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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative / Forklift Driver

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Through a combination of excell...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are looking for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Service Plan Champion

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a Service Plan Champi...

Recruitment Genius: Service Plan Champion

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a Service Plan Champi...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific