March 27, 1977 is a date permanently etched in aviation history. 583 lives were lost when a KLM 747 collided with a Pan Am 747 at Tenerife’s Los Rodeos Airport (TFN).
It remains the worlds deadliest air disaster.
Just 61 people survived, all from the Pan Am jumbo jet. One of those survivors was Purser Dorothy Kelly.
Her bravery, heroism, courage and skills saved the lives of countless passengers.
This is her incredible story.
Two Routine Flights
Pan Am Flight 1736 had originated at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and was taking tourists to Gran Canaria, where they would begin a 12 day Mediterranean cruise.
The Boeing 747-121 (N736PA) ‘Clipper Victor’ had stopped in Chicago (ORD) to collect more holidaymakers before a final layover in New York (JFK) to collect the remaining passengers and change crew.
Tending to the 380 passengers were 13 Flight Attendants, while in the flight deck, Captain Victor Grubbs was assisted by First Officer Robert Bragg and Flight Engineer George Warns.
Whilst preparing for the transatlantic flight, Dorothy Kelly had been approached in the crew-briefing lounge at JFK by Senior Purser Francoise Colbert de Beaulieu. She asked Kelly if she would mind working up in First Class and taking over the inflight announcements, as de Beaulieu was extremely self-conscious of her French accent. It was a decision that would ultimately save Kelly’s life.
Meanwhile, in Amsterdam (AMS), KLM Boeing 747-206B (PH-BUF) ‘The Rhine’ was being readied to operate Flight 4805, also to Gran Canaria. In charge was Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen Van Zanten, KLM’s Chief Flying Instructor and the celebrity face of the Dutch carrier, appearing in promotional material and the in-flight magazine.
Indeed, so well thought of was Van Zanten that when airline executives heard of the crash, they attempted to contact him to send to the island to aid the investigation.
Assisting in the flight deck was First Officer Klass Meurs and Flight Engineer Willem Schreuder; while in the cabin, 11 crew were on hand for the 235 passengers.
An Unwanted Diversion
Both flights to the Canaries had been uneventful. But as the Jumbo Jets neared their destination, reports came in that a bomb had exploded at Las Palmas Airport (LPA).
Initially, the American crew requested to hold above the island until it reopened. But as warnings came through of a second bomb, all aircraft were diverted to Tenerife’s Los Rodeos Airport (TFN) and the Clipper jet was ordered to follow suit.
The Pan Am 747 now joined countless other aircraft diverted to TFN, including the KLM aircraft. The sudden influx of airliners at the small airport had caused chaos. Aircraft were packed together on taxiways and limited apron space.
“We were so busy during the whole time on the ground. The ground staff wouldn’t let the passengers disembark because there were so many aircraft at this tiny airport and the terminal was packed. After a while the passengers became restless and thirsty, most of these people had come all the way from California”.
As the KLM aircraft landed first, Captain Van Zanten requested that his passengers disembark and be transferred to the terminal. One lady decided to stay as she lived in Tenerife, meaning 234 passengers would eventually re-board the aircraft.
A few hours later, Las Palmas re-opened and Captain Van Zanten and Captain Grubbs were keen to get their aircraft and passengers to the neighbouring island.
But whilst preparing the aircraft for departure, a thick fog began to develop and visibility deteriorated, only complicating the situation further.
With passengers already on board and enough fuel for the short hop, the Pan Am Clipper was ready to leave. However, the KLM jet was blocking its exit by a mere 12 feet, meaning they would have to wait for the Dutch jumbo to complete refuelling and re-board its passengers.
Due to aircraft blocking the parallel taxiway, planes now had to backtrack down the single runway before turning round to take off. The KLM 747 went first, followed by the Pan Am. As TFN had no ground radar and fog now enveloping the airport, controllers in the tower relied on radio communications to keep track of each aircraft’s location.
The KLM plane had reached the end of the runway, turned and was now ready for take-off. Captain Van Zanten was growing impatient, and upon lining up with the runway, he immediately advanced the throttles and began to roll. First officer Meurs advised that ATC had not yet given clearance, to which Van Zanten abruptly replied: “I know that. Go ahead, ask” and pulled back the throttles.
