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What it is like when disaster strikes in the skies like the doomed Colombian flight

After a football team was wiped out in the latest tragedy, two people who cheated death in air crashes tell their stories

By Stephanie Bell

Published 02/12/2016

Rescue workers stand at the wreckage site of a chartered airplane that crashed outside Medellin, Colombia
Rescue workers stand at the wreckage site of a chartered airplane that crashed outside Medellin, Colombia
The Brazilian football team in front of the jet before 76 died on the doomed flight
Dungannon man Mervyn Finlay
Journalist Barbara McCann, with her dog Bella. Barbara survived a helicopter crash almost 20 years ago
Kegworth air crash
Front page headlines at the time

The Columbia plane crash that left 71 people dead including almost all of a Brazilian football team, has horrified the world. Miguel Quiroga, the pilot of the chartered plane, told air traffic controllers he had run out of fuel and desperately pleaded for permission to land before crashing into the Andes late on Monday night, according to a leaked recording of the final minutes of the doomed flight.

Ironically, as details continue to emerge about what brought down LaMia 2933, movie fans will this weekend flock to cinemas to see Hollywood blockbuster Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, which stars Tom Hanks and tells the real-life story of how a hero pilot managed to land a jet and save the lives of all on board

Air disasters obsess and appal us in equal measure and, for many people, fear of flying puts paid to holidays abroad. But what is it really like to be on board a doomed flight?

Broadcast journalist Barbara McCann, from Belfast, and Dungannon man Mervyn Finlay can describe in terrifying detail what it is like to nearly die but survive when disaster strikes in the skies.

Barbara was in a helicopter when it crashed in Fermanagh 20 years ago and Mervyn survived the Kegworth crash when a flight to Belfast from London came down onto a motorway in 1989.

Sully tells the real life story of Flight 1549 which crashed into the Hudson River shortly after take-off from New York in 2009.

The story focuses on the plane's unassuming pilot Captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger whose swift actions saved the lives of all 155 people on board after his plane hit a flock of geese.

Both Barbara and Mervyn believe that one of the reasons they are here to tell their story today was also due to the skill of their pilots.

It will be 28 years in January since the Kegworth air disaster and Mervyn Finlay remembers every second of the silent terror as the plane went down, killing 47 people on board.

He freely admits too that this week's disaster prompted flashbacks. "Every time you hear of a crash it brings it back. What happened in Columbia is all the more shocking because of the reason being given. Apparently the plane ran out of fuel. You would think that would be a very basic thing, even I would know to check that. It's terrible to think all those people lost their lives because of something simple like that."

Mervyn (57), who hasn't been able to work since the accident because of the horrific injuries he sustained, wasn't even supposed to be on the British Midland Flight 92.

He had been attending the London Boat Show with friends and arrived at the airport earlier than expected and was able to get his flight changed.

He was among the 79 of the 126 people on board who survived after the plane crash landed while trying to divert to East Midlands Airport when one of its engines caught fire.

The last thing he remembers before waking up in hospital seven weeks later were the terrifying words of the pilot instructing everyone on board to "Prepare to crash land".

Mervyn recalls how an eerie silence descended on the plane as he and his friends believed they were going to die: "We probably only had seconds before we hit the ground after the pilot told us to 'prepare for crash landing'.

"I'm in the unique position that I don't remember the impact. My last memory is of the pilot making his announcement and there was no screaming, just total quiet in the plane.

"I remember being scared and feeling sick to my stomach and my friend saying to me 'it was nice knowing you'.

"It is one of those situations where you can't believe it is happening and you imagine people would be screaming and panicking, but they weren't."

Mervyn was sitting by a window on row 21 and was one of the first to become aware that the plane was in difficulty when he saw flames coming from the left engine.

When the pilot announced that he was turning off the right engine and diverting to British Midlands airport, Mervyn and other passengers beside him were confused by the decision.

He says: "We were only up about 10 minutes when we heard a bang and I looked out and saw the flames coming from the engine. The pilot announced that due to a technical problem we were going to divert and that he was switching off the right engine.

"I could still see the flames on the left engine but I trusted the pilot. I just thought, 'What do I know about flying an airplane, I'm only a breadman? I still think about whether I should have said something but I just thought they knew what they were doing. I remember looking at the air hostesses to see if they were panicking and they were. It was in the days when you got a meal on board and we had just been served our meals and they were rushing about taking the trays off everyone and putting them away.

"The next thing the pilot told us was to prepare for crash landing. Strangely the plane went completely quiet, nobody made a sound, there were no screams and I don't remember anything after that."

The pilots had indeed shut down the wrong engine. Confusion about which engine had dropped out led to Captain Kevin Hunt and his co-pilot David McClelland, from Donaghadee, shutting down the fully functioning right engine, leaving the plane gliding.

Captain Hunt and First Officer McClelland were both seriously injured in the crash.

