DUBAI // What was supposed to be a joyous family reunion will now be a mournful gathering for the family of Dubai resident Ron Pabellon, whose aunt, uncle and two cousins were killed in the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 disaster.
Mr Pabellon, 22, a baker from the Philippines, received the tragic news through Facebook around 2am on Thursday. After seeing a post announcing that a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur had been downed over Ukraine, Mr Pabellon felt a chill in his stomach. He knew his relatives had booked a flight on Malaysia Airlines from Amsterdam to Manila with a layover in Kuala Lumpur, but he prayed this wasn’t the one. “And then I’m just worried,” said Mr Pabellon, who moved to Dubai last year.
He began to frantically send text messages to his missing family members.
“I message my relatives, ‘Derryl, Derryl are you there? Sherryl, where are you? Tita [aunt] where are you, I am worried. Tito [uncle] Budy, where are you now? Then no one will answer. And then my feeling is bad that day.”
Mr Pabellon’s aunt Irene Gunawan, uncle Budy Gunawan, cousins Darryl Dwight Gunawan, 20, and Sherryl Gunawan, 15, had been killed along with 294 other crew and passengers aboard the ill-fated flight. The family had been living in Amsterdam for more than 18 years, said Mr Pabellon.
They regularly flew back to the Philippines for the annual family reunion, a long-standing tradition in the Pabellon-Gunawan clan.
He knew they always took that route because Mr Gunawan was an employee of the airline and the family received a travel discount.
As Mr Pabellon held out hope his relatives had been on another flight, he contacted Derryl’s girlfriend for confirmation.
“I saw on Facebook she was online and then I will ask, ‘Hey, my name is Ron, Derryl’s cousin, do you know where is Derryl?’ And then she said that, ‘Yes, I’m just waiting for a miracle.’ Then I say, ‘’For what? Miracle for what?’ And then she said that Derryl was on the plane crash together with Irene, Budy and Sherryl,” said Mr Pabellon, his soft voice breaking.
The Gunawans had been a close-knit, musical family. Irene once played the drums in a band in Japan, where she met Budy, a guitar player. Derryl Dwight had been a club DJ and producer who owned his own company called Dwight Media, according to his Facebook page. Sherryl was a dancer.
“There is not a moment that goes by that I do not think about you, dear Sherryl Shania Gunawan,” Facebook user Lien van Niele wrote on Sherryl’s wall. “I still cannot believe we are not going to see your sweet smile anymore. We’re going to miss you so much.”
Mr Pabellon said the Gunawans were known for being selfless and supportive of their relatives in the Philippines.
“They are so kind, they are only one to help in Philippines, their relatives in the Philippines,” said Mr Pabellon. “Actually, my family, we have received their help.”
When Mr Pabellon’s parents fell onto hard times, Irene and Budy supported them financially, going as far as helping to pay school fees for Mr Pabellon’s two siblings, who went on to become a teacher and engineer. They also bought his father, Pirso Pabellon, a welding machine to help him earn money.
Mr Pabellon, like many around the world, is still struggling to understand how anyone could shoot down a passenger plane carrying innocent people.
“I want to know what happened, who did that to that plane,” said Mr Pabellon. “They are all innocent there. I want to know who will be responsible for that. It’s very hard to us to take this because it’s very difficult. It’s not only my auntie, it’s not only my uncle, it’s my family. We are very close to each other. We didn’t expect for this, it’s very hard. In one time, all of them will be gone. It’s very shocking,” he said.
His father and aunt, siblings of Irene, are planning to fly to Amsterdam to help repatriate the bodies with the assistance of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Philippines. Mr Pabellon said he wants to join them.
“For me, if I am given a chance, I want to go there also because even though I think they are gone, even the news says... I don’t believe for myself, I don’t believe because I don’t want to believe,” he said. “I want to see, then I will take it to my heart that they are gone.”
The family is carrying on with its plan to hold a family reunion July 22.
“They decided that before the family reunion, they are having a prayer meeting for that family,” he said. “But family reunion will still continue because that is tradition in our clan, but it’s not so happy this year. We are expecting that it will be more prayers for that reunion, like funeral.”