Photo: Bill Hoefer
A Plane Goes Down, But His Rays Soon Follow
Melissa Weaver: "With a smile that could light up a room."
"We were just starting to see her blossom as a human being," said Melissa's father, Dan, pictured here with his wife, Kathy.
Melissa's siblings, Sarah, Emily and Joseph.
Melissa (middle), with her sisters, Emily (left) and Sarah.
By Felix Carroll (May 23, 2012)
She heard the pitter-patter of little feet running down the hallway. It was her eldest child, Melissa, 5, who had awakened from a nap with a burning question too pertinent, too out of the blue, to brush off as mere coincidence.
"Mommy, Mommy. Why aren't you taking me to church?" Melissa pleaded with tears in her eyes as she burst into the room. The other children were still sleeping.
Away from the Church for 20 years, since the age of 18, Kathy had just given birth to her fourth child, and existential matters had been on her mind. In the weeks leading up to this moment, she had been struggling with what — if anything — she would tell her children about God. Just moments before Melissa had awoken, Kathy had been praying: "Lord, I don't even know if You exist. I need to be shown in a very profound way you exist, and I want to believe in You."
Melissa's question 20 years ago restored Kathy's faith. God is listening. He has a plan. We turn to Him with trust.
But that doesn't take the tears away.
Melissa died tragically nearly two years ago.
The Flathead County sheriff called the Weavers on Monday, June 28, 2010, notifying Dan and Kathy Weaver that a plane had gone missing the day before and that their daughter Melissa was in it.
What plane? The Weavers knew nothing about a plane trip.
But Kathy and Dan Weaver could certainly understand that if their daughter were offered a chance to take a scenic plane ride over the pristine Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness she would jump at it. That's how she did things.
If there were a mountain to ski, she'd ski it. If there were a trail to hike, she'd hike it. Though not even a member of her own high school choir, Melissa auditioned on a whim for a coveted spot on a prestigious regional choir. She made it. In college, at the University of Montana, when she was offered a newspaper internship to the front lines of a California wildfire, she packed her bags.
Fresh out of college, where she graduated with honors, Melissa became a journalist for the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Mont., an eight-hour drive northwest of her hometown of Billings, Mont.
"She wanted to change the world," Kathy says.
She wasn't given enough time.
On a beautiful Sunday, June 28, not a cloud in the sky, Melissa, 23, and her friend Erika Hoefer, 27 — friends and reporters for the Daily Inter Lake — were aboard a 1968 Piper Arrow flown by Sonny Kless, 25. Also onboard was their friend Brian Williams, 28.
At some point during the flight, Sonny, an inexperienced pilot, had decided to "skim the river," a maneuver that's illegal and highly dangerous, particularly in mountainous regions, where air currents are unpredictable. Eye witnesses reported seeing the plane flying approximately 30 feet above the Flathead River, close enough to create a wake. Kathy says that as far as authorities could piece together the events that followed, the pilot inadvertently flew into a box canyon while attempting to regain altitude. Flying just above the treetops, the plane stalled and fell to the earth.
Call Upon Him with Trust
Kathy first learned about Divine Mercy in 1993. The Gospel message famously promoted by the Polish mystic St. Faustina was exactly what she needed to hear. Simply put: The Divine Mercy message teaches the truth of how God loves us and wants us to understand that His mercy is greater than our sins and that we can call upon Him with trust.
"I realized the only way I was going to get to heaven was through God's mercy," Kathy says. "I didn't want to meet Him as the Just Judge.
When God, in 1992, gave Kathy that powerful sign through Melissa, Kathy came back to the Church, and she brought her four young children with her. They attended daily Mass. She sat them in the front row so they would pay attention. They visited the Blessed Sacrament weekly. She taught them to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet and to thank God for dying on the cross.
After the Flathead County sheriff informed the Weavers that Melissa was missing, Kathy and Dan gathered their children and went to the Blessed Sacrament where they prayed the Rosary together. People from their parish, St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Billings, formed a prayer chain.
"But I knew then, while we were praying the Rosary, that it wasn't going to have a happy ending," Kathy says.
The Weavers caught a flight north to Kalispell where they prayed and waited, prayed and waited, as hundreds of people searched for the missing plane in an area covering 15,000 square miles. Since it had been flying under the radar, there was no telling where the plane might be. After three days of searching by air, ground and water a pilot spotted the plane in a remote and rugged mountainside on Indian tribal land. Rescuers reached the site by helicopter and found all four passengers dead.
Beautiful, Inside and Out
The Weavers last saw their daughter just two weeks before the tragedy. Strangely enough, the family members had talked about how they would choose to die when the time came. Melissa said she'd prefer dying either while skiing or from a plane accident.
