A Mexican aeroplane crash

At 1:40pm on 18 May 1979, Sarita (nee Parer) and Richard Chaffey died in a plane crash that “ditched after an in-flight fire” and was “damaged beyond repair” in the Valley of Yashib away from houses, but not far from the city of San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico. The three crew members and seven passengers aboard the Bush Airlines, Douglas DC-4 charter flight plane were killed. This brought to an abrupt and tragic halt the idyllic dreams of a couple very much in love, even after ten years of marriage.

We don’t know where the flight took off from or where it’s destination was. San Cristobal in Chiapas is a city at 2,200m above sea level and surrounded by mountains. It’s a tropical zone, but because of the height, a temperate climate and known for its rain and cloud cover, during this time of year. The terrain or time of day certainly wouldn’t have accounted for the crash. The identities of two of the other passengers travelling with them were Roland Schmid and Ruth Sahli.

Ricky and Sarita had been exploring Mexico for a little while when Richard sent a postcard to his parents from the Temple of Quetzalcoatl north of Mexico City, “We saw these being press made by the locals. Mexico is a pleasant place. Lots to see and do, especially archaeology which Sarita is fond of. People friendly. We are over here to see about investment and perhaps a plot in a warm place (with the) average 75 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Be back in Australia soon.”

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Postcard from Ricky Chaffey to his parents Harold and Edith in Auckland, New Zealand. Seabourne Rust collection.

Sarita was born Helen Virginia Sarita Parer to Leandro “Leo” Parer and Helena “Lena” Carlton in Sydney, NSW, Australia. She was the youngest child, with her siblings Anthony and Marianna six and five years older than her respectively. She grew up in the uniquely designed “Morella” home in Clifton Gardens overlooking Chowder Bay in Sydney. “Morella” was built in 1939 and designed by architect Eric Nicholls “Morella”. Home Beautiful in April 1943 said, “The firm of Burley Griffin & Nichol is carrying on his work and tradition in Sydney, and they have designed the Parer’s house very much as Burley Griffin himself would have designed it but with a few subtle differences which bespeak the influence of another personality.”  Different personalities indeed – when Sarita grew up there, it’s opulence and mahogany furnishings were a mocking contrast to it’s recent derelict conditions – a house of dreams that fell into disrepair.

OfficeWorksMSP2014_14-0002_Serita Parer at home in Clifton Gardens designed by Burley Griffen possibly by Damien ParerEDIT.jpg
Sarita with a kitten at the family home “Morella”, Clifton Gardens, Sydney. Photo: Damien Peter Parer. Michael S Parer collection.

Leo, her father made his money in the firm Standford X-Ray, particularly when it was sold to Siemens in the 1960s. He worked in the Sydney offices of the firm and travelled frequently overseas for business.

Sarita went to Elm School in Mossman and after, like her sister Marianna before her, went to finishing school in Europe. The Australian Women’s Weekly reported on her arrival home from England after a 30 day journey on the 19 June 1957:

After nearly two years overseas – at finishing school in Switzerland and the Sorbonne in Paris – Sarita Parer will arrive home on board ‘Himalaya‘ on Friday, June 14. Sarita attended lectures at Fribourg University during her stay in Switzerland, then attended the Sorbonne with a group of American girls she had met at the Villa Beata finishing school. In Paris they stayed at Nieully College and Sarita received a diploma in French and history at the Sorbonne. Before sailing for Sydney she visited relatives in England – while there sat for the entrance exam at Oxford, was successful, and hopes to return there as a student in November.

Not long after this Bob Parer drove from Brisbane to Sydney with his two young girls Teresa and Shelly to visit his brother Leo and second cousin Mick Barbeta who were living in the flat above the Standford X-Ray factory in Forbes Street, Woolloomooloo. Leo stayed here at times or on his moored boat at Chowder Bay as he escaped the relationship with Lena which was tumultuous at the best of times. Shelly says, “Sarita took Teresa and I to the movies one evening. We caught a bus and were very bored at our young ages with a French movie with subtitles.”

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Sarita Parer sits in a gum tree in Sydney, Australia, c.1960. Seabourn Rust collection.

In 1963 Sarita lived on the waters edge of Elizabeth Bay directly opposite the Rushcutters Bay Marinas near Kings Cross while studying to be a pharmacist at University. Robert Parer says, “About 1965 Kevin Parer, Paul O’Sullivan and I were in Sydney we contacted Sarita at the Pharmacy where she worked and organised to meet her. Unfortunately we missed her as we went to the wrong place. We visited her at a Pharmacy at King’s Cross.”

