Kissing my husband Doug goodbye, I told him and my sons-in-law, Jacob Griffiths, 32, and Kyle Parton, 29, to hurry home soon.
“I love you,’’ Doug Symiczek, 49, an auto body mechanic, whispered in my ear, promising they would return by 9am.
It was July 6, 2014, and my daughters were in town visiting for the weekend with their husbands. My youngest, Breanna, 23, was heavily pregnant with her second baby and due to give birth that week. My elder daughter Amanda, 28, had just announced the night before that she and Jacob were also expecting their first baby together.
Just weeks ahead of Doug and I celebrating our 30-year wedding anniversary, both of us revelled in the happy news.
Doug and I first met when we were 15 – we were high-school sweethearts. He was a shy schoolboy who loved building motors and repairing cars and I was a social butterfly with lots of friends.
In many respects we were very different, but Doug always had the kindest heart.
After graduation Doug asked me to be his wife and we got married in 1984. The next year I fell pregnant with Amanda. I wanted so badly to have a baby and I couldn’t wait to be a mum.
When Doug first held his little girl in his arms, he immediately fell in love. “She’s perfect,” he declared, as his eyes swelled with tears.
After we had Breanna we felt our family was finally complete.
Living in California, we loved being outdoors and spent our weekends camping and boating on nearby Lake Elsinore.
In 1990 Doug got his pilot’s licence and bought a 1967 single-engine, four-passenger airplane. It had always been Doug’s dream to fly his own plane and after saving up, his dream finally came true. Nearly every day for 16 years he commuted back and forth by plane to work in his auto body shop, about 110km from home.
He was a brilliant pilot and would whisk us away for a day trip at a moment’s notice.
After university, Breanna married Kyle in 2010 and a year later Amanda married Jacob. We loved both the boys and treated them like our own sons. They lived close by and would drop by our home in Lake Elsinore, a city in western Riverside County, frequently. They instantly became part of our family, spending weekends cooking at our house and travelling on holidays together.
They also loved flying with Doug and the thrill of being up in the air.
As our family continued to grow, Doug and I adored being grandparents to Breanna and Kyle’s son Ryder, now three, and we couldn’t wait to have more grandchildren to spoil. With so much to look forward to, I felt blessed to have my family back together and all under the same roof again.
While Amanda and I spent the morning keeping Breanna comfortable at home, Doug took the boys out for a quick flight to have breakfast at his favourite café.
Jacob kissed Amanda goodbye and Kyle went to check on Breanna, who was still asleep in bed. “We’ll be back soon,’’ they promised, closing the front door behind them.
They left at 7am, and we got busy with breakfast. Hours passed, and when they hadn’t returned by 10am I began wondering what was taking them so long.
“Kyle said he’d be back soon,” said Breanna. “Wonder what’s holding them up.”
“They probably just lost track of time,” I assured the girls. My daughters agreed. It wasn’t uncommon for Doug, Jacob and Kyle to get caught up in a conversation together.
But with Breanna due to go into labour at any moment, something didn’t feel right.
“Let me give them a call,” I said, and dialled Doug’s number. Oddly, it went straight to his voicemail. I then sent a text message asking him to call me, but there was no response.
In fact, none of them were responding to our text messages and our calls.
I quickly logged on to Twitter to scan the feeds of the local news stations I follow. Just as I tried to call Doug again, a new post flashed on my screen. I gasped as I read the headline aloud: ‘Three people dead after a small plane crashed in Lake Elsinore.’
Like a stuck record, I kept reading the same words over and over again, at first quietly to myself and then louder and louder.
Trying to put on a brave face, I told my daughters not to worry or panic. “I’m sure it’s not them,” I mumbled. But my heart was racing and I was beginning to feel faint with fear.
Realising my grandson Ryder was in the next room, we did our best to hide our worried emotions.
I quickly scanned other news feeds to see if there were any more details. I learnt that the crash happened about 25km away from our home, halfway between our house and the café.
It would have been in the direct flight path Doug took that morning. But surely it wasn’t Doug’s plane that went down. As I watched Ryder play with his toys on the floor, I locked eyes with the girls, all of us silently praying it wasn’t real.
Any moment now they would be walking through the front door, teasing us for making such a fuss.
“It’s not them,” Breanna protested. “It can’t be.”
