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Monday 21 April 2014

The widow of the wine flight

'That night was the darkest, saddest night of my life." So says Maria Cassidy at the start of Tuesday's RTE One Beaujolais Air Crash documentary. She's referring to the night of November 13, 1984 when a twin-engine plane crashed into a hill near Eastbourne, on the south coast of England, killing the pilot and all eight passengers, including her husband Cormac.

That accident soon became known as the Beaujolais Air Crash simply because the plane had been chartered in a 'race' to bring back to Ireland the first Beaujolais nouveau wine from France.

Although one could be forgiven for forgetting that Cormac Cassidy, of Cassidy Wines, was on board because much of the media attention at the time -- understandably -- focused on the fact that also present on the plane were four Irish journalists. Namely, Niall Hanley and John Feeney, editor and columnist, respectively, of the Evening Herald, Kevin Marron, columnist with the Sunday World and Tony Heneghan, columnist with the Irish Independent.

Yet, it is only now, during this interview, nearly a quarter of a century after the accident, that Maria reveals there was another night in her life, which was almost as dark and sad.

Worse still; it came just 12 days after Cormac's death -- her father died at the age of only 56. Maria even suspects his death may have been caused by the fact that "he took too much cortisone -- which he was taking for asthma -- because he kept thinking 'I have to be there for my daughter, she needs me more than ever now'.,And, indeed, she did. Just like Maria desperately needed her mother, family and closest friends. Particularly in the sense that she was only 24 at the time, had met Cormac, married him and given birth to their two children within the preceding five years and now their life together, obviously, was gone. So was her dad. One wonders how the woman survived at all. But she has. More inspiringly, towards the end of this interview -- which took place in Dublin's Radisson Hotel -- she even joked about how "Beaujolais was always a crap wine anyway!" Her strength of character, clearly, originally, comes from her mom, dad and first family.

"My father was a wonderfully strong man and, actually, I don't know what I'd have done since his death, and Cormac's, if it hadn't been for the support of my mother," says Maria, who was born and raised in Bray, the eldest of six children, the rest of whom were boys. "And being the oldest and only girl wasn't much fun! But as soon as I was old enough to go to dances I was off to the hop at Greystones Rugby Club! Then, later, I'd hop on a bus to Sardi's nightclub -- though it might have been called Gatsby's then, in the late Seventies -- which was at the side of the South County Hotel, remember? In fact, that's where I first met Cormac.,And "yes, probably" Cormac did become Maria's "first, real boyfriend." Partly because she was, and remains, in ways "quite shy." Not that it was love at first sight. At least as far as Maria was concerned. On the contrary. At one point that night she and a friend, Carol, had been out dancing and when they returned to their seats Maria saw "this older guy" sitting in her seat, which pissed her off! At the time, Maria was 19 and Cormac, an engineer, who, as she'd soon learn "had just flown back from Saudi Arabia" -- this was before he joined the family business -- was 29.

"I also soon found out he was in Sardi's simply so he could have a late night drink!" she recalls, laughing. "Cormac certainly didn't want a dance because he hated dancing! But my first words to him were 'excuse me, you're sitting in my chair' and he said, 'can I buy you a drink?' And, let's face it, we were only kids, with no money, so I said, 'sure!' He also was, obviously, an older guy so I thought 'maybe he has a car and he'll give us a lift home!' Then, later, he did.,Hardly the most romantic start to the story of the love of Maria's life, is it? "Not at all!" So did she fancy Cormac, who clearly fancied her from the start and even told her, during that car ride, he was going to marry her!

