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Day we will never forget; WILLENHALL PLANE CRASH.

Byline: By SAMANTHA CLARKE samantha.clarke@mrn.co.uk

JUST before 10am on December 21 1994, a Boeing 737 cargo plane crashed into woodland, just yards from a Coventry housing estate.

It was the city's worst air disaster, killing all five men on board.

It also changed the lives of hundreds of people in Willenhall who watched in horror as the jet clipped the roofs of two houses, struck a lamp-post, flipped on to its back and burst into flames.

The Air Algerie plane had been chartered by Phoenix Aviation to carry veal calves to the continent. It was making its flight descent to Coventry Airport in thick fog 10 years' ago today when it came down in woodland off Middle Ride.

It was a day that rocked the community of Willenhall and left stunned eye-witnesses with an impression they would never forget.

Debris from the wreckage was strewn around a half-mile radius from where the jet crashlanded - within 20 yards of the estate. More than 100 firefighters and 30 paramedics were called to the scene, which was rocked by further explosions from where the fuel leaked from the plane.

The five who died were Andrew Yates, aged 22, of Clifton upon Dunsmore, near Rugby; Adrian Sharpe, aged 31, from West Yorkshire; and three Algerian crew members.

A coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death. Air accident investigators said pilot error and crew tiredness were factors in the crash.

Even now, 10 years after the accident, some people who still live in the area still have vivid memories of the disaster. Many others decided to move away and start a new life.

Today, a memorial service and commemoration was taking place at the crash scene and members of Willenhall Wood Residents' Association were unveiling a plaque at the exact spot where the five men died.

The Rev Katrina Goldie, of St John the Divine Church, in Robin Hood Road, Willenhall, was leading the service, attended by residents and local schools.

Families of the victims were also attending.

The neighbour

MUM Gwen Ebbrell was hanging out her washing in the back garden when she looked up and realised something was wrong with a plane coming in to land at Coventry Airport.

It was travelling too low and seemed to be going too fast.

Fearing the worst, she ran inside and dialled 999.

The 75-year-old, who lives in Leyside, Willenhall, recalled: "It was horrendous. There I was, just putting my washing on the line, and I remember looking at the houses, then seeing the top part of the wing.

"The next thing I knew, there was this horrendous noise which I cannot begin to describe.

"You cannot compare this noise to anything, though it was as bad as the noises we used to hear in the war."

Gwen, who worked in a store room at Lucas, but is now retired, said the horror of the crash left her in shock.

The mother of five said: "I knew the plane wasn't going to make it. That was obvious.

"I realised what was going to happen, but what I hadn't considered was whether anyone would survive.

"I think I was in shock at the time - obviously, I later found out that five people died.

"It was so tragic. It took people around here a long time to put it behind them. I don't think some have, even now."

Still finding it hard to come to terms with what she had seen, Gwen phoned some friends in Spain to see if she could go on holiday to visit them.

She said: "It was only a matter of about three weeks after the crash but I felt I had to do it.

"I knew if I didn't get on a plane soon, then I never would.

"My friends said it may have been a bit too soon for me, but it was something I had to do.

"The plane was very shaky and I remember crying all the way there because I was thinking about what had happened."

She added: "I don't think the residents round here will forget what happened. It took me a long time to get over it, but some people made themselves ill over it, and others needed counselling, too.

"It's obviously something none of us would ever forget."

The fireman

COVENTRY firefighter Nick Cartwright was first on the scene of the crash.

Nick and his colleagues at Binley Fire Station had already attended two call-outs that day, and were returning from the second in Foleshill, when they were told to attend Middle Ride for an aircraft crash.

Nick, now a sub officer at Radford Road Fire Station, said: "We expected it to be a light aircraft as the conditions that day were cold and foggy.

"As we were heading to the incident we realised that all the traffic lights were out. That was because the plane had crashed into a pylon and caused a major power cut in the city, but obviously we didn't know that at the time."

On arrival, the crew saw a handful of people looking at where the aircraft had crashed into the trees.

Nick said: "My boss stayed on the roadway and asked me to go down to have a look, so I was the first firefighter on the scene.

"I carefully skirted the aircraft but because of the way it came to land I couldn't tell exactly what kind of plane it was. It was upside down, the engines had come off, and because part of it had disintegrated, it didn't look that big. I actually thought it was a Dakota."

