'Lights went out and the aircraft started falling apart. I thought I was going to die'

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The Independent Online

Anyone who has flown has imagined the moment but few have lived to describe what it feels like - the moment when a jet changes from a heated, pressurised tube of comfort and luxury to an exploding petrol bomb. Yesterday, as the death-toll rose to 79, passengers who escaped from Singapore Airlines flight 006 described that moment, at 11.20 on Tuesday night.

Anyone who has flown has imagined the moment but few have lived to describe what it feels like - the moment when a jet changes from a heated, pressurised tube of comfort and luxury to an exploding petrol bomb. Yesterday, as the death-toll rose to 79, passengers who escaped from Singapore Airlines flight 006 described that moment, at 11.20 on Tuesday night.

Paul Blanchon, 37, a geologist from Stokesley, North Yorkshire, was in the rear section of the Boeing 747-400, carrying 179 passengers and crew, when it took off at 11.18pm from Chiang Kai-shek airport in Taipei. A storm was raging outside, the edges of Typhoon Xangsane, which swept over Taiwan yesterday. Inside the plane the first few minutes of the flight seemed normal enough, apart from one detail.

"I looked out of the window," Mr Blanchon told the BBC yesterday, "and I remember thinking to myself 'I don't see any runway lights'. Anyway, we carry on and we start taxiing to take off. It's raining very heavily. We start to shake, as normal when you start to take off, and then - just as the front end lifts - there's this bang."

It is this noise (or noises, for some survivors speak of two bangs) which will provide the key to the tragedy and which the investigation will focus on. Was it the effect of a change in wind direction slamming the plane back down on to the runway - the effect known as windshear? Or was it caused, as the pilot, Captain C.K. Foong, has said, by the plane colliding with an object on the runway?

The effect on those inside was immediate. Steve Courtney, the only other known survivor of the four British passengers, described it as "a big roller-coaster ride" with flames everywhere.

Mr Blanchon said: "All the lights go out. A split second later pieces of the aircraft start coming apart. It's pitch black. I was thinking, 'I'm going to die'." The plane had split into pieces.

Mr Blanchon is 6ft 2in and, like many tall flyers, prefers the extra leg room at the front of a block of seats. But on this flight he was at the rear and this may have saved him. The tail section broke away from the forward part of the plane, leaving its seats and passengers exposed to the elements.

Mr Blanchon said: "The other part of the plane was an inferno ... smoke was flowing over the tail part of the fuselage where we were. The tail section that we were in turned over several times and we ended up on our sides ... basically, passengers on one side of the plane were all up in the air.

"A lot of people were still stuck up there. We tried to get the back emergency exit open. We couldn't get it open. So we all tried to leave and we tried to make our way to the front of what was left of the tail section. We got to a certain stage and we could see that the whole plane had broken in two."

An American, John Diaz, was in the front section."There were flames everywhere and smoke everywhere," he said. "I ran to the door and there were two girls trying to open the door and it was stuck.

"I hit the door with my shoulder - it popped open, and I helped get the folks out and then the slider started to inflate, but we were on the ground, so I jumped out of the plane, got caught up in the slide, freed myself and one other person, I don't know who. We got out and just started running and the whole thing blew up ... it was just like flames and everything. There were flames just all over the place."

The plane's tanks, filled with fuel for the 15-hour flight to Los Angeles, had ruptured and aught fire. Anyone too weak, injured or scared to get out of the front section had no chance.

The typhoon was drawing in as the escaping passengers from the tail section fled towards the terminal. But pinned beneath the tail of the plane was a man. Mr Blanchon said: "Miraculously he was still alive. The captain or co-pilot tried to release him but we couldn't get him out." Mr Blanchon ran towards emergency crews arriving on the scene and begged for a jack to lever the plane off the pinioned man but the Taiwanese teams could not understand him.

Mr Blanchon said: "I stood there for about 20 minutes watching the flames, running backwards and forwards trying to avoid the smoke. Eventually they got a car jack but by that time the emergency crews had arrived in force and at that time I decided it was time to leave the scene, get indoors."

About 20 survivors, including Mr Blanchon and Mr Diaz, were brought to an emergency room at the airport and then taken to hospital in an ambulance. Mr Diaz said: "The guy was a maniac. We had to keep telling him to slow down, because he was driving like a fool. I didn't want to go through a plane crash and then die in a car crash."

Mr Blanchon said: "I saw people with very bad burns [in the airport's emergency clinic]. One lady died in the waiting- room ... they were giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. There was mass confusion ... in the room we were waiting in. Everybody was in shock. There were people completely singed, their clothes, their hair was gone, their skin was hanging off their limbs. We tried to help as much as possible but really there isn't a lot you can do in that kind of situation."

Last night 51 people were still in hospital. One passenger was said by doctors to have 100 per cent burns and almost no prospect of recovery.

Another 48 passengers were discharged, some among them, such as Mr Blanchon, suffering nothing worse than cuts, bruises and wheeziness from the smoke. "It's difficult to come to terms with something like this," he said. "Physically I'm fine; no problems. I'm one of the luckiest ... It really is a second chance at life. When something like this happens you thank whoever you need to thank that you got out alive."

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