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Mother, baby who survived 1977 Japanese airliner crash in Sg Buloh, find long-lost family
Published on: Friday, February 16, 2024
By: FMT, Frankie D Cruz
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Mother, baby who survived 1977 Japanese airliner crash in Sg Buloh, find long-lost family
A knee-weakening moment as Maria Burkhart Briley (right) and her aunt Suhadah Nordin engage in a video call.
PETALING JAYA: It’s a story of despair and bliss that, 47 years later, still amazes.

The saga of baby Maria, the youngest survivor of the Japan Airlines (JAL) crash at Elmina Estate, Sungai Buloh, in 1977, has produced another riveting chapter.

Six months after Maria Burkhart Briley’s plea in FMT for help to find her long-lost kin, a family bond has been renewed.

Last August, she came from Portland, Oregon in the US, where she lives with her mother Salimah, to Malaysia for the first time since the tragedy.

It was a journey to see where she was raised as a toddler, where her father, Richard Nelson Burkhart died, and to give thanks to the man who helped save her.

The nurse met her rescuer, newsman R Nadeswaran, went to the crash site, and requested assistance from the public to locate her mother’s family.

Last month, an absorbing drama occurred in Singapore. As the search for loved ones go, this could make the saddest of us smile.

Salimah’s youngest sister, Suhadah, wept as she watched the FMT video on YouTube about Maria meeting Nadeswaran, and making the impassioned appeal.

Once the news had sunk in, Suhadah contacted FMT to put her in touch with her sister and niece, sharing old family photographs and stories of their growing years.

She later purchased articles and pictures of the aviation disaster from Singapore Straits Times to revive memories of how her family felt and lived then.

Soon a virtual reunion via video call happened between the women from Portland and Singapore.

Part of that knee-weakening moment was that Suhadah hadn’t seen Salimah and Maria since 1977.

They described the moment they had waited decades for, as comforting, sweet, heartfelt and overdue.

“It was like meeting my aunt for the first time, and the family photos were a joy,” gushed Maria, 49.

Suhadah,66, said: “It was a life-changing bond born out of tragedy and separation that gave each of us a new purpose in life.”

In their latest interaction last Saturday, Maria told her aunt she would be in Singapore in July to reunite in person.

Suhadah said Salimah,75, will not make the trip as she had a fear of flying, and was too frail to travel.

They were thankful to FMT for helping to bring them together after decades apart.

“The FMT video and story on my reunion with Nadeswaran worked brilliantly to find my mum’s family,” said Maria.

Suhadah said: “Words can’t describe how grateful we all are. We will never be apart again.”

Losing touch

The news clipping of newsman R Nadeswaran carrying her to safety drove Maria Burkhart Briley to trace her loved ones.

Suhadah said she last saw Salimah and Maria at the University Hospital in Petaling Jaya, where they were being treated for injuries suffered in the plane crash.

“Maria was then four months short of turning three, a miracle baby making world headlines,” she said.

An arresting image of shirtless Nadeswaran carrying an almost bare-bodied Maria from near the wreckage to the hospital captured a dramatic moment of the “Miracle of Elmina”.

In bad weather, the plane from Tokyo crashed into the side of a hill, near the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Subang.

Maria and her then 29-year-old mother, a former secretary with a British insurance company in Singapore, were among the 45 survivors.

They were flung in different directions, with Maria believed to have landed on a thick pile of rubber leaves.

Her 51-year-old father who was with them, returning home from the US, was among the 49 passengers killed.

Maria was only told about her father’s demise when she was about six years old.

Richard was the managing director of Sprague Malaysia, an electronics components factory in Seremban, where he lived with his family after moving from Singapore where Maria was born.

Shortly after the disaster, Salimah moved to the US with Maria and lost touch with her parents and her siblings.

Decades later…

After a long and desperate search for Salimah and Maria, a reunion happened 20 years later.

Suhadah said in 1997, six family members including her late parents, Nordin Hassan and Aloyah Mohammad, went to Portland to visit Salimah at a nursing home.

She recalled she did not make the trip because it was one week after she had given birth to her second son.

“Upon returning to Singapore, all contact with them was lost again,” said Suhadah. “We were devastated.”

Maria never gave up hope and, driven by the Malay Mail news clipping of Nadeswaran carrying her to safety, made efforts to trace him.

Nadeswaran himself had over the years tried to contact Maria through the US Embassy and Japan Airlines in Kuala Lumpur, during a visit to America, and by scouring genealogy websites.

He said just before the Movement Control Order was imposed on March 18 in 2020, Kini Academy, where he taught journalism, forwarded him a one-paragraph email from Maria.

She wrote that she was keen to speak with Nadeswaran, and attached a photo of his article which he wrote as a part-time reporter who was despatched to cover the mishap.

They soon developed a close friendship, and Maria now refers to her accidental rescuer as her “newfound father”.

Nadeswaran, who in turn, calls Maria his newfound daughter, said he was glad she displayed tenacity in highlighting the power of family bonds and gratitude.

As Maria and Suhadah cherish their reborn bond, their stories serve as a reminder of the incredible power of family, the resilience of the human spirit, and the importance of never giving up hope.

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