Inquiry demanded after air crash bodies are sent to wrong families: Just what did happen after Flight VN474 from Ho Chi Minh City hit a mountain in bad weather? Jason Bennetto reports

Jason Bennetto
Sunday 08 August 1993 23:02 BST

THE Foreign Office is being urged to set up an investigation after the family of a British air crash victim was sent the wrong body. The parents of Hamish Emmerson, who died eight months ago when the aircraft in which he was travelling hit a mountain in Vietnam, are still waiting to discover whether the body of a man exhumed from a grave in the Netherlands is their son.

An extraordinary mix-up resulted in three bodies being sent to the wrong countries. The family of Mr Emmerson only discovered the error on the day before his funeral, which had to be cancelled.

His father and sister also believe there are suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.

On 14 November last year, a Soviet-made YAK-40 jet, carrying six crew and 24 passengers, including Mr Emmerson, 38, a Dubai-based businessman, and his French wife Sylvie crashed in bad weather. Flight VN474 of Vietnam Airlines left Ho Chi Minh City for the beach resort of Nha Trang about 190 miles to the north-east. The plane last made contact with the Ho Chi Minh City control tower two minutes before its scheduled landing.

It took the Vietnamese authorities eight days to locate and reach the wreckage, although it was only 12 miles from its destination. A Dutch woman, Annette Herfkens, 31, was the only survivor. She had multiple injuries and was trapped in the fuselage, but managed to stay alive by drinking rainwater. She told rescuers that she had heard voices of other passengers for several days before they fell silent.

At the time there was criticism of the rescue effort. A Vietnamese doctor said that passengers could have been saved had search teams been sent on foot. The 29 dead included a Swede and a Dutchman as well as Mr Emmerson. Some of the bodies were found outside the plane, suggesting they had left the wreckage alive. Airline officials also reported that not all the Vietnamese on board were located.

Mrs Emmerson's body was cremated soon after the accident, but Mr Emmerson's sister, Elizabeth Hart, 38, of Farnham, Surrey, and his father, Jack, of Newbiggin, Cumbria, were extremely suspicious about the circumstances surrounding the deaths.

They are unhappy with the assistance provided by the Foreign Office. Ms Hart said they were given conflicting information about the crash; at one stage they were told it had landed in the sea and another time that it was near Ho Chi Minh City and there were no survivors. She also claimed a Foreign Office official became 'rude and very unpleasant' after she contacted her local MP, Virginia Bottomley, in an attempt to get more information.

The family decided to have Hamish Emmerson's body returned so that a post-mortem examination could be carried out. 'We knew that some people had survived for several days and we wanted to know how Hamish had died. It's easier to deal with the truth. It's a terrible feeling not knowing what happened to him,' Ms Hart said.

The Vietnamese authorities said they had positively identified the other dead Europeans and were sure they had identified Mr Emmerson. His body was sent back on 29 November. The day before the funeral on 4 December, the coroner said he would not release the body because there were major differences between the injuries reported in Vietnam and the body they had been sent.

Several months then passed before the Foreign Office sent Mr Emmerson's dental records to his family. In March they arrived and it was discovered that the body was that of a Swedish man, whose family had a body cremated in his own country. The Emmerson family then contacted the relatives of the Dutchman who had died in the crash. After several months of negotiations they gained permission to have his body exhumed. Dental records revealed in June it was not the Dutchman. When this was discovered, the Dutch government immediately put the body into cold storage and sent a delegation to Vietnam to investigate the case.

Ms Hart said 'the whole affair has been incredibly distressing. It's as if the accident keeps happening and we have to keep reliving it.'

Ms Hart's father is trying to get the Foreign Office to help. He said: 'The Dutch, unlike our Foreign Office, have taken positive action. This has been going on since November. I can't describe how awful it has been. I just want to find the body of my son.'

Mr Emmerson is also trying to recover the money he spent bringing back the wrong body. The airline bill was pounds 290 and the funeral directors in Britain are claiming pounds 600.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: 'There are often very good reasons for delays. It's not the Foreign Office dragging their heels. It's a tragic mix-up involving the Vietnamese authorities.'

(Photograph omitted)

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