"No, it didn't even enter my mind because he was so much older and, to tell you the truth, I felt a bit intimidated by the fact that he was older and a man of the world who had travelled widely and all that," she says . "But this, in itself, also made me find him terribly interesting. And I'll never forget, I was wearing this dreadful dress -- though, at the time, I thought it was fantastic -- with sequins all around the neckline, and he asked if they were real diamonds. I said 'no' and he said 'stick with me and they might be'! I always reminded him of that terrible chat-up line! But I wasn't taken in by that sh**e, believe me! Yet he did say that night he was going to marry me. But even though he gave me his phone number and Carol asked, 'Are you interested?' I said, 'I don't think so,' and tore it up!,Maybe. But Maria had also pointed out the pub in Bray where her dad "liked to have a pint", so the patently persistent Cormac called to that pub the next Monday, said he "was looking for John Madden, the electrician", got the man's address and was soon ringing the Maddens' doorbell!

"I'll never forget that either because I was watching Coronation Street," she says, adding more colour to this story at every turn "But, then when I answered the door, and saw him I realised, 'Jesus, I don't want my dad to see me with this older man,' so I said, 'Go down to your car, I'll be with you in two minutes!' And even though I was wearing a horrible sweatshirt and jeans I was out that door in a flash, and we ended up going to see the Furey Brothers in the Wexford Inn. That was our first date and, really, when it all started for Cormac and I.,Why hadn't Maria told Cormac to "go to hell!" when he arrived at the door? "Because, actually, I liked him," she says. But like soon turned into love, and both of Maria's folks, despite that 10-year age gap, also "really became fond of" Cormac.

Not only that. What's almost palpably apparent from every photograph of the couple -- some including either, or both, of their two sons, Gavin and Cormac -- is that they were blissfully happy. In fact that "darkest, saddest night" came as savagely unexpected as death so often can. In fact, on the morning of that fatal flight the couple kissed each other goodbye, Cormac said, "See you soon," and Maria even joked -- not surprisingly, given that he was heading to Paris -- "you keep away from those French floozies!,Yet then, far more seriously, that night, while she was watching the BBC news "just before Dallas" Maria "heard a small plane had crashed" in England

"And I really did have a bad feeling, immediately, about that," she recalls. "But it was only when an uncle called and asked to speak to my father that the truth began to sink in. Even so, I was still in denial and kept thinking 'Cormac has done scuba diving and he's jumped out of planes so, surely, if anyone can survive a crash, he can.' But finally, I had to accept that he was gone -- though I didn't, really, for a long, long time.,Maria also, incidentally, was "relieved, back then" that the media attention -- unknown to her, even the New York Times had the headline 'Four Irish Journalists Die In Air Crash' -- focused almost exclusively on Hanley, Feeney, Marron and Hennigan because that "took the spotlight away from" her. She also was "shielded by family and friends" from "insensitive" headlines like 'Nine Die For A Bottle of Wine' in The Sun.

Nevertheless, from the first day, as narrator Doireann Ni Bhriain says in Beaujolais Air Crash, "hard questions were being asked about the cause of the accident." Indeed, on that evening's Today Tonight, Pat Kenny asked David Learmont of National Flight Magazine to address this very subject and Learmont suggested the reason for the crash could have been "structural defects in the plane". Yet, he also suggested "people on board, including the pilot, might have been acting in a festive manner" which, roughly translated -- and with all due respect, and sensitivity, to all concerned -- probably means the passengers may have been at least, let's say, tipsy. Three years later, the official report on the crash of that Gulfstream Rockwell Turbo Commander E1-BGL likewise suggested "the party may have distracted the pilot" and that "the passenger in the co-pilot seat may have accidentally switched off the auto pilot".

Given that there was no black box in the plane this, of course, can only be conjecture. And Maria, tellingly, "did not know about" that report which is quoted in the documentary. Nor has she seen the show.

"All I know for sure is what I said during the programme and that is that I'd hate to think everyone on board knew that plane was going to crash and went into a panic and I hope it all happened fast," she responds. "But no matter what that report says, I am inclined to believe the cause of the crash was structural defects in the plane, maybe in the engine. Especially because 13 of those planes had already crashed in America. Although the idea of someone getting pissed and knocking off the auto-pilot probably is the kind of sensationalist stuff some people would like to believe.,Either way, little more than a week after Cormac's death Maria's dad "was having a pint with his father" and after stepping outside the pub "he collapsed with a heart attack" then died afterwards in her uncle Joe's car.

