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Monday 18 November 2019

'I was filled with dread at the thought of burning to death having survived the crash'

It is just over one month since a plane crash at Cork Airport killed six people. Here, in an Irish Independent exclusive, Donal Walsh - a 22-year-old graduate from Waterford city -- reveals, in his own words, his remarkable story of survival

'THE young Spanish pilot took my hand luggage to stow in the hold as I boarded the plane in Belfast for my journey to Cork on the morning of February 10. Before I gave it to him, I took out two books: my bible and 'Answers to Prayer', written by the 19th Century Bristol orphanage founder, George Mueller.

By the time I boarded most of the passengers were already seated.

A group of men sat at the front of the plane. I wanted to be alone to read and pray, so I was happy to sit one row from the back of the plane on the right-hand side.

I opened my bible and read verses from Jude. I couldn't concentrate enough to read my book as I was still a little sleepy and travel sick. I prayed silently to God. I try to do this every morning. I was relaxed ahead of our landing, but 10 minutes later the sound of the engine changed.

We lowered into the fog but then, oddly, we ascended again. I thought it strange, but brushed off my concerns. After another 10 minutes, the same thing happened again.

The hum of the engine was different. We descended into thick fog before moving back up into the clear skies above. Now I was worried. This was clearly a landing attempt, but it wasn't working.

The pilot appeared at the front of the plane. He spoke to passengers, but I couldn't hear him since there was no intercom. I overheard the conversations of Lawrence Wilson and Heather Elliot (other survivors) and realised the pilot had come out to tell us he had tried to land twice and was now attempting a third landing. Everyone was calm. I put my fears to bed.

We circled in the air for a good 20 minutes. It felt like an eternity. I was a little uneasy, but I tried to tell myself we'd be fine. At worst, I was in for a bumpy landing, or so I thought.

The plane was coming down again. Surely we would land now, I told myself. We plunged into the fog, but this time the plane didn't go upwards again. I could see nothing as we came down -- just fog.

The plane was coming down fast when suddenly I saw land flashing to my left. It was close and we seemed to be going too fast to land. The plane jolted upwards. It's hard to remember what happened next, but I feel maybe the pilot tried to go back into the air, but the right wing clipped the grass.

I crouched with my head in my hands. Everything happened quickly. I felt an awful thud. We overturned. I waited for the final fatal blow as the plane tore through the grass. It never came. Instead, the aircraft came to a halt. It was still. I was disorientated, but it dawned on me that I was alive. I was upside down in my seat and my clothes were covered in mud. I caught my breath and unbuckled my seatbelt. I was able to get out and walk to the back of the plane where I could see light.

I looked down the plane. A few dislodged and broken seats were all I could make out. The windows were covered in thick mud and apart from a glimmer of light coming from two windows at the rear of the plane we were in darkness. When I looked out I was horrified to see that the far side of the left wing was on fire. I was filled with dread at the thought that we would burn to death having survived the crash.

I knew we had to get out fast. I shouted to the front of the plane to see who was there. There were some faint groans. Eventually Lawrence replied. We shouted back and forth as I tried to force an escape. I kicked the window hard. I broke through the first layer, but the second was impossible to smash. I was exhausted and reconciled that it was hopeless.

Finally, I heard voices outside and people banging on the exterior of the plane. I roared back with Lawrence. Soon a fireman broke through a window with his axe. He told us he was coming in through the back of the plane to save us.

The firemen came in, in pairs. I walked out and was accompanied by a firewoman, I think her name was Fiona. I was thrilled to be alive, but I can never thank the emergency services enough for what they did that day. Having to leave behind the other passengers left me distraught. I hoped, prayed and wished they would make it, but six of them never did.

I spent the rest of the day in a ward with Lawrence as family and friends came in to talk to us. I began to realise the enormity of the accident. February 10, 2011 changed my life forever.

My heart is heavy for the people who died and their families. I am one of six survivors. I will be forever grateful for the gift of life. It is fragile and I will never take it for granted.''

Donal Walsh is working as an intern with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students: The Christian Unions

Irish Independent

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