The Amsterdam Disaster: Morning brings out the ghouls

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The Independent Online
AS DAWN broke yesterday over the Bijlmermeer housing estate of southern Amsterdam, the twisted wreckage lay scattered in the streets.

In the grey light of morning, piles of broken tables, chairs and beds lay next to concrete blocks, mangled ironwork and the shattered undercarriage of the Boeing 747 aircraft.

Above this desolate landscape rose the charred shells of two 10- storey apartment buildings, blown apart and set ablaze on Sunday night by the impact of an Israeli cargo plane.

Their mouths and noses muffled in scarves to keep out the acrid fumes of destruction, residents of the estate stared in confusion at the small mountains of debris that 12 hours earlier had been their homes.

'There are two different sets of people here,' said Frank Schoute, owner of a crowded newsagent's shop inside the estate shopping centre. 'The residents are mostly shocked, wandering around in search of their neighbours or members of their families. Others are here just to gape and gawp.' Balbir Singh, an electrician at Schiphol airport, who has lived on the estate for seven years, said: 'It is a catastrophe. It is not right that aeroplanes that big should be flying over an area as crowded as ours.'

Somewhere in the smoking ruins before him were the remains of more than 200 people, their lives cut short when the El Al aircraft drenched their homes with burning fuel. Where once there were up to 80 flats, now there was an enormous hole.

Where, one evening earlier, there had been families preparing to eat dinner or to watch the Netherlands' big Sunday football game on television, now there was inconsolable grief and the daunting task of piecing together new lives.

Molly Maulabaks, who lives on the estate, said: 'I was just about to sit down when I heard a crash and felt the whole building shake. It was like a bomb. I ran outside but I saw a huge fireball rolling towards me. So I went back inside to my window, but it was very, very hot to touch. The fireball shot past me, but the smoke was awful.' Many of the dead and bereaved were immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean area, particularly the former Dutch colony of Surinam. They came to the estate in the 1970s when new arrivals were housed in several such low-cost projects. Many work as cleaners, porters, restaurant staff and drivers at Schiphol.

The two destroyed buildings are believed to have also contained many illegal immigrants who, because they did not declare themselves to the authorities, are not listed in official occupancy records. The true death toll is therefore almost certainly higher than first thought.

At 11pm on Sunday, four-and-a- half hours after the accident spilled lakes of burning aviation fuel around the estate, flames were still leaping from every storey of the ravaged buildings and police were struggling with residents desperate to dash back inside to find their relatives.

An Amsterdam fire officer, Hugo Ernst, picked carefully through the rubble yesterday morning and said that one gutted building was so fragile it might collapse.

'The hope that anyone is still alive in there is minimal. It could take four days to get to them. The only way to do it is to remove everything piece by piece and block by block,' he said.

As late as yesterday afternoon a new fire broke out in one building as chemical reactions continued amid the tons of rubble. It was put out within half an hour.