Passengers Had 90 Seconds to Escape Crashed Plane

By Zarni Mann 27 December 2012

RANGOON—Terrified passengers on the crashed flight that killed two people in Shan State on Tuesday had just 90 seconds to escape from the burning plane, according to Air Bagan officials.

“As soon as we knew that the landing was not normal, we tried to open the emergency exits and told all the passengers to get out from the aircraft as soon as possible. We managed to get all the passengers out within 90 seconds,” said Khine Su Naing, an official on the crashed aircraft, at a press conference in Rangoon on Wednesday.

She said that everything was going smoothly until the landing gear hit the ground roughly causing the plane to bounce and the wing break off, with black smoke billowing from its tail.

“We left the aircraft only after several calls for any passengers who may have been left behind,” she added. “We got no response but could not see clearly due to the heavy smoke. We only found out later that a tour guide named Nwe Lin Shein was killed.”

The 21-year-old Fokker 100 jet crashed on Christmas morning on approach to Heho Airport, the main gateway to northeastern Burma’s popular tourist destination of Inle Lake in Shan State, while carrying 71 people, including 48 foreigners.

State-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar reported that the plane came down after hitting 66KVA power lines and then trees and crashed onto the side of a highway where a broken wing hit two passing motorcyclists.

One driver named U Pyar was killed while his 18-year-old nephew survived and is currently having treatment at Rangoon General Hospital.

Nwe Lin Shein, a Germen-speaking tour guide, was the only fatality from within the aircraft while a total of 65 passengers and six crew members including the two pilots managed to escape.

“I am so sad to hear two persons died, but I feel that we are very lucky to survive. This is the most terrible experience of my life. I will now consider taking a train or bus instead of a flight. I love Burma and want to visit again but I’m not sure about taking a flight because this horrible thing happened,” said Sabine Hampel, a German journalist who was a passenger on the airline on only her fifth day in the country.

She said that the passengers assumed the plane was going to land normally but panic spread quickly when it suddenly emerged that they were all in danger.

“I felt the landing gear going down and when I looked out of the window I saw the airstrip below, I saw the airport and thought that everything was fine,” said Hampel. “I was just thinking about taking a photo of the beautiful landscape and I never thought that anything bad could happen. But suddenly the plane bumped down on the ground and I saw smoke came out after seconds. It was a very bumpy landing.”

As the plane bounced roughly for several seconds, the emergency exits were opened by the cabin crew and passengers rushed to get out fearing that the plane could explode.

“People starting shouting and crying in panic. A few seconds later, there was fire at the back and out front as well. Black smoke filled the plane and I couldn’t breathe or see anything anymore and I realized that something really bad was happening,” Hampel recalled in tears.

“People starting to push and pull each other and I jumped out from the plane with the others. I heard nothing but people shouting. I was suddenly looking for my backpack to make sure my passport and my personal belongings were with me. But I could not get my bag and I lost everything.

“The worse thing I lost was my contacts book which contains the numbers of my sources, which is very valuable for a journalist. When I got out, I saw a man, a foreign man, wandering outside nervously with all his hair and arms were burned, skin from his arms hanging out and he looked like a ghost to me. He was like he couldn’t believe what had happened to him. It was such horrible experience for him. I hope he will be fine and safe,” she added.

Hampel said that she and most other passengers were suffering from back and neck pain that might have been caused by the hard landing.

“It was all very fast,” she said. “I think it happened only within 30 or so seconds after we bumped down, all the smoke and we got out. As soon as we got out from the plane, it burned down completely in three minutes. The crew collected all the passengers and sent the injured persons to hospital and, for us, we’ve been treated well while we waited for transport and later arrived at this hotel.”

Foreign victims are currently being accommodated at Rangoon’s Kandawgyi Palace Hotel while they wait to get their travel documents replaced and connected with their respective embassies.

“For me, I could not contact my family or friends yet as there are Christmas and New Year holidays in Germany,” she said. “My family does not know my situation yet. Hopefully my embassy can assist me to go back home. All I want now is to go home.

“We have not yet been told how the airline would insure us. All we’ve got is some money, a T-shirt, a stay at this hotel and that’s it. I would like to know what will happen with the insurance for all the things we have lost,” she added.

Air Bagan officials said at the press conference that foreign tourists have been given US $2,000 and 300,000 kyat ($360) in local currency for buying cloths and other essentials, and the company is paying for their accommodation, while the injured are receiving treatment at Rangoon General Hospital.

“We are providing every possible assistance to those who are injured, including medication, and to the families of the deceased. We are also considering reasonable compensation to everyone who was affected,” said Htoo Htet Htwe, the airline’s managing director.

“We are cooperating with the Immigration Department as well for the foreign nationals to get back their travel documents and go back home.”

The black box of the aircraft has been sent to Singapore in order to determine the cause behind the crash and any suggested action to be taken by the investigation commission.