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Basson link to Helderberg crash probed

May 20 2000 at 06:52PM
Sunday Independent

By Marlene Burger

A highly volatile chemical substance on board the Helderberg, the SAA aircraft that plunged into the sea off Mauritius in 1987, was a vital component of Project Coast, the apartheid government's chemical and biological warfare programme.

The significance of an apparently negligible amount of the extremely dangerous substance was recognised by a former employee at Delta G Scientific, a military front company, during the investigation that has led to the current trial of Project Coast chief Wouter Basson.

The Basson investigation has turned up a Helderberg weigh bill which records the presence of 300g of the substance.

However, efforts to make a direct link between Project Coast and the 300g of activated carbon shipped from Tokyo to Johannesburg-based chemical importer Mikem Africa have been frustrated by the extraordinary secrecy surrounding the chemical and biological warfare project and the destruction of documents.

If the activated carbon did cause the fire on the doomed aircraft, the legal repercussion would prevent anyone from now admitting the deadly cargo was on its way to Project Coast.

But the Helderberg crash, which claimed the lives of all 159 people aboard the Boeing 747 Combi, came at a time when a South African company was preparing to manufacture 45 000 sets of clothing designed to protect troops against nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) attack.

The protective inner lining of the so-called NBC suits contains activated carbon.

During cross-examination of Niel Knobel, the former SADF surgeon-general, last November, Basson's defence counsel, Jaap Cilliers, said the activated carbon was so finely ground that it "appeared almost liquid" when poured.

Even after insertion in the suits, Cilliers claimed, the chemical molecules remained in perpetual motion, and spontaneous combustion could result.

According to Cilliers, this had caused a secret SADF depot to burn to the ground, destroying thousands of NBC suits.

Ironically, Cilliers also told Knobel that Basson - who was never involved in the official investigation - believed a chemical fire had been the cause of the plane crash.

The former Delta G employee, who does not wish to be named, said this week that an activated carbon fire could smoulder "for days - you might think you had it under control, but it would flare up again, no matter what you tried to extinguish it with".

There has long been speculation that there were two fires on board the Helderberg on the night of November 28 1987, the first shortly after the aircraft took off from Taipei, and another as it prepared to land at the Mauritius airport, by which time all fire extinguishers on board would have been empty.

The official Margo enquiry into the crash pinpointed the source of the fatal fire as the cargo pallet in the front right-hand corner of the upper hold. The activated carbon is believed to have been on that pallet.

Knobel, who was Basson's immediate superior on Project Coast, testified that he and other SADF generals serving on the Controlling Management Committee "did not want to know" details of what chemicals and technology Basson acquired, nor where or how he did so.

Because of the extreme sensitivity of chemical and biological programmes, Basson was given extraordinary leeway, as the SADF high command believed "the end justifies the means".

There has been speculation over the years that the cargo which caused the Helderberg fire originated in the United States and was shipped to Taipei via a circuitous route, including Tokyo, to disguise this fact.

Knobel is on record as saying Project Coast's "achievements" would never have been possible without the clandestine support of foreign intelligence agencies, such as the CIA and MI5, but has stopped short of indicating whether such assistance was officially sanctioned by the American and British authorities.

One of the few restrictions placed on Basson, according to Knobel, was that he was not to use commercial airlines to transport chemicals for Project Coast, because of the potential hazards.

However, several senior South African Airways pilots have admitted in the past few years that they ferried arms components and explosives clandestinely on passenger flights in sanctions-busting exercises.

International airline regulations prohibit the transport of more than 100g of activated carbon on any flight. The substance must be packed in a steel container and the total weight may not exceed 500g. The 300g of activated carbon on the Helderberg thus exceeded the safety limit by 200g.

According to scientists, activated carbon is "highly and spontaneously combustible" when exposed to heat and becomes explosive when combined with acetone. The Helderberg cargo also included a consignment of beauty products, many of which contain acetone.

Mixed with liquid oxygen, activated carbon becomes a powerful bomb "which leaves no trace", scientists say.

In his testimony against Basson last year, Knobel said that in 1986 a company called Technotek was instructed to launch research into the "special material" needed for production of NBC suits.

