Airliner crashes on approach to Gatwick Airport 1969

1969, 5 January 1969: A Boeing 727 airliner owned by Ariana Afghan Airlines crashed at Fernhill, Horley, on approach to Gatwick Airport. As it descended it hit a chimney pot of a house, crashed through trees and slid 200 yards before completely demolishing a house and catching fire.

Forty-eight people on the plane were killed together with a couple living in the house. By a miracle the couple's baby daughter survived. DS Tappern, PC Simmons, PC Buss, PC Holland and PC Anglim received the Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct and 'service exceeding the bounds of duty' at the scene of the disaster.

Chris Atkins: The incident room was set up at Horley Police Station opposite the mortuary used for the casualties and running the Room and keeping the records was my job. Subsequently I prepared the formal report for John Irvin. Alan Hill had done a magnificent job among all the chaos recording the time people arrived, where they were and when they should be sent off duty.

The chief constable always claimed he was first officer on the scene, beating the local hierarchy to it. Alan's meticulous list showed this was false and the chief constable was behind, I recall, John Irvin, George Cork, Frank Trussler, Alan Hill and me. This led to the appendix listing arrival being removed from the report at HQ and with it all of Alan's work.

image of The Times showing a picture of the air crash

Most of the passengers were Indians who lived in Britain. Three of them were children. It was 2.35 am. The Times reported on the 6th January:

It was in a blazing orange flamed trail of buckled, twisted metal extending along a straight, pathetically marked four hundred yards across two fields that the fifty people died. The wheels of the Boeing clipped the top of a thirty foot tree in the grounds of a house in Peeps Brooke Lane, Horley, chipped the edge of the chimney pot and broke a window. Fifty yards on the beginnings of a disaster were more apparent.

Several stout trees were broken off jaggedly at a height of fifteen feet. The aircraft shed debris in the field, probably bounced, and struck the home of Mr and Mrs William Jones, who presumably died, but whose eighteen month old daughter Beverley, asleep in her cot survived. She was taken to hospital with a head injury but later was said to be "fine ". ...

The nose and front end of the fuselage from which the fourteen survived, eleven passengers and the captain, co-pilot and flight engineer, got out, landed eighty yards away at the end of a fifty yard wide path of charred and tangled metal.

Left to right: Sgt William J. Tappern, PCs Keith R. Simmonds, Patrick J. Buss, Robert F. Holland and Thomas J. Anglim. They received the Queen's Commendation for Bravery.

Left to right: Sgt William J. Tappern,
PCs Keith R. Simmonds,
Patrick J. Buss, Robert F. Holland
and Thomas J. Anglim.

The miraculous survival of the child found by PC Simmons in the ruins of a house came about after he heard cries and saw the baby's arm being waved. The first officers on the scene included PC Robert "Dutchy" Holland who with others entered the crashed fuselage to rescue passengers and were to receive a Queen's Commendation for Bravery for their nights work.

Traffic officers provided ambulance escorts from the scene to a number of hospitals, in thick fog. There were many horrific stories and tales of difficult and dangerous tasks, but no call for counselling, no one sick with stress. They just got on with it.

John Molyneux: The Gatwick air crash was at 1.34 am on Sunday 5 January 1969, and involved a three engine Boeing 727 of Ariana Afghanistan Airways. It was attempting to land in thick, freezing fog but was slightly off-course and too low. It took the top out of several trees at the end of Fernhill Lane, demolished a house, killing the two adult occupants, before crashing into a field beside the B2036 Balcombe Road. Only three crew and four passengers survived.

My understanding is that PC Pat Buss and PC Keith Simmonds were the crew of the traffic car which was first on the scene and that they rescued the baby from under the rubble of the demolished house having heard it crying. I was a Scenes of Crime Officer at Caterham at the time and had a telephone supplied so I was not surprised when it rang in the early hours!

The request was to call out the PCs from the neighbouring five police houses and for us all to report to Caterham police station for transport to Horley where there had been a plane crash. As we neared the scene, there were dozens of fire appliances and ambulances lining the Balcombe Road.

Initially, my duty was at Antlands Lane roundabout, stopping traffic from using Balcombe Road, but most of the morning was spent picking up charred body parts and putting them into black bags. PC Les Curtis drew a plan of the field and the finds were marked on to it. During the afternoon I was in Fernhill Road when a senior officer, in civvies, from Reigate Division, came up to me and asked, "What's going on here then?"

During that morning the Chief Constable Peter Matthews, visited the scene in full uniform and asked a WPC if everything was alright. She did not recognise him, thought he was a fire officer and said, "Yes, but it would be much better if your bloody fire engines were out of the way."

