Honeymoon flight that ended in horror

Guam air disaster

Richard Lloyd Parry
Wednesday 06 August 1997 23:02

Nothing looks more solid than a jumbo jet sitting on a runway. But Korean Air flight 801, yesterday's early morning arrival from Seoul to Guam packed with newlyweds on their honeymoon, looks frail, flimsy and surprisingly small.

Only its back end is recognisable as a Boeing 747 - the distinctive tail fin, with the bright blue and red Korean yin-and-yang symbol, is still in one piece, but thrust up at an awkward angle by the jungle vegetation. The cockpit and the bulge of the first class cabin are still partly intact but they are 25 yards away, over a short precipice. The rest of it, the economy class mid-section, is an indistinguishable mass of burned seats, mangled metal, broken cases, and at least 155 human beings.

Even late last night, the remains were too hot too touch, and from here it seems unimaginable that anyone could have survived. Early yesterday, just before 2am, the Boeing 747 severed an oil pipeline, brushed tree tops, and burst into flames on this steep jungle slope, just three miles from the airport where it was going in to land. Judging from the crash site, it is remarkable that anyone escaped. But some 30 passengers survived, although the official number was shrinking every other hour as a few more died in hospital of their injuries.

The only New Zealander on board, a Guam-based helicopter mechanic named Barry Small, literally walked away from the plane, but later underwent emergency surgery on his injured legs. An eleven-year-old Japanese girl named Rika Matsuda was plucked from the wreckage almost unscathed by the Governor of Guam himself, Carl Gutierrez. Her mother, Shigeko, has not been found, and the last of the survivors, believed to be a Korean mother and child, were finally cut out of the wreckage at about 9am yesterday.

Of the hundreds of American soldiers and volunteers, who arrived on the scene an hour after the plane went down, none was under any illusions that they would find anyone else alive.

To the rest of the world, the island of Guam is most significant as an American military base, the biggest of the Mariana chain, from whose islands the Enola Gay was launched to bomb Hiroshima exactly 52 years ago yesterday. Only 150,000 people live on its 212 square miles, a third of which are given over to camps and bases. But to Japanese and Koreans, it is the Barbados of the east, a romantic resort island, also popular with young families. Flight 801, like every flight from Seoul to Guam this month, was full of young children and with honeymooning couples.

Yesterday, their relatives began arriving from Seoul. Bitter recrimination has been heaped by bereaved relatives on the airline and its handling of the crisis. Senior Korean Air officials have arrived in Guam and a modicum of organisation has been restored to the situation, with an emergency news centre set up in a resort hotel. In the early stages, however, there appears to have been no central co-ordination. "No one told us anything! Nothing!" said Jeannie Kim, a 20-year-old Korean-American who waited at the airport until 4am for her father, who was travelling home to Guam from a business trip on Flight 801. "I asked them, `What the hell's going on?' and they said that in fifteen minutes they'd explain. Nobody came. Then some guy told me that there's been a crash. At first I thought he was joking. Everyone was crying, there was hysteria. And now they're giving us the same bullshit." Ms Kim's father is not on the list of survivors. Particular anguish focuses on the airline's reluctance to publish an official list of the dead as well as the living. Korean Air's vice-president, Shim Im Taek, was barracked by relatives as he read out a statement at their hotel yesterday afternoon. "It's not apologies and technical information we need now," shouted one old man. "Tell us about the fate of our loved ones before talking about black boxes."

"They're just giving us the obvious," said Jeannie Kim. "We know there was a crash, we know where it happened. I want to know if my father is alive, or if he is still out there."

The relatives will arrive at the site in their hundreds today; yesterday there was a mere handful, outnumbered by reporters and television crews. A young woman stared down at the wreckage, weeping quietly for her dead husband. The cameramen glanced sheepishly at one another and took it in turns to focus their lenses on her crying face. A Korean man gave a gasping wail and waved his arms. A few times an hour, Boeing 747s droned in almost directly overhead, carrying more children and honeymooners to their tropical summer holiday.

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