Strangers helped each other survive after deadly jet crash

Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Christians and Muslims gathered for religious services today at the Phuket, Thailand, airport. Prayers were given for those killed in the One-Two-Go flight that crashed Sunday, while attempting to land during a driving rainstorm. At least 89 people, most of them foreigners, were killed in the crash. (David Longstreath ~ Associated Press)

PHUKET, Thailand -- Stunned by the plane crash, Robert Borland found himself helpless on the floor of the jet with his trousers aflame when a passenger in a yellow shirt helped him out onto the wing. He knows nothing else about the man who probably saved his life.

Borland was among 41 survivors of Sunday's crash at the airport on the Thai resort island of Phuket. Eighty-nine people were killed when the One-Two-Go jetliner skidded off the runway, breaking up and catching fire as it plowed through a low wall.

"Everything was upside down, or at least it felt that way," said Borland, recalling the screaming and fire. "My clothes caught fire, my trousers."

He managed to drag himself toward an exit and was pulled to safety by another passenger.

"I couldn't have gotten out myself, and I'm pretty sure a Thai man in a yellow shirt helped me get out onto the wing," he said. "I have no idea who he was, or where he came from. Then I fell off the wing."

Thirty minutes later, Borland, 48, of Perth, Australia, was in a Phuket hospital, his legs burned and his left arm broken at the elbow.

"I'm glad to be alive. I just wish it could turn out all right for everybody," he said.

Passengers and officials said the pilot tried to abort his landing in heavy rain and wind. He tried to pull up for a second attempt, and the aircraft lurched up, then down, hitting the tarmac hard.

Wind shear -- a rapid change in wind speed that can affect takeoffs and landings -- was a possible cause of the crash, said Kajit Habnanonda, president of Orient-Thai Airlines, which owns One-Two-Go. He said heavy rains could have contributed to the 24-year-old McDonnell Douglas MD-82 jetliner skidding off the runway.

Control tower officials informed the Indonesian pilot, Arief Mulyadi, about wind shear but he decided to land anyway, according to a transcript of the conversation between the tower and the plane. Mulyadi died in the crash.

"The last word the pilot said was 'landing,"' Chaisak Ungsuwan, the Air Transport Department's director-general, told the Nation TV channel.

Authorities found the plane's two flight data recorders, but Transport Minister Theera Haocharoen said it was too early to determine the cause of the crash.

This morning, Buddhist monks, Muslim imams and a Catholic priest gathered at the airport to honor the dead amid the roar of planes taking off.

About a dozen monks -- dressed in orange robes -- chanted prayers near a pile of plane wreckage covered with netting. They then strung a white robe from the debris to a building where the bodies were being housed -- to help the souls find their way the next life.

No survivors nor relatives of the dead attended the 15 minute ceremony.

"In this case, many foreigners have passed away from this accident," said Peter Bancha, a Catholic priest living in Phuket. "We had to come and pray for their souls because this will save their souls."

Deputy Transport Minister Sansern Wongcha-um said 53 foreigners were among those killed. The dead came from at least 10 countries, including the United States, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Sweden and Thailand.

As the plane hit the ground, "everything was falling down, the oxygen and everything from the top started flying around and then it was just dark," said Mildred Anne Furlong, a 23-year-old waitress from Prince George, British Columbia.

"You could feel the smoke in your throat and in your lungs and it was so thick, like you couldn't even see and you looked up and there were flames coming from where the cabin used to be," Furlong said from her hospital wheelchair.

Feeling a small rush of air, she looked behind her to see that a man had managed to partially kick open an emergency exit. She looked to her right, where she saw people in flames.

"I don't know who he was but he saved a lot of people," she said of the man who kept kicking the exit door until it opened enough for people to get out. "If it wasn't for him, nobody would have got out."

Her boyfriend, 26-year-old Chatree Suksawat of Thailand, said he helped two other women jump from the plane through the emergency exit. Once on the wing, he saw another man consumed in flames, but was helpless to rescue him.

The airline flew relatives of the victims to the town of Krabi, where they were taken by bus to Phuket.

On the 90-minute bus trip with her mother beside her, Thitinan Chaiarun took a snapshot of her father, Sinchai Chaiarun, out of a small photo album and held it close to her chest. At times she put it to her lips.

Thitinan, 18, said she kept trying to call her father, a customs official, on Sunday night, not knowing if he was dead.

At Phuket airport, the families were dropped off at the terminal and led to a building where they were greeted by airline staff, airport officials and a wall of photos of passengers killed in the crash.

Inside the hall, the bodies lay on the floor, wrapped in black and white plastic. Relatives looked at the photos before being led to the bodies.

Thitinan saw the photo of her father and burst into tears.

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