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Memories of loved ones lost on the Helderberg are crystal clear 30 years later

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GILLIAN KLAWANSKY

She was just 11 at the time. It will be 30 years ago on Tuesday that South African Airways Flight 295, from Taipei to Johannesburg, crashed into the Indian Ocean east of Mauritius. It took with it the 159 people onboard, including Jossie Marcus and Ruth Machlup.

The Boeing 747 suffered an inflight fire in the cargo hold – the cause of which was never conclusively proven. This led to a number of conspiracy theories, the most popular of which holds that theaApartheid government concealed the fact that it was using commercial planes, including the Helderberg, to illegally transport arms, as it was under an arms embargo at the time. Whatever your theory, the fact remains that hundreds of families were left to mourn the loss of loved ones.

November 28, 1987 is indelibly marked in many people’s memories, but none so much as the children and family of the victims.

Jossie Marcus wasn’t meant to be on South African Airways Flight 295. He had gone on a business trip to Taipei and his homecoming was delayed, so he booked to return on the Helderberg. Berman recalls the shock and confusion of finding out about the crash on the news. “It was then just an ongoing barrage of news.”

Leaving behind Carin, as well as her two brothers, who were three and 14 at the time, Jossie’s 37-year-old wife had to raise their family alone.

“We were so young, but he left such a positive legacy, there are so many people who speak so highly of him. He was an absolute mensch in so many senses of the word. We were lucky that he left an amazing legacy in the 41 years that he was in the world, but he wasn’t here long enough for us.”

The family got through their loss by bandying together. “The closeness and support of family, being in an amazing supportive school environment and my mom who was amazing and kept things going, got us through,” says Carin.

“She became our axis and support. We always had permission to grieve and to cry.”

Asked about all the questions that still surround the crash, Carin says one needs to come to peace with it. “One learns to live in a world where there are no answers, you have to on some level make sense of the fact that sometimes there aren’t answers.

“Today, I’m a grief therapist and everything I do is around grief and loss. One can’t live in an unresolved space or with anger forever – you have to find a space for those emotions and create a meaningful life around that. I always live my life by freedom and faith – realising what’s in our hands and what isn’t.”

Now a bereavement counsellor, Carin says every element of her life was impacted by her dad’s passing. “I always feel very blessed that although he hasn’t been part of my life for all of these years, so much of what I do is because of him in my life and him out of my life.”

Reflecting on the anniversary of the crash, she says: “Thirty years is a crazy length of time. My dad is still such a fundamental part of my life, though, and I keep his legacy alive, for myself and for my children, I want them to have a sense of who their grandfather was. He’s not forgotten, he’s present. You create a life around your loss and you hope it enhances the life that you choose to live thereafter.”

For Peter Machlup, losing his mother Ruth Machlup on the crash, was completely devastating. “My mom was a travel person, she was big, exhuberant and loud. When she spoke, people listened. She had a very commanding and engaging way about her. People who met Ruth Machlup never forgot her,” he says.

“She was worldly and gentle and kind and she was my favourite person in the whole world.”

A nursery school teacher by profession, Ruth studied travel and tour guiding and she consulted for a travel business. On an educational trip through her travel company, Ruth, 57, had been in China learning about Hong Kong and Taiwan.

As he was about to get ready to fetch his mother at the airport, Peter saw the news on the TV at the foot of his bed. “I freaked out. I called SAA technical hoping they could help, asking how long a plane could float. I still get goose-bumps. It was chaos.”

The only small comfort Peter and his family could take, was that Ruth’s was one of the eight bodies recovered from the crash. “We did have a funeral at West Park, which over the years I came to appreciate was a good form of closure, especially since so many families didn’t have that.

“The body of her travel companion, Lauren Pillemer, a Jewish girl in her 20s who was studying travel, was also recovered.”

Amidst their grief, Peter and his sister laughed out loud one night, saying: “Our Ruth was never one who would go quietly, she went out on the front page of The Sunday Times!”

Peter was about to turn 30 when Ruth passed away and says even though he was an adult, one is  never ready to lose a parent. “I’d been so close to her all my life. She always wanted lots of grandsons, she joked. Within five years of her death, the first grandson was born and today she would have had six grandsons. She would’ve been one hell of a grandmother!”

Certain that this was the fault of the apartheid government carrying contraband, Peter had a lot of anger and bitterness towards the government. While he toyed with getting the authorities to reopen the case over a decade later, he and other victim families decided against it.

“We realised we needed to focus on the living rather than the dead. I take comfort knowing she died travelling – doing what she loved doing – just about 30 years too early.”

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