Canadian woman suddenly dies after taking international flight, family wants answers

A Toronto man is looking for answers after he says he was never notified about his 58-year-old wife suddenly dying during a trip from Toronto to Zimbabwe.

By Pat Taney

Fighting back tears in the living room of his Toronto home, Gordin Mapika recalls the evening of July 4, mainly the regrets he has, wishing he had said more to his wife of more than 40 years when he dropped her off at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

What he did not know at the time was it would be the last time he saw her alive.

His wife, Ketty Shonga, 58 and a Canadian citizen, was taking a trip back to her birth country of Zimbabwe, something she has done alone several times before. The flight, operated by United Airlines, was long with multiple connections through Chicago, Newark and Johannesburg, South Africa.

According to her flight records, she was scheduled to arrive in Zimbabwe on July 6.

“She never called or texted,” Mapika said. Which was strange, he told CityNews as she would always check in with family after she arrived.

“We thought ‘Why is she not communicating?’” added family member Isabel Murambiwa. “Could it be a power outage in Zimbabwe because there have been electrical problems there or could it be maybe she traveled out of the city where there is no network? We did not know.”

Shonga’s daughter then reached out to United Airlines via an online chat forum. According to screen grabs taken by the family of that conversation, the representative who responded confirmed Shonga took flight UA188 from Newark on July 5 and arrived at the O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg at 7:05 p.m. the next day.

But Shonga was supposed to take a connection flight from O.R. Tambo to Zimbabwe.

“So, at this point we assumed she did but after not hearing from her for several days we became incredibly worried,” Murambiwa said.

On July 12, seven days after Shonga originally departed Toronto, with still no communication from her, Mapika reached out to a family member who lives in South Africa. He said his nephew went to the O.R. Tambo airport to get answers.

The news wasn’t good. “That’s where he discovered she passed on,” shared Mapika.

In shock, Mapika immediately booked a flight to travel to Johannesburg where her body was being held. He discovered an autopsy had been performed, showing her death was due to a pulmonary embolism.

According to her death certificate, the location of death is listed as O.R. Tambo Airport, but the family is still unsure if that means she died at the airport or on the plane.

“We have been unable to get those answers,” Mapika said.

The family also doesn’t understand why they weren’t notified.

“Had we not sent someone to the airport, we may have never known,” Murambiwa said. “It appeared as though she was being held as a Jane Doe, meaning her body was undeclared by family.”

In her death record, an old identification card Shonga still had on her from Zimbabwe was the only thing used to prove her identification, but she was travelling with her Canadian passport.

“If she had a Zimbabwe passport, I would understand but she’s a Canadian citizen and had a Canadian passport where they could’ve contacted the embassy and they would have contacted us. But that did not happen.” Murambiwa said. “They could have also reached out to Toronto police to say we have a dead body, and this person is holding a Canadian passport. Something should have been done.”

Once in South Africa, Mapika claimed her body and gave her a proper burial. He also collected her belongings and said some of it was missing, including the shoes she was wearing, a walking cane and nearly $4,000 in cash she had brought with her in a backpack.

“Only $1,100 out of $5,000 was recovered.” Mapika said. “I just want police or United Airlines to tell me what exactly happened to my wife.”

CityNews reached out to United Airlines, but a spokesperson said they had nothing to share with us on this matter, refusing to comment. CityNews also contacted police in Johannesburg but have not yet heard back.

Unable to get the answers they seek, Shonga’s family is now pleading for information.

“If there’s anybody who saw anything or what happened on that flight or at the airport we would like to know,” Murambiwa said. “Someone had to have seen something to tell us where she died.”

“I just want to know so I can tell my children and grandchildren about what happened on that fateful day,” Mapika added.

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