JAL crash victims remembered

Family, friends mourn those lost as worst single-aircraft accident marks 25th anniversary

by May Masangkay

Kyodo News

UENO, Gunma Pref. — Relatives and friends of those who died in the 1985 Japan Airlines jumbo jet crash marked the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst single-aircraft accident Thursday by climbing to the crash site in Gunma Prefecture to offer prayers to those lost.

Among the mourners was Yumiko Kobayashi, 51, from the city of Saitama, whose sorrow at losing her younger brother, Hiroyuki Kato, 21, remains unchanged despite all the years.

“If I think of all the conversations we could have had, I feel sad and frustrated,” she said.

Kobayashi placed sunflowers at the crash site, known as Osutaka Ridge, because “he was a person with a sunny disposition, like sunflowers.”

The plane, which was carrying 524 passengers and crew, crashed into Mount Osutaka on the evening of Aug. 12. Only four people survived.

By 4 p.m., more than 300 mourners had made their way, through sporadic rainfall and strong winds, to the ridge to commune with the souls of the victims at their grave sites.

With them was transport minister Seiji Maehara, the first state minister to lay flowers in memory of the victims.

“I have felt anew by visiting here that the essential mission of the transport administration is to secure safety,” Maehara said, adding he will ensure that the 520 victims did not die “in vain.”

He also stressed the importance of establishing a medium- and long-term public support system for those involved in such accidents and their relatives.

This year’s anniversary comes at a crucial time for JAL, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January and is being reorganized under state guidance.

JAL President Masaru Onishi told reporters after laying flowers, “I pledged that our operations will be safe in front of the memorial.”

“Even 25 years on, Osutaka remains our fundamental reference point for safety,” said Onishi, who supported medical teams identifying the victims’ body parts and also aided next of kin relatives at a school gymnasium following the crash.

With tears in his eyes he recounted the aftermath of the crash.

“I vowed in front of the monument that I will safeguard this (legacy) of (ensuring) safety,” Onishi said.

A government investigation commission blamed the accident on Boeing Co. for making improper repairs to the plane’s rear pressure bulkhead that went undetected by JAL in subsequent maintenance.

Some of the victims’ relatives are still calling for a new investigation into the accident.