Sorrow From the Sky (Part 1)Snug inside the Boeing 747, the 240 passengers and 29 crew members of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 snoozed or gazed bleary-eyed at the tearjerker movie “Man, Woman and Child.” As the jetliner sliced across a corner of Sakhalin island, north of Japan, early that Thursday morning two decades ago, all on board surely felt secure that the long trip from New York was almost over. Less than three hours from Seoul, many were almost home.
No one aboard would have felt secure knowing they were gliding through Soviet airspace, or that the Russians had been tracking the plane since the Kamchatka Peninsula, far to the north. Indeed, one SU-15 interceptor had been on the jumbo jet's tail for an hour. The Soviet fighter pilot knew the intruder was a commercial aircraft but felt it was on a surveillance mission. The Korean Air pilot apparently knew nothing.
Suddenly the 747 ascended, purportedly to save fuel. The Soviet pilot, deciding the move was a dogfight feint, launched two missiles.
“The target is destroyed,” the Soviet pilot radioed as the crippled jetliner spiraled downward. Desperately, the Korean crew tried to slow the corkscrewing aircraft. For a few moments 007 did appear to level, but it was too late. Some passengers likely died from the mid-air jolt, but most, experts believe, were alive for those few, final agonizing minutes.
The airliner struck the East Sea (Sea of Japan) with such force that fishermen out on the dark waters before dawn on Sept. 1, 1983, felt the world had burst open.
No one survived. The dead included 23 children under 12.
Some clothing and shoes -- dozens of sneakers, sandals, black oxfords -- were all searchers found. Not a single body.
The act drew the wrath of the world. “Hideous!” cried Koreans. “Intolerable!” railed U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Allegations were hurled, Cold War curses flew. The Russians at first denied any role. Then they admitted it, but refused to help. They kept the “black box,” 007's flight-data recorder, handing it over nine years later, clearly doctored.
Meanwhile, 269 shoeless souls lay buried forever on the sea floor.
There are numerous stories of Flight 007. Indeed, 269 stories. Today and tomorrow, the JoongAng Daily presents four of those stories -- of people who were touched by a tragedy that 20 summers later, seems beyond belief.
Many do not want to remember the horror of 1983. But for these four, it's all about not forgetting.
At the site, he saw, he listened, he snapped, he cried.
When you’re a photographer assigned to an airport to shoot VIPs flying in and flying out, your life isn’t terribly exciting. The work becomes so familiar you begin to think about taking off on one of those airplanes.
When I suddenly did take off one day, the trip changed my life forever.
Back in 1983, I was a 30-year-old staff photographer for the JoongAng Ilbo, working Gimpo Airport. I had been at it for five years, and my usual creations were snapshots of heads of state arriving or leaving. It was fairly humdrum -- and I wanted more.
I was hanging out at Gimpo that September morning when someone said a Korean Air plane had gone down near Sakhalin island. My initial reaction was shock, though I didn’t know what to make of the situation, didn’t know how severe things were. Before I had a chance to find out, my editor ordered me to go there right away.
Eventually I was joined by Kim Jae-bong, a reporter from my newspaper. We soon learned our final destination would be Wakkanai, a Japanese village at the northern tip of Hokkaido island. We could only reach Wakkanai via Sapporo, Japan, by traveling in a small, chartered plane.
Almost all the daily newspapers in Korea were on that special plane from Sapporo to Wakkanai, and by now everyone knew the ghastly news. On the flight, people spoke of the terrible act the Soviets had committed. “Demons!” someone shouted angrily. Tension filled the cabin.
When we arrived at Wakkanai, we were escorted to the city hall by Japanese officials. I was glad Jae-bong was with me, for he spoke Japanese. Briefings took place daily, sometimes four times a day, at the city hall. The latest findings, reports and analyses were delivered to us -- this piece of the wreckage had been located, that pair of pants had been retrieved from the water. Never any bodies.
When the victims’ families came to Wakkanai a few days after the tragedy, the Japanese search team allowed reporters and cameramen on the military patrol boat to take photos of the debris, with the families. I had two Nikon FM2 cameras with me and more than 10 rolls of film.
The shots were some of the most painful I’ve ever taken: Bobbing on the cold water were shoes, bags, scraps of metal. Nothing survived intact except small Korean Air paper cups that floated by like tiny swans.
Photographing the grieving families of victims was much harder, of course, than photographing a victim’s shoe. In my mind I can still vividly hear people wailing and crying hysterically. “How could they do this!” they screamed. “Barbarians!” Some collapsed as we approached the debris area. Family members called out names of loved ones and threw chrysanthemums into the sea. My heart ached, my camera felt like a lead weight around my neck. I always thought I was a tough guy who never was moved by much. Not that day. I cried a lot.
A memorial service was held on the boat by Korean religious representatives, and many more people fainted or went nearly delirious with grief. Once, a Soviet reconnaissance flew by. I kept thinking, How could the Soviets not know this had been an unarmed civilian plane?
In 1983, there was no way I could scan my photographs and e-mail them back to Seoul like I can today. I finally got Korean Air employees to take the film to Sapporo, then to Seoul. This process took at least two days, so my photos always appeared a couple of days after they were taken.
