The tragedy of flight SQ006
December 16, 2000
By Andrew Perrin in Taipei
AN inflatable escape ramp blown back into a crashed aircraft by an approaching typhoon. Passengers directed by crew into a burning cabin filled with toxic fumes. Fire-smothering foam blown uselessly away by high winds.
The Australian has found that a catalogue of failings lifted the death toll to 83 in one of aviation history's most bizarre tragedies. Most of the 179 people on board survived the initial crash of flight SQ006 in Taipei on October 31, just as a typhoon was bearing down on Taiwan. But some perished in the terrifying minutes after the impact.
A special investigation by the Australian can also reveal for the first time the reasons why an experienced pilot attempted to take off on the wrong runway from Chiang Kai-shek international airport.
Seventy-nine passengers and four crew died after the Boeing 747 crashed into construction equipment and broke in two.
Up to 28 people were forced to turn back into a burning cabin filled with toxic fumes after strong winds blew the inflatable slide back on to the plane, blocking the escape hatch.
The investigation has also found that even though some flight attendants risked their lives to save people, others failed to help passengers open emergency doors, fleeing the plane before all inside had been rescued.
Singapore Airlines – the third-biggest international airline operator in Australia and 25 per cent owner of Air New Zealand – has admitted full responsibility for the crash, but rejects suggestions that the weather conditions had made it unsafe for take-off.
However, testimony given to crash investigators by surviving passengers suggests that winds of up to 60 knots prevented passengers on upper decks from fleeing to safety through an escape hatch at the front of the plane.
John Wiggans, a US aerospace executive seated in business class, says flight attendants instructed passengers to move to the lower floor after the inflatable slide blocked their exit.
"People were passing out because they were stuck on the stairs," Mr Wiggans said.
Passengers have testified that a flight attendant in the back section of the plane could not offer instructions on how to open an escape hatch because she was paralysed with fear. "Myself and another passenger were trying really hard to open this door but we couldn't," said Sally Walker, from the US.
"The stewardess was crouched behind us in fear, not doing anything."
A Singapore Airlines spokesman last night said cabin crew were required to stay at doors where emergency slides were deployed and to remain there until all passengers had evacuated.
Airport fire chief Tony Chang told the Australian that the strong wind simply blew away the chemical foam that firefighters sprayed to try to smother the flames engulfing the front section of the plane. In normal conditions, he said, the fire could have been extinguished within 15 minutes. On the night of the crash it took 40.