Gone - Catastrophe In Paradise
Forty years ago, on the afternoon of 27 March 1977, a mass of American and European tourists descended on a tropical paradise for the holiday of a lifetime. Within hours, hundreds were dead.
The events described in this book are well known to people inside the aviation community. The Tenerife airport disaster was, and remains, the deadliest airplane accident in history. The twin towers disaster of 2001 incurred a greater loss of life, but because that event was the result of deliberate sabotage, it has never been classed as an “accident”. The death toll of the Tenerife tragedy, 583 people, thus still stands as the worst on record in terms of aviation mishaps.
I have always been fascinated by this disaster. The story within in it is not only devastatingly tragic, but really rather bizarre. The calamity was preceded by an almost inconceivable chain of ironies and the unlikeliest of coincidences. It has always surprised me, however, that most people I speak to casually know little or nothing about Tenerife. And the public accounts that are available don’t really get across what it so fascinating about it.
I wrote this book with a vision to bring the real story of Tenerife to a wider audience: to folk who aren’t particularly informed about aviation history, those who aren’t avid devotees of Air Crash Investigations, Mayday, Seconds from Disaster and the various technical reports that are available —but are also rather dull to read.
Several short written accounts of this disaster exist, but they are generally prosaic and dry, scientific analyses of an event that has an incredible human dimension which is often overlooked.
The field of disaster analysis remains unevolved in the literary sense. Here I have attempted to create an account that takes the reader right inside the events of that afternoon, to reveal how they might have been experienced by the key players involved: the cockpit crews, the passengers and the tower controllers. I also wanted to relate the sad but also extremely inspiring story of the aftermath of this disaster, those events that transpired in the days immediately following the crash, on the mysterious little island of Tenerife. That story has been neglected in previous accounts, and without knowing it, the true nature of the entire event is obscured from view.
It will be up to the reader whether I have done my subject justice. Hopefully the result of my efforts is not just informative, but a journey to travel …
“We’re going!” says the captain, spooling up his engines.
In the rear of the Boeing 747, the passengers are relieved to be finally getting off the ground, having spent the better part of three hours stranded during an unscheduled stop. This airline, like all of them, promises efficiency and on-time travel. The promotional literature tucked in the back of the seats brags confidently about their safety record and reputation for getting their passengers where they need to go, when they need to get there.
Nobody stops to ponder the occasionally contradictory nature of these aims.
Just as fate would have it, our captain is now enslaved in the grip of irreconcilable goals, impossible expectations. Yet this fact remain beneath his awareness.
He has just spent the last several hours feeling irritable beyond words, in a place he never intended to go, and will happily never see again—and now, all he can think about is the fact he is about to get up into the skies. He’s made it. They’re outta there.
But in his haste, he has overlooked one crucial piece of information: he has never actually been given clearance to take off.
Seconds later, the pilot of another 747, similarly loaded with passengers and still taxiing on the active runway, sights the grim specter of expanding orbs of light through the fog. In a grotesque flash of insight, all becomes clear.
“There he is!” he cries, pushing the thrust levers to full power, desperately trying to steer his massive charge out of the path of carnage. “Look at him! That son of a bitch is coming!”
We humans tend to think about fate or destiny in positive terms. When something wonderful and unexpected happens—a lottery win, being offered a dream job, meeting your soulmate randomly on a street corner—we say that the stars aligned, we finally got our lucky break, and by some miracle the perfect ingredients of happenstance came together to grant our most fervently held dreams.
But what about those occasions that represent the unhappy results of the rarest chain of coincidence? Those times when the stars did indeed align—but instead, for the perfect storm?
Nobody likes to think about those situations. After all, they throw a grim challenge to our sense of hope, to our belief in the basically benevolent design of the universe. Instead, they seem to point darkly to the existence of malicious deities, to an indifferent—even hostile—world.
The story I am about to tell you concerns just this kind of incident.
Chapter Two - The stage is set
We are not in the present, but some four decades in the past. The society and its inhabitants are only superficially unfamiliar. Do not be deceived by nostalgia or regret for innocence lost. Probe a little deeper and you will learn much about where we have come from, and just how we got to where we are now.