Who could've imagined?
"We were just starting to see her blossom as a human being," Melissa's father, Dan, told a Billings reporter following the tragedy. To reporters, Kathy and Dan have found it impossible to describe their daughter in any way that gives her justice. So this has to suffice:
"A beautiful child, inside and out," Kathy says. "Not a perfect child. She was incredibly thoughtful, compassionate and caring. She had a smile that could light up a room. She loved life: This was obvious to those around her."
Once, when Melissa was still at the University of Montana, her mother phoned her around midnight asking her to call her younger sister Sarah, also a student at the university. Sarah had just called home, tearful. She was having a difficult time and needed comforting.
But, instead of calling Sarah, Melissa got up and drove to the nearest 24-hour grocery store and bought her sister's favorite things and brought them to Sarah at her dorm room to cheer her up. Melissa would have done that for anyone.
"It was just those little, thoughtful things that Melissa would do," Kathy says. In addition to Sarah, Melissa leaves behind her sister Emily and brother Joseph. Born two years apart, all four siblings were incredibly close.
So many memories: Melissa taught herself to play the harmonica, then fearlessly played it in the school talent show. She would leave tiny, handmade origami animals around the house. She loved to cook and sing. She became a talented tennis player, skier, violinist, and writer. Once, when her car broke down on the interstate, she ordered a pizza and had it delivered to her car. Melissa ate it while waiting for the tow truck to come.
She exuded strength and independence, her mother says, and sometimes those qualities would mask a sensitive soul. She found it difficult reporting on crime and violence without aching for the people affected. She once had a newspaper assignment to cover a house fire that left a family homeless. She didn't want to extract quotes from the victims; rather, she wanted to put down her notepad and help them.
Melissa had just begun making plans to leave journalism. She was thinking about going back to school for a graduate degree in counseling. She also considered law school, but she told her parents she didn't think she was confrontational enough to be a lawyer.
Consecrated to the Lord
Kathy says she'd be lying if she said she was totally at peace with how God was working in her life. Yet, she says, He has revealed Himself through this tragedy — through the people who prayed, the rescuers that searched, the hundreds of consolation letters the Weavers received, and the many acts of kindness by friends and strangers alike.
The morning Melissa was getting on the plane, Kathy and Dan were at Mass. During the Consecration, Kathy remembered she hadn't renewed her family's consecration to the Lord in a while and decided to do it then.
"OK Lord," she prayed, "I give you myself and my whole family, my kids. Use us however you want."
Somehow, all of this is part of God's plan. She prays — now more than ever, with an intention burning at her heart.
Melissa had just finished college. Like most college kids, she wasn't attending church — though she had only recently told her sister she was thinking about going back and maybe even singing in the choir again.
"To have my child die a sudden, tragic death without receiving the sacraments, without having the opportunity to pray for her, without being able to even see her, means that I have to trust that God was taking care of her and continues to care for her" Kathy says. "All I can do is appeal to His Mercy for her and her friends. In that way, it has made my devotion to His Mercy stronger."
Honoring the Victims
When her parish hosted a Divine Mercy mission in March, 2011, led by Fr. Dan Cambra, MIC, of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass., Kathy decided to do something special to honor the young people who died in the crash.
She bought 200 Divine Mercy booklets that explained the message and devotion, and she handed them out free to those in attendance. In each of the booklets she put labels — 50 booklets each for each of the four victims. She requested everyone to pray a chaplet for the person whose name was in the booklet.
"We gave them out to insure people are praying for these kids," Kathy says.
Last September, Bill Hoefer, the father of Erika, had his own idea for honoring the victims. He had a four-foot tall, 45-pound steel cross made. He arranged for the cross to be air-lifted and lowered to the site. With a team of volunteers, he bushwhacked his way through six miles of dense forest and placed the cross at the crash site. The cross bears the girls' names and birth dates, with the words: "Eternal Friends 6-27-2010."
As Bill was walking away, he remembered he needed to bring back a memento, so he stopped, turned around, and snapped a photo.
The photo shows light streaming through the trees and upon the cross. The rays are pale and red.
"I looked at the photo and was deeply moved. The first thing I thought of was how the rays shining down upon the cross and the crash site resembled the rays in the Divine Mercy image that we have in our home," says Kathy.
In her Diary, St. Faustina records the words Jesus spoke explaining the rays in that famous Divine Mercy image: "The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls. These two rays issued forth from the depths of My tender mercy when My agonized Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross. Happy is the one who will dwell in their shelter, for the just hand of God shall not lay hold of him" (299).
Kathy says, "Looking at those rays, I believe that our Lord was telling me that His love is greater than any tragedy. He's telling me: 'I'll make something good come out of this. There is always hope'."