Flight TK1951 was within sight of the runway on its final approach to Schiphol airport when, without warning, it seemed to fall out of the sky and crashed tail-first into a field with the loss of at least nine lives.
Survivors described last night how, in a matter of seconds, the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 from Istanbul to Amsterdam plummeted to the ground and split into three, leaving 84 of the 127 passengers injured, many seriously, and three of the seven crew members dead in the cockpit.
Investigators refused to speculate why the aircraft had descended too soon, or to comment on suggestions that its tail smashed into the ground as it tried to regain height or tried to execute an emergency landing. Dutch officials ruled out terrorism as a possible cause of the crash.
A British mother, Susan Lord, her Turkish husband, Jakavus Labeij, and their daughters, Sofia and Lisa, were among those who escaped, The Times understands.
Speaking from his hospital bed, one of the passengers, Tancer Mutlucan, a bank executive, said: “The pilot had announced that we would be landing in 15 minutes. Then about seven or eight minutes later we just crashed. There was not even time to worry about what was happening.
“First we thought it was just a violent landing but then we suddenly descended and there was impact. We suddenly found ourselves in a field.”
The Turkish Transport Minister said that it had been a miracle that more were not killed and that, perhaps because of the muddy conditions, there had been no fire or explosion as the two engines broke off.
“The chance of survival in plane accidents is close to zero. And this is a miracle,” Binali Yildirim said. “The fact that the plane crashed on soft ground and that there was no fire decreased the death toll.”
The emergency services at Schiphol, Europe’s fourth busiest airport, went into action within minutes of the aircraft skidding to a halt about 250 metres from the perimeter fence, less than a kilometre from the runway and next to the busy A9 highway, at 10.31am. The injured were taken to 11 hospitals, including an emergency army field hospital set up in Utrecht.
Officials said that 25 people were seriously wounded, with six in a critical condition last night.
Tomas Friedhoff, a student who was cycling past, said the aircraft appeared to have lost power. “The plane was nose up and the tail section at a 45-degree angle,” he said. “The tail section came down first, and broke off.
“Seconds after the crash people started exiting through the tail section. I saw dozens of people making it out very quickly, and as I was about to dial 911 the first sirens were noticeable, and within five minutes there were 10 or 15 ambulances.”
Survivors described a few seconds of silence after the impact, followed by the screams of those trapped and injured. “All of a sudden the back end of the plane dropped and then it crashed down on its front end and broke into three pieces,” a male passenger said.
“I was OK because I was in the middle. It was the people towards the tail and at the front who could not get out. I heard screaming. Near the tail there was a man with his feet stuck and people were kicking him to try to get his feet out.”
Another passenger said: “For the first ten seconds it was silent, and after that we heard crying and screaming. There was a lot of panic and a lot of wounded people.”
Candan Karlitekin, head of Turkish Airlines’ board of directors, said that conditions had been good. “Visibility was clear and around 5,000 yards,” he said. “We have checked the plane’s documents and there is no problem concerning maintenance.”
The airline’s chief, Temel Kotil, said that the captain, Hasan Tahsin, was a former air force pilot and very experienced. Officials said that the aircraft was built in 2002 and last underwent thorough maintenance on December 22. Turkish media said that a trainee was among the three pilots on board.
Investigators quickly retrieved the black box flight recorder but left the three dead crew in the cockpit for several hours while they examined the scene for clues.
One of the first rescuers on the scene, John Ansgar, who was driving past when he saw the aircraft fall, said: “Fourteen people got out of the plane almost straight away. When I got inside all the oxygen masks were hanging down. There were people stuck in the back and we just couldn’t help them. There weren’t enough stretchers for everybody.”
A farmer’s tractor joined the emergency services, ferrying the injured and dead across the field in a trailer.
One passenger, Huseyin Sumer, said: “One of the hostesses ran towards me, screaming. There was panic as we left the aeroplane. We noticed that the aeroplane had split. We just threw ourselves out of the gap.”