"But I really do think he took more cortisone than he should have because he was afraid of getting an asthmatic attack and ending up in hospital," she suggests. "Particularly when, as he kept saying to my mom, 'Maria needs me...' And because of the cortisone I think his heart just failed.,Not surprisingly, at this stage, Maria began to ask herself "what the hell did I do to deserve all this?" and as someone "who had really believed in God" soon found her faith had been "fractured". All of which made this experience "even more lonely" and left her "envying people who, when someone they love dies, have the comfort of believing". Then again, maybe if Maria had still believed in the power of prayer she'd have prayed for someone to help her out of these shadows. And that is what she found, first, "with a lovely Irish guy" then, "with a Frenchman". Even if, in the end, she did end both relationships.

"I was totally lost, confused, so lonely for two years, as if a part of myself had died," she elaborates. "Then I met this man who had come out of a horrendous separation and the relationship was great for me. I even knew this was what Cormac would have wanted because he would want me to be happy. That was a wonderful relationship, which lasted five years, and it helped me, immensely, in terms of dealing with Cormac's death.,But during that time, did Maria ever feel she might marry this man, start her life anew in that, maybe predictable, sense?

"No," she says categorically. "Because I was still in love with Cormac.,Fair enough. But, on the other hand couldn't one suggest that because Maria's marriage to Cormac barely extended, romantically, beyond their honeymoon period, he is bound to loom large in her heart, and mind, in a highly idealised sense, meaning no other man has a damn chance!

"That may be true," she says, smiling. "And you're right, Cormac is bound to loom large in my life because, although, of course at times we fought, our life together never got dull, or ordinary or deteriorated in a romantic sense and maybe that is part of the reason I got out of both relationships since. Even though the Frenchman, too, was wonderful. But even with him I knew the love affair had a time limit. It also could be that, deep down, I believe you meet only one soulmate in life. Though in time I'll find that's not necessarily true.,Maria also suggests that "in terms of the first relationship after Cormac's death" she "just wasn't ready for that" and that "maybe now" she is "at an age where a similar relationship might last". If, she also adds, only half-jokingly, I suspect, she really wants in her life "all the baggage" a man around her own age "would bring with him". But Maria certainly doesn't need to be reminded that now that her 26-year-old son Gavin has recently moved into his own apartment and there is only herself and 22-year-old "Cormac junior" at home, it won't be long before she is left living alone in their family home.

"I already know how lonely life can be when you are on your own and your children have grown up and are leaving," she says, plaintively. "But despite all that, I must say that I have never met anyone, since Cormac, I wanted to spend my life with. Yet, as a mother raising my children on my own, it has not been easy. I've had all the late nights, the key finally being turned in the door, problems, at times, with the boys, though I love them both to bits, all that. Also, when I see some of my friends, who married around the same age I did, and their kids are having, say, their graduations, with their father there, just as he is there for all the milestone events such as their 21sts, I really miss Cormac and wish he could be here for his kids because he was a great father and would have loved to be part of it all.,No doubt many female single parents reading this article will echo those sentiments. Even so, Maria does have "one great consolation", which is believing that the years Cormac spent with her and their kids were the happiest of his life.

"To finally have his own little family meant that really was the happiest time for him," she suggests.

"And even now, every time I look at the boys I see Cormac, so he is very much still a part of my family life. As for how I'll feel after Cormac junior leaves? Who knows? Though I do often think that's when everything will finally, really, hit me. Hard. But whatever happens, I have coped with what life has thrown at me, and I've no doubt I will in the future. Mostly because I feel I've grown as a result of all that has happened.

"There also, let's not forget, is the fact that, as I was married relatively young, I am still relatively young! Not even 50! So there still is so much I can do with my life and I will!,Disasters: The Beaujolais Air Crash, RTE One, Tuesday, 8pm

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