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Airport chaplains ready after MH17 crash

29 August 2014


Brought home: the coffins of 20 MH17 victims arrive at Kuala Lumpur

Brought home: the coffins of 20 MH17 victims arrive at Kuala Lumpur

THE DNA testing on the remains of victims of flight MH17, which was brought down over eastern Ukraine, has identified 176 of the 283 victims, the deputy director of emergency planning for the Dutch airline KLM, Kees van der Louw, told airport chaplains at their inter- national conference in Amsterdam last week.

"That means that a significant number of people are going to learn that there is nothing to return to them," he said.

It has been reported that some body parts remain scattered around the wreckage site in the disputed Donbas region of Ukraine, and that international investigators are unable to gain access to the area because of the ongoing conflict.

The Revd Wina Hordijk, a Protestant chaplain at Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, heard about the disaster on the radio as she drove to her holiday. "At first it was breaking news that a plane had crashed in Ukraine," she said, "and then it was breaking news that the crashed plane had taken off from Schiphol."

She cancelled her holiday plans and returned home, waiting to be called in. Ms Hordijk is one of three chaplains employed at Schiphol. She works with the Revd Nico Sarot, an Old Catholic and Anglican chaplain, and a Roman Catholic priest.

Within a day, the three chaplains were working alongside a team of volunteers, providing care and support for the victims' families and airport staff. They also supported the many thousands of people who turned up at the airport to lay flowers and sign the books of condolence.

Typical of these was a young man who was "so very angry and sad by what had happened" that he went from his home in Amsterdam to the airport. "He had never done anything like this before," Ms Hordijk said. "He laid his flowers and he signed the book of condolence, and then he cried and cried and cried. We put our arms around him."

There was already a strong relationship between the chaplains and the airport authorities, Fr Sarot said; so it was easy for the chaplains to work alongside the official response. The chaplains and their volunteers, nevertheless, have each received a personal letter from the airport's CEO, thanking them for the part they played in the aftermath of the disaster.

The government of Malaysia turned to the chaplains to request prayers of blessing over the bodies of 20 victims of flight MH17 before they were repatriated to Kuala Lumpur. Buddhist and Islamic faith leaders were brought in to work with the chaplains in the simple ceremony in the airport's mortuary.

Mr van der Louw said that KLM knows that the victims' families and friends will be affected by the disaster for many years to come. KLM still receives phone calls every year on the anniversary of the Tenerife airport disaster in 1977, in which 583 people were killed.

"How long do you think the aftercare period will last? As long as it takes," he said.

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