Missionary in Peru plane tragedy rebuilds life in North Carolina

Posted: Friday, July 05, 2002

GARNER, N.C. (AP) -- When he got off the plane that brought him to North Carolina, Jim Bowers wondered aloud to his mother if he could ever get the images out of his mind.

The smoke from the guns of a Peruvian Air Force A-37 that shot through the small aircraft carrying his missionary family. The screams in Spanish of the Cessna's pilot: ''They're killing us! They're killing us!'' The blood on his infant daughter. His wife slumped over in her seat.

More than a year has passed since a single bullet took the lives of Bowers' wife, Roni, and his daughter, Charity, in the sky over the Amazon River. A Baptist, Bowers credits his faith with sustaining him and his 7-year-old son, Cory.

He says he's forgiven the U.S. and Peruvian officials who mistook his family's plane for a drug smuggler's. The two governments have acknowledged errors were made, and President Bush has called him to express regret.

But Bowers still longs for an apology from the CIA, who officials said hired the surveillance crew that first told the Peruvians about the flight -- then never explicitly stopped them from shooting.

''From the very beginning I wasn't expecting anything except for someone to admit they did something wrong and to be punished for it,'' Bowers said recently from his mother's home in this Raleigh suburb. ''Then I realized as the months went by that there wasn't going to be anybody punished.

''It doesn't matter how much you forgive a person. When they do something wrong, they should still suffer the consequences.''

Bowers, 39, has made dozens of speeches at Bible colleges and churches in the Americas and Europe about his experience.

A book, ''If God Should Choose,'' and a dramatic video about the family are now serving to meet the Bowers' calling: evangelism and encouraging others to become missionaries.

''God has chosen Cory and me to represent him in a bigger way, a lot bigger than I would have imagined,'' he said at a memorial service for Roni and Charity last year.

Jim and Roni Bowers worked in relative anonymity for five years along the Amazon in northeastern Peru, spreading the Christian gospel among the riverside villages and training ministers through the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism. The Bowers lived with their children aboard a houseboat that sailed up and down the river.

On April 20, 2001, the family, flown by fellow-missionary Kevin Donaldson, was returning from the Colombian border where they had picked up a permanent resident visa for Charity. CIA personnel aboard a surveillance plane spotted the aircraft and alerted Peruvian officials. A Peruvian interceptor arrived and shot the aircraft as the CIA crew debated whether the plane fit a drug smuggler's profile.

Roni Bowers and Charity, who had been adopted in Michigan only a few months earlier, were dead. Cory and Jim Bowers weren't injured. Donaldson was shot in the legs, but still managed to land the pontoon plane on the river. They reached land and got help.

In the months after the shooting, government reports blamed errors by the Peruvian military, procedural mistakes and the poor language skills of personnel from both countries for misidentifying the plane.

''They had no reason to suspect us,'' Bowers said.

Jim Bowers brought the bodies back to America and settled in Garner, a town of 20,000 south of Raleigh, where tobacco fields are giving way to suburban subdivisions. There, he and Cory moved in with his mother, Wilma.

Bowers took a job at Bethel Baptist Church in nearby Cary, leading Spanish Bible studies and church services for the area's growing Hispanic population.

He said he's not bitter, though he does have strong words for the people involved. ''It was an accident,'' he said. ''It was terrible negligence and stupidity but it wasn't malicious.''

Roni Bowers' parents have a more pointed assessment.

''It was the United States and Peruvian governments that murdered our daughter,'' Roni's father, John Luttig, said in an interview from Pace, Fla.

An $8 million settlement from the U.S. government was reached this spring with the crash survivors, Roni Bowers' parents and the Bowers' missionary agency. The government didn't admit liability or assign blame to the CIA as part of the settlement.

When asked whether the CIA would apologize to the family, an agency spokesman referred to the White House statement released in March that said: ''The United States government and the government of Peru deeply regret this tragic event and the resulting deaths.''

All of the beneficiaries say they will give the money to support Christian ministries. Peru also has agreed to replace the missionary agency's plane.

Jim Bowers said he sees himself ultimately returning to overseas missionary work. He has gone back to Peru since the crash but doesn't plan to work there again.

With few answers about why this all happened, he leans on the positives that have come out of the tragedy: People have become Christians after learning about the crash, and his faith and that of others has grown.

''I got Roni stripped away from me. Basically, my main thing in life was my relationship with her,'' he said. Now, ''God has seemed to be much more real and close to me.''

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On the Net:

Association of Baptists for World Evangelism: http://www.abwe.org

Jim and Cory Bowers: http://www.jimbowers.org



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