On the 11th of July 1973, a Brazilian airliner caught fire while on approach to Paris after a transatlantic flight from Rio de Janeiro. As toxic smoke filled the airplane, the crew fought to save their passengers and themselves, culminating in a successful forced landing in a field short of the airport. But by then it was too late; of the 134 people on board, 123 lost their lives, most succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning while still strapped into their seats. All but one of the survivors were members of the crew, and with the help of their testimony, investigators were able to paint a harrowing picture of the final moments of Varig flight 820 — a disaster which brought about safety regulations now familiar to everyone who flies.
Varig flight 820 was a regularly scheduled passenger flight beginning in São Paulo and stopping in Rio de Janeiro before making the transatlantic journey to Paris. Varig, Brazil’s leading international airline, operated the flight using a four engine, narrow body Boeing 707. In Rio de Janeiro, 117 passengers and 17 crew boarded the aircraft, including Olympic sailor Jörg Bruder, and Filinto Müller, president of the Senate of Brazil. In command of the flight was Captain Gilberto Araujo da Silva; assisting him were First Officer Antonio Fuzimoto; Flight Engineers Alvio Basso and Ronald Utermoehl; mechanics Carlos Diefenthaler Neto and Claunor Bello; and Navigators Zilmar Gomes da Cunha and Salvador Ramos Heleno. All the extra flight crew were on board to allow a shift change half way through the long flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
Also key to the sequence of events were the nine flight attendants: Chief Purser João Egidio Galetti; stewards Edemar Goncalves Mascarenas, Carmelino Pires de Oliveira Jr., Sergio Carvalho Balbino, Luiz Edmundo Coelho Brandão, and Alain Henri Tersis; and stewardesses Andrea Piha, Elvira Strauss, and Hanelore Danzberg.
More than anything, this is the story of these 17 crew members, of whom some would live and some would die in the final minutes of flight 820.
Although the New York Times mentioned an unscheduled stop in Lisbon, all indications are that Varig flight 820 was normal up until the descent into Orly Airport in Paris. Sometime around 13:56, a passenger likely dropped a lit cigarette into the trash chute in the rear starboard lavatory. The lavatory was equipped with an ashtray, but perhaps this passenger never saw it. The trash bin, built into the sink counter, was probably full of paper towels that had accumulated over the course of the flight and had plenty of time to dry out. The cigarette quickly ignited the trash, starting a fire that soon spread to nearby plastic and wood fixtures inside the lavatory. These materials were supposedly in compliance with applicable flammability requirements, but in practice they burned easily.
Fine white smoke from the fire funneled up into a void space inside the ceiling, crossing over the wall and descending into the adjacent port side lavatory. This toilet was occupied at the time, and the accumulating smoke forced out the passenger who was using it. “I almost died in there,” he told flight attendants, informing them of the fire in the port toilet. There were no smoke detectors to tell the crew that the starboard toilet was the source of the conflagration.
The flight attendants in the rear of the airplane at that time were Pires de Oliveira, Mascarenas, Tersis, and Strauss. Mascarenas and Tersis were the first to hear of the fire, and as they peered into the port lavatory, Pires de Oliveira joined them. By this time, white smoke had filled the lavatory a little over half way down from the ceiling, but none of the three men could see any flames.
Taking swift action, Mascarenas grabbed a fire extinguisher while Tersis worked to cut electrical power to the rear lavatories. Although he couldn’t see any flames, Mascarenas emptied the extinguisher into every part of the port lavatory, hoping that it would quell the fire. It did not. Meanwhile, Pires de Oliveira went forward to the mechanics’ station and informed Bello and Diefenthaler of the fire. Diefenthaler elected to go back with Pires de Oliveira and assess the situation; on the way down the aisle they passed Mascarenas headed in the opposite direction, an empty fire extinguisher still in hand. Mascarenas went up to the forward galley and told Chief Purser Galetti about the fire; Galetti too decided to go back and see for himself.
By the time Galetti and Mascarenas returned to the rear galley, the smoke had completely filled the port lavatory and showed no signs of abating. To get into the lavatory and keep fighting the fire, they would need the oxygen bottle and mask stored in the forward galley. Pires de Oliveira ran forward to get it. By now the smoke was seeping out of the lavatory and wafting forward into the economy class cabin. Strauss sought to assuage the concerns of the passengers — after all, they would be landing in just a few minutes, and they were working hard to fight the fire.
While Pires de Oliveira retrieved the oxygen equipment, Galetti went to the cockpit and told the pilots that there was a fire on the aircraft. At 13:58, First Officer Fuzimoto issued a distress call, informing of a “fire problem” on flight 820. The controller gave them priority on a straight-in approach to the nearest runway, which would get them on the ground as fast as possible. Shortly afterward, circuit breakers started popping at the flight engineer’s station as the fire chewed through electrics associated with the rear lavatories. Bello attempted to reset the circuit breakers, but they immediately popped back up again.
At that moment, flight attendant Andrea Piha was using one of the forward lavatories when the lights suddenly went out. She emerged from the lavatory in time to see Pires de Oliveira heading back with the oxygen equipment. Here the exact timeline is unclear, but around this time Diefenthaler instructed Pires de Oliveira to open one of the over-wing emergency exits in an attempt to clear the smoke and improve ventilation in the cabin. Either this was ineffective or he never opened it, but the pilots did depressurize the aircraft and attempted to use the air conditioning system to reduce the smoke. And at some point, relief pilot Utermoel joined the firefighting efforts in the galley. But despite all these tactics, the rapidly spreading fire continued to spew acrid smoke into the passenger cabin, which rolled all the way up the aisle into the first class section. At the same time, the smoke changed from white to black, increasing in density as it steadily filled the plane from back to front.
