Saturday, December 20, 2008


How I Survived a Plane Crash...............By Dr. Lakshman Abeyagunawardene

December 17th marked the 30th anniversary of the day I had a brush with death being involved in a plane crash in which the Boeing B-737 was reduced to ashes, but where the majority of passengers miraculously survived. Needless to say, I too lived to tell the tale!

A strange coincidence it may be, but it was exactly 75 years before on that very same date that Orville Wright made the first successful, piloted flight in history in a powered airplane on December 17th, 1903 near a beach in North Carolina, not far from where I now live. Orville was the younger of the famous Wright brothers who have been credited with the invention of the airplane. Wright’s flight reached an altitude of just 20 feet, covered 120 feet and lasted only12 seconds. The flight that I am about to describe attained a higher altitude, covered a longer distance and lasted much longer!

New Delhi Bound

There were no direct flights to New Delhi from Colombo in the seventies. Passengers from Colombo had to take a flight to Madras (Chennai) and then proceed to New Delhi often via another major Indian city such as Hyderabad. I was one of many Lankans who boarded a plane at Katunayake that left for Madras on December 16th, 1978. Four of them including myself were Health Ministry officials who were on their way to New Delhi to attend meetings at the South East Asia Regional Office (SEARO) of the World Health Organization (WHO). Ministry Secretary B.C. Perera, Medical Statistician Srini Samaranayake, and Principal of the Anuradhapura Nurses Training School Padma Siriwardene were my Health Ministry colleagues who were also my fellow passengers on that flight.

It was a pleasant flight that took us to Madras where we stayed overnight to take another flight to Hyderabad early morning the following day en route to New Delhi.

The flight from Madras in the Indian Airlines plane left the airport and headed for Hyderabad. Although we knew that the plane had reached Hyderabad, it never landed there. After circling over the airport for some time, the pilot had decided to go back to Madras, due to poor visibility around the Begumpet airport in Hyderabad that misty morning. We were disappointed, but not unduly concerned. In hindsight, it was a bad omen if one is prone to be superstitious. Whether the pilot was being overly careful and not taking undue risks had anything to do with the precious cargo he was carrying, we will never know. On board that flight was the South Indian film idol M.G. Ramachandran who by that time was a leading political figure in Tamil Nadu. Apparently, he too was heading for New Delhi to attend an important meeting.

Having gone back to Chidamparam airport in Madras, we patiently waited until it was time to restart the journey. It was about two hours later that we were airborne again and on the way to Hyderabad. The skies had cleared considerably by that time, and the plane landed safely on the runway at Begumpet airport. We were scheduled to leave again from there after a stopover of forty minutes. However, VIP M.G. Ramachandran was not on the plane that took off from Madras a second time. He had probably changed his mind and cancelled the trip to New Delhi due to the delay. Going by the events that unfolded in Hyderabad that fateful day, MGR had taken one of the wisest decisions in his life.

High Company

On the second leg of our journey to New Delhi too, we were in high company. Another prominent Indian politician of that era M. Channa Reddy who was Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, then Chief Secretary I.J. Naidu, and the Inspector General of Police of the state M.V. Narayana Rao were among the 126 passengers on board. Dr. Reddy had also served as a State Minister, a Union Cabinet Minister, and Governor in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Everything looked fine as the plane started along the runway for take off. But as it gathered speed and momentum, the whole plane started shuddering and rattling. By then, it was probably too late for the pilot to abort the flight and bring the plane to a halt on the runway itself. The plane did take off but only succeeded in gaining some altitude before coming down in a rapid descent. As the plane lost altitude, we clung on to our seats not knowing what the next moment would bring. There was a loud impact that shook the plane as it touched terra firma again after the shortest flight that I had ever taken! If the passengers were not thrown around, it was only because they were wearing their seat belts.

Not stopping immediately, the plane careered along tilting from side to side until it was brought to a halt. The cabin lights went off and passengers noticed that one engine was on fire. Thick black smoke filled the cabin and passengers were feeling terribly uncomfortable. We had seen the usual routine of a flight stewardess going through the motions in demonstrating the use of oxygen masks just a few minutes before during preparations for take off. But ironically, they never dropped down, as one would have expected when smoke started filling the cabin. By now all passengers knew that the fire was raging – an inferno in which we were trapped. Some people were screaming, but there was no pandemonium as such. A few sensible quick-thinking passengers climbed on to the seats to try and calm down others who seemed to be in a more agitated state. In the meantime, cabin crew tried to open the exit doors. They had trouble initially, but after a few agonising moments, they finally managed to get one opened somewhere in the centre of the fuselage. The exit door at the rear too was opened a few minutes later. Passengers started moving towards them in some order. Instead of stampeding wildly in all directions, the relatively disciplined manner in which the passengers acted would certainly have prevented more deaths in this disaster.

