Last year, I wrote a story on ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ a film which was shot at Kitulgala. Having read that story, a Sunday Observer reader from Kurunegala sent me a letter reminding me about the tragic aircraft crash at Seven Virgin Hills off Norton Bridge further up, in the valley of the Kelani Ganga.
This drew my attention to the tragic crash, and planning to explore it I went to Norton Bridge, last weekend. The Koththelena village lies below the crash site, the Seven Virgin Hills which is ridge over 1,300 M high. I was able to see some of the remnants of the plane crash and met an eyewitness to the tragedy that had occurred in 1974.
Sri Lanka experienced its first major aircraft tragedy exactly 44 years ago, on December 4, 1974 around 10.10 p.m. The aircraft, a giant DC-8 jetliner on a Mecca-bound Charter flight, crashed at the fifth cliff of the Seven Virgin Hills, at Theberton Estate in Norton Bridge, killing all 191 passengers and the crew of nine. Among the dead were 182 Indonesian Muslims on a Haj pilgrimage to Mecca.
The aircraft belonged to the Dutch aircraft company Martin Air (which is now a full freighter airline with no passenger operations). The ill-fated jetliner, on charter for the Indonesian airline Garuda, was scheduled to land at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) for refueling.
Reaching the wooded village of Koththelena at Theberton Estate in the foothills of Seven Virgin Hills which is the closest village to the air crash site, I met K.A. Ariyapala 60, now a building contractor, who was then a 20-year-old youth in the Koththelena village. He re-lived the tragic event with me, sitting cozily in his tea boutique in the foothills of the scenic mountain ridge.
Ariyapala had heard the sound of an airplane at exactly 10.10 pm. “I heard the sound of the plane splitting. It was like fire crackers being lit, and then a blast like thunder. I came out of the house and knew at once that it was the sound of the plane blowing up and saw the fireball and burning aircraft,” recalls Ariyapala.
“At that time, there were very few houses in my village and we didn’t have electricity. People used to go to bed early. With the unusual, thundering sound of the plane blowing up, people rushed out of their houses to see what was happening. No one really knew what had happened.
What they saw were the flames atop the mountain range,” he reminisced. Ariyapala says: “I remember, the entire incident didn’t take more than five minutes. By the time the villagers had awoken to the sound of the blast and arrived at the scene, everything was over.
No one could reach the crash site as there was no road and the entire area was a thick jungle and a steep slope.” The next morning an Air Force helicopter arrived at the crash site and located the place. “Large crowds started climbing the mountain. I too joined them. Some dead bodies and debris of the aircraft had fallen on to the other side of the mountain. The villagers in Maliboda also climbed from that side. Looters entered the scene and were preparing to loot the goods belonging to the passengers”, he said.
“I saw notes of money strewn everywhere and a large quantity of cloths among them. It was a difficult climb on the perilous slopes and some had to jump over cliffs and even hold on to creepers in their effort to climb the mountain,” Ariyapala recollects. At the site there had been burnt and mangled bodies smouldering, with parts of the fuselage strewn on the cliff top. Among the remains of the plane were the belongings of the passengers, scattered all over the jungle.
“Some bodies were half burnt and in tatters, while limbs hung from tree branches. Of the 191 bodies, only one complete body of a passenger was found without much damage, at the site,” says Ariyapala. “The Air Force and other Forces arrived at the scene and started search operations the following day with the help of the villagers. They collected the baggage of the passengers, and stacked them like a mountain.
Influx of sight-seers
The smouldering mass of aircraft metal and other components were strewn in the gully between two massive rocky cliffs and the surface area. Sightseers picked up scrap material of the plane as souvenirs. I picked up a nickel wheel of the aircraft engine which I kept with me for a long time as a souvenir of this tragedy,” he said.
In the days that followed, thousands of people from villages and towns in the vicinity of Theberton Estate thronged the site by vehicle and on foot.
Nearing the scene of the crash was a massive traffic jam, caused by a long line of vehicles carrying sightseers. Eventually, the approach road to Theberton Estate was clogged with vans, buses, jeeps and cars making it impossible to reach the scene via Norton Bridge, Ariyapala recalled. “Police finally declared the area as a prohibited zone due to the influx of people. The villagers built makeshift tea boutiques along the Theberton Estate serving refreshments to sightseers for about a month. My father owned a bakery in the village.
Those days, bread and bakery products were restricted and available only through the coupon card at the cooperative shops. To meet the demand, the Government Agent had issued six sacks of wheat flour to serve those who visited the crash site,” he recalled.
Walking around 200 m away from the road in a leech-infested jungle thicket, Ariyapala took us to a higher elevation where the remains of the passengers and the crew were buried in a mass grave. This graveyard lies straight below the crash site in the foothills of Koththelena village in the Theberton Tea Estate.
In 1979, a memorial plaque carrying the names of the crew of the ill-fated airliner was erected at this graveyard in the Theberton Tea Estate to commemorate the passengers and the crew, by their relatives. The plaque is inscribed in Dutch and Arabic languages. “Every year, relatives of the dead passengers come here and commemorate their beloved ones,” recalls Ariyapala. The emblem of the Dutch airline Martin Air was fixed on the top of the memorial plaque and later it went missing or was stolen. Today, the site is overgrown with creepers, poorly maintained and forgotten by the people.
Today, the memorial monument has been ravaged by treasure hunters and there is nothing left for conservation. Visitors to this site express concern about the ongoing wanton destruction of the memorial plaque.
The first memorial of the plane crash erected near the Norton Bridge Police Station, where a tyre of the ill-fated aircraft was recovered, is on display with a small plaque carrying the names of the aircraft crew.
“The inception of the memorial was most picturesque; the flight of steps leading to the memorial plaque laid with an attractive iron railing, the stone walls neatly plastered with cement, and beautiful trees and flower bushes were grown around the memorial, perfectly blending with the surrounding environment. Today, everything has been looted and neglected. If the authorities take steps to develop this site as a tourist spot, our village would flourish in every aspect,” laments Ariyapala.
The investigations conducted by the Sri Lankan authorities and the Martin Air Group on the crash, finally determined that the pilot had been unable to see, the area ahead clearly, due to the dark clouds and the mountain range, covered by thick fog, which obstructed the pilot’s vision.
The Black Box of the ill-fated aircraft showed it was a mechanical error that had caused the tragedy. However, it was later revealed that trouble had arisen when the pilot miscalculated the altitude. It was possible he had mistaken the lights of the Laxapana Hydroelectricity scheme for the Colombo airport runway lights.