Cork air crash: I was so terrified we'd be burned alive, Ulster woman tells inquest
A survivor of a plane crash in which six people died has told an inquest she was terrified she was going to be burnt alive as the wrecked jet burst into flames on the runway.
Heather Elliot, from Downpatrick, was one of the six people who survived Manx2.com air crash at Cork Airport on February 10, 2011.
The only female passenger told a Cork coroner's inquest how passengers feared the upturned plane would explode in a fireball in the seconds after it came to a standstill after crashing in thick fog at 9.48am.
Passengers smelled smoke and aviation fuel as the shattered plane lay on its roof half-filled with mud. Ms Elliot and another trapped passenger, Larne man Laurence Wilson (58), held hands and prayed.
"I was so terrified that we had survived the crash only to be burned alive," the mother of three said.
But fire brigade crews were at the crash site within seconds and had the two engine blazes successfully extinguished before they could spread to the fuel-soaked fuselage.
All survivors were removed from the wreckage in 30 minutes.
Another passenger, Peter Cowley (35), revealed he saw Shannon and Farranfore Airports on the plane's SatNav system for possible diversions but the pilots opted to attempt a third landing in fog at Cork.
The fog was so thick rescue personnel initially couldn't see the plane crash and only spotted its burning engines across Runway 17.
Coroner Dr Frank O'Connell heard Cork triggered its major emergency plan with Supt Charlie Barry confirming 191 emergency personnel were involved backed by 54 fire appliances and ambulances.
Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster said the six fatally injured people on board suffered multiple blunt trauma injuries ranging from fractured skulls to ruptured aortas as well as severe internal organ damage.
All died virtually instantly.
However, Dr Bolster also found that the co-pilot, Andrew Cantle, had suffered a broken wrist and arm – injuries which suggest he was at the controls at the time of impact. The pilot, Jordi Sola Lopez from Spain, had a fractured skull and ribs.
The inquest evidence and verdicts, combined with a hard-hitting Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) report published last January, will now be central to the civil claims.
AAIU lead investigator Leo Murray ruled the tragedy was caused by a disastrous loss of control during an attempted 'go-around' by the aircraft in heavy fog.
The co-pilot was handling the plane aerodynamics while the pilot was manning its engine operations.
The 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.
Civil claims are now being brought against Spanish firms Air Lada and Flightline BCN, from whom Manx2.com contracted the plane and aircrew. The legal actions were planned for Ireland but will now be pursued in Chicago in Cook County, Illinois, in the US.
The 240-page AAIU report took almost three years to prepare.
The six passengers who survived were Heather Elliot, Peter Cowley, Brendan Mallon, Mark Dickens, Donal Walsh and Laurence Wilson.
The six dead included Brendan McAleese, a cousin of President Mary McAleese's husband, Martin; Pat Cullinan, a partner in KPMG's Belfast office; Michael Evans, Belfast Deputy Harbour Commissioner; pilot Jordi Sola Lopez; co-pilot Andrew Cantle from England, and Derbyshire businessman Richard Noble, who had been living in Carrickfergus.
HEATHER ELLIOT (57), survivor
‘Suddenly it was like a car crash, we were tumbling’
Heather was flying to Cork from Belfast to visit her mother in Kinsale. After the impact, she was afraid survivors would die in a fireball due to fuel leaking from the shattered fuselage.
“I was so terrified that we had survived the crash only to be burned alive. I held Laurence’s (Wilson) hand and Laurence and I said a prayer together. I was in the foetal position. I felt something soft and wet and realised later it was mud from the grass pushed into the cabin during the crash.”
In the minutes before the impact, she was nervous about the plane’s third attempt to land in thick fog and described the impact as shocking.
“Suddenly, it was like a car crash... we were tumbling.”
PETER COWLEY (35), survivor
‘All I remember is waking up in Cork Hospital’
Business executive Peter, based in |Glanmire, Co Cork, suffered such severe injuries that he has no recollection of the crash itself.
“I fell asleep (leaving Belfast). I was travelling alone. I was sitting two seats behind the pilots on the left side. When I woke up I was aware of people saying we were going to land for a second time. I saw the fog out of the window. No-one seemed overly concerned. But the plane pulled back up again. I was looking (into the cockpit). I could see the SatNav device... I could see Shannon and Farranfore coming up on it. My mother was at Cork Airport so I sent her a text saying I thought we were going to Kerry. I have no recollection of anything after that. All I remember is waking up in Cork University Hospital.”
MARK DICKENS (44), survivor
‘I saw the wing hit the ground’
Mark, a father of three from Kent in the UK, was travelling on the flight |to Cork from Belfast on business. As the plane made its third attempt at landing he began to realise that something was badly wrong.
“I shouted that we were going to crash... the whole episode from emerging from the fog to the wing touching the ground took about five seconds.
“I think I shouted that we were going to crash and then there was just noise, mud... I saw the wing tip touch the ground.”
Mr Dickens said he was in excruciating pain trapped in the fuselage but remembers rescuers banging on the plane and saying: ‘Don’t worry, we are here, we are here.’
“Then I heard someone say, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. My name is Brendan, please help.’ I was screaming (in pain).”
BRENDAN MALLON (39), survivor
Bangor man Brendan, an executive with Falcon Travel, was visiting Cork to assist with the establishment of a travel shop in Bandon. He was unable to attend the inquest yesterday. The ill-fated February 2011 trip was his first flight with Manx2.com.
DONAL WALSH (26), survivor
‘The engine was roaring’
Donal, a student, based in Waterford, had been in Belfast on business and was returning home via Cork.
“I knew this (third landing attempt) was not normal but I put it to the back of my mind.”
“(On the third approach) I saw grass on the runway. I thought it was very close and that we were going very fast. I braced myself and put my head in my hands and down between my knees.
“There was a thud or a crash and the plane turned over.
“The engine was roaring and there was a lot of noise. I didn’t hear crying or screaming. Then all I could hear was a lot of groans from the front of the aircraft.”
LAURENCE WILSON (58), survivor
‘I felt the plane didn’t lift off straight... it wobbled’
Larne executive Laurence runs a training firm and was travelling to Cork on business on the day of the crash. He said that he thought the pilot was trying to abort the third landing attempt and pull up again in the seconds before the 9.48am impact.
“I felt the plane did not lift off straight... it kind of wobbled. I thought the right-hand wing touched (the ground).
“It banked to the right and the right wing touched the runway in my opinion.”
After the plane ground to a halt upside down off the runway, it was chaos inside the cabin.
“I heard shouting and screaming. I held her (Heather Elliot’s) hand... I heard Donal Walsh say there was a fire.”