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Mervyn Finlay: I know terror those poor passengers on Germanwings Airbus 320 must have felt

"Prepare to crash land" - the words of every airplane passenger's worst nightmare and the last thing Dungannon man Mervyn Finlay remembers before the plane he was travelling on plunged to the ground.

The world held its breath as pictures of the mangled wreckage of what became known as the Kegworth air disaster were beamed live on news channels in every country as efforts to rescue passengers began.

Despite the catastrophic damage to the plane, which broke into three pieces and burst into flames on impact, a remarkable 74 of the 126 people on board survived.

Mervyn Finlay (56) was one of them. Although it is now 26 years since the disaster, for Mervyn and many of the other survivors the trauma has never gone away.

Last week, he watched with the rest of the world in horror as the shocking images of the tragic Germanwings Airbus 320 emerged from the French Alps.

The flight, which was travelling from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, plunged from 38,000ft into the mountains.

Like everyone else, Mervyn was stunned and bewildered at the news that the pilot had apparently deliberately steered the plane into the sheer face of the mountain, killing all 150 people on board.

Unlike most of us, though, he has an idea of the terror which those on board must have felt as they realised they were plunging to their death.

"It is unbelievable that anyone would take a plane and crash it deliberately," he says. "Their screams could be heard through the black box and they all knew what was going to happen. It's a strange fear as your mind actually tells you 'This can't really be happening'. We probably only had seconds before we hit the ground after the pilot told us to prepare for crash landing, but those people had eight long minutes," he says.

"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. I remember nothing else until I woke up seven weeks later in hospital."

Mervyn was not even supposed to be on the flight. He had been at the London Boat Show and had managed to catch an earlier than planned flight from Heathrow to Belfast.

He 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 East Midlands airport, Mervyn and other passengers beside him were confused by the decision.

"We were only up about 10 minutes when 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," he says.

"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 bread man?

"It was in the days when you got a meal on board and we had just been served our dinner and the air hostesses were rushing about taking the trays off everyone and putting them away.

"I remember looking at them to see if they were panicking and they sort of were. They had got themselves into wee huddles talking and you could see they were concerned.

"The next thing the pilot told us 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, though, and 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. Hunt spent years in a wheelchair after suffering spinal and leg injuries; McClelland was less badly hurt but still spent several months in hospital.

The pilots were later dismissed following criticisms of their actions, but British Midland later paid McClelland an out-of-court settlement for unfair dismissal.

The people of Kegworth hailed the pilots as heroes for managing to avoid their village and averting what would have undoubtedly been a disaster on an unimaginable scale. 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.

Later evaluation of the injuries sustained led to considerable improvements in aircraft safety and emergency instructions for passengers.

While lucky to be alive, Mervyn suffered horrific injuries in the crash, breaking his neck in two places, his back, four ribs, his pelvis and ankle. He also 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. Mervyn - who was just 29 at the time, with a two-year-old son, Mark - had no idea where he was or why.

"I vaguely remember waking up and seeing my wife and my mother," he says. "I was on a lot of morphine and I think it was a full week before I came round and it sunk in what had happened." Mervyn spent another week in hospital in England before being transferred to Belfast. "I got an air ambulance back to Northern Ireland and I remember asking if the ambulance had one engine or two. If it had only one engine there was no way that I was getting on it."

Initially, at Musgrave Park Hospital, he was told he would never walk again. But thankfully after eight weeks he finally left Musgrave on his feet, walking with the aid of a stick which he still relies on today.

He has two steel plates in his neck, two in his arm and one in his back. He still struggles to walk and cannot run. He suffers from regular blackouts and has no feeling in his left hand or his feet. He climbs stairs with difficulty and cannot sit comfortably for long periods of time, finding even short car journeys painful. His physical injuries also meant that he could never work again.

"I used to get up at 5.30am to go to work and would have been out until 10 or 11pm that night," he recalls. "You think you are indispensable and that you couldn't be done without at work and then in an instant your whole world totally changes.

"It was tough on my wife Doris, as our son Mark was only two and she had to leave him to fly to England. She stayed with me the whole time I was in hospital and her mum and my mum had to look after Mark. Mark was too young to remember anything."

While the physical injuries have had a major impact on the quality of Mervyn's life, the emotional toll was also great and he struggles to this day with a fear of flying.

In the past 26 years he managed just once to get on a short flight to Scotland, but was so terrified he couldn't do it again.

It has meant missing out on family holidays. Wife Doris (60), a church caretaker, loves the sun and has had to travel without her husband, holidaying instead with her sister or a friend.

Determined to be able to enjoy holidays abroad with Doris again, last year Mervyn signed up for a fearless flying course in Belfast.

"It's been hard not being able to go on holiday, but Doris has been great about it and has never complained," he says.

"I think the fearless flying course has helped. We went on a short flight from Belfast, around Northern Ireland, and I was surprised how relaxed I was.

"I haven't flown since, though, but I think I will make the effort this year and do it. I don't know where yet, but hopefully Doris and I will finally get a holiday together.

"They still tell you that air travel is the safest way to go but when you are up there if anything happens the only way is down."

Mervyn appreciates that he was one of the lucky ones, even though life as he knew it before the crash changed dramatically for him.

His physical injuries have restricted what he can do and while he goes for a walk every day to try and keep fit, most of this time is simply spent in the house.

"There is not much else I can do but sit around the house," he says. "It has made me feel a bit depressed from time to time but there is not much I can do about it.

"I think the crash has also affected my patience with people. When I hear people complaining that they have a sore back or sore legs I have no sympathy for them, I just think they don't appreciate how well off they are."

Mervyn adds: "When you see pictures of the crash in the Alps and think about what those families are going through it puts things in perspective."

Engine shutdown a fatal error

After taking off from Heathrow at 7.52pm on January 8, 1989, Flight BD 092 was climbing through 28,300ft to reach its cruising altitude of 35,000ft when a blade detached from the fan of the left engine.

While the pilots did not know the source of the problem, a pounding noise was suddenly heard, accompanied by severe vibrations.

Smoke poured into the cabin through the ventilation system and there was a burning smell in the plane.

Several passengers sitting near the rear of the plane, including Mervyn Finlay, noticed smoke and sparks coming from the left engine. The flight was diverted to nearby East Midlands Airport. The smoke in the cabin led the pilots to assume the fault was in the right engine and they throttled back the working right engine, instead of the malfunctioning left engine.

They had no way of visually checking the engines from the cockpit.

When the pilots completely shut down the right engine, they could no longer smell the smoke, which led them to believe that they had correctly dealt with the problem. During the final approach to the airport more fuel was pumped into the damaged engine to maintain speed, which caused it to cease operating entirely and burst into flames.

The flight crew attempted to restart the right engine, but the aircraft was by now flying at 185km/h, too slow for this.

Just before crossing the M1 motorway, the tail struck the ground and the aircraft bounced back into the air and over the motorway, knocking down trees and a lamppost before crashing on the far embankment and breaking into three sections.

Remarkably, there were no vehicles on that part of the motorway at the moment of the crash.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph