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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
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

Ashdown Group: Sales Support - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Internal Sales Executive ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Smart Meter Engineer - Gas and Electric - Dual Fuel

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the installa...

Recruitment Genius: Programme Manager

£30000 - £35500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Provisioning Specialist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Provisioning Specialist is required to join ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum