Survivor’s Tale

All 297 passengers aboard Air France Flight 358 somehow escaped with their lives when the plane crashed in Toronto. One of the survivors was leading Arab economist Johnny AbedRabbo. He recounts his horrifying experience to Massoud A. Derhally.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  August 28, 2005

Survivor’s Tale|~|plane200.jpg|~|LUCKY ESCAPE: Amazingly, not a single passenger was killed in the crash. |~| All 297 passengers aboard Air France Flight 358 somehow escaped with their lives when the plane crashed in Toronto. One of the survivors was leading Arab economist Johnny AbedRabbo. He recounts his horrifying experience to Massoud A. Derhally. It was a miraculous escape. In less than two minutes, the 297 passengers and crew aboard Air France Flight 358 managed to get out before the Airbus 340 burst into flames and imploded, shortly after landing in terrible weather at Toronto’s Pearson.International Airport. Listening to survivor, Johnny Abed Rabbo speak of his ordeal is sobering. “I don’t want to die. Not today. Today is not the day for it,” was what was going through his mind as he realised the danger. After more than eight hours of flying from Paris, the plane was getting ready to make its descent in less than ideal weather conditions. Following an unsuccessful first attempt, the pilot decided to circle the airport for 15 to 20 minutes before getting the go-ahead to land. “At no point did we think there was a problem. The plane actually landed,” says AbedRabbo — a 32-year-old economist at Saudi Arabia's National Commercial Bank. But the picture was to change dramatically. “We had no clue about anything except a few moments after landing [when] the plane went out of control," AbedRabbo says. “It touched down, everything was fine, and then all of a sudden the pilot tried to stop it — he tried to brake but he couldn’t. There were two huge jerk movements, like you are trying to brake a car, and then all of a sudden, we felt the front landing gear break off and the plane started skidding on its stomach. It felt creepy,” AbedRabbo adds. The plane was going too fast and it became clear that the pilot’s efforts to make it stop were not working, AbedRabbo says. Then the pilot lost control completely. “The plane tumbled a bit and started skidding on the grass," he says. “It was a very, very bumpy ride and creepy because you’re not in control. When you are in a car, you are in control. You know what you are doing. When you are sitting in a plane you are not in control. Things were just coming out of nowhere, and inside the plane the lights were going off and on and things were breaking off from the inside. It’s scary,” he explains. Surprisingly, passengers were not hysterical at this stage. AbedRabbo attributes this largely to the fact that the plane had actually landed — the situation might have been markedly different if it was airborne, he says. “People started clapping [the pilot] right after touch down. They were not very prepared. They didn’t think it was that bad. When the plane came to a complete stop, people didn’t realise how serious the situation was. But [people] sitting on the left hand side of the plane [had seen] the engine go up in flames,” AbedRabbo says. By then, AbedRabbo had realised that everyone had to get out, and quickly. “The first thing that came to mind was ‘if the wing catches on fire, we are all going to be dead in two seconds because it's full of jet fuel,' so I was thinking ‘let's get up and go,” he says. The plane was pitch dark but the passengers then began to make their way out. “The stupid emergency lights that they talk about didn’t work," he says. “We were up, trying to move, and some people actually were trying to get their belongings — not realising how bad it was until the engine or something blew up because all of a sudden the plane was filled with this red and orange glow,” AbedRabbo explains. As AbedRabbo looked to his left he saw the engine up in red flames and an adrenaline rush took over. “I was like ‘oh dear, we are going to die'. Just as we saw these flames, big black smoke started pouring into the aircraft. That’s when people realised it was more serious than they thought and they just sped out.” Sitting three rows behind the emergency exits, AbedRabbo got up and made his way to the first exit on the left hand side — only to find that there was no escape chute in place. He then made his way up to the front of the aircraft, where a crew-member was pointing at him to jump from the right hand side exit of the plane. The chute at that exit led into a lake as the plane had stopped in a ravine, however, so AbedRabbo rushed to the exit on the left — only to find the chute there was twisted. “I basically jumped out of the plane. It was a two or three metre jump as the front landing gear was gone.” Once out of the plane, AbedRabbo then tried to help another passenger to straighten the chute. But some passengers were already jumping out as the urgency to get away from the plane took precedence over everything else. “We could see the engines of the left wing in flames," he says. “It was like something out of The Living Dead — people were filing away from the aeroplane into the woods. I