(Websites that cover air disasters provide more technical descriptions of the accident in narrative form together with pictures of the destroyed plane. Websites of interest to readers include:

Survival of the Fittest

I unbuckled my seat belt and took my turn in a line that formed spontaneously in the central aisle. I did not even try to pick up my brief case that was lying underneath the front seat because every second mattered. By that time, the entire plane was on fire and I could even feel the heat through the floorboards and soles of my shoes. I was one of the first to reach the exit. But to my dismay, I soon discovered that there was no chute for anyone to slide down. I jumped out without any hesitation, but just like the way the plane came down, mine too was not a smooth landing! I went sprawling on the ground the same way a few other passengers did. Fortunately, the height from which we had to jump was not much. The landing gear (according to later reports) had been retracted for a belly-landing. I did not realise it at that time, but I had badly twisted my ankle in jumping out of the plane even from that height. I remember creeping through a partly damaged barbed wire fence and running for dear life. But as I ran, I was tempted to look back. The entire plane was engulfed in flames. It was only then that I had time to think of my fellow Sri Lankan passengers. I feared the worst - that all of them would have got trapped inside and perished. It was a case of "survival of the fittest". If there were any sick passengers, invalids or anyone who was old and feeble, they simply would not have had a chance. It was later reported that the only passenger who died had two little children with him. He had to virtually throw them out before jumping through the flames himself. He had died in hospital having suffered severe burns.

Lost in the Crowd

Soon after I "evacuated" the plane, what I saw on the ground was equally horrible. I first saw a stewardess rolling on the ground trying to douse the flames on her Indian silk sari that had caught fire. Just beyond the barbed wire fence were two mangled dead bodies.

Two poor grass cutters who were working in the field had been crushed by the plane. A swarm of people from the village appeared from nowhere. No one offered help but simply gaped at me. Just as I got lost in the crowd, I heard the wailing sirens of ambulances and fire engines. But they were not heading in my direction. I did what I thought was the only sensible thing to do. I got into a trishaw (three wheeler) and used sign language to get the driver to take me to the passenger terminal. It is interesting to recall that soon after boarding the aircraft, I had settled down in my aisle seat without removing the dark blue blazer that I was wearing that day. In my coat pocket were the air ticket, international health card, passport, travelers’cheques and some cash in Indian currency. This action of mine saved me a lot of trouble that I would otherwise have been faced with during the rest of the journey had I lost those precious items. I was thus able to reach for my wallet confidently and pay the trishaw driver his fare. At a time when getting international telephone calls from a place like Hyderabad was almost impossible, I rushed to the Post Office in the passenger terminal and dispatched a telegram to my wife. It carried a brief message – "Plane crash landed. Escaped unhurt". If she heard the news on the radio, it would have caused her more anxiety.

It was in the terminal building that I was relieved to be reunited with my fellow Sri Lankan passengers who too had obviously made the miraculous escape. It was only then that I fully realized the plight I was in – stranded in the airport terminal in a strange land with only the clothes that I was wearing.

Flight to New Delhi

The Indian Airlines authorities had hurriedly arranged a special flight for us to be taken to New Delhi from Hyderabad. It was with much trepidation that I boarded yet another Indian Airlines plane! But we were anxious to get to our next destination as soon as possible. As the plane accelerated along the runway, we kept our fingers crossed. But as it settled down after that initial steep climb, the passengers broke into spontaneous applause! After a safe landing in New Delhi on that cold December night, it was close to midnight when we entered the lobby in Lodhi Hotel (where we had prior reservations). I had neither a toothbrush to brush my teeth nor a comfortable sarong to get into before going to bed at the end of a hectic day. I wrapped a bath towel around my waist and crept under the blankets almost in a daze. It was only then that I became conscious of the throbbing pain in my badly swollen right ankle. However, we all went to the WHO Regional Office the next morning. Most of us even managed to go through the weeklong meeting, but not before going shopping for new clothes at Connaught Place with the cash advance we were provided. But Mr. B.C. Perera who had suffered minor burns on his face decided to return home immediately.

My Only Memento

I have lost count of the number of flights that I have taken in my lifetime. I have not bothered to collect scraps of paper in the form of boarding passes from all those flights that I would have taken both before and after the disaster. But I do have with me the boarding pass issued to me at the check-in counter of Indian Airlines at the Begumpet Airport in Hyderabad on December 17th, 1978. The boarding pass that I have preserved to this day remains the only memento from that unforgettable flight.



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