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Death From the Sky

4 minute read
Margot Hornblower/Amsterdam

WHO WAS TO BLAME? THE QUEStion ricocheted around the globe. From Amsterdam, where the charred remains of victims were being shoveled out of smoldering rubble. To Tel Aviv, where El Al Airlines fielded inquiries about its plane’s safety record. To Seattle, where the Boeing Co. called on carriers worldwide to inspect the engine mountings of 551 747 jets. To Taiwan, where divers searched the ocean floor for fresh clues to the cause of a mysterious — and perhaps similar — crash last December.

The darkest fears of all those who live in the flight paths of airports were realized on the quiet evening of Oct. 4, when an El Al 747-200F cargo crashed into a 10-story low-income apartment building in southeast Amsterdam. Laden with fuel and 114 tons of commercial cargo, the freighter had taken off from Schiphol Airport at 6:22 p.m., headed for Tel Aviv. Six minutes later, veteran pilot Isaac Fuchs issued a distress call, reporting a fire in a right-wing engine. As he circled back for the airport, dumping fuel in preparation for an emergency landing, he radioed that a second engine had failed. “Going down! Going down!” Fuchs’ words, monitored by the control tower, had a chilling simplicity. Seconds later, the giant plane slammed into the apartment building, sundering it in two. Three minutes’ grace, and the jet would have reached the closest runway 10 miles away.

Within hours, in a cold rain, 800 firemen and policemen were searching the blackened ruins in shifts. “It’s hard to keep our eyes dry,” said fire fighter Gerard Jurgens. “We find children’s toys almost intact, and then suddenly we discover a part of what was a human being — what can I say?” Workers found the remains of 51 victims, but many others were incinerated in the fiery explosion. The final toll will probably never be known. Many illegal immigrants resided in the complex, and chances are that relatives and friends of the victims may not report them missing for fear of being deported themselves at a time when hostility toward immigrants is on the rise in Holland. Along with Fuchs, the first officer, the flight engineer, and the plane’s only passenger, the wife of an El Al security officer, died in the crash.

As 40 investigators from Holland, Israel and the U.S. examined what was left of the 13-year-old aircraft, mostly twisted metal shards, shock gave way to question upon question. Some answers may come from the badly damaged flight- data recorder, which searchers unearthed in the rubble and dispatched for analysis, first to Britain, then to the U.S.

In the absence of definitive answers, the Dutch were left with the unforgettable horror. As a cold wind whipped through the weeping willows that surround the apartment complex, Wynanda Pont, a native of Suriname, gazed at the gutted, burned hulk of a building where scorched laundry still hung from clotheslines and window boxes held a few lone geraniums. The 37-year-old teacher had been crocheting by her window across the street when she heard a crash and saw a wall of red flame. “I rushed outside,” she recalled. “I can still hear the screaming. I saw a woman throw two children from a balcony, but they fell into the flames, and then she jumped in after them.”

If the tragedy seemed especially shocking, it may be because its victims were so unsuspecting. Many were watching a soccer match on television; others were sitting down to an evening meal. Unlike the 167 people who died last month when a Pakistan International Airlines Airbus crashed in Nepal, the ! victims in Amsterdam had made no decision to assume the risks of flying. They simply happened to live near a busy airport.

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