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Report from the USA by Aleksandr SHALNEV. Part 5
I had expected only one person as agreed in our telephone conversation, but three people arrived. But all three shared the same grief. Each had lost someone that horrible night over Sakhalin. A daughter, a husband, a son-in-law, another daughter...
We sat down at the table. They refused refreshments. Even coffee. They could not wait to hear what I had to say.
I did not feel like talking. Words under these circumstances were hollow and pathetic. Even "forgive us" would have sounded out of place.
Besides, they would not have noticed my apologies.
I simply laid the Izvestia articles and photographs on the table. And answered their silent question, "This is the SU-15 pilot. Here are the divers who found the wreckage of the Boeing. This is the ship from which they explored the ocean floor..."
I did not look away from their faces, though, I probably should have. I studied their faces as they silently viewed the photographs.
There were almost no emotions. A tear glistened in the woman's eye for the briefest moment and that was all. They cryed themselves out long ago. After all over seven years have passed.
Neither the pilot who shot down the South Korean Boeing nor the divers who found the wreckage of the plane helt their interest for long. They were here for something else. They were here to find out whether remains had been found or whether personal effects had been recovered from the ocean floor.
And, if bodies had been found, where were the remains buried?
How could they claim the belongings?
At least how could they see at them?
Izvestia reported that at the end of September 1983, the Soviet side gave the Japanese 76 different objects which included clothing, to be sent to South Korea. We did not report that the clothing looked unusually neat: There was not a single stain! My guests told me that the impression they got was that someone in Russia had painstakingly taken care of the clothes, cleaned and ironed them, before turning them over to the Japanese authorities.
L. (this is what I will call the woman) said: "If I am not mistaken, there was a scrap of cloth among these objects. The fabric was completely unsoiled, despite all the time it was underwater. It should have looked completely different. There was not a single stain."
L. continued, "They also sent women's shoes. They appeared very strange to me, too old-fashioned, with huge platforms. No one wore such shoes back then. Where did they get them?.. As a matter of fact, there was only one thing which could have been called fashionable. Those were size 8 Calvin Klein jeans.
She said it mechanically. She had no intention of displaying her memory for such small details. There were simply no trifles for her or my other two guests where the destruction of the Boeing is concerned.
They know and remember everything that has ever been published, shown, or said about the tragedy over Sakhalin. it seemed to me that they even had a thorough understanding of extremely technical matters. Various terms and abbreviations used by radar and tracking-station operators or navigators were interspersed throughout their speech, as if they were operators or navigators themselves.
A. said: "In one of the pictures, I recognized my daughter's sneakers..."
I was surprised. "How could you recognize them?"
"I just recognized them, that's all. You see, there are all kinds of inconspicuous marks which strangers would not notice. This is how I recognized them. My daughter loved to wear them."
The conversation once again turned to the remains. I translated for them excerpts from the articles in Izvestia by Andrej Illesh. I warned them that what they were going to hear would be very difficult for them. They silently nodded:.
I translated the divers' stories. Terrible stories. I think some U.S. newspapers would object to publishing them unedited. The press here is concerned about reader sensitivity.
They listened to this stone-faced.
"The divers", I repeated, what I had just read, "suggest that the aircraft may have been empty."
...Several days before this meeting, I talked to a number of American experts. I tried to find out from them what could have happened and why the bodies of the dead were not found. What was the likelihood of the remains being eaten by crabs or some type of microorganisms?
In the opinion of William Newmann, a marine biology professor at a major California university, "Even if we accept the premise, that crabs, sharks, or something else devoured the flesh, the skeletons should have remained. There are many examples of skeletons being found on the sea or ocean floor which had laid there for many years and even decades. In addition, the crabs would not have touched bones."
James Oberg, the well known of the book "Investigating Soviet Disasters," about which Andrej Illesh and I have already written, also ruled out the possibility of the crabs being the only factor. "The water there is cold and, therefore, the marine life is considerably less active than, for example, in tropical waters. Consequently, the probability of remains being preserved was higher than it would have been had the aircraft come down in a warm sea."
