As a journalist I’ve covered many news events involving death. Wars, tsunamis, earthquakes, bushfires, murders … you never get used to it. The sadness … the sorrow. But in a career of more than 30 years I’ve learned to cope, although, I admit, some cases are easier than others.
I have developed something akin to professional armour – but sometimes, something happens that finds a crack in that defence.
As reports came through last December 28 that flight AirAsia QZ8501 – with 162 on board – had disappeared from radar screens between Surabaya and Singapore, Channel Nine TV cameraman Dan Loh and I headed for the region: first Singapore, then Surabaya in Indonesia. Later, as the search for the missing Airbus focused on the seas off Borneo, we lined up a flight to Pangkalan Bun, where officers from Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) were coordinating efforts.
We headed to the hospital where we expected any bodies recovered from the crash site would be brought and we took up a position outside to await developments. Within minutes we heard sirens. A cavalcade of official cars contained the local governor, the local police chief and Air Vice-Marshal Sunarbowo Sandi, the mission coordinator of the search and rescue (SAR) operations. I’d seen him fronting media conferences and knew he could speak English, so as the officials moved inside I approached Sunarbowo and introduced myself. He was a tall man. An imposing man. A man clearly in charge. He agreed to a brief interview and primarily we spoke about the delicacy and respect that had to be shown to victims of this disaster. Then he was gone.
Soon we heard more sirens and two ambulances pulled up with coffins numbered 001 and 002 – labelled by the order they had been retrieved from the sea. Dan and I filed our report for the next news bulletin.
In the morning, as we drove to the SAR headquarters at Iskandar Airport, I posed the – admittedly highly unlikely – possibility to Dan that maybe we could get out to the search zone, off the coast of Kalimantan.
Sunarbowo was already holding court at the SAR headquarters, looking at charts, and directing his teams of pilots and search coordinators. I approached and he waved me to sit down alongside him. He continued issuing orders. Eventually he looked at me: “Good morning.”
“Good morning, sir”, I replied. “I have a question.”
“Yes?” he urged.
“Would it be possible for me and my cameraman to accompany one of your teams to the search site to film the difficult task they are facing?”
Sunarbowo waved his arm in a wide arc, indicating scores of other media who were also at the base.
“Every one of them would also like to get in my helicopters,” he said with a smile. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“I understand”, I replied, “but this is me who is asking.” He laughed. I learned long ago that if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Sunarbowo began speaking rapidly in Indonesian to his second-in-command. After a discussion, which I did not understand, I was directed to follow his deputy. We walked outside and he introduced me to the pilots of a SAR chopper.
“We’re taking off in 45 minutes,” the co-pilot said. “Be out on the tarmac.”
I expected to be flown a little way out to sea, to where we could film some navy vessels taking part in the search. But clambering into the helicopter I realised there were no seats – except those occupied by the pilot and co-pilot. I was directed to sit on a pile of empty body bags. Dan grabbed a spot on the cabin floor.
Two more SAR personnel climbed aboard: one wearing a helmet; the other, I suspected, was a spotter. We took off, heading south. And for about an hour we flew over the Java Sea. No seat belts, no harnesses, only life jackets.
Staring out the window I found it hard to believe that a victim or any wreckage could be spotted in these waves. Dan busied himself filming the crew going about their mission and I thought it wouldn’t be long before we turned for home. Not so.
In a sudden burst of movement the spotter and the crewman in the helmet indicated for us to move aside as they took up position alongside the winch and opened the side door. The noise and the rush of wind was incredible.
Are we about to do what I think we’re about to do?
We were circling an Indonesian naval vessel as it punched through the heavy seas. We circled it three times, gradually descending. On the back deck I could see a black bundle. The size and shape told me we were about to collect a victim of this disaster.
The winch was lowered and the chopper crew began hauling in a net containing the body bag. For some reason it snagged underneath the chopper. I hesitated for a few moments and then clambered across to help. No matter how hard we tried we couldn’t heave it in, so the bundle was gingerly lowered back down to the deck.
We circled the ship. Again, the winch was lowered and again, as the net rose, it snagged. This time all four of us tried to heave it on board, leaning out of the chopper, trying with all our might to drag the bundle in. None of us had a safety harness.
I began to think that we should give up and let the ship bring the victim home. But as I breathed a quiet sigh of relief I felt a bump.
Out the window I saw two sailors. We had landed on the deck of the heaving ship. That in itself was a dangerous manoeuvre … one slip up, one rogue wave, one wind gust … but there was no time to consider the consequences.
