A Survivor's Tale of Heroism in Thai Air Crash

"I'm pretty sure a Thai man in a yellow shirt helped me get out onto the wing," says Australian Robert Borland, hospitalized in Phuket with burns from Sunday's crash. (By David Longstreath -- Associated Press)
By Sutin Wannabovorn
Associated Press
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

PHUKET, Thailand, Sept. 17 -- Stunned by the plane crash, Robert Borland found himself helpless on the floor of the jet with his trousers aflame when a passenger in a yellow shirt helped him out onto the wing. He knows nothing else about the man who probably saved his life.

Borland, 48, of Perth, Australia, was among 41 survivors of Sunday's crash at the airport on the Thai resort island of Phuket. Eighty-nine people were killed when the One-Two-Go jetliner skidded off the runway, breaking up and catching fire as it plowed through a low wall.

"Everything was upside down, or at least it felt that way," said Borland, recalling the screaming and the fire. "My clothes caught fire, my trousers.

"I couldn't have gotten out myself, and I'm pretty sure a Thai man in a yellow shirt helped me get out onto the wing," he said. "I have no idea who he was, or where he came from. Then I fell off the wing."

Thirty minutes later, Borland was in a Phuket hospital, his legs burned and his left arm broken at the elbow.

"I'm glad to be alive. I just wish it could turn out all right for everybody," he said.

Passengers and officials said the pilot tried to abort his landing in heavy rain and wind. He tried to pull up for a second attempt, and the aircraft lurched up, then down, hitting the tarmac hard.

Wind shear -- a rapid change in wind speed that can affect takeoffs and landings -- was a possible cause of the crash, said Kajit Habnanonda, president of Orient-Thai Airlines, which owns One-Two-Go. He said heavy rains could have contributed to the 24-year-old McDonnell Douglas MD-82 jetliner skidding off the runway.

Control tower officials informed the Indonesian pilot, Arief Mulyadi, about wind shear but he decided to land anyway, according to a transcript of the conversation between the tower and the plane. Mulyadi died in the crash.

"The last word the pilot said was 'landing,' " Chaisak Ungsuwan, the Air Transport Department's director general, told the Nation TV channel.

Deputy Transport Minister Sansern Wongcha-um said 53 foreigners were among those killed. The dead came from at least 10 countries, including the United States, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Sweden and Thailand.

The airline flew relatives of the victims to the town of Krabi, where they were taken by bus to Phuket.

On the 90-minute bus trip with her mother beside her, Thitinan Chaiarun, 18, took a snapshot of her father, Sinchai Chaiarun, out of a small photo album and held it close to her chest. At times she put it to her lips.

At Phuket airport, the families were dropped off at the terminal and led to a building where they were greeted by airline staff, airport officials and a wall of photos of passengers killed in the crash.

Inside the hall, the bodies lay on the floor, wrapped in black and white plastic. Relatives looked at the photos before being led to the bodies.

Thitinan saw the photo of her father and burst into tears.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company