Tenerife is plagued by fog. Clouds bank up around the extinct volcano, Pico do Teide, and spread a sudden eerie mist across the Atlantic holiday island. On Sunday, 27 March 1977 it was very foggy.
A bomb, planted by terrorists of the Canary Islands liberation movement, had exploded in a shop at Las Palmas airport, on the neighbouring island of Gran Canaria, and aircraft were being diverted from Las Palmas to Santa Cruz. Among them were two Boeing 747 jumbo jets - Dutch KLM flight 4805 from Amsterdam and Pan Am flight 1736 from Los Angeles and New York.
The three air traffic controllers on duty in the control tower had eleven planes on the ground, all awaiting clearance for take-off. But their main concerns were the fast-thickening fog, which had reduced visibility to 500 yards, and the central runway lights, which were not working. To add to the confusion, two of the airport's three radio frequencies were out of action and the pilots had to talk to the controllers through the babble of the one remaining frequency. The scene was set for disaster.
The main east-west runway at Santa Cruz is two miles long and 2,000 feet above sea level. Parallel to it is a second runway which planes use to taxi to and from the terminal buildings, These two runways are joined at either end and are linked along their lengths by four access slipways. KLM flight 4805 and Pan Am flight 1736 were stuck in the queue on the second, “taxiing” runway, the Dutch airliner just ahead of the American.
The waiting finally ended just before 5 pm KLM pilot Captain Jaap van Zanten announced to his 229 weary passengers that he had at least been given clearance to taxi forward in readiness for take-off to Las Palmas. Pan Am skipper Captain Victor Grubbs made a similar announcement to his 370 American passengers.
Because of the congestion on the taxiing runway, both pilots were ordered to move their planes on to the main runway and to taxi to the take-off starting point at the far end. The message went out from the control tower to KLM flight 4805: “Taxi straight ahead to the end of the runway and make backtrack”.
Captain Van Zanten’s mighty jet headed slowly up the runway while Captain Grubbs received his instructions from the tower to follow the Dutch jet but to leave the runway by turning into a slipway on the left.
Captain Van Zanten completed his manoeuvre and pointed his airliner’s nose into the fog that hid the two miles of main runway ahead of him. His co-pilot reported to the control tower “KLM 4805 is now ready for take-off. We are waiting for clearance”. The tower replied: 'OK, stand by for take-off. I will call you”.
The reason for the horrific chain of events that occurred in the next few minutes may never be discovered. What is known is that while the control tower was checking on the position of the Pan Am jumbo, the Dutch airliner was readying itself for take-off. And while the American plane was still lumbering up the main runway before turning off onto one of the slipways, the KLM airliner released its brakes, increased thrust and began rolling down the two miles of runway ... straight at Pan Am flight 1736, unseen through the fog.
The Dutch jet was already travelling at 150 miles an hour when Pam Am co-pilot Robert Bragg first spotted it. He said “I saw lights ahead of us through the fog. At first I thought it was the KLM standing at the end of the runway. Then I realised the lights were coming towards us”. Bragg screamed: 'Get off. Get off. “Captain Grubbs shouted: 'We're on the runway. We're on the runway”.
Agonisingly slowly, Grubbs slewed his jumbo through a 30-degree turn in a last desperate attempt to avoid disaster. But it was too late. The KLM plane was travelling too fast. It could not stop or swerve. The only option for Captain Van Zanten was to try to lift the nose of his jumbo in a bid to 'hop' over the plane blocking his path.
But Captain Van Zanten had passed the point of no return. Two seconds after lifting off, the Dutch plane smashed into the American jumbo at about 160 miles an hour. The nose of the KLM jet hit the top of the other plane, taking the roof off the cockpit and the first-class upper compartment. The giant engine pods hanging beneath the wings were next to hit the Americanplane. The port engines ploughed into the aft-cabin, killing most of the passengers instantly.
