(photo credit: AP)
For three endless days this week, a close-knit Jerusalem family clung between growing despair and diminishing hope.
Lily Alon, 23, had been aboard the budget Thai airline that crashed Sunday in the Thai resort island of Phuket, but the family did not know if she was among the dozens of survivors and was hospitalized and hurt, or if she was one of the 89 victims, including eight Israelis.
Alon, a student at Jerusalem's Hadassah College, had left for Thailand just one week earlier for a three- week holiday with her high school friend Rachel Tofen, 23.
The two friends had planned the trip for over a year ever since they vacationed in Barcelona together last year, Alon's younger brother Yoni recounted Wednesday.
Yoni Alon, 22, had spoken to his sister on the phone just hours before the fateful flight.
He had been at a Jerusalem soccer game when she first called Saturday but he could not hear over the noise so he said he would call her when he got home.
It was in the middle of the night in Thailand when he reached her Saturday night, and she promised to call again when she got to Phuket.
"Okay. Have a good night," were his last words to her, he recounted, and hung up, not worried for a minute that anything was about to happen to his younger sister.
The budget flight was carrying 123 passengers and seven crew from Bangkok to Phuket when it skidded off a runway Sunday while landing in driving wind and rain, catching fire and killing 89 people.
Yoni was the first in the family to get the news Sunday that Lily was on the plane.
At first, he thought to rush out to Thailand Sunday night together with his cousin but the Israel Police asked him to stay in Israel since it was not clear if there was anything he could do to help the Thai police.
On Monday, when it was still unclear if his sister was among the living or the dead, Yoni decided to wait till Tuesday at 5 p.m. to see if any word came from Thailand. Otherwise he was determined to head straight to the scene.
During this time, some people said they thought they recognized his sister in the hospital from TV pictures. The wait was unbearable.
"We always knew that bad news could come, but we always said maybe it will be okay," he said.
Then Tuesday afternoon, as he prepared to leave his Gilo home, where he lives with his mother, for the airport with his cousin the telephone rang. An Israel police official in Thailand was on the line.
He asked Yoni a few questions that could help identify his sister.
"It sounded like they knew something, and just wanted to hear it from me," he said. "I understood then that they were next to her but what I didn't know was if they were in the hospital or in the morgue," he continued. Yoni asked the police official which it was. "I don't know why, he told me the truth - 'with the bodies,'" he recalled. "I was always like her big brother - I am 30 cm. taller than her - and everyone said she was my little sister," he said.
Alon's body was being flown home Wednesday and she will buried in Jerusalem on Thursday. Her friend is still unaccounted for. The bodies of more than 30 of the victims remained unidentified Wednesday because they were so badly burned.
The team of Israeli police and forensic experts on the ground in Phuket are continuing efforts to locate the body of Tofen, the only Israeli victim who has still not been found.
The body of Hofit Elia was positively identified on Wednesday, becoming the seventh Israeli to be identified of the eight reported missing after the crash.
The team was joined on Wednesday by Dr. Orna Rosenblatt, an expert on dental records, who often helps the police in identifying bodies. Rosenblatt also joined the Israeli team which traveled to Asia after the Tsunami disaster in December 2004.
A plane carrying four of the victims - Adi Naim, his wife Rotem Naouri, Yitzhak Biton and Tal Feldman - will arrive in Israel Thursday morning.
Yitzhak Raz, the Transport Ministry's chief accident investigator, will travel to Thailand on Sunday to help the Thai authorities investigating what caused the crash. The Thai government invited a number of countries, including Israel, to send experts to aid the investigation.
The Thai authorities have praised the work of the eight-member Israeli team, who were the first foreign delegation members to reach Phuket after the disaster. The Israeli team brought with them fingerprints of all eight missing Israelis, taken from their IDF records.
Foreign nationals at the site, desperately trying to trace relatives and friends who were on the flight, approached the Israeli team for help.