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Thu Apr 24 01:53:40 SAST 2014

Airbus crashed 'five seconds from safety'

SALLY EVANS, ZANDILE MBABELA and BOBBY JORDAN | 12 May, 2010 22:350 Comments

Two South African fathers, an airline cabin-crew trainer and a couple about to enjoy a holiday in Libya were among the South African passengers on board Afriqiyah Airways flight 8U771, which crashed five seconds from landing at Tripoli airport early yesterday morning.

Late yesterday, confusion still reigned. Officials from the airline, the South African department of international relations and the Libyan government were unable to provide a passenger list or reveal the nationalities of the dead.

Among the South Africans on board were Frans Dreyer, 50, Catherine Tillet, 45, and Norbert Taferner and his wife, Paula. Last night, the SABC reported that South African engineer Robert Webber, 41, was also on the flight.

The only survivor of the crash, which claimed the lives of 92 passengers and 11 crew, was a dark-haired 10-year-old Dutch boy, named Robin, who had been on holiday in South Africa with his parents and 11-year-old sibling.

He suffered broken legs and other fractures, and was operated on yesterday at Tripoli's Al-Khadra Hospital.

A hospital staff member told The Times last night that the boy was in a "stable" condition.

Reuters reported Afriqiyah Airways executive Saleh Ali Saleh as saying that there were 62 Dutch passengers on the plane, at least 22 Libyans, two Germans, a Zimbabwean and a Filipino. The UK Foreign Office confirmed that at least one Briton was on the flight.

But there was no confirmation of the number of South Africans on board.

"Everybody is dead, except for one child," Libyan Transport Minister Mohamed Zidan said at a press briefing at Tripoli airport.

There is no word on the cause of the accident.

Airbus spokesman Linden Birns said a team of experts was on its way to the crash site.

The new A330 aircraft, which was delivered in September last year, had accumulated 1600 flight hours.

It is the second A330 to crash - the other was an Air France plane travelling from Brazil that disappeared over the Atlantic in June.

Libyan online newspaper Quryna reported that, shortly before the crash, the pilot contacted the control tower to ask it to alert emergency airport services because there was a problem with the plane. This was not confirmed, however.

Little remains of the aircraft and television images showed passengers' belongings, including a Dutch-language guide book to South Africa, strewn over the site.

The Tripoli Post newspaper reported that the plane crashed less than five seconds from landing and 200m from the airport fence.

The flight took off from OR Tambo international airport, near Johannesburg, on Tuesday at 9.37pm and was expected to land in Tripoli at 6.20am.

Celebrity model Gina Athans stepped off the same plane shortly before its doomed return trip.

She was returning from a business trip to Tripoli, where her public relations company promotes the Gadaffi International Charity and Development Foundation.

Athans told The Times yesterday that she was a regular passenger and had got to know the crew well.

"It was the same plane that went back that night.

"When I heard that it had crashed I was surprised. It was heartbreaking," she said.

"I fly that route quite often. I'm absolutely shocked. You obviously think 'what if'. It was the same flight, the exact same aeroplane."

Officials from the South African embassy in Tripoli and an Afriqiyah Airline agent, who asked not to be named, said the authorities were having trouble compiling an accurate passenger list because they had not been given a legible list of surnames or passenger passport numbers.

Department of international relations and co-operation spokesman Nomfanelo Kota said: "We cannot speculate according to media reports.

"We are waiting to hear from the airline and the Libyan government. So far, there has been no official correspondence between their government and ours."

At OR Tambo international airport yesterday, passengers' relatives were guarded by police to prevent reporters interviewing them.

At Afriqiyah Airlines' offices in Sandton, staff hid and abandoned their desks to escape reporters who had earlier been escorted out by security guards.

Yesterday afternoon, the airline issued a statement in which it said that relatives of the dead passengers would be offered free flights and accommodation in Tripoli.

It said Libyan immigration authorities would grant them speedy visas on their arrival.

Charmaine Thome, the airline's sales manager, said she had been fielding calls from relatives. "We are all sad for the family members of those on board," she said. - Additional reporting by Roderick Mcleod

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