In February 1987, just nine months before the Helderberg crash, Technotek was given a multi-million rand contract to deliver 45 000 NBC suits to the SADF over the next three years.

The company was owned by Charles van Remoortere, a Belgian businessman based in Pretoria, whose father served as deputy to the US's General Alexander Haig while he was commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in the 1970s.

The NBC suits for the SADF were manufactured on sub-contract by National Tents & Sails.

Among the 61 charges of drug dealing, fraud and murder that Basson is facing are three related to the unauthorised sale of more than 30 000 NBC suits from SADF stores to a Belgian company, Seyntex, during the 1991 Gulf war.

Basson allegedly used the R10-million proceeds of the deal for personal gain. The suits are believed to have been supplied to allied forces in the Persian Gulf. 

Time for truth about Helderberg, says PI

May 18 2000 at 08:07PM

By Johan Schronen

The Margo Commission's report, containing the findings of the inquest into the Helderberg air disaster in 1987, is not worth the paper it was written on.

This hard-hitting statement came on Thursday from private forensic consultant Dave Klatzow, who has a doctorate in chemistry, in support of dramatic new claims suggesting the Helderberg carried a deadly illegal cargo of explosive chemicals.

The Helderberg crashed into the sea off Mauritius in 1987 while on a flight from Taipei to Johannesburg, killing all 159 passengers and crew.

A previously indecipherable tape recording of the conversations of the Helderberg's cockpit crew has been electronically enhanced to reveal the captain had warned his crew of a deadly cargo on board - a claim which had been refuted by Judge Cecil Margo in his inquest into the disaster.

Dr Klatzow said he was independently employed by Boeing to investigate chemical aspects in the Helderberg inquiry and later, in 1995, by The Star as an adviser on the Helderberg crash. He said he believed the Margo Report was a coverup.

"I did my own investigation and spent several months doing extensive research into the findings of the Margo Report. I was shocked by what amounted to a clumsy coverup by the parties involved," said Klatzow.

He said leading forensic fire investigator, Graham Southheard of J H Burgoyne and Partners in London, found it was scientifically proven that there was an "accelerated fire of a substance which had its own built-in oxygen" on board the Helderberg.

"This proven fact does not fit in with claims that there was activated carbon made from coconut shell on board which, when ignited, depended on atmospheric oxygen and produced a diffusion flame fire with limited temperature," said Klatzow.

"Page 55 of the Margo Report also actively tries to prevent the publication of a transcript.

"The Margo Commission raised more questions than answers," Klatzow added.

According to a waybill in possession of an Afrikaans newspaper, the ill-fated Helderberg was carrying about 300g of a chemical used in the manufacture of untraceable bombs.

Beeld said it had obtained the waybill, which indicated that 300g of activated carbon was taken aboard the Helderberg sealed in a packet which, in total, weighed 1kg.

According to the newspaper, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research chemist Dr Wynand Louw said activated carbon could be used to manufacture a bomb when mixed with a liquid gas.

Beeld published a picture of the reported waybill which said the packet contained "activated carbon coconut shell, quantity 300g".

But Klatzow said it was part of an elaborate coverup and that the time had come for the truth to be exposed. 

'Chemical for secret bomb on Helderberg'

May 18 2000 at 07:09AM

The Helderberg, the Ill-fated SAA Boeing, was carrying a kilogram of a chemical substance used in the manufacture of untraceable bombs, a Johannesburg newspaper reported in its Thursday edition.

Beeld newspaper said it had obtained a waybill which suggested that one kilogram of activated carbon was in the cargo hold of the Helderberg when it crashed into the sea off Mauritius in 1987 while on a flight from Taipei to Johannesburg.

Beeld did not say where it obtained the waybill.

The newspaper quoted a Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research chemist, Dr Wynand Louw, as saying activated carbon could be used to manufacture a bomb when mixed with a liquid gas.

"A property of such a bomb is that it would leave no trace. Nobody could ever establish what kind of bomb it was after the explosion."

Beeld said that, according to the waybill, 300g of activated carbon was taken aboard the Helderberg, but the packet in which the chemical was placed weighed one kilogram.

Only one hundred grams of activated carbon may be transported on an aircraft in terms of International Air Transport Association regulations.

