Timehri, or the CJIA as it is now known, has been fortunate in that it never had a major air crash prior to last Saturday morning. It is still fortunate in so far as there were no fatalities as a result of the accident involving BW523. In fact, given the state of the plane, it was, as Trinidad Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar remarked on inspecting the wreckage, “a miracle” that no one died.
It was the veteran pilot Mr Gerry Goveia who explained in an interview with this newspaper on Wednesday that the pilot may have realized he was going to overshoot the runway, and as a consequence shut down the engines and the electrical systems (some passengers had reported that the plane was in darkness when they landed); it was good emergency procedure, he said. Others have hypothesized that the aircraft was not carrying much fuel for the short trip between Trinidad and Guyana, which would certainly have reduced the danger from an explosion and fire. Finally, of course, there is the fact that the aeroplane conveniently split along a seam roughly corresponding to the divide between the first class and economy sections where no one was sitting. Perhaps passenger aircraft are deliberately designed this way with accidents in mind, but whatever the case, the location of the split was also a matter of good fortune.
From the beginning there has been great speculation about the cause of the crash, and in fact Mr Goveia had told us that the only two possibilities in this instance were pilot error or some plane defect. That assessment has now been vindicated by the preliminary investigations into the incident, some of the findings of which we reported in our Friday edition. There we had said that according to a source, pilot error had been found to be the main contributory factor to the crash. Both the flight recorders and marks on the runway it seems, demonstrated that the plane touched down nearly half way down the runway, confirming what a few of the passengers and observers had described following the incident. Our report went on to detail how the aircraft made contact with the runway opposite the viewing gallery of the terminal building and between two taxiways where a Boeing 737, for example, would normally exit the runway.
We understood that so far air traffic control at CJIA was in the clear, while as Mr Goveia had told us earlier, the lights were working and visibility was not poor. There was no fog although there was light rain. Those passengers who thought the airport and runway lights were not functioning, might not have been in a position to assess whether this was so or not; their vantage point is entirely different from that of crew members in the cockpit. In any case, BW523 may have come in at an unusual angle so they couldn’t see the runway lights. As for visibility, when the passengers managed to scramble out of the plane, it was, as they all admitted, pitch dark, which may have contributed to the impression which some of them had that there was fog.
No doubt further clarifications will emerge as the investigators from the US, Trinidad and Guyana proceed, but at least initial conclusions have given us a better idea of what transpired, and what, for the time being at least, can be ruled out.
What should be of most concern to Guyana, however, is the emergency response following the crash, and it can only be hoped that lessons will be learned from this, and the government will not retreat into laager mode as is their wont. This is less about who is to blame than the efficacy of systems and the optimum deployment of resources in such eventualities.
Minister of Transport Robeson Benn was in characteristically bellicose mood when he made a statement on the crash in Parliament on Thursday. Among the issues which he said had “been sensationalized in certain sections of the media both nationally and overseas” was the “timeliness of the emergency response personnel.” He went on to state that the Guyana Fire Service had responded less than three minutes after being notified of the crash, and had applied foam to one of the engines as well as facilitating the removal of passengers. Earlier last week we had interviewed a passenger who related how she saw at least four fire-fighters looking down at her and her companions from the edge of the runway, but that they had offered no help. There is no doubt that she recalled accurately what she saw. However, it is unlikely that all the fire-fighters would have gone to the assistance of the passengers. Some would have remained with the tenders in the event a fire did break out so they would be in a position to respond immediately, and it is always possible that these were the men she saw. Another passenger said that some fire-fighters did indeed render help to those trying to emerge from the plane, and it is more than likely that particular individuals did not get a complete overview of the situation as it unfolded.
There seems no doubt that the Guyana Fire Service responded promptly to the crash, although the situation with the other emergency services is less clear. Eventually they were all represented at the site, but in what sequence and how long after the plane came down is not apparent to the public. The passengers, of course, were very distressed; when they did manage to clamber out of the aircraft they found themselves in a dark, isolated area, and so the impression they gained was that no one was coming to their aid. However, it is important to know what the response time of the various emergency teams was, and whether these times met the requirements which have been laid down in plans for such situations.
In crashes at airports, planes rarely do anyone the courtesy of staying on the runway, and in our circumstances there is the potential for an aircraft to come down in some quite inaccessible areas. In this instance, everyone was fortunate again in so far as the aeroplane was accessible, if not all that easily so. The site was situated about a mile away from the terminal, although the Fire Service managed to follow the craft down the runway the media were given to understand, which is why presumably they were the first of the official responders on the scene. Other assistance, such as the GDF ambulance, for example, would have approached via the perimeter route which would have taken longer.
The thing that is perplexing the public is that the fire-fighters apart, the first to arrive that anyone knows about were the taxi drivers – and they came via the perimeter route. How come, everyone wants to know, that the response time of the yellow cabs which do not have a major role in emergency plans as far as anyone is aware, was faster than that of some of the official responders? Would Minister Benn care to explain that to the citizenry? On a different matter, the country would have been grateful to the drivers for their efforts had it not been for the sordid stories of one or more of them asking for US$20 to transport passengers to the terminal. It is a bleak day for Guyana if that is what we have descended to, and if the drivers indeed lack the humanity to comport themselves in a civilized way following an air crash, then the relevant agency should waste no time in instructing them on the behavioural protocols to be followed in emergency situations.
For some of those responders whom passengers did encounter, one lady told us on Tuesday that she spoke to a policeman in a police car, and he didn’t seem to have a clue as to what he should be doing. In the end it was a friend who picked them up. She saw no ambulance on the scene, and the first one she noticed was in the vicinity of the GDF farm on her way down to the city. For his part, Mr Goveia was of the view that the medical response systems were a “little slow,” and that in the future we need to look at a situation where you might be faced with 150 people needing medical attention. His suggestion was for a small hospital in the Timehri area which could serve the population there and also be on stand-by for the airport. The problem is that serious injuries would still have to be taken to Georgetown, and the GDF helicopters cannot carry very many injured persons even if they were available, while even ambulances are not plentiful by any means.
One hopes that after this, the authorities will undertake a serious post mortem on what happened, looking at every aspect to see where improvements need to be made in systems; where further training should be undertaken; and whether new resources need to be devoted to dealing with the contingency of a crash. There are also the safety issues around the airport’s perimeter, which even before this happened the powers that be had recognized should be confronted. And finally, one hopes that once they have made the necessary modifications to their contingency plans, they will have practice sessions involving all emergency personnel, so they know exactly what they should be doing if a situation like this should ever occur again.