Meurs radioed through, informing the tower they were ready for take-off and was given the routing instructions they were to follow after departure. Meurs read the flight clearance back, ending with the statement: “We are now at take-off”. Captain Van Zanten interrupted and stated: “We’re going”.
Lost in translation and unable to see the runway, the controller simply responded: “Ok”.
The Pan Am jumbo was now crawling down the runway as the flight crew desperately searched for their exit. Difficulties with communications also meant the pilots were unsure whether the controller had told them to take the first or the third taxiway. Finding the exit proved very difficult with little help from ATC, dated airport diagrams, unmarked taxiways, and visibility now less than 200 metres.
“We are now at take off”Meurs statement after reading the flight clearance back to the controller.
At 17h06 GMT the KLM 747 began its take off roll. The tower instructed the American crew to, “Report when runway clear” to which they replied, “Ok, we’ll report when we’re clear”.
KLM Flight Engineer Schreuder heard this statement and expressed his concern. “Is he not clear, that Pan American?”, Captain Van Zanten simply replied “Oh, yes” and continued down the runway.
Through the fog, Captain Grubbs exclaimed: “There he is”, as he spotted the landing lights of the Dutch jet. For a split second, they thought they had missed their turnoff and reached the end of the runway. But they soon realised that the 350-tonne aircraft was hurtling towards them.
Grubbs yelled: “Goddamn, that son-of-a-bitch is coming straight at us”. First Officer Bragg screamed: “Get off! Get off! Get off!” as they immediately applied full power and turned sharply to the left in a vain attempt to avoid a collision.
In the cabin, Purser Kelly was stood near an emergency exit at the front of the aircraft,
“I was standing at 1R, the forward right door, drinking a coffee Miguel (Torrech) had given to me and Carla (Johnson) was standing a few feet away. All of a sudden things were not right. Things were flying around the airplane and everything moved in slow motion. Nothing was like it had been moments before. I wasn’t in a position where I could see out of the plane and I thought a bomb may have exploded. Everything just changed in a moment.”
The KLM 747 was travelling at around 160 mph when they spotted the Pan Am desperately trying to clear the runway. The Dutch crew tried in vain to rotate their aircraft early, causing a severe tail strike.
But it was too late. As it left the ground, the KLM’s nose gear cleared the Pan Am, but the left engines, lower fuselage and main landing gear slammed into the upper right side of the Clippers fuselage, ripping apart the centre of the jet above the wing. Engines 3 and 4 then smashed through the upper deck behind the flight deck.
The KLM remained airborne briefly before rolling sharply and impacting the ground approximately 150 metres past the collision point, sliding down the runway for a further 300 metres. A large fire immediately ignited. Everyone on board perished.
Dorothy Kelly was hit over the head by a piece of aircraft and forced through the cabin floor into the Cargo bay. She woke up in total darkness, dazed and disoriented, completely unaware of what had happened.
She spotted a tiny amount of light above her which she headed towards and climbed out into the front of the plane. She was greeted with complete carnage.
“The KLM airplane had peeled off the top of the Pan Am plane, just like peeling off the top of a sardine can, the top had rolled right off. Everyone in the section had gone”.
Kelly found two passengers and asked them how they had got there but they too were dazed and confused.
At this point, her training kicked in, and she started to yell: “WE’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE. WE’VE GOT TO JUMP. WE HAVE GOT TO GO”. She desperately tried to look for an exit to begin an evacuation, but the still intact doors were jammed. The emergency procedures Dorothy had been so well-trained were impossible to follow. She now relied solely on her instincts.
One of the Pan Am’s four engines continued to run after the impact, which had severed all controls in the flight deck. Kelly knew they needed to get out as quickly as possible and as the fire began to take hold and explosions went off around her, she encouraged passengers to jump. When they refused, she pushed them before jumping herself.
“I remember people jumping. I looked over; it was like looking out of a second floor window about 25 feet down, and I was really scared because my feet were bare and you saw nothing but jagged metal down there and I said to myself ‘Oh, my God, we’ve survived this and we are going to kill ourselves jumping down on that stuff”.
