One year on, the debris remains: The physical evidence is all around them; the mental scars are still there, too. Christian Wolmar meets survivors of the 1992 Amsterdam plane disaster

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT'S STILL easy to find bits of Boeing aircraft in the pleasant parklands of the Bijlmer estate, where an El Al freighter crashed into a block of flats a year ago today. In the area surrounding the fenced- off section where the now demolished blocks used to stand, there are small chunks of aluminium and much larger bits of insulation from the plane lying everywhere in the grass and mud.

To the residents, this debris is a painful reminder of that night and a symbol of their feeling that they have been forgotten.

There could hardly have been a worse place for a plane to fall out of the sky. This part of the Bijlmer is not so much a council estate as a small town of more than 5,000 people, housed in half a dozen huge Sixties concrete blocks that snake their way round a pleasant green area of trees and, this being Amsterdam, a canal and a lake.

The El Al Boeing 747 freighter smashed into one of the blocks at around 6.30 on a windy and cool autumn evening. It narrowly missed a block scheduled for demolition and, instead, destroyed one that was to have been the centrepiece of a redesigned estate. Worse, the block that was destroyed is at the centre of a ring formed by all the others on the estate, giving them a constant reminder of what could have been their fate.

Only those in the block that was hit were evacuated, mostly to other parts of Amsterdam, but the residents in the five other blocks remained in their flats, with an unwanted ringside seat of the whole process of cleaning up and demolition.

The damage is incalculable; much of it is in the minds of those who survived. There is the man who lost his wife and two daughters who occasionally goes to the shrine in the middle of the estate and says, 'I must go to buy some chocolates for the children. They're coming back from school'. He is one of 80 people still being treated, most of them very seriously ill - unable to sleep or bear noise and suffering from nightmares and flashbacks. Many more, up to 40 a day in the run up to the anniversary, still call the helpline run by social workers.

Even the death toll is unknown. Officially, the count is 43. But speak to any of the residents who were there on that appalling night and they will give you theories about how many more illegal immigrants perished in the inferno. Their suspicions are rooted in the fact that within a few days of the crash, 2,000 people were put on the missing list as potential victims by anxious relatives.

Bijlmer is the ultimate melting pot of legal and illegal immigrants, an arbitrary amalgam of people not only from former Dutch colonies such as Surinam and Curacao, but from the Commonwealth as well. They include Nigerians, Indians and Ghanaians who have found the Dutch more welcoming than the British or, at least, have found it easier to evade the immigration authorities. The authorities even gave an amnesty for illegals who could prove they were residents at the time of the disaster in an effort to ensure everyone came forward. Thousands of false claims and a racist backlash resulted.

It seems incredible that the death toll was so low. The El Al plane ploughed into the middle of where two blocks, Groeneveen and Klein Kruitberg, were joined, igniting an inferno that burned all night and spread through the grounds of most of the estate. Yet, apart from the dead, there were only around 30 injured. As Jaap Fransman, who co-ordinated the medical services for the city authorities, said, 'In a disaster such as this, one would normally expect one third of the victims to be dead and two thirds injured. This was a very odd disaster.'

There is, too, the environmental damage. The plane was not only full of kerosene, it also contained many chemicals in its cargo, many of which, El Al only recently admitted, were for military purposes. These have seeped 20 metres into the undersoil. Last week, in preparation for yesterday's memorial events, the authorities were dumping tons of sand to smooth over the mess.

The temporary memorial, built by the residents around a tree that somehow escaped the inferno only yards from the crash site, is more than a shrine for the dead. As Joke Buijs, a pensioner who tends the flowers every day and who knew a number of those who perished, says, 'without it, I would go mad'.

Sonya von Zoest, who lived in a top floor flat of the block joined to those flats that have been demolished, reckons she went mad for the first six weeks and she still sees a psychiatrist every week. She was finishing her dinner when the plane hit; she got out unhurt after trying, unsuccessfully, to find a friend in a lower flat.