Shortly after this, every police station in the county received a frame containing photos of the CC, the ACC and the DCC, with instructions that it should be displayed in a prominent place and that all officers were to acquaint themselves with the photos!

Sometime after the incident a report was issued detailing the action taken. It was about forty pages long and HQ may have a copy. Most national newspapers carried photos of the crash, including The Times and the Daily Mail. PC Buss, PC Simmonds.

Alan Bridgeman: On 5th January, 1969 an airliner crashed at Gatwick, having underestimated its distance from the runway. It demolished a house, killing the occupants, and all on board, but missing a baby in the house, who was found by PC Simmons.

On the 14th January I did a training exam in the morning, as a 9-1 duty, and then set off at 9.30 pm for Gatwick with PC 774 Haswell. Our mission was to guard the crash site. We duly guarded it without incident, other than discussing what expense claim we were entitled to.

I quoted the Police Regulations, which I had recently read as part of my probationer training, and stated confidently that we were entitled to claim. Arthur was dismissive. "They'll never pay us expenses for this" he said. We reached an agreement; I, the probationer, would put in a claim, and notify Arthur if it was paid, in which case he would put in a claim as well.

I didn't seem to work out that such a claim would probably gain me the reputation of a money-grabbing probationer, while permitting PC Haswell to remain unsullied by such notoriety. On the way back to FD, we dealt with a road traffic accident, and finished at 10.15 am. I claimed payment of the twelve hour expense rate, as I was surely entitled to, under Police Regulations.

Inspector Alf Everett, a large and authoritative individual, called me in to enquire where I had purchased consumables to the value of seven shillings and nine pence whilst stationed in a field at Gatwick in the middle of the night. I replied truthfully that I had purchased none, but was entitled to claim the sum permitted by the Regulation. Inspector Everett disagreed, and I was advised to withdraw the claim.

I believed myself to be correct in my understanding of the Regulation – but was fully prepared to accept the advice of an authoritative inspector, who at that time I equated with God. I informed Arthur Haswell of the result. "I told you you'd never get it" was his response. By such things do we learn!

Keith Simmonds ex 619: I have to correct Alan Bridgeman's bit on the Gatwick air crash, firstly not all on board were killed. I was crewed with PC 230 Pat Buss and we were the first on scene. As we turned into the lane in thick fog, we could see numerous fires and wreckage spread over the whole of the field.

Pat stopped the car in about the middle of the lane leapt out and I followed (we had already reported the location to HJ). There was a ditch and a large hedge but Pat jumped the ditch and forced his way through the hedge I followed and he went right to where we could see the main fuselage on fire.

I went left to the tail section of the plane which was burning brightly. As I neared the tail a police car pulled in and PC Anglin got out and shouted "Where is the house?" I replied "What house?" and carried on to the tail. I could see that there was a lot of rubble that the tail was sitting on and part of the tail engine was burning very brightly as I cautiously approached I saw a movement which on closer inspection saw was a baby's arm.

She was in a cot and the two ends of the cot had collapsed inwards forming a roof over her. I carefully lifted her out and ran back with her to the lane where the first ambulance had just arrived. Handing her to the crew they asked for my name which I gave them. (This was to cause a problem later.)

I returned to find Pat and saw he was guiding some walking wounded towards the ambulances including two of the flight crew. Fourteen survived the crash from the aircraft. Seven died later and there were forty one dead at the scene. The mother and father of the baby perished in the house.

We spent the rest of the shift pulling bits of bodies from the wreckage and by 6:30 am there was not much more we could do and we were released by the incident officer. We finished at the normal time of 7 am at HTG. At about 10.30 am I was asleep and was woken by a phone call from the very new Chief Constable Peter Matthews who told me "Get back here now".

I returned in uniform and by the time I arrived there were loads of officers there, including the HQ mobile canteen which was trying to park in the drive to the house. I walked towards the chief (who was in full uniform) just in time to hear him say to a WPC (name known but withheld) "Are you alright?" to which she replied "I will be if you get your ******* fire engine moved." It was her that moved to the other side of the county.

PC Keith Simmonds at the air crash

The Chief Constable wanted me to show the press where and how I had found the baby and the picture of me standing on the pile of debris was front page on all the national papers the next day.

The confusion caused by giving the ambulance crew my name was that the ambulance had listed her as Simmonds. She was Beverley Jones but her grandparents were also named Simmons they obviously thought for a while that one of the parents had given her that name so the grandparents could be traced.

I was invited to Beverley's 21st birthday party some nineteen and a half years later.

Brian Cutler: As a sergeant I attended as identification officer. Fifty died, and the seriously burnt were sent to the Queen Victoria hospital at East Grinstead (the McIndoe Unit). They were placed in sealed units with provision for interview through speakers attached to the unit.

