The Nairobi 747 Crash

Get out! The plane's about to explode...

November 15, 2004
Fifty-nine people died when a Lufthansa Boeing 747 crashed at Nairobi airport on November 20, 1974.

Fifty-nine people died when a Lufthansa Boeing 747 crashed at Nairobi airport on November 20, 1974.
Photo: Supplied

Is there any greater horror than having your children with you in a crashing aircraft? Earl Moorhouse recalls his family's terrifying ordeal in the world’s first jumbo jet disaster - and describes how they recovered to fly again.

Each time I fly, there comes a moment when the terrible memories take over. For me, it is the instant when the cabin doors are sealed and the aircraft begins moving away from the airport buildings.

Buckled in, the seatbelt tight across my waist, aware of the faint smell of kerosene and the gentle bobbing motion as we taxi towards the runway, I repeat to myself the facts I know to be true - that flying is one of the safest forms of travel; that thousands of people are flying all over the world at any one moment; and that I have flown safely many times.

But then, despite all my mental efforts, as we brace for take-off, my cold, calm logic is overtaken by vivid images of the world's first Boeing 747 jumbo jet disaster.

It is 30 years since my wife, two young sons and I escaped from the burning wreckage of our jumbo jet after it came down in the bush outside Nairobi in East Africa. To me, it often seems like yesterday.

For many friends, the surprising thing is that any of us still fly. One son has decided not to fly again, but three of us do - after developing strategies that have helped us cope with an event that changed our lives.

We boarded the overnight Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg on a chilly November evening in 1974. My sons, Brendon, aged six, and Garett, aged seven, sat with me on the left side of the aircraft, above the wings. Brendon, being the youngest, got the window seat.

Immediately to my right, across the aisle, sat my wife, Lynn.

There was no premonition of what was to happen. The flight from Germany was smooth and the big jet touched down for refuelling in Nairobi shortly after seven in the morning. An hour later, it turned on to the runway for the final leg to Johannesburg.

The roll began almost immediately. The engines were thrusting us along and I felt suddenly that we were not going fast enough, that we would never make it. I looked past Lynn, saw the airport buildings drawing level and felt every bump and lurch as we went down the runway. Then I thought, stop it, stop panicking. It always feels too slow, and you always make it.

The nose lifted, followed by the main wheels. And then we knew we were flying in a doomed aircraft. The jumbo began to shudder violently. The engines were shaking in their mountings and, inside the cabin, glasses and loose objects leapt into the air. I looked across at Lynn and thought: "This is it."

I was willing the aircraft to lift, to surge away. But there was none of the thrusting power we had felt in Frankfurt. The jumbo had reached a height of about 30 metres and then began to sink gradually, still nose-up.

The ground came closer. The nose dropped slightly and, for a moment, the speed held, but there was no recovery. We hurtled over the end of the runway at 250km/h. Below us was rough grass.

"Put your head down," my wife shouted, and I pulled my son Garett down so his head was on his knees. I could not reach Brendon, who was sprawled back, sleeping, in his window seat.

A Boeing 747

A Boeing 747

It was silent in the aircraft. No one screamed. No one shouted to us to do anything. Some passengers were still sitting erect in their seats, frozen by shock. At the last moment, the engines were cut. I saw a nun in the seat ahead bow her head. I ducked.

The aircraft struck an embanked earth road and bounced. The fuselage snapped off a few rows behind us; the broken-off tail and middle section disintegrated. The left wing and two engines sheared off, spraying fuel over the wrecked cabin.

From inside, the impact felt like a double hit. My head smashed against the seat in front of me. Our row of three seats came loose from the floor and we were crushed between them. I was looking to my left and saw Brendon being hurled against the seat in front of him. I shouted: "Are you all right, are you all right?" He didn't answer and I thought, my God, his neck's broken.

We hit the ground again. The aircraft slewed to the left and we were sliding across fields muddied by recent rain. There were wrenching sounds and sections of the roof, lockers and luggage began falling.

Dust filled the cabin. I saw flames and thick black smoke where the port wing had been. Then all movement stopped. We sat numbed.

"Get out!" screamed my wife. "Get out!" She was struggling with her seatbelt.

I unbuckled my belt and Garett's and dragged him out in to the aisle. He moved without speaking, eyes wide, totally shocked. I leaned across to reach Brendon. Was he all right?

Next to him, flames were licking up against the glass of the window. I thought, we'll never make it. We're going to be burned.

Lynn leapt across the aisle, pushed past me and unbuckled Brendon's belt, shouting: "Wake up, it's a crash! It's a crash!" and dragged him, mumbling and half-asleep, into the aisle.

