Manchester Airport, early morning of August 22, 1985. It was the peak of the British summer holiday season, the airport was busy and hordes of passengers were arriving for their flights ready to be whisked off for some sunshine. Among them were 129 passengers and two infants travelling to Corfu, on British Airtours (British Airways’ charter subsidiary) Flight KT28M.
The service that morning was to be operated by a four-year old Boeing 737-236 (G-BGJL) ‘River Orrin’. The crew had reported at 5am for their pre-flight briefing and consisted of pilots Captain Peter Terrington and First Officer Brian Love; plus cabin crew Purser Arthur Bradbury and Cabin Crew Joanna Toff, who were working at the front and Sharon Ford and Jacqui Ubanski at the rear.
Little did any of them know that in a few hours, they would be involved in one of the deadliest air disasters in the UK, one that would change the face of the aviation industry and numerous safety procedures forever.
A Day Like Any Other
There was an air of excitement as passengers began to board the flight a little after 6:30am. The crew were on hand in the cabin welcoming passengers, helping them to their seats and stowing away luggage.
Before long everyone was onboard, doors were closed and the obligatory safety demonstration was completed. The crew prepared the cabin and sat down ready for take off as the aircraft headed out towards Manchester’s runway 24.
A 06:12 Flight 28M began its take off roll. Initially all seemed normally as the 737 hurtled down the runway. During this critical phase of flight the Cabin Crew would have been carrying out their silent reviews, running through their emergency procedures to prepare them should an incident occur.
Just 12 seconds later a loud thumping noise startled everyone onboard. In the flight deck, Captain Terrington and First Officer Love initially believed a tire had burst. A rejected take-off was initiated and the pilots slowed the aircraft down using reverse thrust and limited breaking, in an attempt not to damage anymore tyres.
“A Lot Of Fire”
However this was no burst tire. Passengers seated on the left hand side of the aircraft had a clear view of flames pouring from the Number One engine and immediately began to panic.
The pilots decided to turn the aircraft off the runway onto an adjacent taxiway, allowing them to further assess the situation. Sadly this made matters worse as they were now facing the prevailing winds which fanned the flames over the fuselage, igniting more fuel that had spilled out on to the aircraft’s skin.
Terrington was in the process of speaking to the tower when the fire warning bell on Number One engine sounded. Relaying this information to ATC, the tower confirmed there was ‘a lot of fire’ and that they should commence an evacuation using the starboard side.
Purser Bradbury could hear commotion in the cabin and attempted to see past the bulkhead which was blocking his view. He made a PA telling passengers to “sit down and remain strapped in” as the 737 was still moving. Once they stopped he unbuckled his seatbelt and went about three rows in to the cabin.
“I immediately noticed that a band all around the centre of the cabin was glowing with an orange colour” said Bradbury, “I could see no smoke or flames. I looked out of the port side window and saw that the whole of the port wing was ablaze”.
Witnesses on the ground watched in horror as fuel spilling from the damaged wing, combined with the light wind, fanned the fire in to a giant inferno and began to melt the aircraft skin and windows.
As Bradbury made his way back to the public address system to order an evacuation, Captain Terrington came over the PA and shouted “Evacuate, starboard side”. Hearing this Bradbury entered the flight deck to confirm what he had just heard. The Captain repeated the order to evacuate using only the starboard side. Closing the flight deck door Bradbury went straight to the PA and announced once again to the passengers “Evacuation. Evacuation. Stay calm and don’t panic”.
Turning to the starboard door, he ran through the drills of how to operate the exit. But as he began to open the door it jammed. He quickly instructed Joanna Toff to guard this inoperative exit and went to try the port door (1L) to see if an evacuation was possible on this side.
“During this time, I was considering mentally how to overcome the fault on the starboard door. Before attempting to open the front port door, I looked out of the port door window. There was one or two whiffs of smoke but the wind was blowing it away. I, therefore, decided that it was safe to open this door and deploy the slide and start an evacuation on this side”.
25 seconds had now passed since the aircraft had come to a complete stop. “I opened the door carefully in the same way as the starboard door. I was taking no chances and pulled the manual inflation handle as well. I only opened it a little way at first incase I had to close it quickly due to fire”.
As the exit finally opened he could see fire engulfing the port side and fuel pouring from the damaged wing running away from the aircraft.
