On the morning after the shoot-down, Charisma LaFleur and her cousins sat themselves down in front of the TV because they had become invisible to the adults in the apartment in New York City. The kids watched “Star Wars” over and over and over while the grown-ups cried in each other’s arms.
Korean Air Lines Flight 007 had just been shot out of the sky by the military of the Soviet Union. It was September 1983, an icy passage in the Cold War, and 61 Americans were among the 269 people on board the plane that the Soviets apparently mistook for a U.S. spy plane.
LaFleur’s grandfather and cousin were on KAL 007. More than three decades later, the shoot-down is still at the core of her family’s existence. It profoundly reshaped their lives, leading them into years of wondering and delving, relationships with the families of other victims, and entirely new ways of thinking about why things happen.
Now, as 298 more families begin a wrenching descent into years of emotional, legal and political travail, those who have been in that place for much of their lives wish the relatives of those on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 one thing above all: certainty.
“If there is proof — if there are bodies and belongings, anything that can tie them to the plane — that is what we have always wanted,” said LaFleur, 38, who lives in Alexandria, Va. “The lack of that evidence is the hardest thing to deal with, because not having that plagues you for the rest of your lives.”
Next of kin of passengers on Malaysia Flight 17, which was headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, gathered within a few hours of the explosion at a cafe at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport; police then took them in two buses to an undisclosed location.
Those who died in Thursday’s shoot-down came from at least nine countries. Most of them were Dutch; others were Australian, Malaysian and Indonesian. Russia’s Interfax news agency said as many as 23 Americans were on board, but no Americans were listed in the breakdown of nationalities released by a Malaysia Airlines executive.
Eighty of those on board were children, according to Russian news reports. A few passengers apparently were on their way to this year’s AIDS research conference in Australia.
The countries they came from, and the countries they were flying from and toward, had nothing to do with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Commercial airplanes don’t just fall out of the sky. Very rarely, something goes horrifically wrong with the plane’s technology. And a few times each decade, someone shoots them down.
The line between on purpose and by accident in those cases is often unclear. Sometimes, the people entrusted with defending their country believe they are coming under attack and destroy the threatening aircraft, only to find out it was a civilian passenger plane. Other times, a terrorist group claims responsibility. Some of the cases were never solved — did NATO fighter jets or Libyan MIGs destroy a passenger plane and kill 81 people in 1980 off the Italian coast?
The Cold War came close to turning hot over such shoot-downs. In the immediate aftermath of the KAL 007 tragedy, President Ronald Reagan accused the Soviets of committing a “massacre” and the Soviets concocted a theory about the passenger plane being involved somehow in espionage.
Eventually, both sides agreed that the Korean Air Lines flight had veered 200 miles off course, into airspace where a U.S. spy plane had been seen. The Soviets fired some officers responsible for air defense.
But the pain and the desperate search to know and understand what happened never faded. The legal battle between the families of the KAL 007 victims and the airline stretched on for more than 15 years.
LaFleur’s family remains deeply enmeshed in an international search for records that might prove or disprove a theory that the aircraft did not explode, but somehow landed, leaving the possibility, or hope, that there were survivors.
From the very start, uncertainty was laced into the web of grief that enveloped LaFleur’s family. The first word they got was that the plane was missing, and then there was a call from someone who’d heard that the plane had landed and passengers were safe. Then, hours later, the news came that the plane had exploded and no one survived.
LaFleur’s teenage years became a blur of court hearings and news conferences. Some of the victims’ families banded together to fight for political change: More than a decade after the shoot-down, they got new laws passed raising airlines’ liability in crashes from $75,000 per passenger to $139,000 per passenger, and shifting responsibility for keeping victims’ relatives informed from the airline to the government.
LaFleur and her parents came to believe that the official conclusions about the shoot-down were wrong. In the early 1990s, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) joined their quest, seeking information from Russian President Boris Yeltsin. But the dozen or so families of U.S. victims who rejected the official reports never got anywhere in their quest to reopen the investigation. Her father, Bert Schlossberg, has spent decades with the search for more information at the heart of his life: “It has become his passion and his mission,” his daughter said.
“I feel like the lone voice in the wilderness,” LaFleur said. “Many families gave us the cold shoulder. Many don’t want even to entertain the notion that their loved ones didn’t immediately perish.”
LaFleur knows that many consider her family’s efforts a desperate embrace of a conspiracy theory. “People might think we’re really grasping for hope,” she said, “but no relative would prefer that their loved one survived and spent decades in horrible conditions. Knowing for certain would have been so much better.”