Medical teams and firefighters, surrounded by bodies and burning wreckage, fought to save the life of one man who was found to be alive, but he died on the hillside, according to a lifeboat man who joined the operation.
Raymond Harvey, a crewman on the Campbeltown lifeboat, and a colleague ran down the scene a quarter of a mile east of the Mull of Kintyre lighthouse after missing the 'shout' for the boat.
'There were fire engines and ambulances,' Mr Harvey said early today. 'There were a lot of bodies everywhere. It was not nice. They were in a bad way. I've never seen anything like it before and I hope I don't again.
'Everything seemed to be burning all the way down the cliff. It must have been the fuel. There was wreckage and bodies scattered over a very wide area.'
Mr Harvey was later joined by a dozen colleagues from the lifeboat station who had earlier travelled the 18 miles from Campbeltown by sea, but returned to their base when it became clear the huge rescue operation was solely land- based. Within minutes of the alarm being raised a massive search exercise drew together military and civilian rescue services from all over Scotland to locate and help the casualties.
Air-sea rescue helicopters from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were scrambled after an emergency call at 6.14pm from the keeper of Mull of Kintyre lighthouse. But thick fog and, later, the gathering darkness, allied with the rough and treacherous terrain, made the already harrowing task all the more difficult.
The operation involved three Navy Sea King helicopters from HMS Gannet which were scrambled at 6.45pm. Two went straight to the crash site, a quarter of a mile east of the lighthouse, and the third helped to search the area - where visibility on the cliff tops was down to just 10 yards even though it was said to be about two miles at sea level.
A third Navy helicopter went to the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow where it picked up an emergency surgical team.
Two RAF mountain rescue teams were also taken to the area by other Sea Kings from RAF Boulmer in Northumberland and RAF Lossiemouth in Murrayshire. The operation in the air was being co-ordinated by an RAF Nimrod from Pitreavie.
Nine fire appliances from Campbeltown, Tarbert and Arrochar went to the scene and a heavy-lifting vehicle travelled from Glasgow, 100 miles away.
Auxiliary coastguards went to the area to join the ground search.
Later, Strathclyde Ambulance Service said that within three hours of the disaster its crews had been stood down by the police, reflecting the fact that there were no survivors. Raymond Hepburn, a spokesman for the service, said a doctor and a paramedic team remained on hand to assist in case survivors were found. All the victims were flown to a nearby RAF base at Machrihnanish.
Last night the operation was halted as darkness fell and the wreckage was guarded by police, ready for inspection by officials from the Department of Transport's Air Accident Investigation Branch, and the RAF board of inquiry, at first light today.