All were from the Punjab and an interpreter was used. One recalled being in the plane and then finding himself sitting on the grass field away from the crash. He did not recall the impact of the crash.

Identification was completed apart from one missing boy; a father had a son untraced. Kenyon's, the London undertakers, who specialised in major incident casualties throughout the world at that time, had the bodies removed to their London mortuary.

I attended the Kenyon's London office with the father of the missing son; the father had explained that two of his son's front teeth were crossed over. Kenyon's brought out a boy's body completely wrapped in cotton (as a mummy) with only the mouth exposed; two top teeth were crossed over and the father confirmed the body as that of his son.

Extracts from Chris Atkins' Report to the Chief Constable on the crash at 0235 5 January 1969

The crash occurred at Fernhill (map reference 530410) a mile and a half south of Horley in a rectangular area of fields bounded on the north by Fernhill Lane, on the east by Peeks Lane, on the south by Antlands Lane, and on the west by Balcombe Road (B2036). The first three mentioned are narrow country lanes but with good tarmacadam surface.

Apparently a quarter of a mile before the crash site the aircraft clipped the top of some tall trees, which was the first object to be struck. It then crossed Peeks Lane at a descending angle, struck the chimney pots of a house and left tyre marks across the roof of an adjacent bungalow.

... after about 220 yards it struck a house called Longfield. The building which contained three occupants was completely demolished by the impact. The aircraft then broke up. ...

Fire was present from the moment of first impact with the ground. The Fire Brigade deployed ten pumps together with ten miscellaneous fire vehicles from Surrey, Sussex and the British Airport Authority Brigades. ...

In the light of the blazing wreckage local people worked to assist and comfort (survivors). Some including the crew were taken to a local house until ambulances arrived. At least nine members of the public went to the scene of the crash and searched amongst the wreckage, in some cases returning after taking survivors to safety. They extinguished burning clothing or pulled people further from the wreck. ...

The work undertaken by such people was extremely praiseworthy, carried out in horrific conditions with bodies on all sides and with screams coming from the burning plane. The first call to Control Room was received at 2.38 am and Horley were informed immediately. Inspector Adcock was in the police station along with five constables and the station sergeant dealing with a number of prisoners.

The constables were sent immediately to the scene soon followed by the inspector and duty sergeant after they had disposed of the prisoners. The five constables, Tappern, Holland, Guiver, Blondell and Anglim arrived at 2.45 am followed shortly by two Traffic crews PC Buss and Simmonds, and Vear and Burrows. By now the fire had spread and more or less continuous the length of the wreckage.

PC Guiver remained as the contact vehicle for Control. PC Anglim using his personal radio spoke with Redhill and said that a large number of police, fire and ambulance personnel would be required. PC Blondell went to the junction of Fernhill Lane and Balcombe Road to guide in emergency vehicles. The remaining officers immediately went to the aircraft to search for survivors.

The blazing plane was producing an intense heat and the officers moved any injured persons found to a safe position and pulled any bodies from the flames, but of course the initial search was intended to find survivors. PCs Tappern and Holland found the surviving crew members and ascertained the number and nationality of the passengers carried and passed this to Inspector Adcock and to Headquarters Control. PCs Anglim and Holland each found a child, but they died whilst the constables attended them.

The officers in this search were frequently working among the flames and while explosions were occurring and even knocking the officers off their feet. It was during the initial search that PC Simmonds found a baby Beverley Jones buried in the rubble of "Longfield" the only survivor of the family that lived there.

Inspector Adcock and Sergeant Horne were on the scene a few minutes after the constables and were briefed and immediately organised a search for survivors near the house led by the sergeant. Other officers were directed by the inspector to make enquiries at nearby houses for survivors who were then to be taken to the ambulance RV point near Donkey Lane. By now all the rescuers were operating in deep mud.

A police officer booked each ambulance away with destination and number of casualties. Sergeant Cutler was sent to Redhill General and instructed to list the number and identity of casualties, label and list all property, and to maintain liaison with HQ Casualty Bureau, and through the incident room at Horley, the temporary mortuary.

The first of 19 ambulances arrived at 2.49 am and at 3.32 the last of the fifteen survivors left the scene. By 4.15 50 police officers were on the site and 31 bodies had been recovered.

Inspector Adcock arranged for a large hall in Horley to be used as a temporary mortuary. Instructions were given for police officers to be sent there for duty, and at 4.28 am the hall was ready to receive bodies. Superintendent Cork was in charge at the scene, who had before leaving Redhill arranged for a call out of police.

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