MH17 jolts us out of normality

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Of the thousands of photos of the crash site of MH17 there’s one that sent something of a chill down my spine. 

Not the pro-Russian rebels wearing balaclavas, shop-bought combat gear and cradling AK47s. Not the blackened smouldering wreckage or even the poor passengers’ luggage strewn about the field. 

No, it was a photo of a Malaysian Airlines handset for its inflight entertainment system lying amongst the debris. 

A couple of days before MH17 crashed I flew from London to Kuala Lumpur on Malaysian Airlines. 

Like many expats living in Queenstown, I’d made the usually biennial trip home, spending a month in the UK introducing my eight-month-old daughter to her grandparents and aunts, and managed to get over to Amsterdam from there for a weekend break. 

With my wife and child staying in England a few weeks longer, I was on the flight on my own – a 32-hour flight back to Queenstown via KL and Auckland, but without baby in tow a rare chance to have a drink, watch some films and generally veg out. I can remember clicking the same-style cream handset out of its armrest holder, with an air-phone on the back – thinking it looked a little dated; we’d had touchscreens on the flight out. 

Nevertheless it was extensively used in between uncomfortable sleeps and compartmentalised meals as I was ferried across the world at 32,000ft. 

You see this, for me, is why we appear to care more about the 298 people who died on flight MH17 than the hundreds that are killed by bombs and bullets each month in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or some unknown place in Africa. 

It’s because it’s something that punctures our normality. 

The majority of us in Queenstown have caught an international flight – stood at the gate next to people carrying those horseshoe-shaped headrests, packed bags into overhead lockers, watched stressed parents corral unruly toddlers. 

So we can almost imagine the terror of having that routine experience suddenly become something horrific. 

Former Queenstown restaurateur ‘Bathhouse Ben’ Chardome was one of those on board. 

His friend Tony Robertson, who owns Remarkables Park’s Hamills restaurant, says: “It brings home to you just how small the world is and how fragile our existence on it is.” 

Of course, a few months before, MH370 went missing. Standing at the gate in Heathrow, and seeing the Malaysian Airlines insignia on the plane I had brief butterflies, a blow out of the cheeks with a thought of what could happen, but the World Cup final was playing on the screens, so it was nothing more than a passing thought. 

Now, it’s a bit more real. My wife is flying back with Malaysian Airlines in early August. She’s been offered a full refund by the airline and doesn’t know whether to take it. 

I don’t know what to tell her really. 

MH370? Who knows what happened? A crazed pilot? No idea. 

MH17? Ok, so maybe flying above a war zone can be put at Malaysian Airlines’ door but how many other airlines did that? 

It’s rumoured it was shot down by a Russian-supplied ‘Buk’ system – so putting incredibly high-grade weapons in the hands of basically citizens seems to be more to blame than the airline. 

I know when booking our flights at Frankton’s Flight Centre I’d considered flying directly back from Amsterdam before abandoning the idea because of the luggage weight restrictions on the flight from Liverpool to Schiphol. 

It’s tenuous but I did think ‘I could have been on that flight’. So I don’t know what to tell my wife – generally it just seems like dumb luck or twisted fate.