The KLM Boeing continued its terrible journey over the top of the Pan Am plane and along the runway, disintegrating and exploding into thousands of pieces. Not one person aboard the Dutch plane survived.
All the survivors on the Pan Am plane were sitting either up front or on the left-hand side, away from the impact. Part of the left of the plane was broken off by the crash, and the survivors either were hurled clear or leaped to safety.
The crash occurred at 5.07 p.m. but throughout the long seconds of disaster, the air-traffic controllers remained unaware of it. A Spanish airliner flying above Tenerife broke in to request landing permission. The control tower replied sharply “Radio silence, please. I will continue to call up KLM”. But KLM no longer existed. It was a litter of blazing, scattered debris.
It was not until a gust of wind blew a gap in the fog that the controllers realised they were witnesses to the ultimate horror everyone had dreaded – a crash between two jumbo jets, each weighing 240 tons, 231 feet long and with a tailplane the height of a seven-storey building. And both crowded with passengers.
Death was instant for all 229 passengers and 15 crew of the KLM jet. But among the survivors of the Pan Am jumbo, there were tales of panic, horror and heroism.
In the first-class compartment “all hell broke loose” according to 37 year-old passenger Jim Naik, from California. He said “I was sitting with my wife Elsie when there was a sudden explosion. The plane went completely up in flames. I was struggling to get Elsie out with me but after the impact people just started tumbling down on top of us from the lounge above as the ceiling caved in. A piece of ceiling fell on my wife. Then a second explosion hurled me on to the runway. I was running back towards the plane to try to save Elsie when I saw a body falling out of the plane. It was my wife”.
Californian John Amador, aged 35, said “I looked out of a porthole and saw the KLM plane coming right at me. I ducked and, when I looked up, our own aircraft was split into three parts. I was afraid I was going to be roasted”. But he leaped to safety.
Mrs Teri Brusco, of Oregon, said “The Dutch jet's wings took off the whole of the top of our plane. Everyone was screaming”. Her husband Roland pushed his wife through a jagged opening in the side of the plane and they then hauled out his mother. “My mother was on fire. We started dragging her across the field to put the flames out”.
Briton John Cooper, a 53-year-old Pan Am mechanic, was travelling as a passenger on the flight deck when the plane was hit by the KLM jumbo. He was thrown clear and suffered only minor cuts. He said “There was a terrible crash. I just don't want to remember it. There were people screaming terribly, women and children enveloped inflames; I will never get the sound of that screaming out of my ears”.
Dorothy Kelly, a 35-year-old Pan Am purser from New Hampshire, was heroine of the day. Later awarded a gallantry medal, this is what she remembered of the disaster: “There was noise, things flying around. Nothing was recognizable. There was nothing around that looked like anything had looked before - just jagged metal and small pieces of debris. When everything settled, I realized that there was sky above me although I was still in what had been the aircraft. At first, I didn't see any people at all. There were explosions behind me and I realized that the only way out was up. The floor started giving way as I climbed out”.
Mrs Kelly leaped 20 feet to safety then looked back at the broken and blazing plane. There was a string of explosions and she heard people screaming from within the aircraft - so she ran back towards it.
“I saw the captain on his knees, not moving. I thought he had broken his legs. There were other people around with broken limbs. I grabbed the captain under the arms and pulled and kept encouraging him to keep going. I feared the fuselage would fall down on us. There was a huge explosion. I said "We've got to move faster." I kept pushing and pulling and then dropped him on to the runway”.
Having saved the life of Captain Grubbs, Mrs Kelly dashed back and forth, dragging other dazed survivors clear of the wreckage until she was certain that there could be no one else left alive.
But explosions were ripping through the jumbo. A final series of blasts engulfed the plane in flames. There was no longer any hope of survival for anyone left aboard. Of the 370 passengers and 16 crew of the jumbo, more than 300 were dead within minutes of the crash and more than 60 were seriously injured. The final death toll on the dav the two leviathans of the skies collided was a horrifying 582.