I spent one month and five days in Wakkanai, the longest time of any journalist. After the first two weeks, I got called home, but when the search team found a large hunk of the plane’s engine, I hurried back.
I went through more than 200 rolls of film during my stay. The JoongAng Ilbo used seven of my photos on a single day. That’s how big the news was. For weeks the tragedy filled nearly half the pages of every paper.
I stayed at a motel run by an elderly Japanese couple. They were really kind to me and Jae-bong and even managed to find us kimchi. All the Japanese there were great. I used to have a bad feeling about Japanese. But after that incident, my view of the country changed completely.
I worked the Wakkanai story every day, even weekends. At night reporters would gather and we’d drink to ease the weariness, the anguish. Because of what I saw and heard I often had trouble sleeping. I still do.
Amazingly, she left no room inside for bitter feelings.
Near the front gate of Gangwon National University in Chuncheon stands a light-gray, pyramid-shaped monument. At its base lies a black marble slab bearing an inscription. The marker honors my brother, Lee Hee-ryeong, and his family.
Whenever I visit the monument, I get upset all over again about Sept. 1, 1983. On that day Hee-ryeong was flying back from the United States with his wife, Choi Gyeong-ae, and his teenage son and daughter. I get especially upset when I see the word “atrocity” on the marker’s inscription.
And I always think of my mother.
A graduate of Gangwon’s ROTC program, Hee-ryeong, 38, was a colonel in the Korean Army, serving with the Army Research Institute. In the United States, he had been studying for a master’s degree in biology at the University of Detroit. Our family hadn’t seen him and his family for three years while he lived in Michigan. Hee-ryeong was returning home to Seoul to resume work at the institute.
Being the eldest in a family of four sisters and two brothers, Hee-ryeong was the pride of our clan, the brother all of us looked up to. He was smart, kind, strong.
Flight 007 was due at Gimpo Airport at 6 that morning, and our family, including our mother, was waiting at the airport. Our father had died some years before.
When 6:30 came and went, those around us at Gimpo turned restless. When the delay continued, people began to complain to airport personnel and Korean Air employees.
About 7 a.m. Gimpo officials announced that Hee-ryeong’s flight had disappeared. I thought, How could something so huge just vanish?
At that point, no one really knew what was going on. Rumors swirled, but nobody imagined anything serious. The worst we could think of was a mechanical problem that caused the plane to land elsewhere.
At about 10 a.m., an airport official told us to go home to await further news. We left figuring we would come back the next day to greet Hee-ryeong and his family.
A college freshman at Dankook University, I went straight to school. But I couldn’t concentrate on my studies; I kept watching the TV news, which was on everywhere. Each newscast had a picture of a plane. Seven hours after Flight 007 was supposed to arrive, a news report said the flight had safely landed at Sakhalin island. Immediately I began to relax, even though I had no idea where Sakhalin island was.
Suddenly another news report told viewers that the forced landing was untrue. “Flight 007,” an announcer uttered, “was blown up near Sakhalin.”
My legs began to buckle. I can’t remember what happened next except that I went straight home to Yeongdeungpo, southern Seoul. Everything seemed unreal. It was really hard for anyone to believe that a plane had simply exploded.
When I arrived, I found that my mother, who was slumped in front of an image on the TV of part of a wing, had fainted.
Our family never was the same. With Hee-ryeong’s death, laughter and joy evaporated. Before Sept. 1, 1983, we were all full of life. After that, whenever our family got together we talked much less and we wore permanent grim looks. Everyday reminders of my brother, a man in uniform, say, tore at me. Hee-ryeong was the first son in our family, a pillar. His young son’s death on the flight ended two generations of the Lee family.
My mother, who had never caught a cold in her life, grew weaker and weaker. She died in 1985. Hee-ryeong’s death killed her. So did the deaths of her favorite grandchildren and her daughter-in-law. As she lay dying, my mother smiled and said her last words: “I miss my son.”
Incredibly, my mother never showed anger toward the Soviet Union. What was the use of despising them? she said. In her grief she left no room for bitterness.
Before she died, Korean Air Lines and the government compensated my mother with more than 100 million won. In turn, she gave all of it to Gangwon National University, Hee-ryeong’s alma mater. The school set up a scholarship program in the name of my brother and his wife. Each year on Sept. 1 Gangwon holds a special ceremony. School officials and family members honor Hee-ryeong and his family in front of that pyramid-shaped monument. Prayers are said, incense is lighted.
On the same day, the school recognizes scholarships made by my mother.
Not a day passes that I don’t think about Hee-ryeong. I miss him terribly. But when I think about Hee-ryeong, I always think about my mother. It would be so easy for me to stay angry at the Russians for what they did. My mother never did that, though. Wasted energy, she believed. I can’t say my mother completely forgave, but she refused to cloud her picture of Hee-ryeong with hatred. That is, after all, the best way to remember someone.
“Sorrow From the Sky” Editor: Toby Smith | Desk Coordinator: Lee Kyung-sun | Staff Writers: Choi Jie-ho, Chun Su-jin, Brian Lee, Lee Ho-jeong | Designer: Yoo Young-rae | Copy Editor: Joel Levin
by Toby Smith