The sweet celebrations accompanying the crucial 1-0 win in the 2008 Nations Cup qualifier for the Togolese football team came to an abrupt end Sunday night as 20 of their compatriots perished in a Paramount helicopter crash.
While the players went to the Bintumani Hotel to shower before boarding the helicopter to catch their chartered Abirex flight back home, the rest of the 80-man delegation started out from the Paramount helipad at Aberdeen in the first of a planned four chartered trips to Lungi.
The Russian built and piloted MI-8, T-model helicopter with its 20 passengers and 3 Russian crew had almost completed the 7 minutes journey and was hovering around palm tree height, over the Presidential Lounge end of the airport, when according to a Group 4 security guard they heard a loud bang.
The guard who asked not to be named said when they looked at where the sound came from they saw the helicopter wobbling down to the ground as it appeared that the blast had broken away the rotor blades at the top.
Landing nose first the guard said there was a second blast and they saw fire, which was spreading and which generated a lot of heat.
At this point he said they saw one of the pilots climb out of the cockpit, then a second, and the first was busy trying to rescue the third crew member. He reportedly had to abandon the rescue attempt when the flames grew too hot.
The two survivors were taken to the Mahera hospital. On the way the second survivor died, leaving only one.
The 20 Togolese apparently did not have the luxury of attempting an escape. The explosion of the fuel tanks practically ended their stay on this earth very quickly – albeit painfully.
UT Air the rival helicopter transporters operating from the former WFP helipad at Aberdeen quickly organised a flight for British High Commission and IMATT officials, one of whom had some knowledge about treating burns.
Two local correspondents (including this reporter) benefited from this philanthropic gesture by the UT Air management to (bravely) fly to the Lungi airport crash site along with top management officials of the beleaguered Paramount Airlines.
At the crash site, Transport Minister Prince Harding and his Permanent Secretary Ahmed Wurie had arrived by ferry and were seen actively monitoring the recovery of the corpses from the helicopter.
Minister Harding also drove to the Mahera hospital where he visited the single survivor Captain Penakan Sergei.
Lying on his hospital bed with splashes of blood on his pillow – which hospital attendants said were the results of blood coming out of his ears, – the Russian born pilot said in Russian (could not speak English) that he would not leave the hospital until later Monday.
He had earlier refused a flight back to Freetown onboard the UT Air helicopter apparently afraid to fly in a helicopter again after his gruesome experience.
In a burst of emotion with his voice almost breaking into a sob, Transport Minister Prince Harding said “not even your enemy deserves to die in this way.”
This was after watching the slow recovery of the corpses by medical police and military personnel, along with almost all the entire top management of the Airport Authority.
The corpses looked very much like roasted chicken, frozen in their death postures with hands and legs sticking out.
Minister Harding stated “we are really really saddened, we don’t want such a catastrophe to happen to any country or to any group of people not even an individual” expressing his deep condolences to the Togolese people.
Paramount helicopter services had experienced two fire incidents on the 4th and 16th of January 2007 which had caused quite a scare for passengers.
In one incident the helicopter had emitted fire just after lifting off and had to land again immediately.
As a result the helicopters were ordered grounded by the Transport Ministry on the 18th of January.
Minister Harding explained “the deficiencies at that time were really operational deficiencies and not mechanical aspects … like where they keep their spare parts, having a net to surround their luggage, having a hammer situated at a particular space in the aircraft for it to be available in the case of any exigencies so that they can use it to break through, these were the types of deficiencies highlighted at that particular time.”
The Minster continued “ we gave them about few weeks to thirty days to remedy them (deficiencies).”
He added further that International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) representatives from Nigeria were also involved in the checks before the aircrafts were allowed to fly again on 1st March, 2007.
The Transport Minister called for International help in the form of external investigators to help determine the cause of the crash.
Around 3am on Monday morning the bodies of the 22 victims including 4 women had been retrieved from the burnt out helicopter.
They were ferried to the Freetown mortuary where they were expected to be put in proper body bags and preserved for onward transmission to Togo.