The ship’s crew passed the body bag on board, then handed us a piece of cabin luggage and a woman’s leather handbag. Before I knew it we had lifted off.
The crewman wearing the helmet placed a cotton mask over his face and let out a sigh. He appeared to have tears in his eyes. I had given my mask to Dan so I had no buffer to the smell of death that had invaded the chopper. In less than a minute we were heading for shore.
It was the longest of flights. No-one spoke as we droned across 50 nautical miles (93km). There was a lot to think about. A victim of the AirAsia crash was in a body bag just centimetres from my feet and I couldn’t help but stare at the zipper and imagine who might be inside. We didn’t know if this victim was a man or a woman, and it was five days after the crash so I didn’t want to think about the state of the body. I discounted the possibility it was a child because of the size.
For the next 40 or so minutes, questions swirled in my head. The chopper crew had, I figured, done this before and seemed intent on not looking towards the bag.
With not much else to do, my gaze drifted across to the cabin luggage. A small grey overnighter with green wheels; I had one just the same size. No doubt it contained clothing and toiletries, just like mine does when I travel. It was wet, sure, but otherwise unmarked. Whatever was inside was as it was packed.
The handbag, like the cabin luggage, was wet but showed no signs of damage. It was leather, in a backpack style, and like something my wife or daughter would own. I wondered if this or the overnighter belonged to the person in the body bag. Unlikely, I realised. All three items would have been found floating somewhere in the Java Sea. What did the handbag contain? A purse? Family photos? A hairbrush? A set of keys?
I have covered many stories involving death and while it’s never easy to deal with such situations, I’ve hardened myself to the concept. But for some reason my eyes kept drifting back to the handbag. It held items important to whoever owned it – and now that person was dead.
That thought haunted me more than the body bag itself.
I looked over at Dan. He was staring at the floor of the chopper. “Are you OK?” He just nodded. I wasn’t sure I was.
There is no other way to describe what I was experiencing – I was experiencing trauma. Here we were carrying out our roles in reporting the news, suddenly finding ourselves drawn into a recovery mission. When the crew had first started trying to get the body on board I had harboured conflicting thoughts – do I help? Is that my role? But as the seconds passed it had settled as absolutely the right thing to do.
Until this moment, in 30 years of reporting I had always managed to keep traumatic events at arm’s length … even seeing multiple bodies after the Asian tsunami or discovering corpses down a well in the East Timorese conflict didn’t have the impact of these few moments. It was suddenly personal and there was no escaping that on the flight back to shore.
We landed in the middle of a monsoonal downpour. Dan and I watched as the body bag was whisked away to a makeshift mortuary; the leather handbag and the cabin luggage went for examination by the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team.
That night, with the help of producer Wes Hardman, back in Sydney, I pieced together the script about what had unfolded. It was like no other script I had ever written. This was about, not just a news event, but an episode of my life. The words flowed from my heart. The next day we flew home to Sydney.
I spent a month mulling over the trip. I figured that I needed to know who we had helped recover. I don’t really know why I felt that way – perhaps it was the journalist in me, perhaps it was to answer the questions I had had cascading through my head. I just did.
So I reached out to the fixer Dan and I had worked with on the assignment – a wonderful man by the name of Bayu Sandony Vergino whose job it was to sort out a myriad of local details.
We started with the date we had recovered the body: New Year’s Day, 2015. After some clever detective work, Bayu eventually deduced that Indonesian officials in Pangkalan Bun began to officially record the bodies of the victims found from January 2. First on their list was the tenth victim. That meant that the person we recovered from the sea was the last before the official recording began and was so numbered 009.
With that information Bayu went to the DVI team in Surabaya and that’s how we learned that inside coffin 009 was a young man called Martinus Djomi. He was a 27-year-old businessman. Djomi boarded QZ8501 along with his wife Ria Ratna Sari and their two-year-old daughter Kaylee. Local news reports mentioned they were expecting a second child.
I Googled his name and immediately found images of a smiling young man. His beautiful wife. Their little daughter. A happy family with their lives ahead of them, cut short by a cruel stroke of fate.
The images rammed home the tragedy that this plane crash represented for so many.
To this day I still remain in the dark about who owned the handbag and the person who had packed the cabin luggage. I don’t think I want, or need, to know.
RIP all who perished on QZ8501.
Simon Bouda is the senior correspondent for Australia’s Channel 9 TV news
Click here to watch the Nine News report in which Simon assists in recovering victim 009.