Nick said he had to tread carefully until Coventry Airport's own fire crews arrived, as a series of explosions rocked the aircraft.

He said: "I was sent down to try to find casualties but I couldn't find anyone. Our colleagues from the airport arrived and all of us were fighting the smoke and flames with foam. We were there for about four hours and the foam was up to our knees."

They remained at the scene for a further four hours, fighting the smoke and fire, keeping the public out of harm's way and assisting in the search for casualties.

Nick, who is 51 and lives in Coventry with wife Yvonne, said that out of a career spanning almost 33 years, the Willenhall air crash was one of the worst incidents he'd ever attended.

"I have been to incidents where you have one or two people who have died in a house fire, but I do not think I have ever been called to any other air crash but this one, and in terms of the number of lives lost this is the worst incident as well."

The mum

MOTHER-OF-THREE Karen England was getting ready to take her young children to see Santa when the plane crashed.

She remembers getting ready in the bathroom when she heard a plane coming in to land.

The 43-year-old housewife, of Farm Side, remembers the aircraft sounded a lot closer to the houses than normal.

Within moments there was a huge bang which shook the whole house and caused glass to shatter.

Hearing her children screaming in terror downstairs, Karen - without realising - ran barefoot straight over broken glass to try to comfort them.

She said: "There was such an impact, I thought the plane had landed on the house.

"One of my children wanted to go to the toilet but I wouldn't let her because I had no idea whether it was safe to go upstairs."

She later realised the aircraft had hit the house in front of hers, causing a gable to crash to the ground. Debris from the wreckage had landed right outside Karen's house, on her doorstep.

Over the next few hours, as the emergency crews battled the smoke and flames, Karen's house was packed with police, fire crews and Civil Aviation Authority officers, in their bid to determine what had happened.

As with a lot of the residents, Karen and her family suffered nightmares about what had happened. The family needed professional help to come to terms with it all.

Karen remembers there were two strange events in the aftermath of the crash.

The first happened a couple of nights after the plane came down when she woke up and went to use the bathroom.

Her four-year-old daughter Candice also woke up.

She said: "We were at the top of the landing, and down the stairs as clear as day we both saw the bodies of four uniformed crew members from their shoulders down. They were there for a few seconds and then they disappeared.

"I don't know what it was, but looking at them was as clear as looking at any other person.

"We both saw them, then they disappeared."

Candice also had nightmares about a huge, imaginary black bird called Peck, which she imagined was evil and would eat her up.

Karen said: "It took all of us months and months to come to terms with what had happened and every night before the children went to bed we used to have to search the house from top to bottom with my daughter to make sure Peck wasn't there. It was awful."

Karen said she has always believed the plane came to rest in the woods thanks to the heroic efforts of the crew to avoid the houses.

She said: "If you think about it, the way the plane came in, it could have flattened four whole rows of houses which would have been even more devastating.

"I truly believe the pilots tried to increase the engines to get the aeroplane up and away from the houses.

"It was bad enough that five people died. But it still could have been a lot worse.

"I don't think anyone around here, or anyone who lived here at the time, will ever forget the five that died."

Lockerbie families share black day

THE Willenhall air disaster happened six years to the day after the Lockerbie air disaster.

Just before 7pm on December 21 1988, Pam Am flight 103 came down on the Scottish town.

The disaster left all 259 people on the flight dead, and a further 11 were killed on the ground.

Coventry man Clayton Flick, aged 25, and his fiancee Clare Bacciochi, 19, from Kingsbury, North Warwickshire, were among the fatalities.

The bombing had extensive repercussions across the world and eventually led to the trial and conviction of Libyan Abdelbaset ali Mohmed al-Megrahi in 2001.

He lost an appeal against the verdict in March 2002 and is now serving a 20-year sentence in a Scottish jail for the attack.

Despite the trial and an extensive public inquiry, the families of the dead were left with many unanswered questions about events surrounding the attack.

CAPTION(S):

TERRIBLE TOLL: All five on board the plane died and wreckage was strewn for half a mile.; SEARCH: Firefighters comb through the wreckage of the crash; Nightmares: Karen England at the time of the crash
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Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Dec 21, 2004
Words:1838
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