Ms Von Zoest, a middle-aged woman living on her own, was offered accommodation off the estate but chose to stay because she likes the flats, which are much bigger than most in Amsterdam, and has been given another flat on the top floor. She shows us round the shrine, which she also visits on most days. It is replete with fresh flowers and healthy pot plants, as well as photographs, poems and knick- knacks. She has 'adopted' Dilawa Hussain, a Pakistani victim who had no relatives and even bought him a miniature mosque when she was on holiday in Tunisia. The mosque still sits on the shrine, even though it is now stuck together with glue because it fell over in a storm. She points to a little picture of a delightful smiling black boy, a three-year-old victim of the crash, and explains that there are two flags alongside his picture because he was born in Holland of Ghanaian parents.

Yet despite her obvious concern for the foreign victims - only one native Dutch person was killed - she is critical of the help she received from the authorities: 'They didn't think enough about the Dutch people. There were facilities for all the different nationalities but not for us. I don't mean that in a racist sense but we needed support, possibly more than some other groups because we do not have the close family ties that they do.'

The accident and its aftermath is still imprinted in her mind: 'You won't be able to describe in words what we feel. I don't need a video to see it all again, it's like there is one going permanently in my head. How can you forget the smell of burning people and kerosene, or watching the rescuers pick up bits of bodies? They tell us to live our lives, but they don't tell us how.'

Yet for many, the recovery process has been successful. Viktor Kense, a spokesman for the psychiatric service, explains that the key to getting over such events is to relive them in counselling: 'They have to get the emotion back that wasn't felt at the time because events happened so quickly. Often they have a blank about a period which we try to get them to remember.' The counsellors also try to prevent the victims taking the escapist route - leaving their marriages, their jobs - because of an inability to cope. Mr Kense says: 'They need to understand that it is normal to have nightmares about this.'

There is a sharp divergence between those who were there on that awful Sunday night and those who were off the estate. Sherron Brink, a middle-aged Canadian woman who lives in the block that the plane just missed, says: 'I spent the first week talking about it and I still do. But my husband wasn't there that night and he doesn't feel anything.'

Indeed, a year later part of the collective therapy is to talk about the events of that night. Memories may have become distorted - as one old man who was there put it, 'if you believed everybody who said they saw the plane before it crashed, you'd think they all were looking out of the window at that moment' - but the telling of stories is part of the process of healing.

The residents have not been forgotten, it's just that nothing can compensate them for what has happened. The aftercare has generally been recognised as excellent, with little expense spared, and as Mr Fransman says, 'the press have been annoyed because there have not been any scandals'. But how can you compensate a community and its residents for having had a plane explode in the middle of it?

A few things would help, such as the payment of compensation. The legal case is still pending, although there are hopes that it will be resolved quickly. The accident, and a similar one in Taiwan involving another 747 freighter, led Boeing to undertake the most serious modification of an aircraft fleet in aviation history, adding, at a cost of dollars 1bn, a strut to each engine of the 1,000 747s in service to ensure that they do not fall off in stressed situations. Despite this, arguments about liability are still preventing a resolution of the case and expectations of millions of guilders (a guilder is around 40p) each have had to be dampened. Financial compensation is not a panacea, but according to Mr Kense, it would have helped many people get over their experience.

It would help, too, if the flight path over the estate could be moved, but that has so far proved impossible. Virtually everyone who was on the scene of the crash worries about the planes, particularly at night, even though they know the chances of a second such accident are infinitesimal.

There are, too, conspiracy theories and doubts. One of the two black box recorders is still missing; a tape of calls to the air traffic control centre that night has been erased; it took ages for details of the chemicals on board to emerge; there were tales of mysterious men in white overalls on the disaster site early the next morning, and so on. The report on the accident is due out in two weeks' time, but as Henk Van de Belt, chairman of a tenants' group and the person who videoed the first few minutes of the disaster puts it, 'there's a lot we haven't been told. It would have been helpful if the authorities had been more open'.

According to Dicky Pronk, a local councillor, the site of the demolished block will not be built on for several years because no one would want to live there. Eventually, there will probably be some low-rise housing, but whatever is built, those who were there on that terrible night know that nothing can disguise what it covers.

(Photographs omitted)

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