The Amsterdam Disaster: And the gawkers came back at lunchtime

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The Independent Online
MANY people would admit to harbouring a morbid curiosity about disasters. But Fred, the 25- year-old son of immigrants from Surinam to Holland, is one of the few who get a chance to indulge it.

A few minutes after he heard the unmarked El Al cargo jet crash near his home in south-east Amsterdam, Fred picked up his video camera and went out to record the rescue operation and the fighting of the fires that soon rose more than 100 feet into the air.

But the scene he captured on video was more horrifying than Fred had ever dreamed possible. The shocked enthusiast first focused on a woman crying for help from the ninth floor of the flame- engulfed apartment block. Then, as he videoed her, the woman threw a child of five out of a broken window. A few minutes later, Fred saw her again, silhouetted against the bright flames, jumping into the dark far below to escape the asphyxiating fumes.

The Independent has not yet been able to verify from the tape itself details of the incident, which took place before the first Dutch television crews arrived from Amsterdam. But the account given of it by the shaken Fred matches the memories of other witnesses of the first crucial minutes after the disaster.

And although rescue workers said that they had found no bodies that bore clear signs of injury from a fatal jump, they conceded yesterday that people who had jumped from the block of flats could still be buried in the pile of smoking rubble that fell off the building as it burnt.

It was onlookers like Fred who absorbed much of the energy of the rescue operation. Before midnight on Sunday, police had to block exits from the A9 motorway just outside Amsterdam to keep passers-by from delaying the arrival of convoys of rescue vehicles summoned at short notice from all over Holland.

There was an eerie silence in many of the entrances and concrete passages of the housing estate as hastily-drafted police stood guard behind a red and white plastic cordon tape flapping noisily in the biting wind.

At the site of the crash itself, metal barriers had been erected and mounted police officers stood ready to repel a rush of visitors. By the early hours the worst of the fires had been doused, but three small ones remained - two at the bottom of the building and one at the top flickering like a beacon.

Although the fire services had trained floodlights on the badly damaged block of flats, little could be seen through the thick clouds of grey smoke.

Soon after the crash, witnesses had said they smelled perfume as well as burning jet fuel; in fact, the cargo plane had loaded a pallet of eau-de-Cologne just before take-off from Schiphol airport. But a few hours later, at 1am yesterday morning, it was the fumes of melting plastic and asbestos that choked the throats of the scores of onlookers.

By yesterday lunchtime, they were back again in their hundreds, milling around in the grey drizzle as if at a particularly drab fairground, gawking at pieces of yellow fuselage. Cars were parked on the grassy verges of the broad roads around the estate, and owners of local shops were doing triple business.

An officer from a private security firm said that while the spectators watched the rescue workers using a crane to dislodge large pieces from the crippled building, local petty criminals were at work, breaking into the flats of people who had come out to help their neighbours and ripping the stereos from parked cars.

Among the visitors to the scene in the course of the day were Queen Beatrix and Ruud Lubbers, the Prime Minister.

The Bijlmermeer suburb contains a mixture of rich and poor, but among the 18,000 residents of the run-down estate where the 747 came down are many single mothers and many immigrants who speak only rudimentary Dutch.

Jermain Ananga, the 13-year- old son of a Surinam mother and an English father, wandered disconsolately around the chilly estate with a friend. 'The Metro's not working, so we can't go to school,' he said. 'But all the windows in our apartment block were broken by the impact, and the police won't allow us to go home.'

As he munched on his first meal of the day - a slice of take- away pizza bought for him in the nearby shopping centre - he wondered where his mother was. 'She was very shocked by the crash. She's nervous,' he said.

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