Weighing up his options, Bradbury decided that he could at least evacuate some passengers this way before the fire caught up. “I told stewardess Toff to take charge of this. I told her to make sure that passengers ran to the right to avoid the fire on the left hand side”.
Fire services were quickly on the scene and began to spray foam on to the striken aircraft. The foam entered the cabin through the opened door 1L and made the whole area very slippery. Joanna Toff began to evacuate passengers through the port door. But when she turned to see where everyone was she noticed that people were jammed in the aisle between the two galleys. The area was so narrow it became a complete bottle neck and nobody could get out.
Recalling her actions she said: “There was a little boy who was little bit further forward than the others. I was pulling at him really pulling hard at his clothes and when I managed to free him and push him down the slide the flow became a lot easier then. Passengers seemed to tumble out of the area and we could pull them out and throw them out either door. Others had to be pulled to guide them because they were confused. They had to be shown everything and really had to be pulled and thrown in to the light because it was starting to get quite dark (from the smoke) and there was a lot of confusion”.
As passengers slowly began to evacuate Bradbury crossed back to the starboard door and finally, 85 seconds after the aircraft had come to a halt, managed to get it open.
He continued: “Due to my position in the forward galley areas, I have no recollection of any smoke in the cabin at this time nor did I see any fire inside the aircraft. By this time passengers were evacuating through the port door under the guidance of Stewardess Toff. I began directing some through the starboard door once it was open. I could smell burning and smoke in the air but smoke was not a hazard at this point”.
But after just a few passengers the flow stopped and there didn’t seem to be anymore people coming out of the cabin. Toff explained: “I went in to the cabin and found a man who was seated on the edge of a seat and pulled, but he really struggled against me because his family was still onboard”.
Bradbury later spoke of how initially, there was no mad scramble to evacuate, just a steady flow of people: “The nearest description I can give is that the passengers were like a whole load of penguins shuffling out”.
Keen to get people off the aircraft as quickly as possible the crew grabbed, shoved and pulled people out to speed up the evacuation, shouting at them to jump on to the slide and stay calm.
Blinded By Smoke
By now thick black toxic smoke was beginning to engulf the forward cabin and galley area. Bradbury said: “I was then aware of smoke coming in to the galley. This smoke became denser and darker. I could not see Stewardess Toff and on my side I could not even see the slide. By the end I was in total darkness working by touch only”.
Despite the dangers Toff and Bradbury repeatedly returned to the cabin to find passengers and guide them to safety. “If you crawled on your hands and knees you could breathe. You could feel the smoke and you knew, and the heat, but it wasn’t as bad, it was breathable down there. And on the ground you could pull passengers along and guide them that way and they could breathe. By shouting to the passengers to stay low, they managed to crawl towards the door. There was a girl on the floor straight away, but she had been knocked there. I had to lift her out to stop people trampling on her”.
Toff continued: “In training, when they say to people ‘Stand on top of the slide and jump’ it wasn’t like that at all. What happened was you ended up pulling the passengers and throwing them down the slide head first, or which ever to really get them out with any kind of speed. It wasn’t textbook but it worked for those people”.
By now Purser Bradbury was being overcome by the smoke that surrounded them. “I took a good lung full of this acrid smoke. I felt that I could not take more than one or two more or I would have passed out. Visibility was then about two or three inches. I felt around in total darkness in the area immediately surrounding me and could see no trace of anybody. I could not shout due to smoke inhalation”.
Realising nothing more could be done he evacuated into the foam that surrounded the 737, later describing the scene as a total white out.
Going Above And Beyond
Joanna Toff went back in to the burning wreckage again in an attempt to rescue more passengers. By now conditions had really deteriorated. As she stumbled in to the cabin she found a 13-year-old girl and managed to pull her up the aisle and throw her down the slide. As she stood at the top, the fire service were screaming at her to get out. “It didn’t feel that bad, so I went back inside, checked all around the galley. There was nobody”. It was only then, after numerous sweeps of the cabin and galley areas, that Toff made her way back to the door and a fireman finally pulled her out.
On the ground the emergency services were tending to the victims and fighting the fire. Also joining them was on off duty British Airtours crew, who had recently arrived at MAN and were on a bus to the terminal when the accident happened. Led by Purser Hilary Cox the crew arrived on the scene about four minutes after the accident.
