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Fatal flight - the story of VN815

Fatal flight - the story of VN815

Before departing from Saigon, passengers on flight VN 815 were approached by pleasant

marketing consultants with two-page questionnaires, asking questions like how many

times they had flown in the past 12 months and if they planned to return to Vietnam.

Sixty passengers climbed into the Soviet-era TU134B just before 1pm for the 45-minute

flight to Phnom Penh.

Aboard were 22 Taiwanese nationals. "Most of them were coming here for business

- restaurants, companies selling land - one was coming to investigate the possibility

of opening a bank," said Shieng E of the Taiwan Overseas Peace Service.

"Two or three of the men were coming here to get married," she said. Ho

Suicheng planned to wed Cambodian Khuth Linda the following day.

Of the 21 Koreans on the flight, six were part of a medical team sent to donate equipment

to the Phnom Penh University, according to Korean commercial attaché Kwangduk


"A four person family including a priest were aboard as well as two children

of Korean embassy staff," he said. "The passengers were either on business

or coming to visit their families."

Eight Vietnamese, including the crew, were on the plane, as were six Chinese, four

from Hong Kong. There were three Cambodians: Kham Kassara, Ly Hong and Ngoun Bopha.

There were also two Canadians and people from Australia, Britain, Japan and Macao.

The Australian citizen, Li Hieng, was born in Cambodia and moved to Adelaide in 1993.

"He had flown about four times per month to Vietnam," said his brother

Li Hout. "He was the director of the 'Miss London' garment factory in Kampong

Cham." The sole UK national, Peter Wright, was the director of Apex Dalat, a

garment manufacturer in Vietnam's central highlands.

The flight went smoothly until the plane began its descent to Pochentong Airport.

According to Cambodian aviation officials, the pilot ceased radio contact for two

minutes before the plane was first spotted by people on the ground.

The last control tower communication advised the pilot to land from the west rather

than from the east because of shifting winds. "Roger," was the final response

from the cockpit.

But the plane came from the east, flying low over the military side of the airport,

according to witnesses.

"I didn't believe my eyes when I saw the plane lower than the trees and going

in that direction," said one airport official.

Witnesses watched with amazement as the plane's left wing clipped a tree, and the

aircraft headed downward, in what was not so much a dive as a gradual descent. At

one point, the nose rose a little, as the pilot apparently trying to pull up, before

dipping down again.

Wings tilting back and forth, the plane's fate was sealed when it hit a palm tree

with its left wing and then skimmed the top of a house with the right.

"I saw the plane tipping and I shouted to my friend, 'That plane hit my house!'"

the home owner said. "Later, police, rescuers, officials gathered at my house

to shelter from the rain, but the roof leaked because of the damage."

Flames began to spew out of the plane's tail after it hit the palm tree, but it had

not exploded yet. One witness said he had time to see the emergency doors opening.

"The engine was making loud rattling sounds, and the doors opened, and I saw

people gathering at the door, shortly after the plane hit the thatch roof and the

tree," said Ilm Saroeun, 40, a villager from nearby Thma Koul village. "I

think if one of these people was brave enough to push the people at the door out,

maybe some of them would be still alive."

The aircraft continued to fall, one wing decapitating two cows, before it struck

ground on an oxcart road, bounced through several rice paddies and exploded into


"The flames were higher than the palm trees, as high as the sky," said

Koe Sarin, a policeman from Thma Koul.

"I was planting chili in front of my house, and suddenly a noise crackled over

my head, not too loudly. And I turned to the sound - a big plane over my head! -

and then it dropped into the rice field and exploded like an artillery shell. I rushed

into my house, grabbed my baby, and ran away."

A grim scene, with scores of bloody bodies strewn among the paddies, awaited rescuers.

"Most of the bodies were destroyed, lots of severed limbs. Only a few bodies

remained whole," said Yun Socheng, whose house is about 300 meters from the


The time of crash was about 1:40pm. A Cambodian Red Cross ambulance arrived at the

scene about 2:20, and the International Committee for the Red Cross also dispatched

an ambulance. "It was very difficult to reach the place," said Dr Uy Sam-Ath

of the Cambodian Red Cross.