We frantically made phone calls to try to piece together more information. Amanda called the café and found out Doug had paid the bill at 9am before taxiing out of the airport at 9.10am. They were on their way home.
But police reported the crash at 9.25am and now it was going on 11am.
“Where are they?” I panicked.
Amanda quickly called the local fire chief, a close friend of our family, and asked him to go to the crash site for us.
After piecing together their timeline, I couldn’t help but fear what was coming.
As we anxiously waited for more news, the girls and I huddled together on the front porch, desperately searching the clear blue sky for Doug’s plane to pass by.
But it never did.
Finally, at 2pm we got the phone call we’d been dreading all day.
I answered the phone, my hands shaking, as the fire chief confirmed my worst nightmare.
“Kim,” he said. “It was Doug’s plane that crashed into the mountain. Doug, Kyle and Jacob are all dead.”
I wanted to scream and tell him he was wrong, but I couldn’t find the words. I just started sobbing, dropping the phone.
None of us wanted to believe it was true, but there was no denying it now.
Pulling the girls in close, we collapsed to the floor, lifeless and sobbing in each other’s arms.
I watched as Ryder played in the other room, blissfully unaware that his daddy had just been killed in a terrible plane crash.
In one fleeting moment all of our lives had changed forever.
We’d lost half of our family. Our husbands, and our heroes.
Just the day before we were celebrating Amanda’s news about her pregnancy and anxiously waiting for Breanna’s little girl to arrive.
Now, Kyle and Jacob would never have the chance to meet their babies or hold them in their arms. Doug would never be able to spoil his new grandchildren, like he did Ryder. None of us would ever hold our husbands’ hands again or hear them say ‘I love you.’
I felt numb with shock.
In the days that followed, new details came in about the accident. According to the initial investigation, the plane’s engine failed mid-flight.
When Doug started losing altitude he began circling low to the ground, preparing for an emergency landing on the mountainside.
But unforeseen in the distance was a small pipe among the treeline, which clipped the right wing and caused the plane to crash.
It all ended in a fiery explosion and our husbands were killed immediately on impact.
Learning about their last moments, I felt sick at the thought of how scared they must have been as the plane went down. But one detail the girls and I were able to find comfort in was learning both Kyle and Jacob were found in the back of the plane.
Having flown with Doug for so many years, we think he must have told them to go to the back so he could take the brunt of the collision in the front. Potentially risking his life in order to save them.
Their dad had always been their hero, and mine too.
I felt proud knowing Doug tried everything he could to keep those boys safe.
Over the next days the girls and I leaned on each other as an unimaginable pain set in. As we began to plan three separate funerals, we held Ryder a little closer while waiting for his baby sister to arrive.
I truly believe she was waiting on purpose in order to give Breanna the time she needed to grieve.
On July 13, one week after the accident, Trulee Ann Skyler finally arrived and she was perfect in every way. Amanda and I were in the delivery room along with Kyle’s mum.
It was so special to be by Breanna’s side, but we all couldn’t help but wish that Kyle was there instead of us.
Months on, it still feels like the boys are just away on holiday together and that they will be coming home any day now.
Sometimes I just sit on the sofa, waiting as if I’m going to see them all walk through the front door, laughing and carrying on like they always did.
It doesn’t feel real that all of our husbands are gone, so much that the girls haven’t even begun to mourn the loss of their father yet. But despite our heartbreak, we have vowed to find strength in each other to get past this.
I know Doug wouldn’t want me to be sad for too long.
Instead he’d want me to carry on and continue raising our children and grandchildren in a family filled with love and happiness.
Ryder still talks about the accident nearly every day.
“My dad is dead,” he’ll say candidly, looking at family pictures hanging on the walls.
“So is uncle Jacob and Pa,” he’ll add, as all of us fight back our tears. At three years he’s having a hard time processing that daddy is never coming home.
But watching Ryder and Trulee grow up makes me smile, knowing we still have so much to look forward to as a family.
And I know Amanda’s little boy will bring us even more joy when he arrives later this month.
The girls and I lost so much that day in the blink of an eye.
We lost our soulmates and our kids all lost their fathers.
But no matter what, we still have each other.
And with a home proudly filled with pictures and memories of Doug, Kyle and Jacob, we will forever carry them in our hearts.
Kim Symiczek, 49, lives in Lake Elsinore, California, with her daughters