Americans are enjoying for the first time the benefits of affordable international air travel and, along with it, mass tourism. Jumping on a flight and heading off for an overseas jaunt is becoming a middle-class thing to do.
Along with the optimism and sense of adventure, there is trepidation. Terrorism has been rearing its head in recent years, making uncomfortable inroads into everyday life. It is five years since the Munich Massacre of 1972: star Olympic athletes captured and killed by Palestinian nationalists, hundreds of innocents taken captive. In its wake, a wave of fear and impotence ripples through the West. In two years there will be a critical tipping point in the evolution of Islamic radicalism, very visibly brought home to Americans in the form of the Iranian hostage crisis. A president widely regarded as ineffectual is unable to return his fellow Americans to safety. A corroding wound to national self-esteem ensues.
Our unwary passengers are caught in the crosshairs of this unfolding historical drama.
They are destined for the Canaries, a regional hub for tourism of the joyful and sun-drenched kind. The Canary Islands, an Atlantic archipelago just off the Moroccan coastline, is a holiday destination much favoured by European and American vacationers since the tourist boom of the 1960s.
Historically it has been sometimes referred to as the Land of Eternal Spring or the Fortunate Isles, the latter deriving from the title of an epic poem from the sixteenth century by Antonio Viviana, a native of La Laguna on Tenerife. The many international visitors are attracted by the warm, sunny climate and the beaches, and continue to imagine that the name of the islands has something to do with the delightful yellow tropical bird, the canary.
This is a common misconception. In fact the name for the bird comes from the name of the islands, which means “Islands of the Dogs”. Pliny the Younger reported that the Berber king Juba II sent an expedition to the islands, and named them for the particularly ferocious native breed of canines that greeted his contingent on their arrival.
This story evokes a certain truth about the Canaries, relating to all that is hidden by its popular image as a tropical paradise and playpen for sun-worshippers. Scratch the surface and this place has a strange and mysterious side to it, not to mention a complex and bloody history that tourists for the most part very much prefer to ignore.
Despite the year-round sunshine, parts of the islands can become suddenly and unpredictably fogbound. The balmy climate is a result of latitude and the tradewinds, which concentrate humidity over parts of the archipelago into vast, low-flying banks of cloud that range between 600 and 1800 meters in height. The rocky and mountainous nature of the islands, forged over million years of volcanic formation, contribute too to the unpredictable patterns of wind, rain and low cloud. Politically, the islands have been subject to bitter territorial disputes between Berbers and the Spanish who have controlled them since the Castilian conquests. In what is to come, all these factors will come together in an unforeseeable, and most unfortunate, interplay of events.
The passengers are shortly to arrive at Las Palmas on Gran Canaria, the springboard for international flights to and from the Canaries, and the departure point for major cruise liners traveling to destinations in the Mediterranean, North Africa and South America.
But on the fateful day, shortly before they are due to touch down, a bomb explodes at a florist’s shop on the main concourse of the international terminal at Las Palmas airport.
The scene is total chaos. There is significant damage to the inside of the terminal, now littered with shattered glass, shards of broken plaster and terrified humans that dart in all directions until some sense of order can be restored. Eight people are seriously injured.
A telephone call arrives at a service desk hinting at the presence of a second bomb located somewhere inside the terminal.
The mystery caller is a member of the Canary Islands separatists, formally the Canary Islands Independence Movement (CIIM).
CIIM, based in Algeria, are engaged in various violent actions against the Spanish. This attack on the terminal is one of many such gestures of fury and vindictiveness deemed richly deserved. In the sunset days of empire, all over the world the oppressed and dispossessed are launching campaigns against their collapsing European masters, seeking independence for places they call home. CIIM bring ideologies of Islamic radicalism in service of their goal of returning the Canaries to the original Berber inhabitants. They frequently target their attacks against the symbols of modernity and internationalization, air travel and tourism.
