Dutch town of Hilversum tries to cope after losing many in Malaysia Airlines crash

People paid their respects to the victims of the downed Malaysia Airway Flight MH17 during mass at St. Bavo Cathedral in Haarlem Sunday. (Reuters)

In the center of this town, inside the stately St. Vitus Catholic Church, in a sanctuary filling with an organ’s somber timbre, Gerrit Mastenbroek thought about seat 22F.

That was his sister’s seat on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Her husband and son were next to her. Seats 22G and 22H. They were headed to a vacation in Bali. They sat together over the wing, Mastenbroek said, right by the engines, where he imagines that missile struck Thursday, sending the plane and 298 people hurtling to the ground.

He thought about that as he held three white candles.

One for Tina Mastenbroek, 49.

One for Erik van Heijningen, 54.

One for Zeger van Heijningen, 17.

Then he lit each, their wicks coming alive, and placed them in a candelabra, next to a long row of wood pews and under a bank of stained glass. His eyes brimmed as he turned away.

This town lost three entire families, plus the son of a fourth, in the Malaysia Airlines disaster. Three homes here are now empty, their residents gone, their front porches filling with flowers and notes left by friends and neighbors. Hilversum, a town of 84,000 sitting 20 miles southeast of Amsterdam and surrounded by a nature preserve, has been hit particularly hard, even in a small nation where it seems as though everyone has at least some distant connection to one of the 192 Dutch citizens killed in the crash.

“It’s a shock. A complete shock,” Hilversum Mayor Pieter Broertjes said at the church.

The soaring brick and wood chapel, built in 1892, opened its doors Saturday for people to pay their respects and sign a commemorative book. The pews remained mostly empty on this hot, sticky day. There were no deep lines of people waiting to get in. Many families were still out of town during this popular holiday period. Others were visiting nearby lakes or staying close to home. But several small gatherings were held across Hilversum on Saturday for residents who felt the need for community, to remember what they had lost.

Teachers and staff members met privately at Comenius College, a high school in town attended by two students killed in the crash. The Altius soccer club, its fields empty and club flag at half-staff, gathered inside a low-slung building to remember the Smallenburg family. Father Charles and son Werther were deeply involved in the club, and mother Therese and daughter Carlijn were well-known faces.

Next door, the Olympia soccer club lost Quinn Schansman, 19, who was born in the United States but lived and studied in Hilversum. He was flying to meet his family members, who were already on vacation.

Grandfather of American victim on the doomed Flight MH17 recalls the moment he got the bad news. His grandson Quinn was on the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down by a missile over Ukraine. (Reuters)

And then there was the loss of John Allen, a lawyer, and his wife, Sandra, along with their children, Chris, Julian and Ian.

Wanting to honor the Allen family, Rita D’ollijslager, 69, rode her bicycle to the church in the heart of town. Her husband and John Allen were skiing buddies, and they saw each other every Tuesday for soccer matches. The last time her husband saw John Allen, he said he wouldn’t be there the following week. He and his family were going on vacation. Now, they are dead.

“I wanted to do something. I didn’t know what,” D’ollijslager said.

She lit a candle. She wrote a message in the book. As she stood to leave, she started to cry and sat in the pews to gather herself.

Nearby, the Rev. Julius Dresme was struggling to figure out how to mention the disaster in his sermon for the following day. He felt as though he should. But it wouldn’t be easy.

“We have no words for it, so don’t try,” he said. “Don’t try. We almost can’t understand it.”

But Gerrit Mastenbroek tried. And so did his sister, Tosca Mastenbroek, and their 80-year-old mother, who also came to the church.

Tosca Mastenbroek said this was an important year for her sister. Tina Mastenbroek was to turn 50 in November. She had been married 25 years and had been a Dutch-language teacher for 25 years. She had planned to celebrate with a big party – once she got back from vacation.

Before departing, Tina Mastenbroek took a long train ride to visit her mom, who she knew was alone. Tosca Mastenbroek said that showed what type of person is now missing from their world.

She said that as she has learned more about the disaster — including the airplane seat numbers and what her sister, brother-in-law and nephew did in their final days — she has found strength in one detail: Her sister was with her family when she died.

Ferry Biedermann contributed to this report.

Todd C. Frankel is a reporter covering people and policy. You can follow him on Twitter: @tcfrankel.
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