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In this undated photo released by the Calehr family, Miguel Panduwinata, left, Mika Panduwinata, Samira Calehr, second from right, and Shaka Panduwinata, right, pose for a photo. Shaka Panduwinata and his brother Miguel Panduwinata were killed aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/The Calehr family)
A kiss, a prayer: The last hours of MH17’s victims
First Published Jul 23 2014 10:35 am • Last Updated Jul 23 2014 12:41 pm

In a bedroom in a townhouse near Amsterdam, Miguel Panduwinata reached out for his mother. "Mama, may I hug you?"

Samira Calehr wrapped her arms around her 11-year-old son, who’d been oddly agitated for days, peppering her with questions about death, about his soul, about God. The next morning, she would drop Miguel and his big brother Shaka at the airport so they could catch Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the first leg of their journey to Bali to visit their grandmother.

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Her normally cheerful, well-traveled boy should have been excited. His silver suitcase sat in the living room, ready to go. Jetskiing and surfing in paradise awaited. But something was off. A day earlier, while playing soccer, Miguel had burst out: "How would you choose to die? What would happen to my body if I was buried? Would I not feel anything because our souls go back to God?"

And now, the night before his big trip, Miguel refused to release his mother from his grasp.

He’s just going to miss me, Calehr told herself. So she stretched out beside him and held him all night.

It was 11 p.m. on Wednesday, July 16. Miguel, Shaka and the 296 other people aboard Flight 17 had about 15 hours left to live.

———

The Boeing 777 tasked with shepherding its passengers from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, held the promise of beginnings and endings for many on board: the thrill of a new adventure or dream vacation for some, and the comfort of going back home for others.

It was love and a fresh start that had lured Willem Grootscholten aboard. The burly, 53-year-old divorced former soldier from the Netherlands — a gentle giant of a man — had sold his house and was moving to Bali to build a new life with his darling Christine, a guesthouse owner.

He’d met her by chance on a trip to the Indonesian island last year.


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Christine, who like many Indonesians has only one name, had heard through a friend that some guy had fallen off a cliff and hurt his back. She told her friend to take him to a traditional healer she knew. The next day, Grootscholten called Christine to thank her.

They connected over coffee. Grootscholten had to return to the Netherlands, where he was working as a bouncer at a pot-selling cafe. But the two stayed in touch online, and their relationship blossomed. On New Year’s Eve, he surprised her by showing up at her doorstep. He stayed three weeks.

The father of Christine’s two children, 14-year-old Dustin and 8-year-old Stephanie, had died six years ago, and they quickly bonded with Grootscholten, calling him "Daddy." The four stayed in touch online. Almost every day, they shared meals via Skype by placing their iPads on their tables during dinner for Christine’s family and lunch for Grootscholten.

In May, Grootscholten returned to Bali to celebrate Christine’s birthday and told her he wanted to spend the rest of his life beside her. She drove him to the airport on June 3 and kissed him goodbye.

It would be their last kiss.

———

For 29-year-old New Zealander Rob Ayley, Flight 17 marked both the end of a month-long European trip and the start of a new career.

Life hadn’t always been easy for Ayley. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a teen, he’d struggled to understand others’ emotions. At 16, he dropped out of school and hopped from job to job — fast food, horticulture, cheese-making. He flitted between obsessions, from cars to drumming and eventually, to Rottweilers, after his parents bought him a puppy.

Along the way, he fell in love with a woman named Sharlene. They married and had two sons, Seth and Taylor. Fatherhood changed him; he was determined to provide for his family. He enrolled in college to study chemical engineering and decided to turn his Rottweiler fixation into a profit by becoming a breeder.

That dream prompted Ayley to book a trip to Europe with his friend Bill Patterson, a kennel owner. Ayley’s goal: to look at Rottweilers and hopefully bring back breeding dogs to New Zealand.

The duo spent a month driving all over Europe, visiting kennels and grabbing a coffee, beer or meal with the owners. They delighted in speeding along the German autobahns in the small Peugeot they’d rented.

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