started walking and it was pouring with rain, and we got to a highway overpass and got under it to shelter from the rain,” explains AbedRabbo. As they made their way to the overpass, AbedRabbo and some 60 other passengers heard a loud explosion behind them. “We heard a loud boom and looked back, and surely enough, there was more smoke; more flames. We didn’t know what had happened to the other passengers at the time. They had left from the right hand side of the plane.” AbedRabbo and the rest of the passengers waited under the bridge and then made their way up a muddy hill to get onto the highway. “It was weird. People were coming onto the highway from underneath it and drivers going by had this look on their face like ‘what the hell is going on?',” he says. As they walked in the rain, some passing cars stopped and took some passengers back to the airport. A Greyhound bus approached and took some passengers on board until emergency crews arrived on the scene and escorted everyone to the airport. “We got to the airport and emergency crews were handing out blankets and water, and water was the last thing we needed right then. We wanted coffee but there was none of that,” says AbedRabbo. But he laughs as he describes what happened next when he and two other passengers were mulling over their misfortune. “Me and one Italian and this French guy were standing and were in a weird kind of shocked mood. So we were standing, looking at each other and we were thinking ‘what’s missing?'. We pulled out a pack of cigarettes and the three of us had a smoke. Then this Canadian immigration lady comes up to us and says ‘excuse me sir this is a non-smoking terminal,’” he says. You could forgive his reaction. “I was extremely rude and said ‘listen I just got off a burning aeroplane so don’t tell me where and when I can smoke.’ She just went on her own sweet way, without saying anything. You’d think they could have bent their rules a little bit, considering the circumstances,” he adds. Asked if he would consider flying Air France again, AbedRabbo says: “I suppose flying Air France is better than flying low-cost airlines. You would assume that they are safer than other airlines. But there are many questions that I am waiting to get answers to. Some of them are about facts. Some of them are still about rumours,” he adds. Those rumours, he says, include why the co-pilot landed the plane and not the main pilot. AbedRabbo says the weather was extremely adverse on that day and he therefore would have expected the main pilot to take charge and land the plane. Other questions AbedRabbo has concern the reasons why the plane landed half way down the runway, and not at the beginning, and why the emergency chutes on the plane failed to work. “Other than that ,the plane was apparently mechanically sound. So as far as I am concerned it was pilot error at some point,” says AbedRabbo. AbedRabbo doesn’t have kind words for Air France’s compensation policy, either. “They haven’t offered actual compensation. They set up a couple of centres where they handed out cash to passengers on a case-by-case basis. Some people were getting C$500 (US$413), some were getting US$826, some US$1652, depending — I guess — on how good a bargainer you were. That annoyed people more, because if you have a policy you should apply your policy — not get passengers who are emotionally distraught and into a room and try to bargain with them about how much you want to give them,” says a furious AbedRabbo. Suing Air France is also something AbedRabbo is considering. “Obviously if it was pilot error of some sort then there is a reason to sue, because you are buying an air ticket to fly from point A to point B and to land — not to crash and run away from a burning aeroplane,” he says. Though he says he would rather forget about the entire ordeal, AbedRabbo admits the trauma of the experience will change his outlook on life. “There has to be something different [about life]. I am sure. It’s just that I don’t think I have figured it out yet. It’s odd. The whole thing is just a surreal experience. You see these things in movies, you see these disasters on television but you never think such a thing will actually happen to you up until you go through something like that. The first couple of days you go through an adrenaline rush and then you start thinking like what if we had stayed on that plane a couple more minutes we would have suffocated. A few moments separated me from joining my maker.” AbedRabbo says he’s unsure about whether or not he is ready to fly again so soon. “This is the million-dollar question because I am supposed to fly eventually. I have a job that I have to get back to, but I don’t know when.” It’s not just the incident of Air France that’s troubling, but also the stream of air crashes that have taken place in the past month. “More planes are tumbling and falling out of the sky, and the fact that none of them had any survivors — it’s creepy. I’m trying to make light of it but it's really creepy.” Will it make life any different? “Oh yes. Life is too short,” he says, adding: “Life is way too short you have to enjoy it.” At least he still can. ||**||

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