As she initiated an evacuation, she noticed that blood was pouring from a wound on her head. Seeing some of her colleagues in the carnage, she ran over and got them to check how serious it was. Once they confirmed the wound was superficial, she continued her rescue efforts.
Her colleagues yelled at her: “Dorothy, don’t go back. You’re getting too close. Don’t go back!”. But she ignored them,
“I knew what I had to do. I went back and started pulling people away from the airplane”.
Most of the passengers onboard the flight were senior citizens and many injured themselves as they jumped from an opening above the wing. Disoriented and in shock, some of those who had jumped stood around chatting. Indeed one survivor even sauntered about in high heels. Kelly yelled for them to move as far away as possible, and those who couldn’t move she physically dragged out of harm’s way.
As she raced around helping survivors, she noticed something white under the front of the plane. It turned out to be Captain Grubbs. Unable to move, she grabbed his arms and ran away from the plane when the engine finally exploded.
A witness later said that she: “Looked like Road Runner dashing backwards at 50 miles per hour”.
Describing the terrifying scene, Kelly said:
“At that point the front part of the plane where we had just been under started to move, there was a groaning and moaning and all of a sudden it just sort of settled over on its side, just like a great beached whale that had given up the will to live because it couldn’t get back in the water and had put its head over and died”.
She then came across a woman lying under the wing. The passenger had jumped off the aircraft, and others had landed on top of her. She was severely injured and covered in blood. As carefully as possible, Kelly again found the strength to drag her away.
While survivors, many with life-changing injuries, waited for rescue, Kelly and first officer Bragg, who had a broken ankle, continued to help in whatever way they could.
The emergency services were initially slow to respond. The dense fog meant that the tower didn’t realise that an accident had even occurred and when first responders did arrive, they came across the KLM wreckage first, failing to realise there was a second aircraft involved.
Aware of increasing explosions in the wreckage, Kelly continued to yell for survivors to jump, painfully aware there was little time before the remains of the jumbo jet exploded. They continued their rescue efforts until it appeared that no one else was escaping.
Harrowingly she later learned from survivors that some inside the aircraft simply stayed in their seats, waiting to be told what to do.
“I have no idea to this day what it was like inside the plane, obviously the damage was so great that not everyone could get to that opening in the wing. My worst memory was watching the people banging on the windows and listening to them screaming and banging and we couldn’t get up to that part of the airplane to get them out. I had nightmares for many years”.
A True Heroine
After making one final check of the area with Bragg, she was placed into one of the last emergency vehicles to leave the scene. But her rescue efforts didn’t end there.
Arriving at the hospital, she refused treatment, instead volunteering to help the medical team. She busied herself labelling survivors names, ages, allergies etc. She was then asked to help with the burns victims, removing burnt clothing and skin from the injured to prevent infection.
“It was really gruesome but the adrenaline was really going and I guess that’s how people get through war and similar things. You don’t stop to think about how this is affecting you, there’s a job there and you have to do it”.
It was only now, as she attempted to use a pair of scissors, Dorothy realised she had broken her arm. She finally stepped back and allowed the medical team to treat her.
With her injuries treated, Dorothy and her colleagues continued to assist her passengers:
“So we started our hospital life. Carla and I and Bob Bragg made rounds, Bob in a wheelchair or on crutches. We visited the passengers and talked to them. The job carried on; it didn’t stop in the hospital, but it wasn’t something you thought about. You just said to yourself, ‘Ok. we’ve taken care of the captain. He’s alright. Now we have to talk to the passengers, take care of them’. They were still our passengers”.
After much rest and recovery in Tenerife, Dorothy Kelly returned to the United States, and a year and a half later, she returned to the skies for Pan Am.
By December 1988 she was based at Heathrow (LHR) and living in London with other crew when one of her colleagues asked her to swap flights. Kelly declined as she wanted to spend time with her family in New York.
The flight was Pan Am 103, which was subsequently blown up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. Dorothy was taken off roster and sent to help the grieving relatives and other flight attendants.
