Stansted crash: `There was a roar, a fireball made the sky glow and then the whole field was ablaze'

"IT'S USUALLY the Russian ones that make you hold your breath. They always seem to only just make it off the runway and you think to yourself, `Is it going to be this time?'"

Ray Alston-Smith has become an expert on the undercarriages of the world's aircraft since Stansted airport was expanded in 1991. His home in Great Hallingbury, near Bishop's Stortford, is under the flight path for take- off, and for years villagers have complained about the proximity of departing cargo aircraft, laden with goods and full of fuel, going over their heads.

As commuters made their way home to the dormitory villages of Little and Great Hallingbury yesterday, those trying to get a glimpse of the fullest moon for decades instead saw a fireball light up the sky above their homes.

Kegworth and Lockerbie are both words that resonate with the residents here. Many of them have contemplated the unthinkable, considered the "what if", and as the first drive-time radio reports were broadcast last night, it appeared that their worst fears had come true.

Andrew Smith, who lives in Little Hallingbury, less than a mile from the crash, said the force of the blast rocked his house. "There was a massive roar and the house shook," he said. "I looked out of the window and the sky was glowing orange with a massive fireball. I drove down to where it was to see what I could do, but the whole field was ablaze. My wife stood on the corner of the road to direct the first of the fire engines."

That field adjoins Hatfield Forest, a mile south of the airport. That the plane exploded in a field and not on the hundreds of homes that make up the neighbouring Hallingbury villages was just fortune. Under the flight path is Little Hallingbury Junior School, its windows filled with Christmas decorations and children's art.

Almost two dozen fire engines and various other emergency vehicles were called to the scene within three minutes of the impact but the location of the flaming debris caused problems of its own. None of the tenders was equipped to make it through the sea of mud brought on by the recent snow and thaw.

Special all-terrain vehicles had to be called up but even then the fire crews found themselves without access to easy water supplies. Hose-layer lorries were drafted in, putting down hundreds of feet of hose to the nearest water sources.

Gary Dan, 39, said he was in the upstairs bedroom of his home in Little Hallingbury when he heard the plane and ran to the window to see it, already on fire, go over the top of his house. The heat from the fireball was so intense he felt it through the walls of his house.

"It missed us by feet," he said. "It was just groaning. I tracked it as it went to the field in back of us and hit the ground and was a big fireball. My brother and I ran down there to see if we could find survivors and there was a huge crater."

For Mr Alston-Smith, the man who says he can probably tell an ageing Russian Tupolev aircraft undercarriage from that of an Airbus or Boeing, it had always been a question not of if but when.

"We've always been very concerned. It's been extremely worrying to see these things go overhead day in and day out. Sometimes they are a few hundred feet above your head and as you see them bank, they seem motionless, like a stone waiting to drop.

"You have to wonder whether - with it being Christmas and all the Y2K problems - whether the aircraft was a bit too full, whether they were just trying to make one more big run."