The people of Kegworth hailed the pilots as heroes for managing to avoid their village and averting an even bigger disaster. The plane's tail bounced off the ground about a quarter of a mile from the beginning of East Midlands Airport runway, before it crashed into the embankment of the northbound carriageway of the M1 motorway breaking into three pieces and miraculously avoiding any vehicles on the busy stretch of road.

While lucky to be alive, Mervyn suffered horrific injuries in the crash which left him unable to work again.

He broke his neck in two places, his back, four ribs, his pelvis, ankle and had three breaks in his arm. He was pulled unconscious from the wreckage and rushed to Queen's Medical Hospital in Nottingham where it was seven weeks before he regained consciousness.

He spent another week in hospital in England before being transferred by air ambulance to Musgrave Park Hospital where he was at first told he would never walk again.

He finally left Musgrave after eight weeks, on his feet, walking with the aid of a stick which he still relies on today.

Married to Doris (62) they have one son Mark (29). Mervyn has always marvelled at how he survived and a man directly in front of him died.

He counts himself fortunate although he still struggles to walk and suffers regular blackouts. He has no feeling in his left hand or his feet.

The trauma also left him with an understandable fear of flying.

In the past 27 years he managed just once to get on a short flight to Scotland but says he was so terrified he hasn't done it again.

He says he will be watching Sully when it is released this weekend: "I suppose I will be able to relate to it and I've watched the trailers and from what I've seen that pilot Sully was a real hero."

Barbara McCann was working as a presenter/reporter for GMTV in 1996 when she joined a number of other journalists at Belfast City airport for a mystery trip by helicopter organised by a PR company.

She was on board one of three helicopters along with four other people when it plunged 1,500ft to the ground. A jacket had flown out of the chopper's baggage hold and got tangled in the tail causing the aircraft to crash.

The pilot, Commander Malcolm Reeve, was hailed a hero after grappling with the out-of-control Bell 206 Jet Ranger as it twisted and spiralled earthwards.

The pilot, Barbara and journalist colleague Jim McDowell were among the worst injured.

Barbara (59), who now works as a freelance video journalist, was trapped in the wreckage with a broken back. A nearby RAF helicopter which came to their rescue had to fly a doctor to the crash scene to attend to her before she could be safely moved.

She also broke all of her toes and dislocated her knees and spent the next three months in a full body cast.

She recalls what happened: "I'd been looking forward to it as I love flying and had been in loads of helicopters and Chinooks when I covered the Gulf War. We had a very successful flight to Enniskillen where we had lunch.

"We left Enniskillen and were just a couple of minutes into the flight and I remember passing a primary school and thinking how lovely it was when we heard a clunk.

"I remember wondering 'what was that?' and the next thing we dropped 500ft. We then heard the worst thing you could hear a pilot say - mayday, mayday, mayday.

"He then seemed to get things under control.

"It is amazing, but my mindset at the time was that we were going to have a news story here.

"The next thing we were shaking and then we hit the ground.

"I had said my prayers and thought we were going to die and then the fear left me.

"Before we hit the ground we banked a little and I remember looking out at trees and fields and thinking what a beautiful sight and then we crashed.

"I spoke to a psychologist about it a few years later and apparently the mind is a very complex thing and studies have shown that in similar situations people do think of something positive, it's the mind's way of taking over to protect you against trauma."

The helicopter crashed into a field and Barbara instantly felt intense pain as her back broke with the impact. Ambulance teams were soon on their way but had trouble getting to the remote crash site.

An RAF helicopter refuelling in Enniskillen had heard the mayday call and decided to respond. They were able to spot the paramedics trying to run to the crash site and picked them up.

The other passengers were air-lifted to hospital but Barbara's injuries were so serious she couldn't be moved. When the RAF team dropped the injured passengers at the hospital in nearby Enniskillen they brought a doctor back with them to attend to Barbara.

Incredibly Barbara was back at work in a full body cast two months after the crash, reading the news for GMTV. She had to wear the cast for three months and has suffered ever since with back pain.

As someone who has always loved to travel she was determined not to let the crash impact any further on her lifestyle.

She says: "I knew I had to think positively about it or I would never fly again and there were too many countries I still wanted to visit, so a year after the accident I flew to Australia to see my sister.

"But I haven't been on a helicopter since and I'm not sure that I would like to. It is amazing how people still want to hear about what happened and talk about it."

Barbara has been watching the trailers for Sully but says she won't be rushing to the cinema to see it although she will catch it when it comes out on DVD.

She says: "It looks fantastic and all the comments about it are very positive. It's just not my type of movie, I prefer a romantic comedy but I will watch it sometime."

And, of course, the shocking images that have come from a bleak mountainside in Columbia this week have only served to remind Barbara how lucky she is to be alive.

She adds: "What made it even more heartbreaking was the video posted online from the plane by one young man showing young people really happy and in great spirits. Even though we don't know any of them, it put a face to the tragedy. It just shows how fragile life can be."

Belfast Telegraph

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