Jet crew did more harm than good,
'None of the airline staff were doing anything to help' injured passengers
November 3, 2000
By Andrew Perrin
Special for USA TODAY
TWO survivors of the Singapore Airlines crash here that killed 81 people(latest: 82 dead) and left scores injured say crew members failed to help passengers trapped in the jet and might have contributed to the high death toll.
Steven Courtney, 45, a British biologist who lives in Portland, Ore., said Nov 2 that in the crucial minutes after the crash, panicked flight attendants stood frozen and wouldn't show passengers how to unlock the escape hatches.
Once free from the jet, Courtney said, many of the crew members fled the scene and refused to help victims lying on the runway.
[Note: The Straits Times carried reports of some crew risking their lives and going back into the burning jet to save passengers.]
Courtney, speaking from his hospital bed in the burn unit at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taipei, told of a terrifying ordeal.
''I remember a wall of flame inside the plane coming at me,'' he said, recalling the scene after the plane had crashed and split into pieces. The back section where he was sitting was flipped on its side. ''When I saw that coming at me, I thought I was dead. My thought was, 'I don't mind dying, but this is a really vulgar way to go.' ''
Problems with emergency evacuations in the USA have drawn the attention of accident investigators. In June, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report that said flight attendants needed better emergency training, and it criticized the performance of exits located over wings. The board said the 46 evacuations it studied were plagued by poor aircraft design, equipment failures and inadequate airline policies.
Courtney, who was traveling with his wife, Deborah Brosney, from an environmental science conference in Bali, said that, unknown to him, the flames scorched his back and legs. He now requires major skin-graft operations.
''I unhitched my seat belt,'' he said, ''because I figured if I was still alive, I should at least make an effort to get out. I found my wife, and we tried to get out.''
In the dark, and with the shattered cabin filling with smoke, finding an escape route was difficult. He said some of the passengers tried to open an exit hatch at the rear of the jet but were unable to do so.
''There were two passengers trying to wrestle it open, and the stewardess is standing next to them and doesn't know what to do,'' he said.
Courtney said he decided to take charge.
''I got everyone into a line and told them we have to find a way forward,'' he said. ''I had a stewardess I was shepherding in front of me, telling her what to do. I kept using my best British accent, calm and authoritative. I was using the accent deliberately to make people feel I knew what I was doing.''
Eventually, the passengers found a hole in the front of the fuselage and managed to squeeze through it and make it out onto the runway. Left behind were stunned passengers who remained buckled to their seats and those who had refused to budge, Courtney said.
Fellow survivor John Wiggins, 46, of Cowan Heights, Calif., shared a hospital room with Courtney. He said the scene on the tarmac was gruesome.
''There are just all these people standing out there with no flesh,'' he said. ''They were alive. You just looked at them and thought, 'What can I do?' None of the airline staff were doing anything to help them.''
Crowley said the first rescue bus was crammed with crew members: ''None of them got out of their seats to help passengers onto the bus. All that they were worried about was that one of them was missing. . . . They seemed like a bunch of young people.''
Crowley delivered the same blunt message to Singapore Airlines Deputy Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Cheong Choong Kong, who visited him in the hospital. ''I told him his staff were kind but incompetent,'' he said.
Crowley said he plans to sue the airline for negligence once the full details of the crash have been revealed.