Belfast Telegraph

Air crash heroes hailed: Northern Ireland survivors praise actions of Cork disaster fire crews

By Ralph Riegel

Two people from Northern Ireland who survived a plane crash in which six died have paid tribute to the rescue crews who saved their lives.

Heather Elliot from Downpatrick and Larne man Laurence Wilson were two of six survivors of the Manx2.com air crash at Cork Airport on February 10, 2011.

Yesterday Cork coroner Frank O'Connell recorded accidental death verdicts for all six people who died in the tragedy.

The four passengers who perished alongside two crew had strong links to Northern Ireland.

He told the jury they were entitled to conclude the pilots were doing their best to land the plane safely, and that the weather at the time was a significant factor.

The 19-year old US-built Fairchild Metroliner turboprop crashed while attempting its third landing in thick fog.

All victims either died instantly on impact, or were knocked unconscious and died moments later, assistant State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster told the inquest.

In the aftermath, Ms Elliot and fellow trapped passenger Mr Wilson (58) held hands and prayed the upturned, fuel-soaked wreckage would not explode into a fireball.

Yesterday the pair said they both felt "really lucky to be alive – and how much we appreciate the fire and rescue authorities for what they did that day". On Tuesday Ms Elliot (57) told the inquest: "I was so terrified that we had survived the crash only to be burned alive."

But they survived thanks to Cork Airport Fire Brigade, who extinguished the potentially catastrophic blaze within seconds.

Air traffic control supervisor Sean Patrick told the inquest the pilots were informed in the minutes before the accident visibility at Cork was at 300m because of fog – but Kerry Airport was fog-free with visibility of up to 10km.

Senior Air Accident Investigation Unit inspector Leo Murray said the crew were not equipped to handle the situation at Cork Airport.

The AAIU has ruled the tragedy was caused by a disastrous loss of control during an attempted 'go around' by the aircraft in heavy fog.

Yesterday, the parents of co-pilot Andrew Cantle (27), John and Ann, pleaded with the Irish authorities to urgently implement the 11 safety recommendations made by the AAIU in the wake of the crash.

The Sunderland-based co-pilot had only started working for the firm two weeks before he joined Jordi Sola Lopez (27), a Barcelona-based pilot, on the fateful flight.

"Jordi had only been a commander for five days," John Cantle said. "The fact that he (Andrew) was allowed not to have enough sleep, the fact that he was putting seats in the aircraft at 6am ... it must have been very difficult for both him and Jordi."

Background

The inquest evidence and verdicts, combined with a hard-hitting Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) report published last January, will now be central to civil claims in the US by the survivors. The AAIU report found that poor decisions by the air crew combined with lack of oversight of the Spanish airline operators were factors in the tragedy. Manx2.com, which is based in the Isle of Man and is now in liquidation, did not own its own aircraft and did not directly employ its own aircrew.

The six who lost their lives

Jordi Sola Lopez (32)

The Spanish pilot lived in Barcelona and was a talented ballroom dancer and had served as a co-pilot before qualifying as a captain. For most of his career he had flown on routes in Spain, the Balearic and Canary Islands.

Andrew Cantle (27)

A native of Sunderland, he had trained as a commercial pilot at a flying school in the UK. At the age of 16 he volunteered to join the local Royal National Lifeboat Institute branch and had taken part in numerous sea rescues.

Brendan McAleese (40)

The Antrim-based businessman was a cousin of Dr Martin McAleese, the husband of former Irish President Mary McAleese. A father-of-two, he had been travelling to Cork on business when the accident occurred.

Michael Evans (52)

The marine expert served as the Deputy Harbour Master in Belfast. He was travelling to Cork on marine-related business when the tragedy occurred.

He had worked for most of his life in Belfast and had been living in Silvio Street.

Pat Cullinan (46)

Originally from Omagh, he was a partner in the Belfast office of KPMG accountants. He joined the firm in 1989 and after working for several years first in London and then in Dublin, he moved to Belfast and was appointed a full partner in 2005.

Richard Noble (49)

Mr Noble had been travelling to Cork on business.

Originally from Derbyshire, he had been working in Belfast over recent years and lived with his family at Jordanstown. His widow Alison was too distraught to attend the inquest.

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