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I witnessed the plane crash that killed my sisters

VC10 Crash at Addis Ababa Airport in 1972

The crash of East African Airways' first Super VC10, 5X-UVA, in 1972 can be evaluated from a technical point of view. For that, the report that summarises the accident investigation is available at the bottom of this article. This is a different story. The account below was written and compiled by and poignantly describes this tragic day that caused the loss of her two older sisters, Jane and Caroline. Harriet and her parents were at the airport at Addis Ababa on that day and witnessed the crash. In April 2021 Harriet told her story on the BBC Four radio programme Life Changing and she has now very kindly agreed to share this version here.

EAA's first Super VC10, 5X-UVA, at Addis Ababa on Tuesday, 18 April 1972.
Photo Bill Ware-Austin via Harriet Ware-Austin

Caroline, Harriet and Jane during a picknick with their mother Elsa.
Photo Bill Ware-Austin via Harriet Ware-Austin

Caroline, Harriet and Jane with Benjy.
Photo via Harriet Ware-Austin

On the 18th April 1972, my two older sisters Jane and Caroline were due to fly back to their boarding school in England at the end of the Easter holiday spent with us in Ethiopia. The following are excerpts from an account of the day and those following, that my mother wrote for me a few years ago:

“We all five watched their plane make a perfect landing. Jane was next to  me but when I remarked on what a beautiful plane the Super VC10 was she replied:  “oh no, I don’t think so, it comes to take me away from you…”  There was a sadness in her face and voice that I have never forgotten, just as I have always remembered and in some way felt the warmth and softness of her body as she hugged me for the last time before turning to Caroline with the words “ Come on Caro”.

They were off a few minutes later – four friends together: our two, Debbie Dorman and Elspeth Milne, returning to school along with many other young ones. Harriet, our youngest daughter who had just turned eight, was with us. We watched the four of them in the distance, climbing the steps to the aircraft, then turning to wave before they stepped inside.

Small light planes were used to make internal flights and one of these had landed earlier in the day. A small ‘tying hook,’ used for securing cargo under the plane had dropped onto the runway earlier in the day, into the path of our children’s plane. Their plane hit the hook at the split second before take-off when it was going too fast to stop (although there was a terrible scream of brakes as the pilot tried to do so) which caused one of the tyres to burst. The force of a burst tyre at this speed made the plane spin round, causing all three of the other tyres to burst too. Rubber from all four tyres fed into the engines, killing their power, so the plane could not take off either.

There was a fifty foot drop at the end of the runway and in the impact of the plane hitting the ground below it split open and burst into flames. There were explosions as each one of the engines in turn caught fire and then huge plumes of pitch black smoke was all we saw from where we were. The fire engines that rushed to the scene looked like ants beside the immensity of it.

In the confusion that followed some things have remained clearly in my mind ever since: Bill’s cry “my God it’s on fire” which will ring in my ears for the rest of my life, and taking Harriet’s hand in mine with the thought ‘how I behave now is going to affect her for the rest of her life.’ Nobody screamed or fainted, as the newspapers later said we did, but some of the mothers clung to one another wordlessly.  I can still see their faces. I also remember a strange sensation of Jane going through my body. I only thought about it again after we knew she had been killed instantly in the impact. Had it been at the moment of her death that I had that feeling?

Bill and Richard (Debbie’s father) just ran, found Richard’s Land Rover and drove down as close to the scene of the crash as they could get. Bill told me afterwards that he ran round and round the plane screaming at the top of his voice. Because the plane had split open many of the passengers were able to escape, some to die later from their burns but more than half to escape completely – at least physically. Caroline got out but she turned downhill into the path of the spilling fuel which ignited instantly. She was also hampered by barbed wire as she ran. When Bill found her she was bleeding and all her clothes had been burnt off her except for her shoes which had been burnt onto her feet. Her first words to him were ‘Daddy did Jane get out?’ he said he just picked her up and hugged her. A kind Italian couple who had appeared on the scene took Caroline in their car to the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Addis where all the survivors were taken. Bill stayed on searching for Jane, not knowing that she had died instantly and never left her seat. Her seatbelt had caused her aorta to rupture.

Seatbelts were relevant. Debbie told her mother afterwards that she and Caroline untied each other’s seat belts and Debbie said ‘let’s get out of here!’ They ran together. Debbie turned and ran uphill which saved her life, but Caroline turned the other way and ran downhill as Elspeth must have done. A wonderful man, a Mr Panton, stood where the plane had opened and instead of escaping himself, helped people to jump. Apparently he jollied everyone along, saying ‘women and children first’; he would have given Caroline some reassurance in the nightmare of her escape.  We saw him later at the hospital: all his skin had been burnt off so one just saw his eyes. He died a few hours later. He paid with his life for what he did to help others, none of whom he would have known."

Elspeth Milne, who escaped from the wreckage with Caroline, did not survive the burns she suffered during the aftermath of the crash. Out of the four friends, only Debbie Dorman survived.

"I found Caroline at the hospital on a trolley, together with many others. It was difficult to distinguish any of them because they were covered with some sort of black soot. When I did find her and said her name she just said ‘Mummy!’  It spoke worlds and is a moment that has stayed with me through the years. She was put in a ward with three others. They were all terribly burnt, causing their kidneys to fail gradually, as happens with severe burns, but they were fully conscious. Caroline asked me to bring the Ugandan beaded stool which the children always had by their beds when they were ill. For all of us it was a time of horror and almost disbelief at what had happened.

