‘I want the truth.’ Family reels after Fort Worth couple die in Fiji

The vacation was meant to be a welcome break from work in an island paradise.

David and Michelle Paul, who met five years ago living and working in Hawaii, had a shared love for sandy white beaches, snorkeling and taking pictures to share with family, according to Michelle’s father, Marc Calanog. They had been planning a trip to the West Coast and Fiji for roughly two months, he said, making sure it was a time their two young children could stay with family. They decided on May 19-May 27.

Most of the trip went smoothly, Calanog said — they had a night in San Francisco, about one day in Los Angeles and three days in Fiji. But then the sickness, unidentifiable to doctors and vicious, came on.

Calanog got a text from Michelle on the afternoon of May 24:

“We are both going to doctor now. We have been throwing up for eight hours. David also has diarrhea. My hands are numb.”

Calanog communicated with the couple over text as they went to a clinic and later returned to the hotel. He told them to drink water, get sleep.

But, on what was May 25 in Fiji, he got a call that Michelle, 35, was dead.

By May 27, David, 38, was dead.

“I did not think it was so serious,” Calanog said over the phone from his home outside of Las Vegas on Tuesday. “I was stunned. I almost cried, but I didn’t cry because I was holding onto my emotions ... I would say I was emotionally shocked.”

That shock has transformed into anger and a longing for answers about a week after their deaths, as authorities in Fiji have yet to announce a cause of death and David and Michelle’s bodies have remained overseas.

The Fort Worth couple died from an unidentified illness that worsened over the course of a few days, the Fiji Ministry of Health and Human Services told the Associated Press on Tuesday. The U.S. Embassy to Fiji, according to a statement, has facilitated contact between the Centers for Disease Control and Fiji’s Ministry of Health to determine what led to their deaths.

Calanog, whose brother-in-law is an Army doctor with medical contacts in Fiji, had heard the bodies would be ready last Saturday, but said the process has dragged on. Once a cause of death has been determined, their remains will be transported back to the U.S., he said.

David’s employer, Lockheed Martin, and Michelle’s employer, Marriott, have worked together to ensure the bodies make it home safely. SOS International will facilitate the trip to Nevada, where Calanog, his wife and their family will hold a funeral service.

If it’s determined there was no infectious disease, Calanog said, the family wants the bodies to be preserved for a final viewing. If there was in fact a deadly infection, however, they would have the bodies cremated, as the only other option is transportation inside hermetically sealed bags.

Calanog said his family wants to honor and remember the couple at a funeral, and one day tell his grandson about his parents. But they want to know why David and Michelle died, too.

“I want the truth,” Calanog said. “I’m concerned for American citizens, other citizens of the world going to Fiji. They should be aware of what happened ... I’d feel responsible if I didn’t try my best to find out what happened.”

Unexplained illnesses, untimely deaths

Calanog’s last text from Michelle, at least how he saw it at the time, wasn’t cause for serious alarm.

After going to a local clinic on the 24th, Michelle texted him that they were back at the hotel, still not feeling “100 percent,” he said. Numb hands are often a sign of dehydration, Calanog said, and Michelle had indicated over text that they had received copious amounts of fluids and electrolyte packets.

He told them, again, to drink plenty of water and rest up, not knowing the severity of the sickness.

Once he and his wife found out Michelle had died, they continued to keep up with David, Calanog said. He texted them in the coming days about going to the hospital, getting IV drips and possibly being transported to Australia for an operation.

But he didn’t make it, Calanog said. And family were left to not only mourn the couple’s untimely deaths, but figure out what to do next.

“I was trying to find out what happened, contact the U.S. embassy and then try to arrange funeral services here in Las Vegas,” he said. “One of the better news is Marriott, which is the employer of my daughter, worked out an arrangement with Lockheed to handle funeral services.”

The daughter David and Michelle raised, whom David had from a previous marriage, will live with her mother in Hawaii, Calanog said. He and his wife are getting papers ready to adopt the couple’s 2-year-old son.

David’s sister-in-law, Tracey Calanog, 35, of Brazos Valley in Texas, said children have been the top priority. But she also had to track down the couple’s dog, Zooey, since no one in the family knew which kennel they had left her at. She called area veterinarians and pet kennels, until one posted her message on Facebook.

People in the local community responded and tried to help, she said. She later found the dog at a kennel near Decatur.

There’s been so much to do and such little closure, she said, that it’s been hard to mourn.

“The unknown — that’s what is literally eating away at us emotionally,” said Tracey Calanog, who’s married to Michelle’s brother. “We’re trying to fit these puzzle pieces together, and we can’t do that because we don’t know what happened.

“We don’t know if they’re going to come back to the U.S. in a casket or be cremated.”

Life after tragedy

In time, when there are more answers and remains to memorialize, family members will take time to properly remember David and Michelle, Tracey Calanog said.

The pair, she said, shared a plethora of hobbies and interests — from pushing each other in physical fitness like swimming and hiking, to traveling to scenic places like Mexico. Family was always their biggest concern, she said, and they loved organizing get-togethers.

Michelle had organized a Fourth of July outing this summer in San Antonio.

“We were all supposed to go,” Tracey Calanog said. “We’re starting to heal, but until those questions are answered and we know how to fit these pieces together, it’s leaving a huge hole.”

Marc Calanog said he has been frustrated with all “red tape” in this process, dealing with government agencies in Fiji and Texas in his search for answers. The Texas Department of Health is supposed to be working with the CDC to ensure the safe repatriation of the couple, he said, but he hasn’t been able to get through.

All those who love the couple will have a hard time mourning until questions are answered and the couple is back home, he said.

He hasn’t yet thought of how, and when, he will tell their 2-year-old son about what happened.

But he’s going to consult with a priest and figure it out.

“I’ll have to learn how to do that,” he said.