As much as they desire to inflict disruption and carnage, they can have no idea of the scale of disaster they are about to unleash.
With the threat of another bomb, as yet undetected, somewhere in the airport the Spanish authorities immediately evacuate the terminal and implement a directive to divert all incoming aircraft to Los Rodeos on the neighboring island of Tenerife.
Miguel Torrens is on duty at Las Palmas approach. He later explained that in his view the situation at Las Palmas was so alarming and chaotic that the authorities simply made a unilateral decision to divert all the aircraft to Los Rodeos, despite the fact that this solution was not without its own problems.
There was no leeway in the directive; an exception was made for two Iberia flights because they could disembark their passengers via a hangar at Las Palmas, rather than through the terminal. Why could this not be done with other flights? Torrens asked, his hands raised in a gesture of helplessness and futility. He didn’t know.
Los Rodeos is a small regional airport. Its airstrips and facilities are designed to accommodate smaller planes of the type that complete short haul flights in and around the Canaries. It has only one runway—strictly two, runway 12 and runway 30. They form one continuous stretch of tarmac, laid out end to end. There is one major parallel taxiway. The main taxiway and runway are joined by four smaller taxiways. Visualize an oblong crossed over the middle with little white lines.
Now, all of a sudden, a stream of large wide body jets from international carriers are arriving, rerouted from Las Palmas, and waiting to land at the tiny airport.
Fernando Azcunaga and just one other controller are on duty in the tower at Los Rodeos, approaching the end of their shift after a busy day.
From time to time they have been called on to accept diverted traffic, and it is all well and good that they accommodate one or two Boeing 747s on their tiny parking apron. But this is an entirely different story; there are several large jets circling above, waiting to land, with more to arrive. It is a situation they are unused to. Already the men are starting to sweat.
Azcunaga, a Spanish national from the Basque region, is an experienced professional, having worked as a controller since 1964—well over a decade. He’s used to dealing with substandard equipment and long shifts due to understaffing, but he loves his job. Some twenty years after the disaster he summed up the working conditions for controllers at Los Rodeos at the time with one well-chosen, powerfully descriptive word: “atrocious”.
The communications equipment broke down all the time, he reminisced with his disarming chuckle. The tower wasn’t even soundproof. We could hear cars on the road outside!
The airport at Los Rodeos also presents a number of idiosyncrasies that make Azcunaga’s job uniquely challenging.
There is, in fact, a little folk tale about the airport’s origins, the truth or otherwise of which has never really been established. For the people of Tenerife, the story is a mildly amusing joke, a comment on the absurdity of life. Allegedly the original planners marked an “X” on a map to mark the place which, due to the awkwardness of the terrain and the prevalence of fog and inclement weather, they believed an airport should never, ever be built.
Later, another planning group took over the project, and mistook this X for the opposite. One of the world’s most inhospitable airports was born.
Los Rodeos is located 2073 feet above sea level, and clouds that are normally 200 feet above sea level are here on the ground. The thick clouds roll down the nearby mountains onto the runways, resulting in rapidly changing visibility conditions. The local high terrain also causes the so-called venturi effect. Increased wind speed and decreased pressure increases the cloud density.
There is, at this time, no ground radar at the airport, so Azcunaga and his colleagues are sometimes in the position of directing traffic on the ground that they cannot even see. He relies on the cockpit crews to accurately report their position.
At around 1:30 pm, Azcunaga receives a request for landing clearance from a KLM jet. The KLM is a Boeing 747, registration PH-BUF, carrying the stately formal moniker of the Rhine. It has departed Schipol Airport in Amsterdam at nine in the morning carrying 234 passengers, mostly young Dutch nationals escaping the cold northern winter for holidays in the Canaries. There are two Australians, four Germans and four Americans. Amongst the passengers are 48 children—and three babies.
By this time several international flights have already landed at Los Rodeos. With limited space to accommodate them, Azcunaga directs them to the parking apron situated between the main taxiway and the holding point for runway 12. Very quickly the parking apron is full, and the planes start spilling out onto the main taxiway parallel to the active runway.