Monday 19 February 2018

'I feel guilty that I got out alive when six others didn't' - survivor of Cork air crash reveals he's still haunted by events of tragic day

Brendan Mallon with wife Heather
Brendan Mallon with wife Heather
The plane is removed from the crash scene at Cork Airport

Claire McNeilly

A survivor of the 2011 Belfast-Cork air crash has admitted that he is still trying to come to terms with how he got out of the plane alive when six others weren't so lucky.

Brendan Mallon has said that even now he feels a sense of guilt when he thinks of the families of the people - four passengers and two pilots - who died instantly five years ago today when a 19-seater Manx2 turboprop aircraft crashed on its third attempt at landing in heavy fog at Cork Airport.

The plane is removed from the crash scene at Cork Airport
The plane is removed from the crash scene at Cork Airport

He didn't know the victims - Michael Evans, Brendan McAleese, Pat Cullinan, Richard Noble, Jordi Gola Lopez and Andy Cantle - but those men's names will always be inextricably linked with him when the events of February 10, 2011 are recalled.

Six victims, six survivors -and, the 41-year-old father-of-two said he'll never fully grasp how he ended up in the latter category, or why he twice opted against taking seats that were ultimately occupied by passengers who didn't make it that dreadful morning.

He knows his final thoughts before the ill-fated aircraft slammed into the ground near runway 17 and flipped over were of his wife Heather (40) and children Jonathan (12) and nine-year-old Matthew, although he can't actually remember having those thoughts.

He told one of his work colleagues about them that day shortly after being hospitalised with severe head and neck injuries, and this conversation was later relayed to him.

And that's important because Mr Mallon - a passenger on what would become the last-ever Belfast-to-Cork flight - sometimes gets frustrated by how little he recalls about the crash and subsequent fire, which threatened to kill those fortunate enough to survive the impact.

At other times, however, he's glad he isn't tormented by the screams.

"For whatever reason my mind has decided to throw Tippex at the crash," he said.

"I only recall looking out the window while we were coming into land and seeing grass... one millisecond of seeing grass, that's the last thing I remember."

Mr Mallon, a sales development executive for World Travel Centre, was cut free from the wreckage by the emergency services and hospitalised for three weeks.

But had it not been for a quirk of fate that led to his choice of seat on the doomed plane, Mr Mallon might not have survived at all.

"It was a small plane with two rows of seats and an ailse down the middle," the Bangor man said. "I was the second person to board. The man ahead of me had taken the first seat on the right hand side. I considered the seat opposite him but it was too close to the cockpit.

"I was about to sit on another seat in the third row but one on the left had more legroom, so I chose that one.

"Over time I realised that the men in those other seats didn't make it. That's always on my mind."

Another stroke of fortune came when one of the Cork Airport rescue team "went with his gut" ahead of normal procedure and got to the plane quicker; a decision Mr Mallon believes also contributed to his survival.

That fact only emerged two-and-a-half years ago when he visited Cork Airport and spoke to members of the rescue team.

"They heard the crash but they couldn't see the plane because of the fog," Mr Mallon said.

"The guy who drove on to the tarmac turned left instead of right, so he reached the plane sooner, the fire engine got to us sooner and the fire was put out sooner. If that hadn't happened, who knows... in another two or three minutes the fire could have caught. He probably saved our lives."

Mr Mallon, an only child, said he believes his late mother Agnes, who died suddenly when she was in her early 70s - and whom he found lying dead at home when he was an 18-year-old schoolboy - was somehow watching out for him, along with his father John, who died of cancer in his 50s when Brendan was just three- and-a-half.

"My parents died when I was young so I've always felt extra gratitude for my family," he said.

"I've thanked God many times for the fact that I survived. I like to think my mother and father were looking down and keeping an eye on me."

Although he has flown 50 times since the crash, Mr Mallon revealed that turbulence was "now a real problem".

He also said he feared that history was going to repeat itself when a Gatwick-bound flight he was on had to abort its landing due to heavy fog.

"When the pilot pulled up at one point it took me back to the crash," he said.

He spoke of the sense of dread his wife, a personal assistant, feels every time he heads off on a business trip now.

"Heather still worries. Whenever I arrive where I'm meant to be the first thing I have to do is phone her or send a text," he said.

Two years ago the Air Accident Investigation Unit published a 240-page report which found that poor regulatory oversight by the Spanish owners of the aircraft contributed to two tired, inexperienced pilots - Mr Lopez and Mr Cantle - running the aviation equivalent of three red lights in bad weather.

Their report identified a series of poor operational decisions by the pilots in the moments before the crash, and said the probable cause was "loss of control during an attempted go-around initiated below decision height (200ft) in instrument meteorological conditions".

Mr Mallon, who received counselling to deal with the trauma of what happened, said that he'll be meeting up with other survivors today to remember the victims of the crash.

He added that, for him personally, each anniversary stirs up a "mixed bag of emotions".

"I'm grateful I see my family every day, but I always think about the families of those who weren't so lucky," he said.

Belfast Telegraph

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