Heartbroken and feeling profoundly alone amid dozens of mourners, Richard Kessler somehow found God’s presence as he looked over the vastness of the Everglades where his wife had perished.
Nearby, Marilyn Chamberlin searched for a reason that her only daughter, an accomplished pilot, had been taken from her. A religious woman, she felt robbed by the crash of ValuJet Flight 592, but the loss had also shaken her faith.
Paul and Susan Smith, who stood at the same memorial ceremony last summer, couldn’t accept that their son had died so horribly. They were determined to bring good from the May 11 tragedy that took 110 lives.
A year after disaster brought scores of strangers together, all tell of fresh wounds, easily opened by small reminders that bring memories rushing back. This Mother’s Day, the anniversary of the crash, promises to bring back the pain.
“It’s an unrelenting, horrifying, cutting edge kind of pain. And it leaves an empty space that never gets filled,” Susan Smith said, her voice trembling in a telephone interview from her home in Montgomery, Ala.
Aside from grief, the families all seem to share a measure of anger - at ValuJet and at SabreTech, the contractor that mishandled and mislabeled oxygen canisters investigators believe either started or fueled the fire that brought the plane down. They also blame the Federal Aviation Administration, whose shortcomings in inspecting the low-fare carrier and its contractor were bared at hearings after the crash.
A final report from the National Transportation Safety Board on what caused the jetliner to plunge into the swamp west of Miami is due in July.
The report won’t heal wounds, but the families know it represents another step they must take to move on with their lives.
Paul J. “Jay” Smith III, an Air Force lieutenant stationed at Gunter Air Force Base, near his parents’ home, was rushing home for Mother’s Day when he boarded Flight 592 in Miami bound for Atlanta.
His father remembers their special bond. They seemed to share everything, from military careers to a passion for baseball cards - Cal Ripken Jr. was Jay’s favorite. His father, now an investment broker, had no doubt his 24-year-old son would follow him into business some day.
His mother never felt left out. He kept her up to date with Grateful Dead music and often started preparing dinner before she got home from work.
“Someday I’ll be able to stand being in my kitchen,” Susan Smith said. “I keep thinking Jay’s going to pop around the corner and say, ‘What’s for dinner?”’
The Smiths have tried to ensure their son is not forgotten. They established a foundation in his name with money he had saved. An Air Force ROTC scholarship bears his name, as do endowments at the church he attended.
Marilyn Chamberlin also hopes something positive may come of the death of her daughter, Capt. Candalyn Kubeck, who was piloting Flight 592. Her countless letters to members of Congress, to the FAA, to the NTSB, are her way of making sure lessons are learned.
But in the year since she lost her daughter, Chamberlin, a retired interior decorator, has also lost her home to foreclosure (Kubeck used to help with living expenses) and, at times, her will to live. She says her 36-year-old son, who lives with her in Ramona, Calif., is the only reason she goes on.
“It’s been pure hell - undoubtedly the worst year of my life. I’ve never known such depression, such grief.”
Hardly a day went by without mother and daughter chatting. The night before the crash, Kubeck’s 35th birthday, was no different - mother and daughter were making plans to meet during her stopover in Atlanta.
“My own faith in God has profoundly been shaken,” Chamberlin says. “Her whole life was dedicated to God and service to man.”
For Richard Kessler of Atlanta, little things have helped him cope with the death of his wife of 23 years, Kathleen, a lawyer like him.
He tells of the memorial service last summer when dozens of mourners traveled to the swampland near the crash site. As he rode by bus with his daughter, going 5 mph down a bumpy gravel access road that investigators used to reach the site, they noticed a dark cloud seemed to trail the bus at a distance.
When they stepped out of the bus, they expected typical Everglades weather - 90-plus-degree heat and stifling humidity. Instead they found temperatures in the mid-70s, a cool breeze and no mosquitoes. The cloud remained overhead, keeping it that way for the next hour and 15 minutes. Then, just before the service ended, the mourners looked up to see a rainbow arching overhead.
Kessler turned to a minister and a rabbi nearby and asked, “You guys are in the business - ever seen anything like this?” They said they had not.
Kessler says some of the peace he feels may be because he and his wife were the closest they had ever been after a long, successful battle against her breast cancer.
In talking to dozens of families devastated by the crash, Kessler says he’s heard stories of extraordinary people. And that has helped him reach one more conclusion: “I believe they were all saints aboard that plane.”