Saturday July, 24, 1999.
With the days shorter at this time of the year, it was still dark when the 15 passengers booked on Air Fiji's 5.25am flight to Nadi started arriving at Nausori Airport.
All were due to catch connecting flights and while each was travelling for a different reason, the locals who were to board the ill-fated flight may have found some comfort in seeing each other. They would have either known each other through family connections, or they would have known of each other through business dealings or career exposure. They were all from prominent families.
The high profile local passenger list included: Kuar Battan Singh, 68, a former senator and close and trusted friend of then serving President the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara; Rajendra Solanki, 51, a well-known businessman who had a phobia for flying domestic planes; Raewyn Singh, 18, a bank officer who would have been ANZ Bank's queen in the August Hibiscus festival; Esteen Singh, 46, the would be contestant's mother and former wife of then Attorney-General; Mosese Latu, 35, a University of the South Pacific librarian and community worker who was excited about what would have been his first overseas trip; and Michael Houng Lee, an established 46-year-old civil and structural engineer.
Also a passenger was Nacanieli Saumi, 40, an Air Pacific pilot who was scheduled to fly a Boeing 737 to Auckland that day. Mr Saumi was the son-in-law of former Cabinet minister and Speaker of the House of Representatives, the late Tomasi Vakatora. The next day the nation came to know that the former military officer's colleague, William Gardiner, missed the flight because his alarm clock did not set off at the correct time. A faulty alarm clock had saved a life.
At the airport and ready to fly, though, were the young two-men crew of flight PC121. Chief pilot Kitione Galuinadi and his 26-year-old co-pilot Filipe Racule were in their prime. The duo not only shared a love for soaring the skies — they were also flying high in love. Both were planning their weddings. As Filipe's sister will reveal in a story yet to be told, he had paid for his Tongan girlfriend's air tickets a day before he was killed. In a heartbreaking turn of events, Mepa Siaki would use the ticket to attend her sweetheart's funeral.
Like their passengers, both airmen also came from renowned family backgrounds. Kitione's dad was Jonetani Galuinadi, the boss at Fiji Sugar Corporation, while skilled musician Filipe's parents were Suva Grammar School principal Amani and his academic wife Rejieli.
By 5.25am, the flight was ready for take-off. This, despite the commotion caused by KB Singh. He had tickets for a connecting flight to Melbourne, Australia, that day but whoever booked his tickets mucked up the domestic flight times. He had words with the agents at the counter and because he was well-connected, KB Singh managed to get a seat ahead of one of the passengers booked for that morning's half-hour flight to Nadi.
Records show the plane taxied off the runway at 5.26am and investigators would later report that the 10-year-old EMB 110 Banderainte plane crashed 10 minutes into flight.
It was a crash no one could have survived. All 17 on board were killed, relegating the tragedy was the worst in Fiji's aviation records.
The wreckage was located some three hours after take-off, down the slope of a ridge in the mountainous and rough terrain of interior Viti Levu. It took The Fiji Times team three hours to trek to the scene from Delailasekau Village.
In the days that followed, disbelief and shock were overtaken by questions about the relevant stakeholders' preparedness for search and rescue. The crash occurred about 5.35am and yet doctors did not certify all 17 dead until 11.30am. Decrying the delay, the doctors said they left Nadi by helicopter at 8.30am after being informed by civil aviation authority officials but bureaucratic red tape caused unnecessary delay. Naitasiri villagers who were woken by the sound of an explosion in the hills reported the incident to the Nausori Police Station about 7.20am but for some reason the officer on duty did not believe the caller. Later it was reported that the airport control tower did not raise the alarm until one and a half hours after the crash.
Emotions already chaotic, families who lost loved ones were tormented further when the retrieval operation ended the first day with the bodies left overnight at the crash site. They finally claimed the bodies on Monday July 26 and funeral preparations begun immediately thereafter.
This tragedy occurred 13 years ago today, but in the moments after the grim news of a crash was confirmed, one thing was clear. It was a disaster no one was prepared for.
* Next week: The mystery of what happened during the 10 minutes from when PC121 took off from Nausori and when it actually crashed remains unresolved. The Fiji Times looks into the reports of two separate investigations and the questions that remain unanswered 13 years later.