When Pan American closed its doors in 1991, United Airlines took over the iconic carriers LHR routes. Many former employees were laid off, including Kelly. The woman who had been decorated countless times for her bravery, including the American Transportation Department first-ever award, sadly fell on hard times.
A five-year lawsuit against United ensued and eventually, the carrier rehired Dorothy and several other former Pan Am crew. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Kelly once again proved what an incredible woman she is, stepping up and offering her help and support to those affected.
She returned to America in October 2006, continuing to fly for United out of Washington DC.
The terrible things she saw on March 28, 1977 scarred Dorothy Kelly for life:
“I’ve learned that our emergency training is very good and very necessary. I think I’ve learned to be more patient in many ways. I seem to be more resilient and able to recover more quickly if something bad happens. Seeing something so horrible I find that anything bad that happens to me is nothing compared with the big picture. Whatever life brings all you can do is take precautions”.
The subsequent investigations by Spanish, Dutch and American teams revealed that the primary cause of the accident was the KLM captain taking off without clearance from Air Traffic Control. The investigation specified that Van Zanten did not intentionally take off without permission. Still, due to a misunderstanding between his flight crew and ATC, he fully believed they had been given clearance to take off. Dutch investigators emphasised this fact, but ultimately KLM admitted their crew was responsible and the airline financially compensated the victim’s relatives.
The Tenerife disaster remains a watershed moment for the aviation industry, one that transformed safety, not only in the air but on the ground. The tragedy served as a textbook example of how a chain of events including environmental conditions, organisational influences and unsafe acts can lead to disaster.
The accident had a lasting influence on communication between aircraft and ATC. Greater emphasis was placed on using standardised phraseology in communications, thereby reducing any chance for misunderstandings.
Less experienced crew were also encouraged to challenge their Captains after first officer Klass Meurs failed to challenge captain Van Zanten when he commenced the take-off roll. This concept was later expanded into what is today known as crew resource management (CRM), something now mandatory for all airline pilots.
Time and time again, we see first-hand passengers who fail to remember the main reason why cabin crew are on board an aircraft. It always has, and always will be SAFETY.
Dorothy has a message for those who so often forget this:
“It’s not about what you’re going to get fed or how quickly you’re going to get a glass of champagne. Our main task is to get you on and off the plane and to your destination as safely as possible, something that is never emphasised enough and something maybe to remember next time you take a flight”.
Speaking after the accident, Dorothy Kelly said simply:
“I did what I could”.
I’m sure you’ll agree that this remarkable woman went way above and beyond her duties that fateful day and the days, weeks and months afterwards.
A special mention also goes to the other surviving crew members from Pan Am 1736 Carla Johnson, Suzanne Donovan and Joan Jackson. Following the collision, Johnson, bewildered, confused and aware of the increasing intensity of the fire in the wreckage, encouraged and commanded stunned passengers to get off the aircraft.
Trapped when flooring had given way beneath them, Donovan and Jackson crawled upwards to exit with passengers by working their way forward and down along the exterior of the twisted and constantly shifting fuselage. They eventually joined survivors on the ground and provided comfort and assistance to the injured awaiting transportation.
Their heroism can not go unnoticed.
We also remember the other crew members who perished performing their duties on Pan Am 1736: Purser Francoise Colbert de Beaulieu and Flight Attendants Mari Asai, Christine Ekelund, Luisa Flood, Sachiko Hirano, Marilyn Luker, Aysel Sarp, Carol Thomas and Miguel Torrech.
And also those on KLM flight 4805: Purser C.W. Sonneveld, Assistant Purser A.TH.A Van Straaten; and Flight Attendants H.W. Fleur-Toby, A.C. Bouvy, B.M. Joosse-Wildschut, W.M. Keulen, J.M.L. van Staveren-Maréchal, J.H.M. Schuurmans-Timmermans, M. Mey-Lefeber, M.E. Viergever-Drent and M.M. Tom-Karseboom.
To read more incredible stories of heroism from our aviation family click here.
[Many of the quotes for this article were taken from the incredible book ‘Fasten Your Seat Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin’ by Valerie Lester and also an interview with Dorothy Kelly by Sheila Collis for the ‘Island Connections’ website in 2007]
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