Beeld published a picture of the reported waybill which said the packet contained "activated carbon coconut shell, quantity 300g".

The report followed claims on Tuesday that previously indecipherable tape recordings of the Helderberg's cockpit crew had been electronically enhanced to reveal that the captain had warned his crew of a deadly cargo on board. - Sapa 

Helderberg tape a hoax, say experts

May 17 2000 at 09:07PM

By Matthew Burbidge

Claims that the pilot of the doomed SAA Helderberg knew he was carrying a deadly cargo when he crashed into the sea off Mauritius 13 years ago are unfounded, say aviation experts.

A recording on the cockpit voice recorder of the Helderberg about 20 minutes before the aircraft crashed was not audible to investigators 13 years ago.

On Wednesday, Beeld newspaper published an excerpt of the tape which, according to a former SABC journalist, Neels van Wyk, had been enhanced by an American expert.

On the tape, the pilot, Captain Dawie Uys, is allegedly heard telling his crew that a deadly cargo was being carried in the back of the plane.

However, the tape has been received with some scepticism.

Rennie van Zyl, the chief technical investigator of the crash 13 years ago, said the authenticity of the recording needed to verified.

"You would have to convince me considerably that there is new evidence, and that it is accurate and correct. The only way we are going to know if there was criminal activity will be if someone owns up, and it can be proved not to be a hoax," he said.

Trevor Abrahams, chief executive officer of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), said they would reopen the investigation into the crash only if new information came to light.

Voices on the recording, undecipherable 13 years ago, still cannot be understood.

Abrahams said the recording was very indistinct and that staffers of the actuality programme Carte Blanche, who were considering running the story, could not make head or tail of it either.

Van Wyk has apparently tried to cash in on the story, and is believed to have tried selling the story to newspapers in the UK and South Africa for a sizeable sum.

The CAA said it would also require a report from the US audio laboratory that amplified the recording and would be interested in speaking to Van Wyk, who gave the recording to the laboratory and then passed it on to the CAA.

"We are trying to ascertain the authenticity of the audio recording and to verify the transcript," said Abrahams.

Van Zyl said Van Wyk, then a journalist at the SABC, had offered soon after the crash to assist the investigation using the corporation's sound equipment. Van Zyl said he gave a digital copy to Van Wyk, but nothing pertinent to the investigation could be deciphered from the recording.

Now, years later, Van Wyk claims that once the recording had been enhanced, it was possible to hear the pilot saying he knew they were carrying a deadly cargo.

The CAA has a copy of the enhanced recording, as well as a transcript of it. Van Wyk gave both to Carte Blanche, who in turn gave the tape and transcript to the CAA.

A commission of inquiry into the crash, headed by Justice Cecil Margo, was unable to determine the cause of the crash. Claims had been made that the aircraft was carrying dangerous goods, with or without the knowledge of SAA, and that this had contributed to the accident.

SAA could face lawsuits amounting to tens of millions of rands by relatives of the 159 people killed in the crash if it was found that a dangerous substance was aboard the Helderberg, attorney Peter Reynolds of legal firm Webber Wentzel Bowens said. 

Eerie recording re-opens Helderberg case

May 17 2000 at 01:11PM

By Erika de Beer

The Civil Aviation Authority on Wednesday confirmed it was investigating new evidence that there was a "deadly cargo" on board South African Airways' Helderberg aircraft that crashed into the Indian Ocean in 1987, killing all 159 people aboard.

The authority had not yet established whether that could indeed be heard on the technologically enhanced cockpit voice recording of the Helderberg, CAA chief executive officer Trevor Abrahams said at a news conference in Pretoria.

Neels van Wyk, who was involved with the investigation of the disaster and now lives in the United States, sent the CAA a transcript of the enhanced recording, Abrahams said.

Van Wyk also sent copies to some South African media.

A large part of the original recording was inaudible.

Van Wyk gave a copy of that to the Forensic Audio Laboratory in the United States. The FAL managed to enhance part of the previously inaudible recording.

According to that, Captain Dawie Uys informed his crew that a "deadly cargo" was being transported in the back of the plane, Beeld reported on Wednesday.

Abrahams said Van Wyk had referred the CAA to the producers of the M-Net programme Carte Blanche who had an audio copy of the enhanced recording.

