At 8 a.m. a year ago today, Fenlix was driving to a business meeting outside the Indonesian capital of Jakarta when he pulled off for coffee and felt his phone buzz with the text message that changed everything.
An old friend had sent a group text alerting Fenlix and others that Lion Air Flight JT610 — a plane headed to their hometown 70 minutes away — was missing somewhere over the Java Sea. He instantly thought of his big brother, Verian Utama, and his chest tightened.
“I know my brother is taking a flight back to my hometown that morning,” recalled Fenlix, a 31-year-old businessman who, like many Indonesian citizens, goes by only one name. “But I have no idea what is the flight number.”
Fenlix told himself not to panic and dialed his father.
Dad, what’s the number of Verian’s flight, Fenlix asked him.
I don’t remember, his father replied.
Is it JT610?
Yes, yes, that’s it.
“Oh my god, it’s like my heart is stopping,” he recalled of his reaction. “I’m shaking, I think it’s terrible, something bad has happened. So I started texting my brother just to check. I wrote, ‘Bro?’ But there was nothing, no response. And I realized he’s there, my brother was on that plane.”
Fenlix’s experience of discovering the fate of his only sibling played out again and again last Oct. 29, as relatives and loved ones of the 189 people aboard the Boeing 737 MAX jet learned of its crash and faced their own devastation.
Less than five months later, another 737MAX jet — Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 — nosedived from the sky in similar fashion, killing all 157 passengers on board and thrusting the world’s largest commercial airplane manufacturer into crisis.
Lawsuits, a criminal probe, congressional inquiries, accident investigations and widespread regulatory scrutiny have followed as the 737 MAX — Boeing’s best-selling aircraft — remains indefinitely grounded.
As the somber anniversary of the Lion Air crash drew nearer, new, troubling details continued to emerge about the ill-fated flights, the MAX’s suspect flight-control system, the Federal Aviation Authority’s certification program and Boeing’s safety culture in general.
But for Fenlix and his family, the past year mostly has been filled with prayer and quiet mourning, he said, as they try to face a new reality of carrying on without a beloved brother, son, husband and father.
Verian Utama, 31, was a successful building contractor and a relatively new husband and father, who also pursued a passion for bicycling as an official retailer of high-end Italian racing bikes.
“Many, many people liked him,” Fenlix said. “We all miss him.”
Grief, complicated by legalities
Often lost to outsiders is the “re-victimization” that families encounter in the aftermath of a plane crash, said Charles Herrmann, a Tacoma-based attorney who represents 44 families of Lion Air crash victims and has handled multiple air-crash cases during his 36-year law career.
“They’re victimized three times,” Herrmann said. “First by the crash, when they lose their loved ones. Next, by the insurance company that wants them to sign off on something that is significantly lower than what a case would get in the courtroom. Finally, they get victimized by lawyers, who start making promises of unrealistic amounts of money they’ll be getting in just a few months. The truth is, it’s not going to be that much money and it’s going to take a long time. They get all these people descending on them after a tragedy.”
Complicating the grieving process is a controversy that emerged shortly after the Lion Air crash over the airline’s handling of mandated insurance payments to heirs of the victims. Before doling out what amounts to about $90,000 per passenger, Lion Air — Indonesia’s largest privately run airline — is requiring heirs to sign a release forfeiting any further liability claims against Lion Air, Boeing and potentially hundreds of other defendants.
Lawyers for the families contend the waiver pushed by the airline and its insurer, Global Aerospace, violates provisions in Indonesian aviation law that forbid carriers from attaching “special requirements” to insurance payments. Herrmann, who noted that Global Aerospace, an international company, also insures Boeing, fired off a scathing letter to Lion Air officials in April, contending the so-called “release and discharge” waiver is illegal, invalid and inhumane.
“In my letter, I scratch my head as to why Lion Air is trying to get releases for Boeing,” Herrmann said. “But it seems Global Aerospace is the puppeteer behind the scenes. They’re taking advantage of these victims.”
Latief Nurbana, an Indonesian government official whose 24-year-old son, Muhammad Luhtfi Nurramdhani, died in the Lion Air crash, said some of the crash victims’ families feared they’d miss out on a needed source of income unless they agreed to the airline’s terms.
“Some of the families signed the R&D (release and discharge document), but we didn’t,” said Nurbana, whose son, a postal manager, left behind a wife seven months’ pregnant with the couple’s first child. “Frankly, Lion (Air) treated us very badly.”
Global Aerospace declined to comment. Lion Air did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Boeing did not specifically respond to questions about the airline’s victim-compensation methods or its connections to them.
Separately, Boeing has set up its own $50 million assistance fund to compensate the families of victims of both 737 MAX crashes. To allocate the $144,500-per-family payments, the company has assigned outside administrators Camille Biros and Kenneth Feinberg, who have managed similar funds for such high-profile disasters as the 9/11 and Boston Marathon terrorist attacks, and mass shootings in Las Vegas and Orlando.