Sarita was trained and worked as a pharmacist in Rabaul and Lae Government Hospitals in Papua New Guinea and in Cape Town, South Africa for some years. Robert Parer continues, “While we were living at Aitape, West Sepik, Sarita worked as a pharmacist at Nonga General Hospital. The OIC doctor from Nonga came to the home of the Government aide-de-camp (Kiap) at Aitape where we were having drinks. At the mention of Sarita’s name all he could say was “Oh Sarita” over and over again. We could see she was very special to him. He would have been twice her age. I heard that she visited the Malaria Institute at Maprik, inland from Wewak in East Sepik.”

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Richard Chaffey’s PNG drivers license. Seabourne Rust collection.

It was around this time when she met and fell in love with Richard “Ricky” Anthony Chaffey.

Ricky was born in the south London area of Bromley to Harold “Buddy” and Edith “Mary” Chaffey on the 15 May 1940. The World War II was in full flight and Buddy was an airman with the RAF. Right in the middle of the Battle for Britain, with all the bombing going on they made a big decision. On the 8th of August 3 month old Richard, in his mum’s arms, fled from Liverpool, England on the “Antonia” for Montreal, Canada risking the German U-boats on a 16 day journey across the Atlantic Ocean and a new beginning. Buddy transferred to the Royal Canadian Airforce in December 1940 and they set up home near Victoria on Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada. Towards the end of the war they had a girl Jacqueline “Jacqui” and the family popped home to show her off to their friends and family in England.

Ricky left Canada after school, setting out to explore the world.

Not long before he married Sarita, in February 1968 in a letter to his Aunt, Richard writes that he had spent the last five months exploring South East Asia. He journeyed on a route not unfamiliar with the backpackers of today, at the time when it was much less travelled, meshed with a heady mix as the old Orient cultures clashed with the Empire and the West. It was a region in upheaval and would have been an intoxicating trip that altered Ricky’s perceptions. Ricky began initially in Australia, then travelled via ship to New Guinea, Timor and Bali, and on through Central Java to Singapore and up through Malaysia to Penang, where he became caught up in the 24 November 1967, Hartal riot.

There had been initial labour trouble in Penang with the devaluing of the Malayan dollar against the pound sterling, but the riots soon became volatile racially-alligned violence between Malaysians and Chinese. There ensued two months of violence and bloodshed in chaotic scenes. In his book “The Deadly Ethnic Riot“, Donald L Horowitz says, “Events transpired that were violent and felt to require an even more violent response. This was a riot very close to the spontaneous end of the spectrum.” The volatility, immediacy and sudden violence of mob-rule left twenty-seven people were dead.

The whole of South East Asia was simmering at the time. Ricky remained untouched mentally, as he continued through central Thailand and Cambodia, and stopped at the closed border of Vietnam at the height of the war, but these experiences of the “struggle between ideologies, starvation and exploitation” left a lasting impression upon him. Lack of funds caused him to abandon his planned journey to Japan, and instead he travelled to his parents new home in Titirangi, West Auckland. He found New Zealand too ‘placid’ and he itched to move on, writing, “I am just so muddled as to what is life’s purpose”.

Not long after, he found his purpose when he met Sarita Parer, probably in Papua New Guinea where she was working as a pharmacist. Leo had died on the 15th February 1968.

Sarita and Ricky living their life together and travelled, staying for a time in Sydney, Papua New Guinea, England and in Cape Town, South Africa where they settled down for a bit.

In a letter home to his parents in October 1968 we get to see just how these two lived, loved, hoped and dreamed together as Richard gushed:

“Well, I’ve finally done it. I mean we have  “got hitched”! It s a good thing that Sarita is the kind of girl she is, the wedding ceremony was a very quiet affair – no chums, swords or bugler, but the kind of wedding we both decided on. As this occasion was a rather plain affair we have decided that we will marry again in each country we go to, which will make our travelling all the more enjoyable. According to South African law I am really the king of the castle, a woman really forfeits her rights, all responsible decisions to be made by ‘hubby’ – should be good for me.

We have taken part of house nestled under Table Mountain, a very good view of it – looks something akin to Switzerland. The other half of the house is occupied by a Scotsman with his man servant, a half French, half East Indian, a very peculiar mixture, but he’s quiet an amicable chap.

Sarita would like to take some cooking lessons (cordon bleau!) no less her kitchen efforts are rather frightening. She is lacking in, what I think Mum, you would call common sense. I suppose her mother was leery on old Sarita and prevented her from going into the kitchen at all, has something to do with it.

Getting used to all this domesticity is funny especially when I used to be so outspoken against it. Did Dad find this also? It looks like my role will be early morning tea maker if nothing else.

Our present life’s philosophy calls for, apart from you and Dad, an independent existence, and we will keep very much to ourselves.

Sarita has found a job as a pharmacist, with a local chemist shop and I hope to work as a liason officer with the British Consulate, whatever that is. Actually its just telling British exporters to SA, who to contact with regard to selling products in the country. I hope I won’t develop a complex over Sarita earning three times as much as me.

