SLIDESHOW: Quick thinking stopped 1954 plane explosion at Shannon Airport

Archive special: Two crashes involving KLM planes in the 1950s claimed 117 lives, but many more could have been lost

Sophie Schouwenburg

Reporter:

Sophie Schouwenburg

Email:

news@limerickleader.ie

DID you know that the chances of you dying in a plane crash are one in 10.46 million? Or that in 2015 there were “only” three plane crashes that led to fatalities? Some 247 people died that year in airplane accidents.

In the 1950s, however, it was a very different story. Two KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) planes crashed leading to a combined death toll of 117 people.

There was also a near miss, with a plane overshooting the runway in 1962. As bad luck would have it, these incidents all occurred at or just after departing Shannon airport.

The selection from our photographic archive illustrates the aftermath of the 1954 and 1962 incidents. 

On September 5, 1954, KLM flight 633, otherwise known as “Super Constellation Triton” came crashing down just 2,500m away from the edge of the runway.

It was headed to New York from Amsterdam, stopping to refuel at Shannon. Reports suggest the probable cause was the unprecedented re-extension of the landing gear and Captain Viruly’s incorrect response in dealing with the situation.

There were 46 passengers and 10 crew onboard, and half of this total died. It is believed that many of the 28 who died first fainted due to being overcome by petrol fumes in the cabin and then, unable to help themselves, subsequently drowned in the rising tide.

Many more might have perished but for the quick thinking of one lady, Miss Elizabeth Snijder.

As the cabin filled with petrol fumes, one passenger decided to light up, as smokers often do in stressful situations, but Miss Snijder intercepted him, flicking the cigarette from his mouth before he could strike the match.

Had she not acted so, one witness said “the plane would have been blown to bits.”

Nobody in Shannon knew that the plane had crashed until John Tieman, a survivor, staggered into the airport, in a state of exhaustion and covered in mud.

He swam well over a mile in treacherous conditions to sound the alarm.

A full rescue operation was immediately launched, led by Limerick Harbour Master, Captain C. J. Hanrahan. Our photos show the sad wreck of the plane recovered from the water, local volunteers, survivors at the airport and the recovered belongings of the passengers laid out in the airport grounds.

Limerick undertaker, Christopher Thompson had the grim task of helping to identify the remains of the deceased and coffining the bodies, ready for repatriation to their loved ones.

KLM later formally thanked Mr. Thompson and his staff for their professionalism in dealing with the situation and presented him with a book of poignant photographs, which he has to this day, of the scenes at the airport and the subsequent funerals.

The second crash occurred on August 14 1958. Strangely enough, the flight 607-E, otherwise known as Hugo de Groot, met its fate in very similar circumstances.

The exact cause of the accident is unknown, but was believed to be mechanical failure.

There were 99 people onboard, 91 passengers and six crew members. There were no survivors and only 34 bodies were recovered. The remnants of this catastrophe are still lying on the ocean bed beneath 200m of water.

The 1962 incident was relatively minor. Having departed from Amsterdam with 60 passengers and 10 crew, the flight intended stopping over at Shannon to pick up more passengers, before heading on to New York.

However, it overshot the runway on landing at Shannon and ended up in soft ground. One passenger reported that he didn’t realise there was a problem until the plane gave a big shudder and came to a sudden halt.

Some minor injuries were reported but nobody was seriously hurt.

The pilot said at the time he was unsure if the brakes failed or he got a massive skid but, either way, the plane did not react when he applied the brakes.

Apart from a bad fright for passengers, some repairs to the plane and the inconvenience of flight delays due to the runway’s closure for the day, it was a happy ending for all involved.