Thursday 16 August 2018

Eyewitness to fatal plane crash describes 'terrible feeling of helplessness' watching burning wreckage

Two people died in the light aircraft crash in Antrim

Emergency services at the scene , after a light aircraft fire at Nutts Corner, County Antrim / Credit: Pacemaker
Emergency services at the scene , after a light aircraft fire at Nutts Corner, County Antrim / Credit: Pacemaker

Victoria Leonard

One of the first people to arrive at the scene of a light aircraft crash in Co Antrim that claimed two lives said he experienced a "terrible feeling of helplessness" as he realised there was nothing he could do to save those in the burning wreckage.

Police confirmed that two people died in the crash, which occurred shortly after noon near rural Ballyhill Lane in Crumlin.

It is understood the pilot had taken off from Newtownards airfield accompanied by an aerial photographer.

The PSNI told Independent.ie this morning that it was "not in a position to confirm the identity of the deceased at this time" and that the "Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) will examine the scene as part of its investigation to determine the cause of the crash".

Superintendent Emma Bond said that emergency services had received a report of a downed plane shortly after 12.30pm.

The air ambulance was tasked to the scene, and the Ambulance Service implemented its major incident protocol, dispatching one rapid response paramedic, three emergency ambulance crews and four officers.

The major incident was stood down at 12.49pm and no patients were taken from the scene.

The Fire and Rescue Service also attended.

Grandfather Roy Divers (66) said he had rushed to the scene after witnessing the plane go down near his home.

"I looked out through the living room window and I noticed the plane just over the top of the big trees on the horizon - it just went down, and I knew it had crashed," he said.

"There was no immediate explosion so I went upstairs to my bedroom window and I saw smoke rising. I tried phoning the emergency services but I couldn't get through, so I went to the field and I saw that the plane was on fire.

"The plane was lying on the edge of the field, it may have clipped the hedges or low trees on the way down.

"When you see that you automatically think that you can pull someone out of the plane.

"I only saw one person at the time.

"There was no way you could get to them, and they were obviously dead.

"I think that person must have died before the plane went on fire, probably on impact.

"You knew that there was nothing you could do for them. There was no access to water to try to put the fire out or anything like that.

"It's a terrible feeling of helplessness, standing there knowing there's nothing you can do about it.

"I only saw the other person once the fire brigade had put the fire out; the flames had obscured that person.

"Then the emergency services came, and that was it.

"It wasn't a nice scene. You know it's somebody's loved one lying there and there's nothing you can do about it.

"There was absolutely nothing anyone could have done."

He declined an offer by the Ambulance Service to be taken to hospital, and said his only concern was for the families of those who died.

"There's two people, they were expecting to get home and now their families are going to get bad news. It makes you realise how precious life is, and how quickly you can lose it," he said.

"It makes you appreciate what you've got."

Another neighbour, who was also among the first to arrive on the scene, said the small red and white aircraft, a Cessna, had "exploded" in front of her.

"It was surreal. It was circling for about 10 to 15 minutes, but there was nothing to indicate it was in trouble," she said.

"My neighbour saw the crash and came running for me and we ran over.

"I called 999 and told them there was a plane crash. The plane exploded in front of us.

"I don't think they would have suffered; they would have died on impact.

"There was no way to save them or help them."

The shocked neighbour said she believed the pilot had deliberately steered the plane away from nearby properties.

"The pilot missed the houses - they have done what they could to miss the houses," she said.

"My deepest sympathies go out to their families.

"It's just dreadful. We don't have the impact the families will have, it's nothing compared to what they're going through. All you can do is pray for the family members, my heart goes out to them."

Ballyhill Lane resident JJ McKee (19), whose family home is near the crash site, revealed that he had heard a "loud engine" noise, but initially thought that emergency services were responding to a traffic accident.

"I was on my way into Belfast when I Iooked out the window and saw all the cars and people in jackets," recalled the Belfast Met student.

"I thought it must have been a car accident.

"This is a very quiet area. It's just so unexpected, it's kind of surreal. Very sad."

The nearby Belfast International Airport, Belfast City Airport and an airfield in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, confirmed that the flight was not connected to them.

Belfast International said the plane was not operating out of it, or heading towards it to land.

It said: "It crashed in the vicinity of Loanends, two to three miles from the airport."

Newtownards Airport, where the Ulster Flying Club is based, said it would make no comment.

Supt Bond said the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) will examine the scene to determine the cause of the tragedy.

"We expect the scene to be held for some time as enquiries are carried out," she added.

"Cordons have been placed in the area surrounding the aircraft to maintain the integrity of the scene as the investigation continues. I would ask that the cordons are respected by all and directions from officers at the scene are heeded."

Politicians expressed their shock at the crash.

Lagan Valley SDLP MLA Pat Catney said: "My thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in the ongoing incident at Nutts Corner following a crash. Thinking of all of those involved at this difficult time."

South Antrim DUP MP Paul Girvan said he was "deeply saddened".

"My thoughts, prayers and deep condolences go out the family of those involved in the crash," he said.

"I am very much shocked that this has happened considering the very high safety standards that are involved in air travel.

"At this point the causes of the crash are unknown and an investigation by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch will be carried out.

"I would encourage the public not to visit the area as they may disturb the scene where evidence is being collected. It is of the utmost importance that the AAIB be given every opportunity to carry out their investigation."

South Antrim Alliance MLA David Ford described the crash as "shocking and sad".

"I want to pass on my condolences to the loved ones of the victims of this crash at what must be a terrible time," he said.

"I also wish to thank those emergency services who attended the scene, as well as members of the public who were there and did what they could to help."

South Antrim Sinn Fein MLA Declan Kearney said he was "saddened" at the loss of life.

He said: "Whatever the cause of the crash, it appears that those on board tried their best to land the aircraft safely, and away from populated areas.

"Whilst this succeeded in avoiding wide-scale casualties, a safe landing regrettably proved impossible and those on board were tragically killed in the subsequent crash.

"I want to extend my sincere condolences to the families of those killed, and also commend those local people for their quick response and their efforts to assist in such harrowing circumstances."

Belfast Telegraph

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