Five people still alive were taken to hospital. Two survived: 14-month-old Chanayuth

Nim-anong from Thailand suffered broken legs; four-year-old Vu Hung Thinh of Vietnam

received head wounds.

The rest of the passengers were left on the ground at the crash site. "There

really wasn't much we could do," recalled one health worker. "We were told

not to remove bodies by the ICRC and didn't have the stretchers to do so anyway."

By the time the order was given to move the bodies, they had been stripped of anything

valuable in macabre scenes of looting. "The police and MPs did the looting themselves,

they prevented villagers from going into the site. They took things immediately after

they arrived - as soon as some passengers died, they took their jewelry and things,"

said Sorn Sonn, a Thma Koul villager.

Som Sarn, an air force technician, agreed that the police and military were more

interested in looting than rescue. "The police came to help - to help to steal,"

he said.

While the police were looting, "these two men were lying on the ground in the

next rice field, and died later during the rain. If I had gotten help soon enough

they might have survived."

Some wounded people did get help, however. Keo Samy, a policeman who lives in Thma

Koul, said he dragged two children from the burning wreckage. "I can't describe

them, I was in a panic then," he said. One of the children is believed to have

died; the other may have been the Thai survivor.

No one on the ground was injured or killed by the crashing plane. "I feel very

lucky that I hadn't gone transplanting yet, because the crash is in my field,"

said Chao Yen. "But look at my field now! No rice!"

Yen Chuk, 43, was the owner of the two cows that were killed. "The plane hit

them and cut off their heads and tails. Their heads are here, their legs are there."

It wasn't till about 9pm that night that remaining bodies scattered around the rice

paddies were removed. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen dispatched trucks and 100 of

his bodyguards to bring the dead to Calmette. Forty three were brought to the Batiment

Pedagogique behind the hospital that night. Soldiers removed desks from the classroom

building, installed 12 air conditioners and laid the shrouded bodies in rows on the

floor. The remaining dead were brought to the make-shift morgue the following day.

Relatives went through the grisly task of identifying their loved ones in the rooms

choking with the smell of incense and formaldehyde. Some corpses periodically came

out on stretchers flanked by dark-suited diplomats with a sense of somber decorum

in stark contrast to the indignity of the crumpled bodies poking out from the sheets.

There was a palpable sense of urgency to take the dead home - out of this place -

to restore some sense of sanity to the families. The weather was calm, unlike the

day before.

Loved ones would enter the building, look at a few corpses and go outside - overwhelmed

by the smell - repeating the process throughout the day. Identification efforts were

hindered by the lack of identification or jewelry on the victims. According to a

western diplomat, only two passports were retrieved.

After identifying her fiancee, Khuth Linda went through the wedding ceremony on Thursday

with his photograph. She attended his funeral the following day.

Back at the crash scene, there was more looting over the next few days after the

accident. Villagers showed off newly-acquired Taiwanese ID cards, passport photos

of Korean faces, and other trinkets salvaged from the wreck, and twisted metal and

life vests adorn more than a few local front yards.

A group of men tearing apart a recognizable, 15-foot section of wing asserted that

they had bought it from a soldier. "We paid 300,000 riel," said one. When

asked how much they would get for it as scrap, he said, "I don't know, maybe

we'll lose money."

San Thuon, meanwhile, felt cheated. He claimed to have found the first of the plane's

three "black boxes," which landed in his front yard.

"I found it, I didn't know what it was, I thought I could sell it for scrap,"

he said. "Then a fat Chinese man identified himself as from the airport and

said he needed it back very badly. He thought it belonged to the man next to me,

so he gave him ten dollars. I got nothing."

Press reports of aviation officials paying villagers $200 for the second black box

and $1,500 for the third haven't cheered him up. "I could have gotten $5,000

for it," he said.


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