Bodies of West Michigan missionaries killed in Haiti return home for 'next step of grieving' – MLive.com

A plane carrying the bodies of four West Michigan missionaries killed in a tragic accident in Haiti last week arrives at Gerald R. Ford International Airport on Thursday, Jan. 17.
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Kent County Undersheriff Jon Hess was overcome with emotion as he spoke of his nephew, Matt Kutsche, one of four West Michigan missionaries killed last Friday in a traffic crash in Haiti.
Sitting next to him was Brad DeBruyne, whose wife was on the 18-person team from Holy Spirit Church in Grand Rapids on the medical mission in the Haitian parish of Seguin.
DeBruyne put his hand on Hess's shoulder to comfort him. The men were at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, awaiting the arrival of Kutsche's body from Haiti, along with those of Jim and Rita Cwengros and Mary LaPonsie.
The four were killed Friday afternoon as they drove on a mountain pass as part of a caravan of five vehicles. The brakes on their Toyota Landcruiser failed, and it crashed through an iron barrier and plunged into a ravine.
From top left: Matt Kutsche, Mary LaPonsie, Rita Cwengros and Jim Cwengros.
An Autocam Corp. private jet carrying the missionaries' remains rolled into the airport's Rapid Air private hangar around 6 p.m. after a day-long journey that began with departure from Haiti at 11 a.m.
"It will be an opportunity for us to reunite with our family members," said Hess, whose daughter was on the trip with Kutsche and Kutsche's father, David.
"There will be a short service for the families," Hess added, "and the next step of the grieving process will begin."
The somber event was underscored by grey clouds over the airport as family members awaited the plane's arrival inside the Rapid Air terminal, not far from Ford Airport's primary passenger facility.
Four hearses, lined up outside the terminal, waited to take the bodies to the Zaagman and Arsulowicz funeral homes after a private service for the families.
Funeral arrangements are pending, though a memorial service for Kutsche is tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday, Jan. 21, at 1st (Park) Congregational Church.
Hess and DeBruyne, who have acted as intermediaries between family members and the community, described for reporters the process of bringing the bodies home under such a short window.
Organizers coordinated with the United States embassy in Haiti, and the trip's leader and a local attorney flew to Haiti to swiftly take care of the necessary paperwork and other tasks.
The process of transporting bodies out of a third-world country is compounded, Hess said, by the widely different processes the country uses.
"There were a lot of unknowns. It's far away and the families are all really eager to get them back home," Hess said. "For me personally, and I think for Brad, too, this was a labor of love, something you have to do."
DeBruyne said there has been an outpouring of community support in the days following the tragedy. The DeVos family, for instance, lent an Amway corporate jet to fly the remaining 14 missionaries back to the U.S. after the crash.
Other groups, from local businesses to families, have reached out to the families of the victims, DeBruyne said.
"There are discussions about organizing some sort of effort in the future, possibly to raise some funds to defer some costs and also to organize that effort, but those are really very preliminary," DeBruyne said.
The accident also sent shockwaves through the Haitian community in which the missionaries worked.
DeBruyne said the mission, called "Haiti Needs You," typically sees between 1,800 and 2,000 patients in one week at a medical and dental clinic the group works at.
Hess and DeBruyne spoke highly of Kutsche, LaPosnie and the Cwengros'. It was Kutsche's first trip to Haiti, and he was "very excited" for it, Hess said.
DeBruyne said the others "were on fire for Haiti."
"Hearing from their family members, that's what their life's mission was," DeBruyne said, "to help people in need."
As undersheriff, Hess noted his typical job is to be a rock for those who need comfort during a time of loss. This time, he said, the tragedy hits closer to home.
"In my business, one of the ways we get through things like this, we try to be the rock and make things happen," Hess said.
"Maybe when this all gets done tonight," he said, "I'll just break down."
Zane McMillin may be reached through email and Twitter.
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