They went on to provide first aid and comfort to the survivors and a fireman who had been injured, before leading those that walked away from the aircraft onto coaches to take them to hospital. Without their help the death toll would have been much higher.
We’ll never know the full story of the horror Stewardesses Sharon Ford and Jacqui Ubanski faced at the rear of the cabin. One passenger, speaking some years after the incident said, “I immediately took off my seat-belt and stood up. The air hostess came up and I said ‘There’s a fire out there’. She told me to stay in my seat and put my seatbelt back on. So I did for about a second. Then took my seatbelt off again and said to her ‘No, i’m getting off this plane’. She didn’t stop me and returned to the back of the plane. She died as did the other stewardess at the back”.
During the latter stages of the abandoned take off and just after the aircraft had turned on to the taxi way, the right rear door (R2) was seen by external witnesses to be open with the slide deployed and inflated. A stewardess was initially visible in the doorway but the exit and slide were obscured by thick black smoke as the aircraft stopped. No one escaped through this door. Two passengers remember seeing one of the two stewardesses from the rear of the aircraft struggling to direct passengers in the rear aisle.
A total of 53 passengers and the two cabin crew members, Sharon Ford and Jacqui Ubanski perished in the disaster. 48 died from incapacitation, after inhaling the toxic smoke that rapidly filled the cabin, the rest tragically killed by the fire that ravaged the aircraft.
But miraculously, despite the devastation, 82 people survived and this is down to the professionalism and bravery of the cabin crew onboard G-BGJL that fateful morning.
Investigation And Subsequent Industry Changes
The subsequent investigation revealed there had been a catastrophic explosive failure of the engine casing. The explosion resulted in the fuel tank access panel being ruptured, which in turn allowed fuel to flow out over the hot engine exhaust. Combined with fuel still running to the damaged engine this ultimately sparked the blaze that engulfed the aircraft. Records relating to the engine subsequently showed a number of previous problems and despite being repaired they were unsatisfactory in ensuring safe operation.
Many lessons were learnt in the aftermath of Flight 28M. Before this disaster, survivability in an air disaster had not been studied. But after survivors described how they had become trapped in the aisle and galley areas and trampled over one another to escape, research began into the evacuation of aircraft and the survivability of crashes by the Cranfield Institue.
One of the most visible changes was the removal of seats next to over wing exits to create extra space. After the evacuation, passengers who left the aircraft via this route spoke of how they struggled accessing the exit and how the door had pivoted back in, pinning the passenger seated in 10F underneath.
In May 1986 the Civil Aviation Authority issued a notice to airlines reminding them of the importance of correct seat allocation at self-help exits and listed numerous types of passenger who could not be seated here. A further notice in July recommended that crew now discreetly brief passengers, drawing their attention to the information on how to use these exits.
Visual placards on seats around the over-wing exits with clear instructions on how to use them were also added as well as strip lighting in aisles to guide passengers in low visibility to an exit.
The idea was also put forward to install cabin fire protection systems and protective smokehoods for all passengers. Neither suggestions were never implemented.
Training was however given to cabin crew on how to remove a smokehood from its stowage and packaging, now a mandatory requirement by the Civil Avaition Authority (CAA).
I remember on my initial training donning a smoke hood and being led into a smoke-filled cabin with the airport fire team. The fireman grabbed hold of me, span me round a few times and said ‘right, now find the exit’. Panic immediately ensued and I struggled to locate the door. So one can only imagine the sheer horror for the passengers and crew that August morning, in complete darkness, knowing all the time that their lives were in grave danger.
Yet despite this, Arthur Bradbury and Joanna Toff repeatedly went back in to that cabin to rescue passengers. There is no denying that without their skills, professionalism and bravery there would have been many more fatalities.
Arthur Bradbury and Joanna Toff were subsequently awarded Queens Gallantry Medal on August 6, 1987. Sharon Ford and Jacqui Ubanski were awarded the same medal posthumously.
We remember the brave actions of Purser Arthur Bradbury, Stewardess Joanna Toff and of course Stewardesses Sharon Ford and Jacqui Ubanski, who both lost their lives in the line of duty, doing a job they both loved.
A special mention must also go to Purser Hilary Cox and her fellow British Airtours crew who raced over to the scene of the disaster to offer their assistance.
Their incredible bravery that fateful day will always be remembered. They are true Angels Of The Sky.
© confessionsofatrolleydolly.com by Dan Air