Madrid air disaster: Air hostess describes her 'miracle' crash escape

The sole survivor of the Spanair crew is still unaware her colleagues were killed

Elizabeth Nash
Sunday 24 August 2008 00:00
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Of all the remarkable stories of the few who survived the Spanair crash in Madrid that claimed 153 lives, one has so far not been told. Today it can be – the scarcely credible experience of the woman who should have died.

Her name is Antonia Martinez Jimenez. She is an air hostess, and the only member of the 10-strong crew of the Spanair flight bound for Las Palmas to have survived Wednesday's air disaster.

Her testimony as the only surviving professional could be crucial in establishing what happened in the plane after take-off, and reconstructing the accident. Her family describe her escape as miraculous. They are not exaggerating.

Ms Martinez, 27, "Toni" to friends and family, remains in intensive care with bruises all over her body, a broken arm, a cracked vertebra, a broken breastbone and a stitched-up head wound. And she breathes through a mask. But doctors say she is out of danger. Her condition, though serious, is better than some of the 18 other survivors.

"I felt the plane judder violently to the left, and then right, before it went down," she told relatives who rushed to her bedside from their home town of Ubeda, in Andalucia. "Then I felt a sharp blow in my chest that sent me flying several metres. I ended up in a ditch with water in it, which must have protected me from the flames."

Toni, astonishingly, emerged from the conflagration almost without burns, and she reckons she owes her life to being seated at the very front of the plane, by the window. The nose of the aircraft broke off on impact and remained partially intact. "Flight attendants usually sit at the rear of the plane, but I was right at the front, in seat 1E. That part of the plane was hardly burnt. It was a miracle."

Badly shaken, she remained conscious. "All around me I could hear people crying out for help. They were shouting and calling desperately but I couldn't move, I couldn't do anything. A few minutes later I heard the sirens of the rescue teams, I knew they were going to save me." As soon as she was carried into an ambulance, she asked the nurse to call her parents. "Mama, don't worry, I'm alright," she told them, "a bit knocked about but fine."

By then, Toni's father, Dionisio, her mother, also Antonia, some of her 10 aunts and uncles, and family friends were tearing to her bedside. The moment they saw the television news, over lunch, they jumped into a convoy of cars and raced 300 kilometres to Madrid.

They knew she was on board: Toni, who lived in Castelldefels near Barcelona, had called her parents, as she always did, moments before boarding. They tried repeatedly to call her again, but the line was dead.

"It was a long, agonising journey," recalled Toni's mother. A doctor friend found out which hospital she was in. But as the death toll mounted, Mrs Martinez couldn't believe her daughter was safe.

"We feared the worst. There were more and more dead. How could she have survived?" Toni's mother wondered. Perhaps, after that first call, something awful had happened. "They lied to me. My daughter's dead and they lied," Mrs Martinez kept repeating as they hurtled across Spain.

But once in the hospital, Mrs Martinez recovered her spirits. "It's a miracle. When I heard she was alive, I expected she'd be covered in burns and would have lost her hair. But no, it's all there."

Her daughter insists she feels fine, but keeps asking what happened to her colleagues on board, all of whom perished. For the moment the family tell her that they don't know.

Toni, who has a degree in English, had been with Spanair for only four months. Before that, she worked for more than five years for Ryanair. She loved her work. But no longer. "I'm never going to fly again," she says. "Horrible, it was horrible."

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