However, neither the CAA or Carte Blanche had yet been able to corroborate the recording with the transcript.

Whenever new evidence emerged about an accident, the CAA was obliged to consider it, Abrahams said.

The CAA's first task would be to establish whether the recording had been correctly transcribed and whether it was authentic, he said.

The Helderberg, a Boeing 747 Combi, crashed into the Indian Ocean about 160km north-east of Mauritius on November 28, 1987.

A three-year inquiry led by Judge Cecil Margo found that nobody was to blame for the crash.

In 1998 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had hearings behind closed doors about the disaster.

Dr David Klatzow, a prominent forensic expert who researched the cause of the crash, has claimed that the Helderberg carried ammonia perchlorate, a highly unstable additive, used to make rocket fuel.

This would be used to make arms that matched the advanced Russian weaponry being used against it in Angola at the time.

Sanctions made it impossible for South Africa to import the arms, Klatzow has claimed.

His testimony to the TRC also set out to prove that there were two fires on board the Helderberg. The first started an hour after it took off from Taipei. This fire was put out, but the pilot was ordered to break the golden rule of landing at the nearest airport to prevent a foreign country discovering the chemicals on board.

When the second fire broke out the plane went down, Klatzow said.

In its report on the matter, the TRC said that during the initial investigation, the director of civil aviation (the predecessor of the CAA) neglected to secure all documentation and recordings as required by the Flight Engineers Association regulations.

The TRC found that nothing in the cargo inventory could have resulted in a "self-promoted" fire. "However, the original cargo manifests were not part of the record of the Margo Commission, and it is uncertain whether those in the possession of the commission are authentic.

"There is therefore no reliable list of what cargo was being transported by the Helderberg when it crashed. It was suggested that Armscor may have had a goods consignment on the Helderberg that could have been responsible for causing the fire," the report said.

"Interviews with SAA pilots indicated that there was a belief among pilots that passenger flights were frequently used to transport armaments and components for Armscor," the TRC said. - Sapa 

15/10/2000 23:04  - (SA)   E-mail story to a friend
Helderberg decision expected soon

Philip de Bruin
An announcement whether the inquiry into the 1987 Helderberg air disaster should be formally reopened, is expected within a couple of weeks.

Minister of Transport, Dullah Omar, has already been briefed this weekend about the FBI's latest transcripts of the contents of the Helderberg's flight recorder.

A delegation of the task team, appointed to advise Omar on the Helderberg inquiry, returned from the United States on Friday. The team is headed by the advocate John Welch of the Pretoria office of Public Prosecutions.

The team had lengthy deliberations with US forensic expert, Jack Mitchell, who interpreted the contents of the flight recorder earlier this year. According to the latest version the pilot of the Helderberg, Dawie Uys, refers to explosives aboard the plane. The team also studied Mitchell's transcripts.

The team is also expected to comment on the authenticity and accuracy of Mitchell's transcripts when it makes an announcement about the validity of the re-opening of the inquiry into the air disaster.

The South African team concluded its mission with a visit to Rennie van Zyl in Canada. Van Zyl was head of civil aviation in South Africa at the time of the Helderberg crash.

Neither Mitchell nor Van Zyl wanted to comment on their conversations with Welch, except to confirm that they had both met with Welch.

Welch told Beeld on Sunday that he had briefed Omar on his return to South Africa. "I can add that the visit [to the US] was definitely worthwhile," Welch said.

Welch did not want to comment whether the FBI endorsed Mitchell's transcript of the flight recorder, adding that he needed to first submit a report to National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka.

"We'll table the report within the next week or two. And I'll probably speak to him about the content before then," Welch said.

The Welch task team was appointed after Beeld published several revelations regarding the Helderberg, including Armscor connections, information that SAA passenger airplanes were used to courier weapons during the apartheid years and that Armscor delegations were hosted abroad under the pretext of diplomatic missions.

Beeld also received allegations that the Margo Commission of Inquiry into the disaster intimidated and threatened some of the witnesses.

Observers believe that the inquiry is most likely to be re-opened. Speculation over the years has been that the Helderberg crash was no accident and that a massive cover-up followed the disaster.,1113,2_926641,00.html

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