I AM the son of Esteen Singh, who died along with 16 others in Air Fiji's PC121 crash on July 24, 1999.
My sister, Raewyn, also died in this tragedy. They were both employed by ANZ Bank and were on their way to Nadi from Nausori to catch a flight to Melbourne, Australia.
When I first heard of the crash, some 41 kilometres west of Nausori Airport, my world collapsed.
I clearly remember being woken to a nervous phone call from an unnamed Air Fiji employee early that Saturday morning.
He said my mother's plane "didn't make it". I didn't understand exactly what this meant. I was under the impression that my mother's flight was merely delayed on the ground or running late in the air for other reasons.
The first news that something was wrong came when I turned the radio on and heard the 9am news bulletin. I was in extreme shock. I told my younger brother and proceeded to make my way to my sister's room to tell her this grievous news. It was upon opening her bedroom door, that I remembered that Raewyn was on the plane as well. I experienced a pain that I can still remember to this day.
It is my understanding that the circumstances of the accident were found to be consistent with "an in-flight collision with solid objects" and that "the aircraft began to break up prior to impacting the side of a ridge".
I do not wish to speculate on the cause of the accident but I do wonder if the recommendations made to civil aviation authorities at the time have been implemented.
A year after the accident, in May 2000, my family encountered another major blow when my dad who was the Attorney-General in the Labour government, was taken hostage.
All of that is now in the past but the events of July 1999 and May 2000 took an immeasurable toll on our family. Nikish, my younger brother, was some five years my junior. He was 16 at the time of the accident, in Form Five at Marist Brothers' High School.
On how we coped, I think it really had a lot to do in equal part with my Roman Catholic faith and the overwhelming support from everybody — from my work colleagues at the ANZ Bank, where I was also employed as a teller, my friends from Marist and everybody who I came into contact with.
I placed a great reliance on God, and despite my misgivings — on how could God do this to me and questioning God's existence and fairness — I learnt that I had no other viable choice other than to be strong not just for my younger brother, but for everybody else that was affected. In the end, I reconciled myself to the inescapable fact that when tragedy strikes, we are indeed all victims.
It was harder for me still to reconcile myself to the fact that despite my anger and protestations at their death and the subsequent clumsy attempts at search and rescue, nothing was going to bring them back.
I was happy, that my parish priest at Sacred Heart Cathedral gave me the support I needed, particularly in dealing with my anger and grief, and how to turn that energy into a vehicle for healing.
Back to 24 July, I went to the Samabula Police Station late in the afternoon where I met senior police officers. They were the ones who confirmed there were no survivors.
I returned to a house packed with people. I remember somebody telling me "you have to eat to keep up your strength". So I made my way to my bedroom to make and receive calls. The door opened and somebody put down a cold glass of soft drink and a plate of chicken biryani. It was reheated dinner from the previous night. I took a bite before placing the fork down and sobbed uncontrollably into my hands. This was the last meal mum cooked for me. To this date, I never have, or ever will eat chicken biryani again. I remember amidst the grieving process, some weeks after the crash, I overlooked the latest FEA power bill. FEA promptly sent somebody to the house to disconnect the power. I got a call from a neighbour who advised me of what had occurred. I rang FEA, explained the situation, and to my surprise and eventual relief, the power was reconnected.
And then something amazing happened that evening; about 25-30 FEA employees visited my house to express their sympathies at the whole situation. You have to remember that until some hours before, these people were faceless strangers, and it moved me to the core to see such love and compassion being expressed to my brother and I.
This is what I took away from the whole situation — that despite the tragedy, the generosity of the Fijian people and their love and concern eventually dissipated any residual pain or anger that I may have felt.
There were three of us in the family — Raewyn, Nikish and myself — and my mother had just celebrated her 47th birthday. She had attended Saint Joseph's Secondary School and was a brutally funny woman, always was the life of the party.
She and Raewyn were travelling to Melbourne to visit her two sisters.
Raewyn was 20 years old and part-time teller at ANZ Bank's USP Branch. She was travelling in part to finalise her university application for admission. She was determined to study law and thought the time was right to break away from the comforts of home and see what else the world had to offer.
I still remember the times Raewyn tried her hand at making roti, it was an unmitigated disaster! I also clearly recall that the night before they died. Mum made chicken biryani for dinner.
That night I sat on Raewyn's bed discussing the merits of which jacket she should wear on the plane. She eventually settled on a blue corduroy jacket with a peak lapel and a pink scarf as it was winter in Melbourne.
I remember having to stand down on her bag as it wouldn't close to allow the zip to be extended right-around. She, as usual, could not decide on which shoes to wear. Finally after much discussion (she was yelling, I was annoyed), she settled on a brown laced up boots.
Mum on the other hand could not make up her mind over which bangles to wear. She eventually picked out some gold ones.
I remember driving them to the airport and staying until they checked in.
As I was leaving, I saw at least 10 of the 15 passengers seated, awaiting their flight to be called. I remember everybody's faces — it is etched in my memory. Sometimes when I go to bed, I can still see them. I can't exactly remember the day, but I was asked to identify the remains of Raewyn and mum. I remember going into the hangar where the bodies were, and after a while led to a room where a body was laid out for me, concealed in a black body bag. They told me that they thought this was Raewyn. I asked if I could see her.
They said no —and rightly so. I paused, then asked if I could see her shoes. I was then led out, and taken back into the room to see her laced up brown shoes. Raewyn was identified.
Then it was Mum's turn. Same story. She was beyond recognition and I identified her through her manicured hands and gold bangles. The rest is history.
After the upheaval of May 2000, I moved to Australia with my younger brother. I completed my degrees in law and arts (majoring in criminology) and now work for the Consumer Affairs Victoria, a business unit of the Department of Justice, one of 10 departments within the Victorian State Government.
* Next week: What the official report recommended and how the civil aviation authorities responded.