TRIPOLI, LIBYA — A 10-year-old Dutch boy lay in a hospital bed, head bandaged, skin pale and legs shattered — the lone “miracle” survivor of a plane crash Wednesday that killed 103 people in the Libyan capital. Most victims were Dutch tourists returning from vacation in South Africa.
Little was known about the dark-haired boy, who was rushed to a hospital in Tripoli where he underwent surgery for multiple fractures in both legs.
The barely conscious child muttered “Holland! Holland!” after he was found, a Dutch official said.
Libyan TV footage showed the boy, one eye bruised and swollen closed, breathing through an oxygen mask with multiple intravenous lines connected to his body and a monitor at his bedside. Doctors later said he was out of danger.
The boy appeared groggy as he was tended by a doctor in green scrubs and a veiled, gloved and masked nurse. The injured youngster wore a crisp pink gown and lay on a blue disposable pad. A bandage of layers of white gauze and hand-lettered with the date — 5/12 — covered his head.
The Libyan jetliner crashed minutes before landing after a more than seven-hour flight across the African continent from Johannesburg. Little remained of the Afriqiyah Airways Airbus aside from its tail, painted with the airline’s brightly colored logo.
Sixty-one victims were Dutch, many of them families headed home after spending spring break in South Africa, according to the Royal Dutch Tourism Board. Authorities released no names. Officials had no immediate explanation for the boy’s survival. The head of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, called it “truly a miracle.’’ However, aviation experts said that lone survivors, while rare, are not unknown. There have been at least five cases this decade of a single survivor in a commercial plane crash. Last summer, a young girl was found clinging to wreckage 13 hours after a plane went down in the water off the Comoros Islands.
“The idea of a lone survivor might seem a fluke, but it has happened several times,” said Patrick Smith, an American airline pilot and aviation author. “The sole survivor of last year’s Yemenia crash off the Comoros Islands was a 12-year-old.’’ William Voss, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Flight Safety Foundation said sometimes children survive because of their small size. “As far as children are concerned, the only thing we can reasonably say is that some children survive because of their size, because it’s easier for them to be protected during impact,” he said.
However, John Nance, an aviation safety expert and retired airline pilot, said that because commercial jet crashes are infrequent and each is different, there’s not enough evidence to say children have an advantage. Although children weigh less and are more flexible, many infants and children die in crashes because they aren’t properly restrained, he said. “We’ve lost a lot of kids in a few accidents,” Nance said, noting a child becomes “a missile” if they are not strapped in.
Flags were lowered Wednesday throughout the Netherlands and campaigning for parliamentary elections was suspended to mourn the dead. Hundreds of people phoned emergency numbers to ask about family and friends. Prayers were also offered in South Africa. “We thank God for the sole survivor. In his survival, we see that even in this dark cloud of death, there is this ray of hope,” said the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba.
In a field near the airport runway, little was left of the Airbus A330-200. Dozens of police and rescue workers wearing surgical masks and gloves combed through the wreckage, removing wallets, cell phones and other debris, some of it still smoldering. At least one body was seen being carried away. Video footage showed a flight recorder and green seats with television screens on them. The plane’s tail displayed the numbers “9.9.99” — a reference to the date of the founding of the African Union.
Libya’s transport minister, Mohammad Zaidan, said the plane’s two black boxes had been found and turned over to analysts. He said the cause of the crash was under investigation, but authorities had ruled out a terrorist attack. Flight 771 was carrying 93 passengers and 11 crew, Afriqiyah Airways said in a statement, but did not release a list. The Royal Dutch Tourism Board said 61 of the dead came from the Netherlands, including many travelers who were on two tour groups to South Africa.
Zaidan said the 10-year-old survivor was Dutch, but did not release his name.
Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said the boy told a Libyan doctor “Holland, Holland,” when asked where he came from, but his nationality had not been confirmed. Dutch authorities said an embassy representative would visit the child. Besides the Dutch, the other victims were French, German, South African, Finnish, British and Libyan, according to the transportation minister. Many of the passengers were booked to travel from Tripoli on to other destinations in Europe.
Johannesburg is popular with Dutch tourists and the flight came when many Dutch schools were closed for the annual spring break. “This is a large group of Dutch nationals after all, so it’s a deeply sad message we have this day,” Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said. The Airbus A330-200 went into service in September 2009 and had accumulated 1,600 flight hours in some 420 flights, according to Airbus.
Weather conditions over Tripoli’s international airport were good on Wednesday, with three-mile (4.8-kilometer) visibility, scattered clouds at 10,000 feet and winds of only 3 mph. A NASA Web site said an ash cloud from Iceland’s volcano had reached North Africa by Monday, but a map from Britain’s meteorological office showed it was well west of Tripoli at the time of the crash.
The thinning volcanic ash cloud that disrupted air traffic over parts of Europe and the Atlantic had moved into mid-ocean and was unlikely to have affected an airliner in Libya, more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) away, according to the Brussels-based European air traffic management agency. Afriqiyah Airways, which was founded in 2001 and is fully owned by the Libyan government, is not included on the European Union’s list of banned airlines. Wednesday’s crash was its first, according to the Aviation Safety Network website.
The airline had undergone 10 recent safety inspections at European airports, with no significant safety findings, according to Daniel Hoeltgen, spokesman for the European Aviation Safety Agency. He said a team of French crash investigators was en route to Tripoli.
The main runway at Tripoli Airport is 3,600 yards (meters) long. According to international airport guides, the airport does not have a precision approach system that guides airplanes down to the runway’s threshold, but has two other less sophisticated systems that are in wide use throughout the world.
Wednesday’s crash was the deadliest at Tripoli airport, according to the Web site of the U.S.-based Flight Safety Foundation. In 1970, a Czechoslovak Airlines Tupolev 104 crashed near the airport, killing all 13 people on board. A year later, a United Arab Airlines Comet crashed short of the runway, killing 16. In 1989, a Korean Air DC-10 crashed, killing 75 of the 199 people on board.