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An eternity in 240 seconds

Jennifer Arul was a stewardess aboard Flight BA 712 when it burst into flames on April 8, 1967. A newspaper clipping about the air crash.  

In 1967, the airline industry was in its infancy. Heathrow airport was vibrant and bustling. And 48 years ago, almost to the day, I got a second chance at life.

It was the beautiful summer evening of April 8. I was an airline stewardess on board BA 712, flying from London to Zurich, Tel Aviv, New Delhi, and on to Perth, Australia. I was enthusiastic and alive with the glamour of my exotic job. As the flight prepared to take off, I began my duties, oblivious to what lay ahead. The nightmare began and ended in less than four minutes. Four minutes that changed the lives of everyone on board.

I took my seat in the middle of the 707 on the port (left) side, near the emergency exit. The take-off was smooth and routine, and Heathrow and Hounslow slipped away under us. Suddenly, 4,000 feet above the ground, I heard a dull thud from the left wing. We later found out the left inner engine had uncoupled and hurtled downwards, miraculously landing in a sludge dump. The windows next to where I sat started to melt and stream downwards and I suddenly saw a bright flash of light shoot past. I thought it was the rays from the setting sun glinting on the wing, and then reality dawned. Those were flames. When I look back, I clearly recall there was no panic in my mind — just a meek acceptance that this was the end of my life. Across my mind flashed images of my parents and grandfather in faraway Bombay and Madras.

My senior steward was Neville Davis-Gordon, an experienced, alert Englishman sitting across the aisle from me. Nothing was spoken between us but we both knew there was no time to think. We leapt up from our seats and began to prepare our passengers to brace themselves for a crash landing. Before we realised what was happening, we felt the wheels touch down on the runway. Our pilot had landed the crippled and flaming Whiskey Echo 712 (flight call sign) wherever he could to avoid a mid-air explosion. This was our miracle.

Even before we had completely stopped, Neville flung open the starboard emergency exit and the nearest passenger got on to the wing to escape. That’s when it happened: explosions ripped through the other two engines under the right wing and flames shot up into the sky. In the U.K., these details were shown on television that night — the aircraft nose-diving and flames rising as high as 60 feet. Neville had no choice but to drag the passenger from the now-flaming wing back into the cabin.

The cabin was now plunged into darkness, smoke filled the air, and the lack of oxygen made it difficult to breathe. Above all, the acrid stench of burning cables stung my nostrils and eyes (a smell that has stayed with me to this day). The passengers were shell-shocked but disciplined and most obeyed instructions implicitly. Some, however, stood up and began trying to get their luggage from the overhead racks. I remember snatching the bags from their hands. Lives were at stake and the intense training that BOAC (as British Airways was then called) had drilled into us was that the lives of passengers came first.

In the total blackness, we urged and guided passengers from the centre towards the front exit. At the right front galley door, the first class crew had already inflated the rubber slide and passengers were sliding down quickly. We could not breathe and could not see at all by now but one by one everyone in the centre of the cabin exited. Neville and I, our duty done, were the last to throw ourselves down the chute and out of that crumbling inferno.

Once outside, I remember so many Indian employees of BOAC, in spite of the confusion, coming to express their horror and concern and to offer me assistance. We, the crew members, were rushed to the medical centre, shaken and silent, but only slightly singed. We could not bear to look back at that smouldering wreckage. I remember we were all cautioned not to speak to the media.

The realisation of what had happened only began to sink in the next morning when I woke in a hotel room and found myself in clothes that were not mine (Thoughtfully, a BOAC colleague had got me some basics). With joy and gratitude in my heart, I greeted the sunlight streaming in through the window at dawn.

Of all the memories of that horrific experience, the one that stands out in my memory is of my fellow hostess, British stewardess Barbara Jane Harrison, who was trying to get a young, disabled girl out of her seat. I never saw Barbara again. Overcome by the fumes, she died of asphyxiation. Of the 116 passengers on board that day, we lost five but managed to rescue 111 in those crucial 120 seconds after touchdown.

Barbara was awarded the George Cross posthumously and it was painful to have her father show me the award. Neville, too, got a well-deserved George Cross as the leader of the cabin crew. The rest of us were honoured for our bravery under the most extreme circumstances.

BOAC authorities in Bombay were in constant touch with my father and gave my family a minute-to-minute account of what had happened, letting them know I was shaken but physically unharmed. It took me another 24 hours to get back home.

As a foreign national, I was not allowed to leave the U.K. till I faced the airline’s board of inquiry. Many senior aviation experts were present. Their questioning was detailed, intensive, rigorous and polite but my memory was fresh and, I learnt later, my clear observations were of great help to the investigations.

I spend a lot of time flying around the world these days and although the aircraft are bigger, safer and more luxurious, I never fail to look out at the wing, forcing down memories of yellow streaks flashing past, and smelling the burning cables from 48 years ago. I remind myself that the aircraft is in capable hands, but I still find it impossible to stop thinking of that day when it almost ended. And I try, over and over again, to conquer my fear of flying.

Jennifer Arul (neé Suares) is a former TV correspondent from Chennai. She is presently a board member of The Media Project, King’s College, New York. For more details about the crash, see en.m.wikipedia.org under BOAC Flight 712.

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