Pubdate: Mon, 23 Apr 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Author: Robert D. McFadden


Three survivors of a missionary plane shot down in Peru after being 
mistaken for drug smugglers returned to the United States yesterday as 
details of their ordeal in the jungle, and of their years as backwater 
missionaries, were recounted by colleagues and friends.

Officials of their mission vehemently disputed Peruvian accounts of the 
Friday incident, saying that the plane was easily identifiable by its 
markings and that its pilot had filed a flight plan and had been in radio 
contact with an airport where he intended to land. They said the Peruvian 
military plane had opened fire without warning, killing the missionary's 
wife and infant daughter.

A pastor in Muskegon, Mich., who had spoken by phone to the missionary, 
quoted him as saying that after their stricken plane had crashed in a 
river, the Peruvian fighter swooped in low and strafed the survivors -- the 
missionary, his 6-year-old son and the wounded pilot -- as they clung to 
the burning wreckage.

James Bowers, 37, a missionary with the Association of Baptists for World 
Evangelism, and his son, Cory, arrived at the Raleigh-Durham International 
Airport in North Carolina just after noon on a flight from Peru and were 
met by officials of the New Cumberland, Pa., mission that had sponsored his 
family's work for the last seven years.

Before going into seclusion at the home of his mother, Wilma, Mr. Bowers 
expressed concern about the bodies of his wife, Veronica, 35, and their 
7-month-old-daughter, Charity, who were killed in the attack. The bodies 
were still awaiting clearance by authorities in Lima, and the family was 
unable to make funeral plans.

In Philadelphia, the pilot of the downed aircraft, Kevin Donaldson, 42, 
arrived and was met by his wife, Bobbi, and Hank Scheltema, aviation 
director of the Baptist mission. Mr. Donaldson was taken to Reading General 
Hospital for surgery. Although shot in both legs, Mr. Donaldson had 
crash-landed his pontoon plane on the Amazon River, where the survivors 
clung to its burning, flipped-over wreckage for nearly an hour until 
rescued by villagers in dugout canoes.

The Peruvian Air Force, which expressed regret, said over the weekend that 
the missionary plane had entered Peruvian airspace unannounced from Brazil 
and was fired upon after Mr. Donaldson failed to respond to repeated radio 
requests to identify himself while flying without a flight plan through a 
region frequented by drug runners.

But Phil Bowers, a trained pilot who sat in on his brother's debriefing by 
military officials in Peru on Saturday, disputed that version. He said that 
Mr. Donaldson had been in radio contact with the airport at the jungle city 
of Iquitos, where he intended to land 40 minutes later, and that the 
Peruvian plane had fired without warning.

"There was no communication," Phil Bowers told The Associated Press in 
Iquitos, 625 miles northeast of Lima. He said the Cessna 185 had been 
dogged by two planes -- the Peruvian fighter and an American spotter that 
had apparently identified Mr. Donaldson's craft as a possible smugglers' 

"It happened very fast," Phil Bowers related. "The planes flew by first, 
did some swooping, and then came in from behind and started shooting." Even 
after the Cessna crashed into the river and flipped over, he said, the 
Peruvian plane continued firing as survivors clung to the wreckage and the 
pilot of the American surveillance plane looked on.

"We've got hundreds of witnesses from the shore, Peruvians who were 
watching from the village of Huanta," Mr. Bowers said. And, referring to 
the Peruvian pilot, he asked: "Why didn't they call and check the 
registration? Sounds like a bunch of vigilante hot-shot pilots. Either that 
or someone higher up ordered the pilots to shoot."

In Muskegon, Mich., the Rev. William Rudd, pastor of the Calvary Church, 
from which Mr. and Mrs. Bowers had been sent on their South American 
mission in 1994, said he had spoken to Mr. Bowers by phone and recounted 
details of what he characterized as a murderous unprovoked attack without 

He quoted Mr. Bowers as saying that the survivors, after the crash, had 
been surrounded by flames and that, as they splashed water to keep from 
burning, they were fired upon again by the Peruvian attacker, who swooped 
in for strafing runs. He said that a single bullet that crashed through the 
fuselage had apparently killed Mrs. Bowers and the baby. Cory, he said, 
helped rescue the plane's pilot, who was bleeding badly from his leg wounds.

