A late-night flight vanishes over the sea. Initial search crews come up empty. A couple hundred families fall into a purgatorial grief – knowing their loved one is gone, but not knowing where or how.
Just as it is now with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, it was five years ago when Air France Flight 447 from Rio to Paris dropped from the sky.
With so many parallels between the disappearances, one Guelph family is reliving the grief they first experienced on June 1, 2009, when they learned their son and brother, 49-year-old Brad Clemes, was the sole Canadian on board that flight from Rio.
“Everyone in our family saw the news and started sending e-mails back and forth,” said Blake Clemes, one of Brad’s brothers, of the Malaysia Airlines jet that went missing early Saturday with 239 people, including two Canadians, on board. “It brought back all the memories. We understand exactly what all those families are going through right now.”
Brad Clemes boarded the Air France flight along with 227 others around 7 p.m. on May 31. News of the plane’s disappearance began to emerge around 11 a.m. the next day. There were no witnesses, no mayday calls, not even a blip on a radar – a disaster unprecedented in the annals of modern passenger aviation.
Most in the Clemes family assumed the worst immediately. “I personally realized it was all over as soon as I heard,” said another brother, John Clemes, who now lives in London. “At that stage, it had been 10 or 11 hours since the plane vanished. In this age, a plane of that size can’t vanish for that long without any cellphone calls or radio calls or radar signals coming out. I didn’t have any hope.”
Accepting his brother’s fate didn’t make it any easier.
“With the Malaysia Airlines tragedy, it’s probably the same for the families,” he said. “You have lost a loved one in a very brutal manner but you have no idea of why, how or where it even happened. That just adds to the pain and difficulty.”
Five days would pass before searchers found any bodies. By June 26, with 50 bodies recovered, the Brazilian military cancelled its search. Another 178 passengers, including Mr. Clemes, remained unaccounted for. Wild theories swirled about what brought down the plane.
“There were all kinds of scenarios proposed and you start to imagine each one in your head, like an explosion in mid-air. The uncertainty really aggravates it,” said John Clemes.
Over the ensuing years, John headed up an association for the victims’ families and lobbied successfully to keep the crash investigation going, forcing the authorities to continue searching for the plane and its elusive black boxes. In the spring of 2011, that search turned up a large part of the fuselage. The body of Mr. Clemes was recovered that May.
“That helped immensely,” said Blake. “They brought his body up. We were able to have a family-only service. There was some closure.”
The family established a scholarship and a memorial golf tournament to honour the memory of a family member whose death they’ll never get past.
“I think of him every day,” said Blake. “Honestly, we find ourselves crying a couple days a week still. Any time you hear of a car accident or a tragedy of any kind, it gets you thinking of him. That memory never goes away. That sadness never goes away. You have to feel for people going through it now.”