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Family returns to son's grave
Plane crash 10 years later
Family returns to son's grave
Stephen Wall, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 09/01/2008 09:22:38 PM PDT

YUCAIPA - As his flight made its final approach to Seattle, David Wilkins looked at his watch.
It was 6:30 p.m., Sept. 2, 1998.

"Monte's over the Atlantic Ocean now," Wilkins remarked to his wife sitting next to him.

The couple was unaware that tragedy was about to befall their youngest son who was on a different flight more than 2,700 miles away.

Monte Wilkins, 19, was one of 229 passengers who died aboard Swissair Flight 111 bound for Geneva, Switzerland. The plane crashed at 6:31 p.m. Pacific Time in the ocean five miles off the shore of Nova Scotia, Canada, less than an hour after takeoff from New York City.

The next morning, David and Janet Wilkins cut short their business trip to Washington and flew back to California. That evening, they were on their way to Nova Scotia. Delta Air Lines and air partner Swissair made immediate arrangements after the crash for all the victim's families to come to eastern Canada.

On Sunday, the couple flew to Nova Scotia to mark the 10th anniversary of the loss of their son.

This week, they will attend a series of memorial services and grieve once again at Monte's gravesite. They also will reunite with Canadian friends who befriended them after the accident a decade ago.

Monte is buried in a small cemetery overlooking the ocean in Blandford, Nova Scotia. He's the only crash victim who has a marked gravesite.

"Blandford has adopted him as their son," David Wilkins



said in a recent interview from his Yucaipa home. "The whole town has adopted us as their family."
Wilkins, a retired ophthalmologist at Loma Linda University, wrote a book about how he came to grips with his son's death. "United by Tragedy" explores his family's journey through grieving, questioning God and finally receiving comfort from an unlikely source.

Wilkins said it was a "reluctant fraternity" of people who did not know the family but understood their pain and reached out to share their suffering.

"It was miraculous how the people of Nova Scotia took care of us," Wilkins said. "They took us into their homes and surrounded us with love."

For Wilkins, writing the book was a cathartic experience.

"My way of dealing with this was to talk about it," said Wilkins, 64. "It was important for me to let people know that it's OK to struggle with your faith and struggle with the `why' question. You come out of the process healed and stronger and with a greater appreciation for who God is. Maybe you can be a strength for others who are feeling the same pain."

Going back to Nova Scotia will be another chance to celebrate the life of their son, a young man who was an accomplished skier and hiker.

Monte Wilkins also excelled in basketball, earning a spot on the high school varsity team even though he was only 5 feet, 3 inches tall at the time.

"He had a great sense of humor, he loved sports and he loved God," his dad said.

He began college at Walla Walla College in Washington as a business major.

But he never made it to France, where he planned to spend a year at a Seventh-day Adventist college. He would have been the fifth person in his family to study there.

His mom remembers her son's love of the outdoors. On one family vacation to Glacier National Park in Montana, he set a personal hiking record by hiking 108 miles in eight days.

She also loved to hit the slopes with her son.

"He was proud of me as a mom for being able to ski," Janet Wilkins said.

She said losing her son strengthened her relationship with God.

"I really got closer to the Lord and came to trust him," his mom said. "Even though I grieved a lot, it was never with despair or without hope."

While the couple has traveled to Nova Scotia several times since the accident, they say there will be something special about this year.

"A lot of families that haven't come in the interim will come for the 10th year anniversary," David Wilkins said. "We get to reconnect with people who walked this journey with us. There's something about 10 years that has this draw to it."

They also will give another thanks to the strangers who wrapped their arms around them after the tragedy.

"The people of Nova Scotia have been our dearest friends," Wilkins said.
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