He said Mr. Bowers told him Peruvian officials had initially wanted to take 
him into custody, but had been dissuaded by American officials.

The Rev. E.C. Haskell, director of mission relations for the Baptist 
association, also dismissed the Peruvian government's allegation that the 
plane was not identifiable, saying that a photo on the association's web 
site clearly showed the Cessna's identification numbers -- and a dove 
painted on its side.

David Southwell, the association's director of South American ministries, 
who met Mr. Bowers in Raleigh, insisted that Mr. Donaldson had been in 
radio contact with Peruvian air officials 15 minutes before the attack. And 
he called the charge that no flight plan had been filed "absolutely not 
true," adding, "The flight plan was filed and followed."

Mr. Donaldson, who suffered a crushed right leg and injuries of the left 
calf and was transported on a stretcher, had no immediate comment. But his 
brother, Gordon Donaldson, an osteopath in Morgantown, Pa., questioned why 
the Peruvian pilot and American monitors of Peru's drug interdiction 
efforts had not recognized the missionary plane.

"There are only four or five civilian airplanes that fly out of the city of 
Iquitos," Gordon Donaldson told The Associated Press. "His airplane has 
been down there for 13 years."

As American and Peruvian government officials investigated the 
circumstances surrounding the deaths, and friends and relatives mourned for 
the mother and daughter, other details of the attack -- and portraits of 
those caught up in it -- emerged yesterday.

Mr. Haskell said that the Bowers and their two adopted children had taken 
the journey that ended in tragedy because they wanted to obtain a permanent 
visa for their infant daughter. To do so, they had to go to a destination 
that was outside Peru, and the closest was in Colombia.

So on Thursday, the family took off with Mr. Donaldson from Iquitos, where 
the Bowers lived on a houseboat built by their church, and flew 250 miles 
east to Islandia, a Peruvian town just across the border from Colombia and 
Brazil. Mr. Haskell said the family had taken a boat across a river to 
Leticia, Colombia, where they obtained the visa.

Mr. Haskell emphasized that, while the family had crossed into Colombia, 
the missionary plane had never left Peru. "They were never out of Peruvian 
air space," he said, denying Peru's account that the plane had entered 
Peruvian airspace from Brazil.

The next day, Friday, the family boarded Mr. Donaldson's plane for the trip 
back to Iquitos and took off. But about 100 miles east of their 
destination, their plane was intercepted by the Peruvian fighter and shot down.

As friends and colleagues recalled yesterday, James and Veronica Bowers for 
the last seven years had been part of a mission that began in 1939 in 
northern Peru, bordering Brazil and Colombia, some 800 miles east of the 

There, traveling waterways on their houseboat and sometimes flying in small 
planes provided and piloted by their mission, they brought their teachings 
to remote towns and villages in a territory that, in the 1960's, had been 
part of the mission of Terry and Wilma Bowers, the parents of James Bowers, 
who was raised in Brazil.

Veronica Bowers, known to friends as Roni, grew up in Virginia and decided 
at the age of 12 that she wanted to be a missionary. After high school, she 
attended Piedmont Bible College in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she met James 
Bowers. They were married in 1985.

In the late 1980's, Mr. Bowers was in the Army, and he and his wife were 
stationed for three years in Germany. After his discharge in 1990, they 
returned to Piedmont Bible College and graduated together in 1993. They 
then moved to Muskegon, Mich., the hometown of James's mother, and soon 
became the second generation of his family to become South American 
missionaries from Calvary Church.

They were sent to Peru in 1994 by the Baptist association, founded in 1927, 
an organization that has 1,300 missionaries in 65 countries who are 
supported by 8,000 Baptist churches. According to Mrs. Bowers's 
biographical sketch for the mission, the couple were unable to have 
children and adopted Cory in 1994, and Charity soon after her birth last 
Sept. 14.

At Calvary Church in Muskegon, which has 1,000 members and supports about 
70 missions around the world, worshipers yesterday remembered the Bowers as 
a family devoted to missionary work. "She wouldn't even date a guy unless 
they were ready to go off and do missionary work," Kate Sagan, a friend and 
fellow church member, recalled.

Donna Zandstra, Mr. Bowers's cousin, added, "They both were doing exactly 
what they believed God called them to do."
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager