'Worst fog' onlookers could ever remember at airport
Published 11/02/2011 | 05:00
THE sound of a plane swooping in overhead, louder than usual, was the first warning sign that anything was wrong.
A dull thud penetrated the sound-proof walls of the airport and then an unearthly silence descended, broken moments later by the shrill wail of emergency sirens.
But passengers and staff who rushed to the large glass windows of the departures lounge in an endeavour to decipher what had just occurred were greeted with the sight of nothing but a dim flickering light amid an unbroken wall of dense grey fog -- the worst, some onlookers later said, they could ever remember seeing at Cork Airport.
Cloaked from their view were the scenes of utter devastation being played out on the runway, as emergency services battled to quench an outbreak of flames in the engine before it engulfed the fuselage and along with it, the chances that any survivors might make it out of the wreckage alive.
Twenty minutes later, the fog lifted to reveal the terrifying sight of Flight NM 7100, lying flat on its back with its wheels pointing skywards and billowing black smoke, looking like a semi-deflated balloon.
The routine Belfast to Cork Manx2 commuter flight had been due to leave George Best Airport at 7.50am yesterday but a delay saw it depart instead at 8.12am, with 10 passengers on board, along with a Spanish pilot and an English co-pilot.
Roadside billboards on the approach to Cork Airport display adverts for the Manx2 service, with fares from €48.99.
The "virtual airline" boasts online that its timetable is specifically designed to provide flights at the times that their extensive market research tells them passengers want to fly, offering business travellers a choice of early departures and late returns.
The flight should have taken just over an hour in the basic, no-frills aircraft and would have been a sleepy, routine commute no different to a train journey for those on board.
There may even have been some frustration among the passengers onboard, their schedules rendered askew, at the delay on arrival at Cork, as the plane made two separate attempts to land and then circled overhead for 20 minutes.
It was at 9.52am that tragedy struck, on the pilot's third attempt to land.
Over at the TNT freight depot, operating clerk Finbarr Raymond was standing in the hall chatting to a colleague when he heard a plane pass low overhead. "It sounded louder than normal and I looked up," he said.
"A few seconds later I heard a sound like a thud or a thump and I knew something had happened. Then there was just silence until the ambulances started to arrive," he said.
Finbarr and the other three TNT employees working at the time looked out but could see nothing except the dense fog.
"We could see a slight light from the emergency services, but that was it."
"It's crazy, but 20 minutes later the fog just lifted and we could see everything," he said, shaking his head in disbelief at what had occurred.
Eight ambulance crews, along with a number of rapid-response paramedic teams and senior ambulance officers, attended the airport.
Miraculously, two passengers staggered out, unscathed from the smouldering wreckage, three other survivors were stretchered away, while another man had to be cut out from the twisted metal of the fuselage. Six, however, did not make it out alive. It seems they never had a chance.
"It was pretty clear straightaway that we were talking about six and six," airport manager Pat Keohane said soberly afterwards.
The injured survivors were brought to a medical tent to be inspected before being taken to Cork University Hospital.
The deceased were carefully removed from the wreckage, brought to a temporary morgue and then taken by hearse to the hospital mortuary.
Staff at the airport had been very professional and had reacted "very well," said Mr Keohane.
"There were still a lot of passengers in the airport so we couldn't just up sticks and close down," he explained, saying it had to be business as usual for many staff members in the immediate aftermath of the crash.
"It has to be work as usual -- that seems to be the message," shrugged one ground crew staff member in what could have been a matter-of-fact fashion -- but for the expression of distress and sheer sadness in his eyes.