"Is he all right?" "Yes," Lynn cried. "Yes!" In the seat behind us, I saw a white-haired man with blood spilling from his forehead. He was making no effort to escape.

"Get out!" my wife shouted to me. "Quickly!" I left the man and tugged my son up the aisle. Behind us, the rear section of the 747 was missing. A diffused light filtered through the jagged wreckage and Lynn instinctively moved towards it.

"No!" I shouted. "Go forward!" There was no escape to the left, only flames. I saw the safety diagram in my mind: we had to go towards the nose and then right, through the kitchen. The exit was directly in front of the right wing. I had Garett's hand and pushed forward. Using one hand, I managed to hurl the roofing aside and force a way through.

I got to the kitchen and dragged Garett into it. From the starboard side of the cabin, a voice was shouting hoarsely: "Raus! Out! Raus!" The kitchen was in ruins and part of the equipment had fallen over, blocking our path. A man came up beside me and together we kicked - once, twice. The object broke up and we were through. A nun ran past.

Ahead, I could see the open doorway with daylight streaming in and people leaping out and down; that's when I lost my wife. Hesitating near the emergency exit, I looked back desperately, thinking, my God, what's happened to them? Two crew members yelled at me.

"Lynn," I shouted, "Where are you?" Later, I learnt that Brendon had broken free from her grip. He ran towards the first-class section, where the impact had opened up cracks in the floor so large that passengers had fallen through, still strapped to their seats. Lynn chased after Brendon, reached out and grabbed him before he disappeared.

From the exit, I saw Lynn coming through the wreckage, holding Brendon by the hand. "Get out," she shouted. "We're all right. Get out." A dark-haired steward grabbed my arm, shouting, "Raus! Raus!" and hurled me down the escape chute. Alongside came Garett, shoved by a stewardess. Behind him came Lynn and Brendon, both in socks.

As we hit the ground, there was a hollow boom from the far side of the aircraft. A man shouted: "Run, it's going to blow! Run!" We got up and ran through the mud, terrified that the main tanks would explode and engulf us in a gigantic fireball. Brendon had no shoes. I picked him up and ran with him over the rough ground. He seemed dazed and half asleep.

After about 50 metres, Garett tripped and fell face down. When he scrambled to his feet, his face was covered in mud. My wife was crying, "My babies, oh, my babies. Thank God, you're safe. Thank God."

We stood on a slope and watched in shock as explosions shook the 747 and flames roared through the fuselage where we had been sitting. All the other children, someone told us, had been in the tail section with a stewardess. What was left of it was scattered over the fields.

In those few minutes, because the aircraft took off with its leading edge flaps retracted, 59 people died. Ninety-eight managed to escape or were rescued, including the white-haired man with the bleeding forehead. It would have been much worse if the aircraft had been full - only two of the emergency exits were usable.

Standing on that slope, watching the 747 burn, I did not believe that I would ever be able to board an aircraft again. But 10 months later, I did - to Nairobi, and in the same seat I had occupied on the doomed jumbo. This was a deliberate attempt to confront my fears and was partly successful, although I found the two take-offs terrifying.

The experience made me realise that I might never overcome my fear of take-offs, but it was still possible to fly. I needed to fly in order to work internationally as a journalist.

As a family, it took five years before we flew together again, on a long-haul trip to Australia. After that experience, my eldest son, Garett, decided not to fly again, which he admits is "not an intellectual reaction", but he feels he would rather not cope with the stress.

My other son, Brendon, now a barrister and author, flies occasionally, although he still finds some aspects of the experience extremely stressful.

My wife, Lynn, suffered from depression for years after the accident. She has since flown more than half a dozen long-haul journeys, including one to New York only weeks after the World Trade Centre terror attack, sometimes using tranquillisers to overcome her anxiety. Finding the courage to fly again is different for every survivor.

Talking to fellow survivors was helpful to me. So was a visit to the flight deck of a 747 to discuss the accident with the crew.

Over the years, I have developed ways of coping. I read all the facts about aircraft accidents, confronting the issues, rather than avoiding them.

For me, it is important to choose airlines and types of aircraft with a good safety record, and to get a seat between the wings, on an aisle or, better still, close to an exit. Once on board, I read all the safety material and map out my escape routes. (Vital knowledge about exits helped us escape from the wrecked aircraft at Nairobi.)

Once I've done all that, it's almost time for take-off. I have to be a little trusting (or fatalistic). I know the statistics are in my favour: most flights reach their destination safely and without any serious difficulties. I know that, as the roll begins, I will once again be filled with nervousness and anxiety.

But I also know that it won't last forever. Soon, we'll be soaring high above the earth.

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