An early morning service at the Divine Word University chapel in Madang ushered in thoughts of 28 people who died when an Airlines PNG Dash 8 crashed into a riverbed along Raikos in Madang.
Only a handful of residents attended the service during which the priest reminded everyone of the tragedy and the need keep their memories alive.
Every year, the family members of those who died come to Madang to remember them. In the last pew, JP Matlam, sits with his eyes to the front. JP, short for John Paul, lost his mother, two sisters and his nephew in the crash.
A few pews away, members of the Bula family sit among other parishioners- only the children are left in this family. Cecilia Bula and her elder sister, Helen lost their parents – Geoffrey and Cotilde.
Each year, the group has gotten smaller because of the cost of travel preventing many of the families from coming to Madang for the memorial.
“It’s always hard when it comes to October,” says JP. “I lost my mom, my sister, Natasha Matlam Bonga, her son and my younger sister.
“Everyone needs a family support system but half my family was taken away just like that,and it has been hard”.
In 2011, the Airlines PNG Dash-8 traveling to Madang crashed into an old riverbed in the Rai Coast District . Villagers nearby could only rescue the pilot, a crew member and a passenger. Most of those on board were traveling to Madang for a graduation ceremony at the Divine Word University.
For the last five years, the October 13 has been a time of sadness for the 28 families. Each person directly affected has dealt with the tragedy in different ways.
Cecilia Bula returned to Madang after her graduation at Divine Word University to work at the University. She has not spoken much about the tragedy until this year.
“I guess one of reasons I retuned to Madang to work is…”.
She pauses to fight back the tears. “…Because of them…”
The interview is stopped for a short while as she finds time to collect herself. Not many outside this group of friends will understand the grief and the pain. Much of it is expressed in the silence.
JP, is a young man who has become a pillar of strength within the small group. As Cecilia stands by the flooded river to wipe her tears away from the camera, JP comes to stand by her. No words. He picks up a small pebble and tosses it into the river.
For a few long moments they all stand in silence.
What has developed in five years is a beautiful friendship between members of the families who lost their parents and loved ones.
“When I meet the family members, I think of that time,” says Monica Tiriman who lost her husband, Simon during the crash. For now, it is all she can manage during the interview.
“We are family now,” says JP. “When I come to Madang, I have a house to stay. We talk about our grievances and we provide support to each other”.
“You would think that after five years, the pain would go away. But it’s still there”.
Coming back to Madang has always been hard for the Bulas. Cecilia and Helen were not able to take back their mum and dad’s remains.
The coroner’s office declared them missing. What they have to come back to is another memorial set up at the Madang cemetery where the unidentified remains of the crash victims are buried. This memorial is the closest thing they have to a grave for their parents.
“Every year, I call the other families,” says Helen Bula. “Many of the families live in Kimbe and travelling is costly for them. Sometimes, families have problems and they call me.
“I have not met many of them in person. They cry over the phone. What can I do?
“Going into the future, I think we’ll still maintain the bond that we have and it’s going to be OK.”