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Horrific air crash still in Island’s thoughts

Friday, May 4, 2012 - 11:17

WIGHT LIVINGIT WAS one of the Island’s worst air disasters.
Exactly 50 years ago this Sunday, a Dakota airliner, carrying 14 passengers and a crew of three, crashed in thick fog on the 785ft-high St Boniface Down. It erupted into a fireball, claiming the lives of two crew and eight passengers with the remainder suffering serious injuries.
On Sunday, a memorial service will be held at the Dakota Memorial, close to the spot where the holiday airliner smashed into the hillside.
Relatives of the dead and survivors, as well as Island residents involved in the disaster, have been invited to place flowers.
The plane, a Dakota DC3, was a scheduled Channel Air Services flight from Guernsey and Jersey to Portsmouth and Southend.
However, the ill-fated flight never reached its destination.
As far as could be ascertained at the time, the plane had left Jersey Airport at 2.55pm and, after calling at Guernsey, it began its journey to Portsmouth.
The horrific crash took place just three-quarters-of-an-hour later. The last radio message from the aircraft stated the pilot, in preparation for landing, was descending from 3,000ft to 1,000ft.
Tragically, the aircraft was considerably lower in the fog and struck the down above Combe Bottom, immediately above Ventnor Railway Station. The plane smashed through mesh wire surrounding the then RAF compound, tearing a huge gap. It then bounced forward about 200 yards, cuttring a swathe through the gorse and undergrowth, leaving a scorched trail of debris.
The plane came to rest around 100 yards from the northern edge of the compound.
Only its tailplane and parts of the wings remained intact. Wreckage, including the burning engines, was scattered over a wide area.
County Press reports at the time said four doctors from Ventnor answered the emergency call when it was known the plane had crashed.
Supplies of morphine and other emergency aids were made available. As ambulance men and helpers went about the grim task of recovering victims, police scoured the area looking for others.
Meanwhile, firefighters concentrated on putting out the flames on the still smouldering parts of the plane as they helped in the search and stood by until the bodies were removed.
First on the scene, and the hero of rescue operations, was Edward 'Ted’ Price, a farm worker, of Castle Road, Wroxall, who was on the downs with his dog, cutting bean sticks.
As he entered the RAF compound, two men staggered towards him out of the mist, badly burned and muttering 'air crash, air crash’.
Mr Price raced towards the blazing inferno and, not thinking of his own safety, helped passengers who had been thrown clear from the wreckage.
Speaking to the County Press in 1962, Mr Price said: "It was pretty terrible and I did what I could. I pulled two girls from the wreckage and others were staggering nearby, terribly injured.
"I found an elderly lady on the grass with a leg injury moaning for her husband. I put her with the others and told her not to worry, everything would be all right.
"I also got the stewardess out and helped another man nearby."
Realising the urgent need for assistance, Mr Price ran down the lane and discovered members of Northampton Shortwave Radio Club taking part in a communication exercise with a Civil Defence signals unit.
They put out a distress call for emergency services and in a few moments five ambulances, fire officers and police were on their way from all parts of the Island.
The grim task of recovering the dead from the charred and smouldering wreckage was carried out by the police, firefighters and ambulance crews.
Relatives and friends of the victims and the injured visited Mr Price at his home to thank him in the days following the crash and also visited the scene.
Nine years ago, a memorial plinth was unveiled at the National Trust car park near the scene of the disaster in a moving ceremony, which was attended by more than 100 people, including Mr Price, then 76, who died in 2007.
Modest hero Mr Price had to be encouraged to attend the ceremony by his relatives and was accompanied by family members.
Also at the ceremony were survivors Del Davin, of Guernsey, Wendy Cox and Peter Clarke, of Portsmouth, and George Owen, a Welshman, who had been working in Jersey and living in Portsmouth at the time of the disaster.
A talk was also given by Aindre Reece-Sheerin, son-in-law of the co-pilot, Eric Fitzackerly. He was accompanied by Mr Fitzackerly’s widow and two daughters.
Pilot Count Philip de Diesbach Belleroche’s three children also attended the ceremony.
Opening the inquest into the crash, the Island’s mood was summed up by the then coroner, Mr J. V. Bullin.
He said: "I would like to say on behalf of everyone connected with this disaster how deeply shocked we are at this tragedy and how deeply we feel for the relatives.
"We are all very sorry that relatives and friends have had to come here today. The chief officials and others have done everything that could be done to relieve their distress."
Although the tragedy claimed the lives of ten people, it had a lasting legacy.
As the plinth close to the crash site explains, following the disaster it became mandatory that all airfields handling passenger traffic should be equipped with radio communication and airlines were required to adhere to approved minimal standards for flying in inclement weather.
It may be some comfort to those who gather on Sunday that the tragic deaths of ten people were not entirely in vain.

Reporter: [email protected]

 


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