazel, a dressmaker, the trip came as something of a godsend. She had been depressed, due to family problems, and her husband, Willie, encouraged her to go with Marie Culp. "You have to do something for you," he had said.
Chance nearly prevented the two friends from boarding Flight 007. On Tuesday morning Marie's stepson Jesse, 67, took them to the wrong departure terminal in Detroit, and they missed their Pan Am flight to New York. Says Jesse with a sigh, "Wouldn't it have been beautiful if my mother had just taken the hint when she missed that first flight?"
The Grenfells, Neil, 36, and Carol, 33, and their children, Noelle, 5, and Stacey, 3, were seated in rows 7 and 8 of the Prestige Class for a total fare of $7,140. Neil, Eastman Kodak's top marketing executive in Korea, had brought his brood stateside for a month's vacation—most of which was spent near Carol's parents, in the idyllic Thousand Islands region of upstate New York. Photographs of the vacationing Grenfells show a smiling, picture-postcard quartet. The whole family was ready to return to Seoul on August 16 when they heard the "happy news" that their annual leave was being extended two weeks. Neil's Kodak bosses wanted him to host a delegation of Korean businessmen at the corporation's Rochester, N.Y. headquarters. Carol, a Rochester native, was delighted.
The Monday before their flight home, the Grenfells had dinner with Kodak colleague Raymond Finn and his wife, Barbara. "Noelle sang Korean songs for us," recalls Barbara. "There was one song about a butterfly, which she sang while flapping her arms, and another about a rabbit. She and Stacey were delightful kids." Experienced travelers, the Grenfells were typically casual about the trip ahead of them. "Neil chuckled like he always did," remembers another friend, Charles Welch. "He said, 'Eh, I guess we'll miss Wednesday.' He meant because of crossing the International Date Line."
For Diane Ariyadej, 29, and her 8-month-old son, Sammy, Seoul was to be just a stopover en route to Bangkok, Thailand. They were brought to John F. Kennedy International Airport by Diane's parents, Harold and Leonore Lebow of New York City, who were worried about how Sammy would fare on the 16-hour journey. "We really didn't want to see them go and it was tearing us apart," says Harold, 59. "But we knew that the love we felt for Sammy was something we had to share with Lek's family."
A Thai civil engineer, Patiphan "Lek" Ariyadej was the man Diane had fallen in love with at Syracuse University, the man she had followed to Thailand five years ago and married. In return for the financial support he received as a student, Lek was obliged to stay in Thailand and work for the government. But when Diane became pregnant last year, she decided to come back to the U.S. to have the baby. Lek was planning to look for a job in the U.S. earlier this year. But then his father, a carpenter in a village outside Bangkok, died; as eldest son, Lek was responsible for helping his family readjust. The couple agreed that Diane and the baby would stay on in New York until the end of August, so Sammy would not have to face the wilting heat of the Thai summer.
On the day of their departure, Sammy was fretful with teething pain, but their daughter's reassuring confidence with the baby allayed the Lebows' concerns.
"At a quarter to eight the next morning Diane called us from Anchorage, Alaska," says Harold. "The phone was clear as a bell and she said she was comfortable and the baby was fine. She said she would try to call from Korea...."
Diane's brother, Alan, 35, is tormented by unanswerable questions. "I keep thinking about the 12-minute interval from the time the plane was hit until radar contact was lost. Was the airplane obliterated on the spot? Did the missile suck all the oxygen out of the plane? Did they suffocate? Did they burn up? Were they screaming? Did they suffer? I have this image in my head of people screaming. It's freaking me out because nobody knows what happened. Obviously, the Russians will never tell us." ?
Written by PETER CARLSON and WILLIAM PLUMMER, reported by PEOPLE correspondents in New York, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Philadelphia and Tokyo
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