Monday, September 17, 2007

Monday, September 17, 2007

 'We saw passengers engulfed in fire,' says survivors of Phuket air disaster - The Times September 17 2007

From The Times September 17, 2007

Andrew Drummond in Bangkok, Andrew Chant in Phuket and Fiona Hamilton
Survivors of a horrific runway crash that killed nearly 90 passengers told last night how their plane disintegrated on impact as they arrived at an island paradise.

The budget carrier, which was packed with British and European tourists, was engulfed in smoke and fire after it skidded off the runway and crashed during monsoon rain at Thailand's popular holiday resort of Phuket.

As bodies were laid out in an airport building last night, the Deputy Governor of Phuket confirmed that British nationals were among them, along with Irish, French, German, Israeli and Australian travellers.

At least 88 of the 130 people on board the McDonnell-Douglas M-D82 were killed, and there are fears that there could be several British dead. Eight Britons survived, at least one of whom remained in intensive care last night.
Survivors were forced to step over bodies to escape the inferno. Witnesses told how the pilot of the budget One-Two-Go flight was forced to abort his first landing attempt before the aircraft, from Bangkok, slid off the runway in the rain and slammed into the jungle. It caught fire and broke into two parts.

One survivor, John O'Donnell, from the Irish Republic, said from his hospital bed: 'Our plane was landing. You can tell it was in trouble because it kind of landed then came up again the second time.

'I came out on the wing of the plane . . . the exit door. It was kind of crushed and I had to squeeze through. And next thing, it really caught fire, then I just got badly burnt ' my face, my legs, my arms.'

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was unable to confirm last night how many British nationals had been killed or injured, and could not say how many were on board the flight. But foreigners accounted for more than half of the passengers and the area is popular with British and European visitors. Quinton Quayle, the British Ambassador to Thailand, said that three different Embassy teams were heading to Phuket ' from Bangkok, London and Hong Kong ' to help any Britons involved.

Three of the eight surviving Britons, Benjamin Green, 24, Peter James Hill, 35, and Ashley Scott Harrow, 27, were said by hospital staff to have suffered superficial wounds such as cuts and burns to the face and hands, and shock. Christopher Cooley, 23, was last night in intensive care suffering from burns.

The condition of the four other British survivors ' Mahsa Fatoorechi, 39, William Burke, 23 and two others who had not been identified ' was unknown. But one woman who had previously told rescue workers that she was British was in intensive care in a critical condition.

Survivors said that the aircraft broke in two as it skidded off the runway. 'I saw passengers engulfed in fire as I stepped over them on the way out of the plane,' said Parinwit Chusaeng, a survivor. 'I was afraid that the airplane was going to explode, so I ran away.'

The airport remained closed last night as wreckage from the crash obstructed its only runway. At the time of the accident weather conditions were said to be not excessive, but the cyclonic monsoon can bring sudden squalls and winds from unexpected directions. Regardless of the cause, the accident will raise fresh questions about the safety of South-East Asia's budget airlines, which have burgeoned in the past few years.

About 750,000 British tourists visit Thailand every year and more than 10 per cent take the short, 90-minute flight from Bangkok straight to Phuket, the largest and most popular island, which is widely considered to be the pearl of the country because of its rich natural resources. The air route is the country's busiest from Bangkok.

Yesterday's crash was the country's deadliest aviation accident since December 11, 1998, when 101 people were killed as a Thai Airways plane crashed while trying to land in heavy rain at Surat Thani, 330 miles (530km) south of Bangkok.

In a recorded statement, One-Two-Go said: 'One-Two-Go Airlines is deeply sorry for this accident and we will accept all responsibility for the passengers in this situation. We will do our best for your convenience.'

The Foreign Office has set up an inquiry line for concerned families ' 020-7008 0000.

Travel operators said yesterday that, although it is low season, hundreds of Britons are on holiday in Phuket.

Local tourism has only recently recovered from the devastation of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, which hit the western and southern coasts of Phuket. Some 300 people died and 400 buildings were destroyed. Hotel occupancy dropped 90 per cent within a month of the disaster and was still 40 per cent down a year later.

While most resorts were still 15 per cent below pre-tsunami levels last year, the region managed to regain its reputation as a top destination and bounced back in 2007. It enjoyed a surge of British tourists, attracted by its clear blue sky and palm-fringed beaches.

According to the Thai Tourism Authority, Britain has pulled ahead of Germany as Thailand's most important source of tourists from Europe and is the fourth largest source of arrivals overall.

Phuket is one of Thailand's most important regions, accounting for a third of the country's $8 billion (£398.4 billion) annual tourism revenue and attracting about three million visitors each year.

With its beautiful beaches, exotic food and friendly local residents, the southern resort has long been a mecca for British tourists ' in particular gap year students backpacking around Thailand. There are 27 direct flights each week between Bangkok and London.

Troubled history

' The plane that crashed in Thailand was an old type of aircraft, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series

' The MD-80 has two jet engines and carries 172 passengers; 1,194 were built before production ended in 1999

' According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 949 fatalities from 22 occurrences categorised as 'hull-loss' incidents ' meaning that the aircraft has been damaged beyond repair ' since its first flight in 1979

' In August 2005 all 152 passengers and eight crew died when their West Caribbean Airways aircraft crashed near Machiques, Venezuela

' In May 2002 all 103 passengers and nine crew aboard a domestic China Northern flight died when the plane crashed into the sea near Dalian; the pilot had reported a fire in the cabin

' In August 1987 154 passengers and two ground staff died at Wayne County Airport in Detroit when a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-82 aircraft flown by the carrier Northwest slid along a road, hit a railroad embankment and burst into flames during take-off


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