The staff at the hospital were so very kind and caring. The loving atmosphere that surrounded us all – patients and relatives alike – was another lasting memory. They set aside a room for relatives and friends with a telephone and a supply of orange and lemon drinks. My father spoke to me early on: a dear familiar voice. I told him all I could about Caroline but kept saying ‘Jane is dead’ over and over. My brother Edward in Johannesburg did not know if it would be possible to speak to me. He got hold of the international operator and when he asked her if it would be possible to get a call to Ethiopia, she asked immediately if it was about the Addis Ababa plane crash….he was speaking to me within two minutes.  Another dear, familiar voice. He told me it was imperative for Caroline to get to a kidney machine.

The arrangements to send an RAF rescue plane to us were already in the pipeline.

On the Thursday evening before we left, there was a service in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. It was for everybody: survivors, relatives of victims and the many people from the town who came to join us. Names of people known to have died were read out, Jane’s among them. I have never been to such a service where the differences between colour, race and creed represented there faded into insignificance and one was aware only of a love that transcended everything. It has been a lasting awareness for me – that love.

The RAF plane that rescued us took many of the survivors and their relatives back to England. I think some of the Italians were flown back to Italy.

We left on Friday morning with Caroline and of course Harriet who had been cared for by a kind doctor and her family. Only much later did we realise what a bewildering and traumatic experience those days had been for her.  She had witnessed the crash, seen many of the badly burnt victims, including Caro, and then been taken to stay with complete strangers to spend those first frightening days.

We had half an hour’s notice to pack – it can be done! – And to make arrangements for the loyal servants and our beloved dog Benjy, while we were away. As we boarded the plane I told Caroline what was happening. Once again her concern was for Jane and she asked ‘is Jane here too?’ we never told her that Jane had died.

We relatives all had seats at the tail end of the plane facing backwards.  We were able to move freely into the area where all the stretchers were. Caro never spoke again but I told her to screw up her eyes if she could hear my voice and we kept this up between us…

We touched down once in Cyprus before going on to Brize Norton, our destination.  Not long before we landed the communicating door to the patients was shut – a young Italian man had died. We tried to comfort his distraught wife and mother. All along there was a feeling of camaraderie between all of us – relatives and friends.

Our plane landed at Brize Norton in the late afternoon where my parents were waiting for us.  My poor father had first seen news of the crash on the 2pm news. They had driven up to meet us. The patients were airlifted by helicopter to the burns unit of the RAF hospital where we met them.  We were given beds in a nearby annexe, my parents too, and saw Caroline in her new place first.

She screwed up her eyes slightly when I told her she was safely in England but she died at 2am on the 22nd April, four days after Jane. Our gentle, unselfish, uncomplaining Caroline, so often my quiet companion throughout her precious 12 years.

She was twelve, Jane fourteen.

Inevitably I have written mainly about Caroline because she was with us for those four days and less about Jane who had died instantly and whom we never saw again. Dear kind Jane with her warmth and compassion and the beautiful smile she had had from her earliest years. Those who identified her body advised us strongly not to see her. They said ‘If you look you will never forget what you see – just remember that beautiful smile.’ When the four girls had turned to the waving base before stepping into the plane, Jane’s smiling face was our very last sight of her. Before we left for the airport she had put a rose on our dressing table; she knew it was my favourite because it combined a perfect bloom with a heavenly scent. When we saw that rose again many hours later we knew for certain she was dead.

This is only the account of the actual events and immediate aftermath of the accident that took our two older daughters so abruptly from us.

Everything that followed: people, places, animals and things that helped, our emotions and how we tried to come to terms with what happened was perhaps best summed up in a letter from Elspeth’s father to my mother. She had written to him when Elspeth died two days after Caro. In it he said: ‘I am afraid we all have a long hard road back to a normal life, but of course it will never be the same again.”

This is the first part of my mother’s account, describing what we saw and experienced on that day and the next three. In the following parts she describes how she, my father and I began the “long hard road” to a new way of life. Everything had changed so utterly, we lost the family that we were, lived with searing grief and flashbacks of the things we saw, lost our way of life in beautiful African countries and all the friends and pets of those places. We found ourselves living in cold grey England, a new country to us, with ways and people from whom we felt very alien for many years. My father’s health never fully recovered from the shock and the physical impact of his running to find my sisters and he died in his 60’s, surely before his time and leaving my mother alone for many years.

Harriet, Jane and Caroline with their father.
Photo via Harriet Ware-Austin

However, over the difficult years we did build a new life and survived, of course we were never the same again and the accident and loss of my sisters have been with us daily.  But we coped, found good things again and my adult life has been good, I have my own lovely family with my husband and three sons, have had a wonderful career in human rights (even if it does involve a lot of flying in normal times) and I feel altogether very lucky.

Through writing her beautiful account, my mother triggered me to do something I had always wanted and somehow bring the memory of my sisters ‘alive’ again. This culminated in an interview on Radio 4 with Jane Garvey, for a series called Life Changing, which was broadcast in April this year. I had not only wanted to pay the tribute to my sisters and parents, but also to track down other people related to the VC10 accident and also try to give hope to people going through their own tragedies and grief, that these things can be survived.  And the response in the first two weeks following the programme, has been extraordinary, dozens of people have got in touch, many directly connected, survivors and relatives of victims, as well as dozens of others such as school friends of my sisters and people who have had their own tragedies. Already over 200 people have got in touch, every one of them deeply appreciated.

Harriet Ware-Austin

London, 10th May 2021

Bob Whittingham, who was part of the RAF crew that carried the survivors and their family back home on XR808, shared his account of that flight here: VC10 Crash. Ethiopia, 1972. See also this BBC News article from October 2021 about Harriet's story: ‘As a child I saw the plane crash that killed my sisters'

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