I hope that yesterday was the closest I will ever be again to a plane crash. The weather was bad and we were sheltering in a calm south westerly spot behind Chrissi. Around 2pm, I plopped into the water for my daily constitutional, and had swum about 100 metres from the boat when I looked up. Westwards, high in the sky, bright as a burning planet, I saw a flare. It was so bright and strange, with its smoke trail like a Chinese dragon, it transfixed me for a moment – I watched it, scarcely believing what it was, then suddenly pulled myself together and screamed at Michalis on the boat. We must have been one of the closest boats to it. I swam like hell.
Back on the boat, we sped westwards and Michalis started to get some information through on the mobile and on the VHS. Two flares had been spotted 10-15 miles west of Chrissi. Soon we saw a helicopter in the distance, then planes searching. The coastguard sped ahead of us.
Two military planes had crashed and three pilots were missing. The VHS call went out to all boats in the area to join the search. Even the three large Chrissi ferry boats were called in, and after an hour or so the sea was littered with boats searching for the pilots and debris.
We got news of two pilots found alive, but a third still missing. Despite the winds, the smell of burnt diesel in the air was acrid – then we spotted a large metal object bobbing up and down in the waves. It was part of the wing of an aeroplane – about 4×1 metres – and one of the large ferries was despatched to recover it.
We searched on and on. We saw a glove in the water, twice, but lost it. News reports started coming in of body parts being found. I think the poor bugger must have been blown to pieces and scattered over the Libyan sea. Later we wondered if there was still a hand inside the glove. Then we recovered a notebook from the water – the first page that flipped open was entitled “emergency procedures” (as if they had the time). I scanned through the book and saw Greek writing sketching out the exercise they were undertaking – the pilots must have been Greek, not American.
The sea was getting rougher, but we searched and searched, until eventually we were given permission to leave. When we got back to Chrissi Island, over 1000 people were lined up on the tiny pier at Chrissi Island, wondering what was going on, despondently awaiting the returning ferries.
Approaching Ierapetra in the darkness, I saw a helicopter flying off above the town. Later I found out that both living pilots had been transferred to the Hospital at Heraklion by helicopter. As I write now, one pilot is injured but not seriously. The other is fighting for his life with a pierced lung and head injuries. I hope he makes it.
The small port of Ierapetra was thronging with people when we moored. TV cameras tailed strutting journalists seeking direct news reports. Our local coastguard boat was ignominiously parked outside the port to make way for the more important coastguard vessel called in for the emergency.
Today the accident is all over the national news, and questions are being asked as to whether it was caused by human error, a technical fault or poor planning and management. Personally, I think Michalis and I feel quite mixed up emotionally having been so close to it. We did what we could – but it wasn’t much in the end.
Helicopter, plane debris and notebook