Out of the Blue

updated 05/07/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/07/2001 01:00AM

Arriving in the remote Peruvian rain forest in 1996 to begin her career as a Christian missionary, Roni Bowers felt at home from the very beginning. She had dreamed of doing evangelical work for much of her life; now she was ready—and fearless. "The first time she saw the Amazon she dove right in," says her longtime friend Gloria Rudd with a laugh. "Very few women would do that, with the piranhas possibly all around, but she was willing to do anything."

That spirit of adventure, as well as Roni's devotion to her calling, soon became her signature traits, which made her death all the more heartbreaking to those who knew her. On the morning of April 20, while Bowers, 35, flew over the Amazon in a single-engine pontoon plane with her husband, Jim, 38, and their two children, Cory, 6, and Charity, 7 months, a Peruvian air force jet, apparently mistaking them for drug smugglers, raked the Bowerses' plane with bullets. One went through Roni and struck Charity, who was on her lap, killing both of them. Pilot Kevin Donaldson, 42, seriously wounded, managed to crash-land the plane on a stretch of water below. Only Jim and Cory escaped with minor injuries.

For whatever small consolation it might have been worth, Roni died not far from where she had done the work that she loved, nurturing the ministry she had shared with her husband. They had lived on a 60-ft. houseboat, spending four or five weeks at a time visiting villages along a 200-mile stretch of the Amazon, then returning for supplies before setting out again. Jim would deliver sermons, while Roni helped teach children to read. They would assist in setting up churches and training pastors, all the while trying to avoid poisonous snakes and disease. Communication with the outside world was mostly through ham radio.

Though little in her upbringing could have prepared her for it, living in the jungle seemed to come naturally to Roni. Born in Nebraska, Veronica "Roni" Luttig was a self-described Air Force brat who moved with her family frequently as a child. The Luttigs hadn't been especially religious until the family was born again when Roni was 12. Soon she announced she wanted to be a missionary. She graduated from Poquoson (Va.) High School a year early and went off to Piedmont Baptist College in Winston-Salem, N.C. Such was her religious conviction, friends say, that she wouldn't even date a man who didn't also want to do missionary work. "Whenever I was asked out, even for ice cream," she recalled in a recent letter, "my first question would be, 'What do you want to do when you graduate?' "

At Piedmont she met Jim Bowers, who had grown up in Brazil, where his parents were missionaries. The two were married in 1985. But with money running low, the couple dropped out of school so that Jim could enlist in the Army. After a tour of duty in Germany, they returned to Piedmont, receiving their diplomas in 1993. They immediately joined the Calvary Church in Muskegon, Mich., and signed on as missionaries with the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism. In 1995 they were sent to Costa Rica for language training, taking along their son Cory, whom they had adopted a year earlier after Roni, who had undergone fertility treatments, was told she couldn't bear children.

The Bowerses' first posting was to Iquitos, Peru, a bustling port city on the Amazon, near the Brazilian border. "They loved the life," says Dr. Todd Rexford, a physician in Muskegon who is one of Jim's best friends. "Creature comforts did not impress either of them." But the pleasure they took from their work was tempered by personal anguish. Four years ago, against all expectations, Roni became pregnant. Her elation, though, didn't last long. At 10 weeks she miscarried and became deeply depressed. "[I returned] home with an empty heart and an empty womb," she later wrote. "Never in my life had I felt such emptiness." She acknowledged that her faith had been shaken, but eventually, with the help of antidepressants and a renewed spiritual commitment, she rallied.

Then, last fall, the Bowerses got word that a baby girl was available for adoption in Michigan. They hurried home and completed the process, naming their new daughter Charity. After Christmas they returned to Iquitos, settling in for what was supposed to be another four-year stint in the Amazon. Recently they had asked Kevin Donaldson, a fellow American who worked as a pilot for the same evangelical group, to fly them to the border of Colombia so they could complete the paperwork for Charity's visa. They were returning to Iquitos when the Peruvian jet intercepted them.

It remains unclear why the plane opened fire. Donaldson, a Geigertown, Pa., native who has been flying in Peru for 13 years, said he had filed a flight plan and tried to identify himself when he encountered the jet, but got no response, perhaps because they were not on the same frequency. The crew of a CIA aircraft that was conducting a joint antidrug surveillance mission in the vicinity at the time, and had first alerted the Peruvians that the Bowerses' plane might be suspicious, insisted they had cautioned the military jet not to attack until a positive identification could be made. The Peruvian air force, meanwhile, maintained that its plane had done everything by the book.

In any case, it is remarkable that Donaldson, who was seriously wounded in both legs, and whose cockpit caught fire after the strafing, was able to get the plane down. Once in the water Donaldson, Jim Bowers and Cory clambered onto a wing, where they were rescued by local villagers who knew the missionaries by sight and took them to a hospital an hour away. All three survivors were quickly ferried back to the U.S. The Bowerses' friends could scarcely measure the grief Jim and Cory must be feeling over their loss. But all agreed that Roni herself would have seen the tragedy in light of her own religion. Her close friend Heidi Enck recalls that whenever others would wonder about the hazards of missionary work, Roni would dismiss it with a wave. "Don't they understand," she would say, "that I am safest where God wants me to be?"

Bill Hewitt
Barbara Sandler and Grant Pick in Chicago. Amy Mindell in Detroit, Matt Birkbeck in Geigertown and Drew Benson in Lima

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