The worst aviation disaster

27 March 2014

On 27 March 1977, two Boeing 747s – one KLM and one Pan Am – collided just above the runway at Los Rodeos Airport in the north of Tenerife. Frequently plagued by fog, clouds had banked up around the volcano in the middle of the island, Pico de Teide. A series of unfortunate circumstances had come together to cause the world’s worst aviation disaster. 583 lives were lost.

The Dutch KLM flight was due to land at Las Palmas (Gran Canaria). The Pan Am flight was taking American tourists to the Canary Islands to begin a 12-day Mediterranean cruise. Both aeroplanes, along with many others, were diverted from Las Palmas Airport because of a terrorist bomb explosion there and a threat of more to follow.

Due to poor communication between the two aeroplanes and air traffic control, with messages misunderstood or not heard, the KLM pilot Captain Jaap van Zanten took off before he was meant to and crashed head-on into the Pan Am aeroplane captained by Victor Grubbs. Although the Dutch pilot desperately tried to pull up, it tore off the top of the other aeroplane and both burst into flames. Most of the passengers and crew were killed by the impact or fire.

Of the survivors, none were on board the Dutch plane. The only member of the KLM passenger manifest to avoid the disaster was Robina van Lanschot, a travel guide who lived on Tenerife and elected not to re-board the 747 when it was due to depart.

All of the survivors on the Pan Am flight were sitting either up front or on the left-hand side, away from the impact. The crash occurred at 5:07pm though air-traffic controllers remained unaware of it for a period of time until a gust of wind blew a gap in the fog.

A 53-year-old British man, John Cooper, was travelling as a passenger on the flight deck on the Pan Am. He was thrown clear and suffered only minor cuts but in newspaper reports he said: “There was a terrible crash. I just don’t want to remember it. There were people screaming terribly, women and children enveloped in flames. I will never get the sound of that screaming out of my ears.”

Dorothy Kelly, a purser on the Pan Am plane, was a heroine on the day and was later awarded a gallantry medal. Leaping 20 feet to safety, she then looked back at the broken and blazing plane and ran back towards it. First, she saved the life of Captain Grubbs and then, dashing back and forth, she dragged dazed survivors clear of the wreckage until she was certain that there could be no one else alive.

Notable victims of the crash were Eve Meyer – a pin-up model, film actress and producer and former wife of Russ Meyer – and A. P. Hamann, the former city manager of San Jose, California, and his wife Frances. Full passenger lists for both planes are made available on the Project Tenerife website along with many documents and photographs from various sources and archives.

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