"May we suppose that strong currents scattered the bodies?"
Both Oberg and Newmann answered: "In principle, yes."
"Is it possible that the bodies did not float to the surface?"
Professor Newmann said, "That depends on many factors. If the abdominal cavity was not injured, the gases forming there should have raised the body to the surface. If there were injuries, if the body was torn apart on impact, currents could have carried it away from the point of the aircraft's impact without it floating to the surface."
James Oberg said, "Remember the plane was falling for about ten minutes before it hit the ocean. During this time the passengers, if not all at least most, put on their life vests. In addition, they certainly strapped themselves in with seat belts. No matter what the force of the plane hitting the water, it is difficult to imagine all 269 people actually disappearing without a trace. Some of the passengers should have been carried to the surface by those very life vests. Some should have remained at the bottom strapped to the seats. All of them could not have disappeared."
By the way, during conversations with experts, I encountered a theory that seems highly improbable, but nevertheless I should mention it since it was proposed by an expert. The theory is that the plane was not terribly damaged by the missiles and went into the water at such an angle that the force of impact was minimal. The plane was not completely destroyed. A portion of the passengers got out of the cabin and using whatever was at hand, remained afloat until...
The specialist did not wish to speculate on what happened next.
The relatives of the dead who came to the Izvestia's press office, refused to even entertain the thought that the aircraft was empty.
They have different theories. According to one, the bodies were recovered and secretly buried on Sakhalin. They claim this version is supported by the fact that a Japanese journalist somehow made it to the island, tried to visit a cemetery, and was not stopped.
A. says, "We cannot reconcile ourselves to the idea that the remains were not found. We are not emotionally ready do not feel we can come to terms with this. We can accept the fact that 10 or 15 bodies could have disappeared. But that they all disappeared...!!"
There were no tears in their eyes. They had cried themselves out. Long ago.
A Palekh(1) brooch adorned the collar of a lacy blouse which L. wore to the office of Izvestia press office. I tried to control my curiosity, but in the end I had to ask, "Why?"
It was a gift."
She added, "My husband was supposed to travel to your country, to the Soviet Union in 1984. He was a biophysicist."
L. is Korean by birth, but carries an American passport. In September 1983, Washington virtually exploded with anti Soviet feelings. Yesterday's good friends would simply not recognize you. Our diplomats were advised to leave the embassy as seldom as possible in the interests of safety. But the attitude toward us of the Koreans, who worked or lived in the American capital, was much more restrained than that of the Americans. I noticed this in my own relations. Not one of my Korean friends as much as hinted that he wanted to discontinue our friendship.
I still have not found an explanation for this.
...On their way out, my three guests handed me a sheet of paper. On the letterhead of the Association of Families of KAL-007 Victims, fourteen demands and appeals addressed to the Soviet government were listed . These were demands and appeals to release to the public what is known about the Boeing tragedy, to announce what happened to the bodies of the dead and whether the "black box" was found, and could the personal belongings of passengers may be turned over to their relatives. There were appeals to allow the relatives to visit Sakhalin and take part in future searches. There was a demand to pay compensation to the relatives, as the U.S. Government did after downing an Iranian passenger aircraft.
They also gave me a copy of a letter from the association to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, Aleksandr Bessmertnykh. The letter contained the following paragraph:
"Recent articles in the world press and in particular in your newspaper Izvestia, complicate the matter and brings back the pain to our families. There must be an official investigation and an official explanation."
...I tried to help the woman with her coat. She very politely, but firmly refused.
"After the death of my husband, I do everything myself."
Her husband was flying to Seoul to his mother's funeral. * * *
(1) Palekh sounds like a Russian word. The reporter, a Russian, recognized the type of brooch. So, apparently it is well known and Russian. He was probably surprised, that the lady wore a Russian brooch, since it was the Soviets that killed her husband.
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