Belfast Telegraph

Kegworth air disaster survivor was 'true servant of church' as press officer

Church voice: Alan Johnston
Church voice: Alan Johnston
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Alan Johnston, one of the survivors of the Kegworth air disaster, died peacefully this week at Barrhall Residential Home in Portaferry. The former resident of Strangford was in his nineties.

Among those paying tribute to the former Church of Ireland press officer, who miraculously escaped from the tragedy which claimed the lives of nearly 50 people, was the former Church Primate Lord Eames.

On January 8, 1989, a Boeing 737-400 aircraft en route from London Heathrow to Belfast International Airport crashed onto a motorway embankment near Kegworth in Leicestershire while attempting to make an emergency landing at East Midlands Airport.

The aircraft had developed a fault in the left engine as it was climbing to its cruising altitude of 35,000ft, but the functioning right engine was shut down by mistake.

More fuel was pumped erroneously into the malfunctioning engine, which then burst into flames.

The aircraft crossed the M1 motorway, knocking down trees and a lamp post before crashing into the far embankment and splitting into three parts.

Miraculously, there were no vehicles travelling on the motorway at that time and there were no road casualties.

There were 126 people on board, 47 of whom died. Another 74 sustained serious injuries.

The official report into the disaster made 31 recommendations, leading to improvements in aircraft safety and emergency procedures for passengers.

Mr Johnston, who had previously worked in the international oil industry, was at the time of the crash travelling home from London after visiting his first grandchild.

After it hit the embankment, Mr Johnston, with the other survivors, was pulled from the wreckage "more dead than alive", as he later recalled.

He was rescued by a group from the RNLI, who had been to a boat show in London and had been travelling up the motorway.

After the rescue, Alan spent two months in hospital and later had intensive therapy for a shattered pelvis and injuries to one of his ribs and a foot.

He also underwent a brief period of counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Despite the crash, he retained his lifelong interest in aviation, which he credited with aiding his recovery.

It was only years later that he discovered the RNLI members had rescued him and the others by lifting them on stretchers and carrying them across one wing of the aircraft.

Using the internet, Alan was able to trace one of the men who had saved him, Barrie Brigham, to Withernsea in Yorkshire.

Mr Brigham was later invited to the launch of Alan's book of weather photographs titled Should I Bring an Umbrella?

On the 25th anniversary of Kegworth, Alan attended an evensong in St Anne's Cathedral, where there was a special mention of those who lost their lives.

Mr Johnston is remembered as a most helpful former press officer in the Church of Ireland.

He was the third person to hold that position in the Church's Belfast office, serving from 1972 until 1983.

Lord Eames, a former Church of Ireland Primate, paid tribute to Alan, describing him as a "true servant of the Church".

"During the years of real darkness for our society, Alan played a key role in presenting the voice of the Church in the media," he said.

Mr Johnston is survived by his wife Phyl, children Deirdre, Barry, Elizabeth and Michael and by his wider family and friends.

His funeral will be held tomorrow at Ballyculter Parish Church in Co Down at 11am, followed by his interment at Kilclief Parish Churchyard.

Alf McCreary

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph