LONDON – As the 30th anniversary of Japan’s worst aviation accident approaches, the father of the sole British victim is hoping a new book will ensure the disaster is remembered for generations to come.
Peter Mathews, who lost his son, Kimble, in the crash, has provided extensive notes to academic and writer Christopher Hood in order to reconstruct a vivid and moving account of how he coped in the days and months following the accident.
Hood uses Mathews’ diary entries, photos plus detailed interviews to chronicle the traumatic process of recovering the remains of his son and his Japanese girlfriend, Masako Nishiguchi, who was also among the 520 victims of the Japan Airlines crash on Aug. 12, 1985.
Mathews admits that some people have found reading the book too painful but, as someone who likes to constantly make notes and record events, he says it is important the full story is told.
In an interview at his home in Farnham, Surrey, Mathews, now 80, told Kyodo News, “I want people to remember the crash. It is the world’s deadliest single aircraft disaster. I want people to know what went on. It’s a personal point of view.”
Kimble and Masako had spent a holiday in Britain and were returning to Osaka from Tokyo on a domestic flight when disaster struck.
Part of the aircraft’s fuselage tore off due to a botched repair job. This caused the pilots to lose hydraulic power and they were unable to regain control of the Boeing 747, which slammed into a ridge near Mount Osutaka in Gunma Prefecture, some 100 km northwest of Tokyo.
The book details how Mathews was suddenly transported to the other side of the world and having to deal with the media and what was then to him a completely alien culture.
He was aided by a JAL liaison officer, Keith Haines, who is also interviewed at length for the book.
Mathews recounts the harrowing experience of going to the morgue and looking through boxes of dry ice containing body parts in an attempt to identify his 27-year-old son.
At night, he would go back to his hotel and felt compelled to put down his thoughts in writing.
He said, “I was aware it was a turning point in my life and I wanted my side recorded. It’s part of my psyche.”
And although Mathews admits there were tears along the way, he comes across in the book as being very stoical in the face of tragedy.
He said, “I realized there was a job that had to be done. I’m the sort who can move on, turn the page, that’s the way I am. I don’t harp on about tragedy or problems.”
Hood intersperses Mathews’ accounts with news articles from the time to take the reader day by day through the aftermath of the crash.
Following the disaster, Mathews built up a good relationship with Masako’s family and he has visited Japan many times, including trips to the crash site and a temple near the city of Nara where some of the couple’s ashes are buried.
“I feel a special rapport with Kim whenever I go back, especially to the temple,” he said.
He often thinks about his son and imagines what he and Masako would be doing now had they survived.
The couple first met in London but had been living in Japan for about 18 months and were planning their wedding.
Kimble was working as an English teacher and also for his father-in-law’s business. Mathews is confident Kimble was going to make his life in Japan permanently.
Like many of the victims’ families, he feels that had the rescue operation got under way sooner, possibly more of the 520 people who perished would have survived. In the end, only four people were pulled alive from the wreckage.
He also thinks that some good came out of the tragedy because planes were redesigned to make them safer and new training was introduced at Japan Airlines.
Mathews says he is perfectly happy to fly as it is considered the safest form of transport but when he hears of air crashes the memories of the accident start flooding back.
Contemplating the last 35 minutes of their lives, as the plane kept going up and down as the pilots battled to regain control, Mathews thinks Kimble would have been comforting Masako and remained optimistic.
“It’s a comfort that they were together at the end,” he adds.
As for the 30th anniversary, Mathews will spend the day with his second wife, Madeleine, in a Japanese restaurant and raise a glass of sake to Kimble and Masako.
Hood, who is a lecturer in Japanese studies at Cardiff University in Wales, first met Mathews while writing another book on the crash which focused on technical aspects.
But he felt the wealth of information offered by Mathews deserved a book in its own right, hence the publication of “Osutaka: A Chronicle of Loss in the World’s Largest Single Plane Crash.”
He said, “I thought that a book which looked at one of the largely untold stories of the event and its consequences — the experience of a non-Japanese family — was both essential and interesting.”