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Daily news from the Canaries and the islands
   Daily news from the Canaries and the islands' biggest English language newspaper on-line

Stairway to heaven
In an emotional day, the victims of the 1977 air crash, their families and all those involved in the rescue operations were remembered and honoured with the inauguration of the international monument on Mesa Mota.


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27.03.2007 -

On the 27 March 1977, 583 people lost their lives in a crash between two jumbo jets belonging to KLM and PanAm in Los Rodeos airport.  It remains the accident where the most number of people were killed, not counting ground injuries, in the history of aviation.  It was caused by a series of interlinked events which most of the families now accept fatalistically, the what ifs now long gone.

The day of the 30th anniversary of the event began with an exquisitely organised ceremony in the Tenerife Auditorium.  A large screen projected the speaker and a translation of his or her words, so. that all who were present could follow the speeches in Spanish, Dutch and English.  Island President, Ricardo Melchior and the President of the Canarian Government, Adn Martn, spoke of their sadness at the loss of life and in praise of the people of Tenerife who worked so tirelessly in the rescue attempts and the difficult task of dealing with a major accident with the very few resources available at the time.

There were interventions by the head of Tenerifes medical authority in 1977, Antonio Sierra Lpez, the Dutch Minister of Transport, Camiel Eurlings, the Spanish Ambassador, Eduardo Aguirre and the President of KLM airlines, Leo van Wijk.  On behalf of the victims families, two people spoke out, Jan Groenewoud, who lost seven members of his family in the accident in the KLM plane and Karen Tafuri, the sole representative of the victims families from the PanAm flight.  She and her brother lost their mother.

Both gave emotive speeches, telling of how they had received and coped with the news of the tragic deaths.  Jan spoke of going through, a rough patch when he realised that, I had an old wound that was desperately in need of care and attention.  He sought professional help and one of the outcomes was the formation of the families of the victims association which he runs with two friends, Victor and Martin, whose only connection to the accident is there strong bond of friend ship with Jan.

He realised after the 25th anniversary homage celebrated in Amsterdam, that there was a great need for people to get together and talk about their feelings and experiences, we are here with each other and for each other.  Together we must try to take another small step in coming to terms with this horrendous event.  His two children, who were born long after the event, lit candles in representation of the younger generation who have lost the opportunity of ever knowing their families friends and relatives except by hearsay.

Karen, struggling to hold back her tears, spoke of her mother as a very successful real estate sales lady who had won a holiday in Hawaii in recognition of her achievements.  Having already been there, she swapped the trip for a cruise on the MS Golden Odssey, on their Mediterranean Highlights cruise and was aboard the PanAm flight with a friend to pick up the ship in Gran Canaria.  Both lost their lives.  Karen thanked all those who were involved in the rescue saying, the spirit of the Tenerife people welled up for the survivors and for the victims.  She also had special thanks for the staff at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware who managed to return to her, her mothers pinkie ring that she was wearing that day.  I had given it to her as a gift for Mothers Day, a few years prior.  It contains her birthstone, my birthstone and my brothers birthstone.  I shall cherish it forever.

Also present on the day were Como van Hellenberg Hubar, the Dutch Ambassador, Jaime Willis, honorary Consul for Ireland, Tenerifes Bishop, Bernardo lvarez Afonso, the Spanish Governments Delegate in the Canaries, Jos Segura,   We met a Dutch lady who was over on holiday with her family and had read about the event.  Ana told us, this is very important for us.  I had no-one on the flight, but I remember it well.  The whole of Holland cried.  Michelle from San Francisco lost her grandparents on the PanAm flight and only heard about the ceremony a couple of weeks beforehand, too late to change her holiday timetable aboard a cruise liner in the Canaries.  However fate took a hand and her ship was diverted quite unexpectedly and at the last minute to Santa Cruz de Tenerife on the very day of the event.  She was able to attend the Auditorium and got a taxi up to see the monument, but had to be back on board before the inauguration took place.

The event was initiated and organised by the Families of the Victims Association, they also raised the funds for the monument by Rudi van de Wint, a spiral staircase winding into the sky, with the stairs suddenly cut off, just like the lives lost in the accident.  The previous day, those who wished to had had the opportunity to walk on the runway at Los Rodeos airport on the spot where their friends and family died, not everybody could face it.  During the hours of reunions before and after the inauguration it seemed that everyone had a story they wanted to share.  The message was clear, you are not alone.

Karen Tafuri had long since moved from her home town in Nevada to Utah and was amazed to find that two women who lived close to her had lost a grandmother, and a mother and an aunt.  Her ambition on returning home was to meet up with them.  Dawn lost an aunt and two cousins she had never known, she will be 30 years old in December.  Her grandmother couldnt get over the loss and refused to acknowledge her existence for the first year of her life.  Her sister was 11 and was kept away from the mass remembrance service with the line up of coffins in an air hanger that took place in Amsterdam.  She had been close to her cousins, but only began to grieve properly and recover after she attended the 25th anniversary ceremony.

Jan himself speaks of recovering from, an open wound, another spoke of losing five members of their family and five children left to be raised by grandparents and yet another who lost 15 co-workers and colleagues.  Elizabeth spoke of her daughter, a hostess on the KLM flight, who had just rung her that week to tell her she would be giving up flying.  She had an 18th month old daughter that it was more and more difficult to leave behind, and she's so delightful I don't want to leave her.  She was called in on standby and her husband urged her to accept the shift as it was a weekend and he was free to look after their daughter.  All those on board the KLM flight perished.

Dorothy Kelly was the only survivor of the accident present.  She was a hostess on the PanAm flight and was awarded a medal by the American Transport Department for her work during and after the accident, above and beyond the call of duty.  Her account of trapped passengers banging on the windows and the nightmare of frustration at being unable to reach them is spinechilling.  Read her full story on pages six and seven.

At the Auditorium, the Dutch Transport Minister in particular underlined the changes that have taken place in airline safety since the accident happened.  The impressive monument that has now been placed on the Mesa Mota is first and foremost for you, the family and friends of the victims.  It is a place to commemorate, share memories and reach out beyond borders to seek comfort from each other.  That is its most important purpose.  But it is also there as a warning to the aviation world, a warning that safety is our permanent mission.

At Mesa Mota, tears were again close to the surface or openly coursing down peoples faces as the statue was inaugurated and a commemorative plaque unveiled to the strains of Stairway to Heaven.  Many carried flowers which they later placed in the open metal work of the stature.  La Laguna Mayor, Ana Oromas, spoke of the sweet and sour events that make up the history of a town and of the union of human beings in times of crisis, one heart, one breath and one pair of hands.  After a two minute silence, charged with emotion, at the exact time of the accident, Jan walked with Victor and Martin to the statue.  They adjusted the wreaths and held each other in a tripartite hug that spoke volumes of the dedication that it had cost them all to arrive at this moment.  Jan dedicated the monument, declaring, many lives have been torn apart.  This monument at this place lends dignity to the horrific events of that day.  Adding, I hope that the warmth and affection which grew during the preparations will spread like the ripples from a pebble thrown into a lake.  Love is growing between people and countries.  That is the way to overcome grief.

 

By Sheila Collis



Gallery: Stairway to heaven
   
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