Film to document Pan Am crash for 40th anniversary
It took years before Ali’imau J.R. Scanlan could forget the worst aviation disaster in the territory’s history following the 1974 crash of Pan American World Airways — also known as Pan Am — when flight 806 came in short of the Pago Pago International Airport.
“What still haunts me today was the smell of burning bodies. I had nightmares of this event for years after the crash,” said Ali’imau, who at the time was among local employees of Pan Am working at the airport, as he recalled the night of the disaster to Samoa News.
This week Thursday, Jan. 30, marks the 40th anniversary of the Pan Am crash and Ali’imau’s story is one of those that Great Britain based independent filmmaker Paul Crompton, with Barge Pole Productions, wants to include in a television documentary.
Crompton will be in Pago Pago from Jan. 31- Feb. 3 to research the Pan Am crash for the documentary, which he says is for the families of those that died “who want to know more about the event,” according to the film maker’s letter published in Samoa News last week as an advertisement.
Pan Am flight 806 was enroute from Auckland, New Zealand to Los Angeles, with stops scheduled in Pago Pago and Honolulu.
About 11:41p.m. local time, the plane crashed 3,865 feet short of runway 5 at Pago Pago International Airport, and of the 101 persons on board — including ten crew members — only five people survived, according to a Nov. 4, 1974 investigation report by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The 29-page report, obtained by Samoa News with the assistance of Ian Gregor with the FAA’s Los Angeles Public Affairs office, also says that one survivor died of injuries nine days after the incident, which “destroyed the aircraft by impact and fire”.
NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the pilot to correct an “excessive rate of descent after the aircraft had passed decision height”, it says and noted the flight crew didn’t monitor adequately the flight instruments after they had transitioned to the visual approach for landing, and the flight crew didn’t monitor adequately the increased rate of descent.
Further, the aircraft first crashed into trees at an elevation of 113 feet before it hit the ground and continued through the “jungle vegetation, and struck a three foot high lava rock, where it stopped.
The NTSB report provides details of the incident including interviews with survivors and others on the ground. Among the findings of the NTSB were that the injuries sustained by the fatally injured passengers, as well as the surviving passengers, were a direct result of the “post crash fire” which engulfed the plane.
Additionally, only the left side over-wing exits were used in evacuating the aircraft; and the surviving passengers told investigators they had listened to the pre-takeoff briefings — by flight attendants — and also reviewed the passenger safety information pamphlets.
Fire and rescue response time was delayed by rain, barriers across the response route, terrain, and confusion as to what was burning, according to the report, which also says the response crew had initially thought they were responding to a house fire.
On the rainy night of the crash, Ali’imau was working for Pan Am as the load controller. In those days before computers, that was the person who had the manual seating chart for the B-707 plane and it was his job to assign seats to passengers. The load controller would also have the seating chart along with the names of passengers who were onboard the flight from Auckland.
“I noticed that there was a Samoan family on the list — parents and two or three children,” Ali’imau told Samoa News adding the family was heading to Samoa, and he believes this family was killed in the crash.
Samoa News should point out that, at the time, there were no direct flights between Apia and New Zealand and all flights came through Pago Pago; passengers would then catch a connecting flight on Polynesian Airlines to Apia or Pan Am to Auckland.
At that time, Faleolo Airport had no paved runway, it was grassy.
On the night of the crash, Mike Betham, who was the local supervisor, “told me to stop seating passengers because the plane had just crashed short of the runway,” Ali’imau recalled. “Mike and [another Pan Am employee] and I got in my car and rushed to the site of the crash. We were the first ones there.”
“When we got there, there was a lot of smoke coming from the plane but it was not on fire yet. I was surprised to see three palagis walking from the airplane. At first I thought they were just local residents who came out to see the crash,” he said.
“I walked up to them and asked them where they came from. I was really surprised when they said they came from the plane. I asked them how they got out,” he said. “The first man said he was seated on seat 17A and as the load controller, I knew that was the seat next to the emergency window. He said he started to open the window before the plane came to a stop and jumped out before the plane stopped moving, and broke his ankle.”
“The couple next to him followed him out but no one else followed them. My suspicion is that there was so much smoke in the plane and no one saw them jump out. The back doors couldn't open because the wings had folded all the way back and blocked the doors,” he said.
“At this time a lot of other people from the airport were at the site and I yelled to everyone to move back because the engines looked like they were on the verge of exploding. Soon after that, the engines... exploded and the entire plane started to catch fire,” he said. “The explosion blew a lot of bodies out of the airplane...”
A couple of local residents, who were of a young age in 1974, told Samoa News via online posts they recalled that night as word spread island wide that the plane had crashed short of the runway.
Ali’imau says he has been contacted via email by Crompton to be interviewed for the documentary.
In his letter published in Samoa News, Crompton said he wants to know more about the event.
“I am hoping to meet and talk with people that helped with the recovery of those who survived and also those that perished,” he wrote. “I am reaching out to talk to anyone who was there on the night, who may remember what it was like on the evening of the crash or the following few days.”
“Can anyone tell me when and where the wreckage was buried, or did anyone have relatives on board and are you willing to talk about it on camera?” he asks.
He can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org