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LUCKY ESCAPE

By KEINO SWAMBER Wednesday, July 23 2014

click on pic to zoom in

A LAST minute change of flight plans is what saved the life of Trinidadian Suzette Moses-Burton who was scheduled to be aboard the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 which crashed after it was shot down over east Ukraine last Thursday. All 298 persons on board were killed.

Moses-Burton, the executive director of the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) who is based in Amsterdam, was on her way to the 20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014) which commenced on Sunday last. She, along with five colleagues, were booked to travel on MH17 on July 17 (last Thursday) to arrive in Melbourne a day later.

However, Moses-Burton made last minute arrangements to arrive in Melbourne on a different flight.

In a Skype interview with Newsday early yesterday morning, Moses-Burton explained that a decision was made to have her sister and corporate communications specialist Esuyemi Ogunbanke, join the communications team.

“(Esuyemi) was leaving Trinidad to arrive in Melbourne, via Los Angeles on July 17,” Moses-Burton said. “So once I looked at my itinerary and realised I was scheduled to arrive on MH17 on July 18, I thought it would not have made sense.”

“So I left on July 16 instead to arrive in Melbourne the following day. It resulted in me going ahead of my colleagues who were on the ill-fated flight.” Included among the five were leading Dutch HIV researcher Prof Joep Lange who Moses-Burton described as her mentor.

Moses-Burton, former HIV/Aids programme manager in St Marteen, told Newsday the MH17 flight which she boarded in Amsterdam on July 16, arrived in Kuala Lumpur but her connecting flight to Melbourne, also aboard a Malaysian Airlines plane, was delayed by six hours because of mechanical problems.

“I had communicated with my family that there was a delay. And when we eventually left, my family knew that I had just left on a connecting Malaysian Airlines flight. When the initial reports came out about another missing or possibly downed Malaysian Airlines flight, there was not any certainty at that time of where the flight originated from.

“So that, of course, caused a lot of concern and anxiety for my family. So consequently, when I arrived in Melbourne I realised there were several attempts to reach me.” Moses-Burton said she was confused about the apparent urgency of the messages she received from her family.

“It really had me wondering because I have travelled for business for many years. It was shortly after 2 am on July 18 that I started to discover and learn that a Malaysian Airlines flight originating from Kuala Lumpur had gone down. It later became apparent to me that it was the flight I was originally scheduled to be on.”

She said, initially, she was unsure whether it was the same flight her colleagues were travelling on. “It was almost a wait and see game to determine who was on that flight and who wasn’t. It was a very disconcerting and discomforting feeling.”

Asked about her initial reaction when she realised her colleagues had died in the crash, Moses-Burton said it was difficult to deal with. She said it was only two or three weeks ago that she and Lange had dinner and were making plans for the conference. She said those plans were not finalised. “That was one of the first things that popped into my head. Should we have actually made more of an effort to crystalise those plans before the conference as opposed to waiting until we got there?”

Moses-Burton said she keeps replaying in her mind the last moments she spent with her colleagues. “One of them in particular, the last thing each of us said to the other was, ‘safe flight’, which is something we commonly tell people when they travel.

“And with the realisation that they did not arrive safely, those words now feel so empty. It’s been a very introspective process. I keep asking myself why did providence or faith or God or the universe intervene for me and not for them? That’s what the people who are left behind are faced with and that is what I am dealing with internally and emotionally.”

Moses-Burton said the loss of her colleagues had an immediate direct impact on the conference. She said one of the sessions had to be cancelled because one of the researchers was leading that session and had all the relevant material in her possession. “It was a session we were all excited about and looking forward to because it was a strategic discussion session in an ongoing project.”

Does she consider herself lucky? Moses-Burton said she thinks she is. “Not only do I have an extended lease on life, but my family also has the joy of still having me in their lives.”

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