As I mentioned, its on to England perhaps in April or May and back to New Guinea or NZ depending on our adventures next northern hemisphere winter, Sarita’s uncle [Bernard] with the copra plantation [Karlai, New Britain] wants to give it up and we are the most likely choices. Apparently the existence in Rabaul is idyllic and what with Sarita’s estate forthcoming – its not that I am mercenary – both Sarita and I would like you Mum & Dad to come on ship to New Guinea and see us and, if it suits you, to live near us.

Sarita has a terrific interest in preserving birds of paradise and saving the green sea turtle (that sounds odd) but they are nearly extinct. We are even planning an aviary now and a coral enclosed lagoon for the turtles. We could all live very reasonably. No work for you Mum, lots of house boys and bird watching for you, Dad. Well, anyway that’s what we would like to come about. Hope that Jakki and that clot S. haven’t been upsetting you Mum. I would rather you didn’t tell them about our plans. I’m not going to forget anything about you both.

Cheerio for now, Love Richard and Sarita.

PS – we are both healthy and happy

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Ricky and Sarita Chaffey’s wedding certificate, 21 October 1968. Seabourne Rust collection.

Sarita was a little more circumspect with her new in-laws:

Dear Mrs and Mr. Chaffey,

Richard and I were married on a beautiful day last week, Monday 21st, at Stellenbosch; a lovely old Dutch colonial town surrounded by hills, not far from Cape Town.

I wish you had met me personally and I’m sorry to introduce myself to you in this way. I realise you must be concerned about the kind of person Richard is with and a daughter-in-law you have never seen. It may help if I tell you that we are very much alike, even to look at, that I love Richard very much and if he is as happy being with me, as I am with him, we are surely the happiest people alive. 

Thank you for your kind letters. I shall always be grateful for the generosity and simplicity with which you accepted me and my relationship with Richard.

We spoil each other and because of this we are both well looked after. We live a sort of closed circuit existence of bread, love and dreams and minimise our contacts with the people around us.

I look forward to hearing from you and meeting you. Richard is always talking about you.

With love, Sarita.

Jacqui’s son Seabourne Rust says, “They returned to live in the Sydney area of Australia, and in 1977 they had moved into the Blue Mountains, 100 kms from Sydney. Before travelling to Mexico in 1979, Ricky had his photo taken in Penrith.”

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Sarita Parer in Australia October 1978. Seabourne Rust collection.

So they explored Mexico and thought about investment properties there. All this time there had been legal wrangling over Leo’s estate which was still not settled. The happy, world-travelling couple hopped on a plane in Mexico and died.

Here is where a bit of mystery was involved. Marianna, paid for her sisters body to be returned to Sydney to be buried beside her father. However, when they opened the coffin, they discovered it was not Sarita, but some poor Mexican girl and so donated the body to the University. Even so Sarita’s headstone was laid next to her father on the 4th of June 1979. What became of the bodies is unknown though the Registrar of Death says that the bodies were transferred to Mexico City. Perhaps, fittingly they remained together after death as they did in life and not separated because of others desires.

Leo and Sarita Parer's gravestones

There have been further stories that Sarita was pregnant at the time of her death, but that may just be apocryphal. This story doesn’t need further intrigue or innuendo to add to its sadness.

While there may be some mystery surrounding Sarita and Ricky after their passing, there can be no denying that they lived and loved life and while their ending was tragic their lives certainly weren’t.

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Sarita Parer, climbing the sandstone stairs of “Morella”, Clifton Gardens, Sydney, 1939. Photo Damien Peter Parer. Michael S Parer collection.
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6 thoughts on “A Mexican aeroplane crash

  1. Dear Ben,
    I’ve just checked out the post you’ve put on your blog…what can I say but wow, thank you for getting stuck in and producing such an interesting, readable, and sensitively written compilation of the evidence thus far, into a compelling and heart felt story of love and tragedy. There will be more to add as we uncover more facts, but its terrific to have your article to build upon. So once again, on behalf of the Chaffey family thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anton Parer Pyrenees Pilgrimage Ben and Shelly,
    there is a Catalan poem quoted in the St Kilda Parer Pier Reunion some 10 years ago I’ll find at in the archives” that says, ‘When we tell stories of our forebears we bring them back to life, they relive in our memories and impact on our daily lives and influence our events. 
    Ben in your remarkable investigation of Sarita and Richard you have brought Sarita and Uncle Leo and Lena and Tony and Marianna back into life for me. And such a rich intertwining series of autobiographies with dad Stan and Stanford-x-Ray.

    Where did the exquisite name of Sarita come from. Why? What is its origin

    thanks
    love Michael Stanislaus Parer

    Liked by 1 person

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