Those that perished, and those that escaped

Holidaymakers, parents and children perished in the Madrid crash, but some travellers had very lucky escapes, reports Elizabeth Nash
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The Independent Online

Family killed on the way to son's baptism

The young couple were flying out to Gran Canaria to have their three-month-old son baptised. Instead the whole family was wiped out in Madrid's air crash, with their baby's body recovered yesterday morning from the charred wreckage of Spanair flight JK5022.

The other guests had planned to fly to Las Palmas today for the ceremony but are now mourning the loss of the young family, reduced to initials on the list of those whose bodies have not been identified or found – JNR, ZH and the baby's uncle MNR. The three adults, aged 23, 20, and 19, lived in Madrid, but were from Calzada del Coto, near Leon, north of the capital, where they had spent a few days with their grandparents before taking the Las Palmas flight.

"We still don't know anything, because they haven't been identified," said Pablo Carbajal, a cousin, who is also mayor of the small northern town. He added his only hope now was to find their remains so they could be buried in Calzada.

Among the litany of horror stories was that of the Alcazar family – Jose, Maria Victoria and their two daughters, Immaculada, 19, and Nieves, 11. They had been heading off on their holidays but never made it. Mr Alcazar's elderly aunt, Elisa Jimenez, supporting herself on sticks, said she went to the improvised mortuary in the convention centre near the airport, after hearing the news on the television. "The girls' grandparents identified the body. They were devastated. It was terribly painful," she said at the Hotel Auditorium, where Spanair had made accommodation available to family members.

Alejandro Villanueva Martin had enjoyed his holiday on the Spanish mainland with his wife and their three children, aged 12, 10 and four, which the family had spent visiting his parents in Malaga. They were heading back to Las Palmas, where Mr Villanueva settled some years back. He remained close to his family and came home to see them often, especially at holiday time, relatives in Malaga said.

Among the many relatives coming and going in the foyer of the Hotel Auditorium, one man staggered around bewildered. "Imagine how I feel," he said, his voice trembling. "I have lost my nephew who had come from Orlando, and today was his 23rd birthday."

Three children among the survivors

Young Jesus Alfredo Acosta Mendiola was one of the lucky ones. The eight-year-old escaped from Wednesday's inferno with nothing more serious than a broken leg. Now, from his hospital bed, he just keeps asking his grandmother where his parents are.

The family from Torralba de Calatrava had been heading to Gran Canaria for a week's holiday. His father, Alfonso Alfredo Acosta Sierra, a Colombian, was one of 153 people who died in the crash. His mother Gregoria Mendiola Rodriguez, is in a coma in another Madrid hospital.

Three of the 19 people who survived the crash were children. A firefighter, Francisco Martinez, recalled rescuing one of the youngsters from the wreckage. "I took a child into the truck and he thought he was in a film. But he asked 'When will this film end?' and 'Where is my dad?' He asked if it was real, if he was in a film, but he wanted the film to end," said Mr Martinez.

Some of the adult survivors recalled the horror of the moment when they realised something was not right. "The plane was wobbling from one side to another. Then I began to suspect we would crash," Ligia Palomina Riveros told Spanish radio. Speaking from her hospital bed, her voice slurred with painkillers, the 41-year-old described how the plane "made a horrible noise" before she was flung from the aircraft into a ditch full of dust and stones.

"I don't know what happened next. I was in a sort of river and saw people, smoke, explosions – which I think woke me up," she said. "When I woke up I saw bodies spread all around."

She looked around for her husband, Jose, and called his name. She realised the charred body she reached out to by her side was dead, but was not Jose. It wore a watch she didn't recognise. Emergency workers scooped her up on a stretcher and she was taken to hospital.

Amazingly Ligia's husband, sitting in the row behind her on the plane, also survived. He is in intensive care, but his life was not in danger. She, meanwhile, was being treated for head wounds, spinal injuries and fractures to her legs. Her mother and sister couldn't believe their luck as they embraced her at her bedside. "My daughter has been reborn. It's a miracle granted by God, four days before her birthday," her mother gushed.

Overbookings that saved lives

For many, overbooking is the bane of modern flying, but not for one couple from Gran Canaria. Fernando and Patricia were returning from a holiday in Mexico, on a flight that connected with Spanair in Madrid, but the second leg had been overbooked and they were bumped off.

"I said I didn't mind paying extra to go first class, whatever it took, just get me on that plane," Fernando told Spanish radio. "But there was no way, it was completely full, so we had to wait till the next flight. That overbooking saved our lives."

Another passenger, who would only give his name as Rafael, had a similar experience. "I arrived at the last minute to check in," he said. "The plane was overbooked and I was offered two options: to bump up to first class or wait for another flight, which is what I decided to do. Then, half-an-hour later, my brother called me and told me what had happened."

One Spanish couple were three minutes late checking in and missed the flight. Ertoma Bolanos said he found out about the crash when the family of his girlfriend, Almudena, called to say they had seen TV footage of it. "We had no idea what had happened," he told La Vanguardia newspaper. "My mouth dropped open."

Three young women on holiday in Santiago de Compostela had planned to return to Madrid yesterday to catch the fateful Spanair flight to the next stop on their summer travels, the Canary Islands. "But we were having so much fun that we decided to stay on a bit longer in Santiago. It should have been us on that plane going to that place," one of the teenagers told Spanish radio. "Now all we can do is grieve for those who were on it."