A year ago today, September 7, 2011, professional hockey faced one of the most difficult days in its history. A plane carrying the KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl caught fire and crashed shortly after take-off, killing nearly everyone on board, including former NHL-ers Ruslan Salei, Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek, among others with NHL ties. The official cause of the crash was pilot error, though there are many thoughts and innuendos surrounding the event.
Candidly, I have struggled for a couple of days on how I wanted to approach this article. As a writer, it is very easy to make yourself a part of the situation, particularly a tragedy. My goal isn’t to necessarily glorify those that died, and it certainly is not to tell you how the event made me feel personally. I didn’t know anyone that perished that day, and it would be disingenuous to act as if I did. So what I thought would be prudent is to share a story from someone else, someone who was closer to the true, human moments.
Karlis Skrastins was one of the players who died that day. Skrastins played for four different teams, finishing his NHL career with the Dallas Stars. Ironically, he was once traded to the Florida Panthers for Ruslan Salei, who would later be his Lokomotiv teammate. Though Skrastins left the team in 2011, his wife and children decided to stay in Dallas so that his daughter could attend a local school. That fateful day last year, they were in Dallas when they heard the news. The following is an excerpt from the account of Jeff Chick, the driver who picked up Karlis’ pregnant wife Zane, along with her children.
“First check of FB is littered with numerous comments and links about the tragic plane crash in Russia. 40+ people dead. NHL players, past and present, coaches, prospects and flight crew. Very sad news. I had been reading and hearing about it, off and on, all day. The ramifications reaching virtually all parts of the hockey world, and in less than 5 minutes, ME.
After my FB pitstop, I open up the trip ticket info on my phone, to see who I am picking up. Aaaah, another Dallas Stars transfer to the airport. That explains the van. These hockey guys always have big bags because they are usually traveling overseas. The last name, Skrastins. Never heard of him. No first name. I’ll have to google him. Google search: Skrastins Dallas Stars.
The rush that comes over my body is unexplainable. I am just staring at my phone. He was on “that” plane and he is dead. I am sitting 200 yards from his house and I realize what this pickup is all about. I am about to pick up the family of this man. A family that went to bed last night without a care in the world. A family that had no plans to board a Lufthansa flight to Europe when they woke up this morning. This explains why it was added to my schedule at 12:15 today. Is this for real?
It’s finally time to go down the street and pull in the driveway. Within a couple of minutes, a man comes out to let me know that the family will be out in a few moments. He alerts me to the situation, and tells me not to offer condolences because the children don’t know, and then he returns to the house. I can’t even imagine what his widow must be going through. My heart weeps for her. I am so glad this will be a short ride.
Then it happens. 2 girls, about 2 and 5 come running out the door, completely elated about the trip they are about to go on. Long blonde hair, blue eyes and giant smiles. I nearly burst into tears. My body gets tight. Every second feels like an eternity. The pain inside me is almost unbearable. I don’t even know these people and I am on the verge of a breakdown, right in their driveway. Knowing that these girls are utterly oblivious, to the true nature of their trip, is agonizing. I can’t help but think of my own children, and what it would be like if they woke up tomorrow and I was gone forever. Devastating! The wife and mother in law finally come out and we are on our way.
The entire drive the widow is on the phone. She, as well as the rest of the family, are not speaking English. Although, this would seem trivial, it is not. I don’t understand a single word she is saying, but the pure pain in her voice tells the whole story. The mother in law is keeping the kids entertained in the back of the van, while she sits up front and seems to be getting everything in order, over the phone. I sense sorrow, trepidation, confusion, and despair. Just a few of, what I imagine have been, the many emotions that she has experienced since she woke up today. Again, my heart weeps for her.
We finally arrive at DFW airport, and a liaison from Lufthansa is waiting curbside for us, with a security escort. He “quietly” offers his condolences to the widow while the girls are still getting out of the van. Personnel grab all their bags, and they are off. Girls still giddy about the trip. I, however, am a mess.
I barely get 100 feet away from the terminal when I lose it, crying uncontrollably. I feel stupid, but I don’t care. I can’t get the image of those girls out of my head. The idea that they have no clue that they will NEVER see their father again. What’s worse, is that they probably haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks, and expect to see him when they get where they’re going. Utterly heartbreaking. What a way to end the day.
So, as I sit here recapping this gut-wrenching afternoon that I have experienced, I would like to end it with a final thought. It makes no difference to a child what happens to you when you die. They are going to be devastated either way. Just make sure they know what they mean to you. Remind them EVERYDAY. Hug them EVERYDAY. Kiss them EVERYDAY. Most importantly, love them EVERYDAY. Unconditionally. Because, you never know what tomorrow will bring.”
In the year since that day, we’ve learned quite a bit. There is plenty of blame for this horrible event to go around. Occurrences like these are far too common in Russia, which owns an awful record of airline safety. But no matter who bears responsibility for the crash, manifestly, it is a human story. One that on the anniversary of, we should think of the families of those involved: wives who lost husbands, mothers who lost sons, children who will grow up not knowing their fathers. We remember for them.
Photo Credits: Sports Net