Three years ago Kevin Rebello made a promise to his parents and sister-in-law. That he will bring his younger brother Russel home, alive -- and, as hopes faded with each passing day -- or dead. That promise was fulfilled February 22, 2015, when sailor Russel's mortal remains were buried in a cemetery, close to a place where the two brothers spent their childhood.
Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com reports on how a family faced its worst moments.
It is almost 6.30 in the evening when Kevin is back home after burying his brother Russel, who died January 13, 2012, aboard the ill-fated cruiser Costa Concordia, off the Mediterranean island of Isola del Giglio in Italy.
Russel, who worked as a waiter aboard the Concordia was on the fourth deck when he jumped into the sea along with an Italian after helping the people onboard with life jackets and life boats, Kevin told Rediff.com after his brother's burial, on February 22, 2015.
The Italian was the last to see Russel alive. "He (the Italian) jumped first and swam away from the boat. My brother was unlucky, when he jumped the ship tilted further, sank some more, and my brother got sucked into the ship," says Kevin, who was told of how his brother died after jumping into the water by the Italian crew of Concordia.
Kevin, an Italian citizen himself, refused to identify this man citing his country's privacy laws.
Kevin, who was in Milan on the day the accident occurred, rushed to the island after two days. He scoured the 27 sq km island for the next two days hoping to find his brother, who he believed was alive and could have, perhaps, taken shelter somewhere on the island. He did not think then that his brother could have met a watery grave along with 31 others in the rough sea.
It was on November 3, 2014, that Kevin got a message from the Italian civil protection department, that coordinates between victims of mishaps and their relatives on one hand and all those engaged in rescue and salvage operations on the other. The CPD informed him that the shipbreakers at Genoa had found human remains on the eighth deck of the Concordia that had Russel's badge on along with his uniform.
On his Facebook page, Kevin had expressed his feelings thus: 'I don't have words to express. Just my pain, my tears, my heart pounding harder and my body trembling when I broke the news to my parents a while ago… Thanks to everyone who prayed and believed that one day he would be found.'
"They identified him because of the badge on his uniform," Kevin said. "Later, his mortal remains were sent for DNA testing. They took my saliva, blood and hair samples to match with that of Russel's," he said about the formalities he had to undergo to bring his brother back to India.
"Once the DNA of his hair and mine matched, I knew or at least started hoping that my brother's body could fly home back to India," said Kevin, who was tired to the bone because of his hectic travel since February 9 when he reached Genoa to claim his brother's body.
But it was only when he reached Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport on the evening of February 21 that he realised that his brother's passage to his final resting place still had some hurdles to overcome.
Kevin had landed at the airport three hours before Russel's coffin was flown in via Turkish Airlines at 7 pm. Once the coffin reached the Customs officers in Mumbai, it was taken to the cargo area where Kevin was asked by airport officials to get a no-objection certificate from the Sahar police station.
"It was then that I realised how time-consuming bureaucracy can be. The Sahar police insisted that they will open the coffin to check its contents despite being handed the official documents issued by the Italian authorities about the contents of the coffin. But still they insisted," Kevin said.
The only hitch was the police could have easily broken open the outer wooden pieces using a crowbar. But since Russel's body was highly decomposed, it was embalmed and encased inside an airtight steel container. 'I have waited for this moment for three years. I can still wait another three hours. But please ensure that you don't scratch the coffin,' an emotionally drained Kevin told the cops.
The cops took almost eight hours before Kevin could claim his brother's coffin and take it home.
As soon as one alighted at 1.30 in the afternoon at Naigaon station, a far-flung northern suburb outside Mumbai city limits where the Rebellos have been living for more than 40 years, posters of Russel's funeral were everywhere.
Pictures of a smart, young Russel, in his mid-20s perhaps, with prim and proper hair and a cute smile accompanied you all the way to Oasis Park, some 300 metres from the railway station, a quiet neighbourhood which this day was abuzz with people.
Everybody was heading to Oasis Park, where the Rebellos stayed on the ground floor, it seemed.
There, inside the brightly lit living room, was kept Russel's coffin, all shining and teak polished. With not a scratch on it.
Photo collages of Russel as he grew up into a handsome young man adorned the walls. There were photographs of Russel on his wedding day, with wife Wilma. Next to it was a photo collage of Rhys, Russel and Wilma's son, smiling with abandon.
Russel's parents – mother Gladys and father Frank – along with Wilma and Rhys are seated on chairs right in front of Russel's coffin. A steady stream of visitors pay their last respects to the departed soul, along with the deep-in-prayer family and friends. Gladys constantly keeps staring at her son's coffin in front of her. Frank, partially immobile since he suffered a paralytic stroke recently, quietly sat next to his wife.
Wilma, Russel's wife, kept looking at her husband's coffin and Rhys. She would occasionally stand up to take care of friends and relatives who came to express their condolences.
Rhys, who was only four at the time of his father's untimely death, flitted like a busy bee. The doting mother and grandparents would keep his playful activities under check. Rhys, all of seven now, was everybody's happy distraction from the sombre goings-on.
Kevin, because of whom the family could at least get to see the coffin of their departed son, was outside: greeting people, accepting their condolences, making arrangements for the funeral that was scheduled for 2.30 pm.
Exactly two minutes past 2.30 pm, Russel began his final journey. Close by was the school where Russel and Kevin studied, played football and shared a lot of happy tidings together. "Russel always jumped into the well to get our football," Kevin would say after Russel's burial, standing outside the cemetery and pointing towards a well next to their school playground. "He was very fond of swimming," Kevin would fondly recall his younger brother.
By 6.30 pm Kevin was back home for final prayers with his parents, Wilma, Rhys and a bunch of close relatives.
Russel was 32 when he passed away in 2012. Kevin is 41 today, a satisfied man, who oversaw three tumultuous years in search of his brother who he and his parents thought would never see again, either dead or alive.
While Russel's wife and parents suffered and grieved in silence all these years, trying to overcome their tragedy in their own way, it was Kevin who took upon himself the task of bringing his brother back.
While being an Italian citizen and one who could speak Italian fluently helped Kevin coordinate with myriad authorities from the day he reached the island off which Concordia sunk, it was sheer passion and a promise made to his parents that gave him the courage to look for his brother's mortal remains.
Things began to work in his favour only last November, when the CPD informed him about a body found on the eighth deck of the Concordia. For three long years Kevin's dedication and love for his brother, parents, sister-in-law and nephew helped him overcome the lows of finding a person who was almost 40 metres under water.
But Kevin's prayers were finally answered. It was the least a son could do for his family, he said in an emotional, choked voice. In fact, Kevin's love for his brother echoed even during the memorial sermon delivered by Father Michael Rosario: "Kevin and Russel were like Ram and Lakshman. Their love for each other is worth emulating," the priest said about the bond the brothers shared.
"I had made a promise to my parents. More than closure of this ordeal, I feel relieved that I have fulfilled my promise to my parents. There's a lot of weight off my shoulder," Kevin said simply.