Tomorrow, at 17:06, marks four decades since two ‘Jumbos’ crashed on the runway of Los Rodeos airport, Tenerife and took the lives of 583 people.
It is practically impossible to repeat a chain of events like the one that ended in the greatest tragedy of commercial aviation because there were so many example of Murphy law: if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. And everything that happened that Sunday 27 of March 1977 was bad. So much so, that 583 people lost their lives on the runway.
The weather forecast said cloudy in the north of the island, but the day dawned clear and sunny. It was a quiet and peaceful day, ideal for going to the beach. In the cafes and bars there was talk of Club Deportivo Tenerife, who was at that time in the Second Division – as now – and planning to sell to one of its stars, the Paraguayan striker Crispín Maciel. Those who were not footballers talked about what was called The Asparagus War, a vegetable that was considered at that time a luxury food and whose price did not stop rising.
12:20 at Gran Canaria (Gando) airport, only 30 minutes by plane from Tenerife, an anonymous male called the switchboard of Iberia and announced that two bombs were going to explode in the airport. Just a few minutes later, with no time for security forces to get organised, a bomb exploded in a florists at the terminal. People rushed everywhere through the smoke and the remains of the false ceiling, furniture, and broken glass. Nine people were hit by the blast.
The Armed Police – now National Police – and the Civil Guard joined by special units of the Army, looked for the second explosive device and the fear that more explosions could occur led to a total closure of Gando airport and diversion of flights. Among them were two Jumbos: one KLM bound for Las Palmas and another from Pan American that departed Los Angeles for Greece.
The decision completely disrupted the plans of both. However, it was worse for the two air traffic controllers in the tower at Los Rodeos airport, suddenly, a quiet day turned into a situation of stress.
The Dutch KLM landed first at Los Rodeos, and as not to exceed the maximum daily flight hours, its commander, Captain Jacob van Zanten, decides to fill the tanks with 55,000 litres of fuel while waiting for Gando to reopen. The Pan Am plane landed at 14:15.
At about 14:40, Gando reopens and the two aircraft prepared to continue their journey. At 16:30, clouds begin to appear at Tenerife airport. After almost 11 hours working, the American crew were feeling tired and the crew of the KLM after 9 hours, were also weary, but both still had to fly to Gran Canaria and Amsterdam.
Permission for the KLM to take off first did not arrive until the refuelling operation was almost finished. At 16:45, the captain signed the fuel register and began the checks prior to the start of the flight. Pan Am also received clearance while the KLM started the engines.
The diverted planes, took position for take-off. The first to leave was a Douglas DC-8 then two Boeings followed by the KLM and the Pan Am. At almost 17.00, a thick fog suddenly covered Los Rodeos, visibility was drastically reduced, and the runway lights would not work. This is a frequent phenomenon in this part of Tenerife.
At 16:56, the KLM requested permission to take off, advanced to the end of the track, and made a 180 degree turn. At 17:02 Pan Am communicated with the control tower and received the order to cross the main runway, and leave it by the third exit. As the Pan Am searched for the third exit, the KLM communicated to the tower that it was “in the take-off”. These words are not included in the protocols and the controllers did not understand them. They told KLM to wait, however, the Dutch crew did not because at that precise moment, Pan Am tried to communicate with the tower and interference occurred.
The Pan Am plane could not find the 3rd exit, C3, as they had passed it. It was impossible to turn and they decided to take the C4, as explained later by the American commander Victor Grubbs.
The KLM, without permission to take off and with very little visibility, started along the runway and saw the Pan Am approaching them about 500 meters away. The Pan Am commander, Victor Grubbs, accelerated to full power and tried to pull away as Van Zanten lifted the nose of the plane and began take-off.
Communications were suddenly interrupted. Controllers call but there was no answer. It was 17:06:50 when the impact happened. Fog acts as a muffler to sound but did not prevent the explosions from being heard several kilometres away. The KLM crashed into the Pan Am nose, and there was a huge ball of fire. There were no survivors from the 234 passengers and 14 crewmembers. The Pan Am was also in flames. Of the 378 passengers and 16 crew, only 70 people escaped before the flames swept through the plane. Nine end up dying in the following hours.
Many islanders had stayed home to watch the football match between Spain and Hungary, which ended with a draw thanks to a goal by the legendary Juanito. They begin to find out about the accident but the information was confused and nobody imagined the magnitude of the tragedy.
The effort for the rescue, identification, and repatriation of the bodies was monumental. More than 500 people who worked in the rescue will never forget what they saw that day. Source: La Opinion