“I think it’s important to emphasize that this is something Boeing did totally voluntarily and separate from any litigation that might happen,” Biros said last week. “And there are no strings attached; Boeing isn’t requiring anyone to sign a release.”
As of last week, 34 families of victims in both crashes had applied for claims from the fund, with payments made to 15 of them, Biros said. Families have until the end of the year to submit a claim, she said.
Utama’s family has applied for compensation from the Boeing fund, but has refused to sign Lion Air’s waiver, Fenlix said.
A week before the Ethiopian crash, Fenlix and his family opted to join an expanding lawsuit against Boeing spearheaded by Herrmann and his partner, former Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist. The suit, which so far includes 24 families, names Fenlix as the personal representative for Utama’s parents, his unemployed widow, Friscilla, and his now-2-year-old son, Willfred.
Fenlix’s case is among about 60 lawsuits so far filed against the aerospace company on behalf of more than 150 families or estates of Lion Air crash victims. Attorneys have argued that because the MAX jets were built at Boeing’s factory in Renton, the cases should be litigated in the United States.
The suits are pending before a federal judge in Chicago, where Boeing is headquartered. The judge has ordered mediation, but should those negotiations fail, Boeing may try to get the cases moved to Indonesia, where damage judgments tend to be significantly smaller. Herrmann’s firm already has settled four cases with Boeing over the Lion Air crash.
For Fenlix and his family, the lawsuit isn’t motivated solely by money.
“What we really want for the lawsuit is to tell them that when they design these airplanes, they need to be careful; they need to really think about the safety,” said Fenlix, who runs a company that builds and supplies industrial manufacturing equipment.
“We don’t care how much money they want to give. We want the person back. We want my brother. But they cannot bring him back to life, right? So then, we don’t want this to happen to any other families.”
“He was a good guy”
On the morning of the crash, Utama and his friend and business partner, Andrea Manfredi, boarded the 70-minute flight from Jakarta to Bangka Island.
Utama’s passion for cycling had led him to open a small bicycle shop and convince Dynatek, a high-end Italian racing-bike manufacturer, to grant him a distributor’s license. He had just finished business dealings with Manfredi, a retired Italian pro cyclist, before they jetted off for a quick vacation to Pangkal Pinang, Utama’s hometown across the Java Sea. The plane went down shortly after takeoff.
Less than three years earlier, Utama had married Friscilla. Their son joined them a year and a half later. The couple celebrated the boy’s first birthday three months before the crash.
“I’m pretty happy, actually, for what he achieved,” Fenlix said of his late brother, who was a year older. “He was a good guy to be the wife of, and he was very proud of their child. He had a huge imagination of what Willfred would become one day.”
After learning about the crash, Fenlix and other family members first rushed to Soekarno–Hatta International Airport west of Jakarta, where dozens of other victims’ family members packed into a “crisis center” to wait for information, he said. They spent the day there, grief-stricken and panicked, but still holding out hope, Fenlix said.
Hours passed without word. Finally, airline officials directed the crowd to go to a different airport, Halim Perdanakusuma International, a 40-minute drive across town. Day turned into night, as several more hours passed. When the airline offered rooms at a nearby hotel to waiting families, Fenlix refused, instead booking his parents into a room at a different hotel. Fenlix left them there and returned to the crisis center, seeking answers.
“There were still many, many people waiting,” he said. “It was crowded and not very well-managed. The only information is that ‘this plane has crashed.’ “
Fenlix watched a video posted on social media showing boats circling debris floating in the sea where the plane had crashed. It was then, he said, that he finally realized: There were no survivors.
Airline officials eventually directed family members to a police hospital near the airport, where they could provide DNA samples to help identify crash victims. Fenlix brought his father there so investigators could swab the inside of his mouth. Over the next few days, Fenlix gathered and turned over other items: an unwashed bottle his brother had drunk from, identification documents, photographs.
As the days passed, Fenlix and his parents, all devout Catholics, worried what might happen if Utama’s remains were never found. Would the church in their hometown forbid them from holding a funeral? Could a marker even be placed in the church cemetery?
“I told my father that if they don’t allow us to make the grave, then we will still make it,” Fenlix said. “We need to make something so my brother’s son and his wife can pray, so we can have a place to have a memory about him.”
In the end, the family didn’t have to challenge the church. Utama’s remains were recovered, identified and laid to rest.
To mark the somber anniversary of Utama’s death, Fenlix and his family will return to the cemetery.
“We will pray for my brother at his tomb,” Fenlix said.
To get there, Fenlix and his wife, pregnant with their first child, have purchased tickets on a flight from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang — the very trip his brother never got to finish. They booked the flight with Citilink airline on an Airbus A320 jet, Fenlix said.
Clarification: This story and a cutline for an accompanying photograph described Verian Utama’s friend and fellow Lion Air Flight 610 crash victim Andrea Manfredi as a business partner. Manfredi was a supplier of Italian bicycle accessories to Utama’s bicycle shop in Indonesia, but he did not have an ownership stake in Utama’s business.