Author of Forged by Fire, a history of the 7th Somerset Light Infantry in the First World War
Forged by Fire
Forged by Fire
Twice I remember, through the waking moments, hitting the back of the seat in front. The first time with my left arm. That blow was not as hard but it hurt with a sharp stinging pain. The second blow was with my head, a shuddering impact that was harder. While it didn’t hurt, it stunned.
Being thrown about like a rag doll would be a good description, because despite the impacts and the pain and neck wrenching jolts, something told me to relax and go with it. My body was loose and relaxed.
I knew straight away what was happening, even though I had been asleep and even though I was unaware of anyone saying anything. The jumbo jet was crashing.
Had I been able to look down on the scene I would have seen the six-year-old boy, strapped to his seat, which was over the main wings of the 747. I was on the left-hand-side, close to the round window. It was 1974 and my brown hair, like my brother’s who sat to my right, was long and cut in a Beetle’s style. To the right of my brother in the row of three seats was my mother and across the aisle in the centre section of the stricken jet, my father.
When the impacts and shuddering stopped I was shocked and stunned. The world seemed to stop. I don’t know how long it stopped, but everything seemed still and everything was silent. I can remember looking at the passenger seat in front of me; the back of the aircraft seat with its cream plastic fold-down table, the fabric seat-cover. I am not sure whether I could smell it then, but the citrus-chemical smell of those small packaged hand-wipes to this day reminds me of the crash and of being in that seat.
One of the strangest things in my memory is the absence of people. I didn’t see my bother leave. I didn’t see my father go. I saw the fire, through the window though. That fire which had burned its way along the wing with its bright yellow and orange flame.
When I stood up, I turned to the right, towards the back of the aircraft. It was towards the brightest light that I could see. It wasn’t fire. It was the early morning sunshine that was streaming through the gaping hole that had once been the back of that jet. It had once been where people had sat and slept. It was where most of the people on board had died, including the Micky Mouse air stewardess, who’s job it was to look after the children. I remember her talking to me the evening before.
When I stood up I was shocked at the silence, and I was shocked at the whiteness. Everything was white because the plastic ceiling had caved into the passenger cavity of the aeroplane under the repeated impacts that started at around the180 miles-per-hour flight speed of the jet. At six, I didn’t know that. I could just see the whiteness and that almost blinding bright light shining into the jet. That was until I looked at the seat behind me.
The man, probably in his fifties, was sat staring ahead of himself. His eyes glazed and staring. Blood was pouring down his face. I can remember seeing the gash on his forehead under his rough combed-over hair, and the smear and trickle of blood that had run down his nose. He sat there, still and staring.
I was going to go back, but my mother told me not to. We were to go forwards into the body of the jet. As we moved, I recall that the aisle seemed narrow and long. I could see the overhead lockers that had crashed down, to me they looked buckled and twisted. The aisle, perhaps fifteen metres long, seemed to go on forever.
I don’t recall what happened next. A switch or something must have flicked in my mind.
The next thing that I remember is the bright early morning light again. This time shining through the open aircraft door that was to my front. It was the door on the right-hand-side of the plane immediately in front of the main wings, gaping open to what looked like empty space. Ahead of me to my left was a young man wearing a flight steward’s uniform, to the right of the door was a woman flight attendant.
My mother and I were moving fast. I remember looking through the door. A jumbo jet, even a crashed jumbo jet, sits high off the ground. The ground was the grassy African scrubland just outside of Nairobi airport, still green in the November spring. It seemed far below and stretched out ahead as far as I could see. The emergency chute had deployed and I remember running towards it and preparing to jump.
Strangely it was that moment that I first recall feeling any fear. Maybe it was knowing that there was some hope of escape.
Tom Scott, the steward, grabbed hold of me as I came near and threw me bodily down the chute. It was a fast descent into the fresh air outside. The ground that I landed on seemed strangely hard. Stood some yards away from the bottom of the slide I could make out my brother and father. My mother was behind me and we began to run.
Not only was the ground hard, but my legs suddenly felt leaden and heavy. The more so as I looked back at the burning jet, the black smoke from aviation fuel billowing high into the sky. I remember my father shouting to us to get away, it was going to explode. We started to run; the rush of fear returning.
I next remember us walking away, back towards where other people were gathering. There seemed to be so few people about. That is hard to understand.
As we walked, I was looking at the wreckage strewn on the ground. It was then that I saw the first dead person in my life. Their shattered and lifeless shape lying stretched out on the ground where they had been broken and burned, along with the rest of the metal and plastic that had once made up the aeroplane. I remember telling my mother and father, pointing to the lifeless shape. They took me on, telling me that it was not a person, taking me away from it all.
We stood back and looked down on the stricken jet, watching the flames, watching the billowing smoke. It all seemed unreal, but at the same time I knew that people had died and were dying in the scene in front of my eyes.
Then I heard the shooting start. The ‘popping’ noise made by high velocity rifles at a distance. Away to the right, I could see a line of soldiers advancing towards the jet. The macabre fascination of watching the burning wreckage was suddenly replaced with a surge of fear. They had shot the plane down and now they were coming to kill the survivors. We had to move, but there was almost no energy left.
I next remember being with a small number of other survivors, some American women, waiting by some small mini-buses. I don’t remember how we got there, but we had. The smoke still burned high into the morning sky. The air smelled of burning aviation fuel. The soldiers had been trying to drive away looters.
It must have been a day, maybe two later, that we were in our hotel room. I watched my father start to shake uncontrollably. Shock.
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