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Grieving family haunted by Air Asia victim's final birthday wish

An Indonesian officer holds newly recovered wreckage from Air Asia flight QZ8501 found during search operations in the Java sea, in Pangkalan Bun on January 6, 2015. (Reuters)


When fashion store owner The Meiji Thejakusuma bid goodbye to relatives before boarding AirAsia's Flight 8501, she light-heartedly quipped she would "spend time alone at sea" on her birthday, which she planned to mark with a New Year's cruise.

Soon after the plane crashed into waters off the island of Borneo and her body was recovered from the Java Sea.

On January 3, when Thejakusuma would have turned 45 on the celebratory cruise visiting Malaysia and Thailand, instead her body was returned to her extended family in Surabaya.

Her nephew Eric Edi Santo, a cafe owner, relayed his aunt's haunting last words to him as he spoke to AFP at the funeral parlour where a vigil was being held, attended by abound 100 friends and relatives.

"We asked her how are you going to celebrate your birthday. She said jokingly: 'I'll spend time alone at sea'," Santo said.

"Maybe God was trying to be good to her, and didn't want her to spend her birthday alone at sea, so he brought her back."

Thejakusuma got on the plane in her home city of Surabaya on December 28 with her husband, mother, three children and prospective son-in-law.

They were headed for Singapore where they would start their cruise, but 40 minutes later disaster struck and the aircraft crashed into the water.

The bodies of Thejakusuma and her 10-year-old daughter Stevie are among the 37 that have so far been recovered, with teams still searching for the remains of the other 125 passengers, most of them Indonesian.

They included Thejakusuma's 48-year-old husband Jie Charly Gunawan, her mother Jo Indri, 82, and her two other children, 19-year-old Steven and Stephanie, 28.

Stephanie's fiance Christanto Leoma Hutama was also with them.

"We hope for a survivor... at least just one of them. I hope that one of them can come back alive," Santo said.

"If not, we hope that all of their bodies at least will be here, we don't want any missing bodies. They died so tragically, at least I want them to have a proper burial."

Thejakusuma was the owner of clothes store "Planet One" in Surabaya, and was known for being hard-working and humble despite her own affluence, said another of her nephews, Agus Panjaya.

A devout Buddhist, she regularly made financial contributions to her local temple as well as to orphanages, and she was always quick to help her relatives.

Panjaya recalled when he was still at high school and living in a dormitory in the East Java city of Malang, when his aunt and uncle would take turns to drive two hours at weekends to visit him and take him sightseeing around the city.

"They did not want me to feel lonely," he said.

"It was in my aunt's character to just help people whenever she could, poor people, her own family, anyone. That's why everyone feels a deep sense of loss."