The crash of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 so close to the end of 2014 triggered rememberings I’m not sure I welcomed. I’m surprised that I am so disturbed. Perhaps writing will settle me.
On August 12, 1985, I and 48 other Japan Airline scholars from 13 countries were scheduled to board JAL Flight 123 from Tokyo to Osaka where we had a series of youth events. The JAL Scholarship was a program offered to university students across Asia and the Pacific – a generous one because it covered our tuition in the Sophia University summer program as well as our board, lodging, transportation expenses (air, train, and bus fare), and it gave us a per diem to boot.
We got into the program by way of a national writing contest: a thousand words on a topic of JAL’s choice (in our case it was “How Intercultural Exchange can Foster International Relations”). I was later told that in the 1985 run in the Philippines, there were more than 200 entrants. Only 15 essays were selected. The semifinalists were then subjected to an interview by a panel composed of newspaper columnists, JAL executives, and officers of the Phil-Japan Friendship Foundation. (One of the columnists asked me to formulate a foreign policy on the spot. One of the JAL execs asked whether I would have a problem with nudity because I would be expected to bathe in a group. I was seventeen. It was a tough interview.)
At any rate, five of us made it, and in two weeks’ time we were Tokyo-bound. Everything happened at a frenetic pace. When I finally got to my dorm room at midnight, the first thing I did after opening my suitcase was bawl like a baby. It was my first time to be apart from my parents. It was my first experience of being completely on my own.
The second day was better. And the third. And the fourth. By the end of that week I was relishing my independence. I was the youngest “JALer” in our group and inevitably got treated like an infant. I was everyone’s kid sister. Our handler, Hikita-san, liked to tease me. I had a big crush on him – he spoke fluent French and English and was urbane and debonair. He liked to make me the butt of his jokes, but really he was very protective of me, because I was quite young. I was having the time of my life. I recall looking out the window during our many bus rides and wishing I could dash home, bundle up my family, and dash back to Tokyo with them so they could share the ride with me. It was too magical to savor alone.
After our 4-week stint at Sophia, we were set to fly to Osaka on JAL Flight 123 for a final round of homestays and educational tours. We were ready to go, but at pretty much the last minute (I don’t quite recall when we were told, whether a day or two prior to our Monday flight) we were informed that our trip would be postponed till the following week. The UN International Youth Festival was being held in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture in late August and JAL was graciously extending our stay so we could attend the preliminary symposia. We were disappointed to have our plans suddenly ditched but elated that we had another week together. That was worth any change.
We unpacked our bags on Monday morning and got busy goofing off for the better part of the day. Classes were over and we were free to explore. Most of us got back in time for dinner, but the mood was different that night. The dorm that housed us was a facility for flight attendants and other JAL personnel, and there was usually a buzz of comings and goings. But that night was strangely quiet and still. We went to bed, a bit unsettled. And then the wailing began.
The dorm was segregated by gender and in the B wing, where the women lived, weeping and moaning and despairing cries kept me awake the whole night. I was afraid. I didn’t understand what was going on. There was no one I could ask. I don’t recall whether I stayed in my room or went to the lounge, the common area where we JALers usually congregated. It’s all a blank now. But I’m sure that by the next day I had learned somehow that Flight 123 had crashed. Some of the fatalities were residents of our dorm. Many of our dorm-mates had friends on that flight. The phone was ringing off the hook. Parents from 13 countries were frantic to know, is my child alive? The alteration of our plans had been so eleventh-hour that our parents had not yet been properly advised.
In all, 524 people perished on that flight, including Kyu Sakamoto, the well-loved composer of the iconic ditty “Sukiyaki,” and a Cabinet official. Only four survived. The crash was a freak accident, caused by a defective repair job that had occurred years before and went undetected. It remains the deadliest single-aircraft event in history.
The week following was inordinately depressing. We felt helpless but wanted to aid JAL so badly that we told Hikita-san, please use us – we’re here for JAL, let us help. After a few days, we went on an NHK game show in our JAL shirts with a JAL banner, proudly declaring our confidence in the beleaguered airline. Then at last came Monday when we boarded a similar B747 at the same time as the ill-fated flight with dazzling smiles on our faces. I encountered the worst turbulence I have ever experienced in my life on that flight, but I refused to buckle up and instead knelt on my seat so I could face my friends in the row behind me, who also refused to buckle up. Never mind that my head was hitting the ceiling. Never mind that they were jostled in their seats. We laughed like it was a roller coaster ride. We made it to Osaka, obviously, but I was secretly glad that we were to return to Tokyo by bullet train.
I don’t remember processing these events at the time. Things happened so rapidly then that there was no opportunity to mull over the tragedy and how it had almost included us. I don’t recall that we ever talked about it amongst ourselves. The sorrow of the victims’ families was too intense, too close to us – especially because we were JAL ambassadors – that the only real respect we could pay was to keep an honorable distance. We would not redirect attention to ourselves by saying “we were almost among them.” That would’ve been selfish and crass. After six weeks in Japan, we had learned enough of Bushido to bestow upon them the camaraderie of silence.
After the recent spate of airplane crashes in my neck of the woods, I was tempted to Google Flight 123. For the first time, I watched the full video, read the reports in detail, saw the faces of the victims and the survivors. Back then, all we saw were blanketed remains in rows in a warehouse. It wasn’t something you wanted to keep watching. But the thought did cross my mind – I could have been one of them, dead at 17.
Now nearly 30 years later, I am remembering this. I am jolted by how random events can spell death or life. How a few hours and a change of plans can determine one’s future, whether one has it or not. Those families who missed AirAsia Flight QZ8501 – we are kindred spirits.
How have I lived since returning from Japan? Not always well; at times, destructively; but I was saved in the nick of time. Eleven years after “surviving” Flight 123, I met Jesus Christ. He has been my Captain ever since and I have spent the last 12 years teaching others about His word. Is this why I was kept alive? Sometimes I wonder myself. Only He knows.
I was pondering that – life in general and how I am to make it through 2015 – as I left home on December 31. I was about to get in the car when something caught my eye, an event I’d never seen before: a butterfly, just emerged from its cocoon, slowly flapping its wings in the breeze. I knew I was being told something. That image illustrated what I felt on that last day of 2014: coming out of the old, unsure of the new, but ready to fly. I have no idea what’s in store and how I will fare in 2015. But I know this: the God who preserved me 30 years ago has measured the length of my days, and He holds my future in His hands. He has my back. Because of that, whatever 2015 has for me, I intend to celebrate life.