By this time, the rear galley had become utterly inhospitable. Of those who were in the rear of the cabin, Diefenthaler, Tersis, and Pires de Oliveira escaped, but Mascarenas, Strauss, and Utermoel were never heard from again. As smoke enveloped the plane, Galetti again entered the cockpit and told the pilots that the situation was growing worse and that the passengers were being asphyxiated. Shortly afterward, with flight 820 lined up with the runway and only 18 kilometers from the airport, First Officer Fuzimoto reported to air traffic control that there was “total fire on board.” When Galetti opened the door, smoke began to drift into the cockpit for the first time. The entire flight crew put on their oxygen masks, but they didn’t deploy the masks for the passengers, because those masks could not keep the smoke out and might fuel the fire.
At this time Pires de Oliveira attempted to force his way toward the back of the plane, but was unable to get past the first class section before the smoke threatened to overtake him; just a few breaths were enough to nearly knock him to the floor. He made a quick retreat to the forward galley, while the pilots, now descending through 2,000 feet, battled the smoke spilling into the cockpit. Within a very short time, the dark smoke became so dense that the pilots could see neither their instruments nor the runway. In a last ditch effort, they opened the cockpit’s side windows to try to evacuate the smoke.
There were now no less than nine people crowded into the cockpit. In the pilots’ seats were Captain da Silva and First Officer Fuzimoto; relief pilot Basso sat in the observer’s jumpseat; Gomes de Cunha sat at the navigator’s station; Bello sat in the flight engineer’s seat; Piha and Galetti were standing in the center of the cockpit; Diefenthaler was standing behind Bello; and Pires de Oliveira stood against the cockpit door. Among these nine, only five had oxygen masks, but the open side windows generated enough circulation for the other four to breathe.
Farther back, several more people had crowded into the forward galley, including the flight attendants Tersis, Brandão, Balbino, and at least one passenger from economy class; the stewardess Danzberg was probably also present, and the second navigator Heleno had taken refuge in one of the toilets.
Captain da Silva soon concluded that it would be impossible to reach the runway before the fumes overtook everyone on board. Instead, he resolved to make a crash landing in a field short of the runway. Descending rapidly, the crew deployed the landing gear and flaps, picked a landing spot, and prepared for impact.
Witnesses on the ground saw the Boeing 707 fly low overhead, streaming smoke behind it. At about 14:04, less than 10 minutes after the fire started, Captain da Silva pitched up to slow down as much as possible, then crashed his plane hard into a farmer’s field five kilometers from the airport. The landing gear collapsed immediately as the plane plowed through a grove of fruit trees, smashing the windscreen and injuring both pilots. The 707 kept sliding for some 500 meters, ripping up rows of onions and tearing away all four engines. Skidding sideways, the , the plane lost its left wing before finally coming to a stop with its fuselage entirely intact.
With so many people jammed into the cockpit, there were not enough seat belts for everyone. The sudden impact threw Diefenthaler head-first against a bulkhead, killing him instantly; however, the other occupants of the cockpit mostly escaped serious injury. Immediately after the plane came to a stop, da Silva, Fuzimoto, Basso, Gomes da Cunha, Bello, Piha, Galetti, and Pires de Oliveira fled through the open cockpit windows, smoke pouring out behind them. In the forward galley, Tersis and Brandão, who had been sitting in the flight attendant jumpseats, managed to open the left and right exit doors and stumbled out into the air. To their dismay, no one followed.
Agricultural workers witnessed the crash and rushed to the scene, but by the time they arrived, all the aforementioned crew members had already escaped and the smoke was too thick to permit entry into the cabin. When firefighters arrived about seven minutes after the crash, they forced their way in through the forward exits and found four people unconscious on the floor of the galley, including Heleno, Balbino, and at least one passenger. Firefighters rushed them outside and administered emergency first aid, but only Heleno and the passenger could be revived; the other two quickly died.
Over the next few minutes, fire slowly rolled over the plane, while firefighters tried and failed to find anyone else alive. Inside the cabin, all the passengers sat slumped over in their seats, every last man, woman, and child dead from asphyxiation. Of the 117 passengers on board, only one survived. Heleno soon died in the hospital, bringing the toll among the crew to 7. Of the 11 survivors, eight had been in the cockpit at the time of the crash.
Pathological examinations revealed that only Diefenthaler died as a result of injuries sustained in the crash. All the other victims died from inhaling high concentrations of carbon monoxide, or from inhaling carbon monoxide in combination with gaseous forms of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids. As the smoke filled the cabin during the descent, the passengers fell unconscious before they could decide to leave their seats (except for one man). Only in the cockpit and parts of the forward galley did the carbon monoxide concentration remain low enough to allow the possibility of survival. It is not clear whether anyone would have survived if the pilots had attempted to finish the approach and land on the runway.
The sole survivor among the passengers was 21-year-old Ricardo Trajano, who was on his way to London to see his favourite musicians. As he later recalled, this flight was his first time on a plane, and he chose to sit in the back because he thought it would be safer. When he saw the smoke, instead of staying in his seat he went forward, trying to make it look like he was going to use the toilet at the front of the plane. Upon entering the first class section, a flight attendant told him to go back to his seat, but he refused. He remembered that there was no screaming — as the smoke rolled down the aisle, the passenger cabin fell silent with hardly a whisper. Just three breaths of smoke were enough to feel that death was imminent. He fled to the galley with the flight attendants but was knocked unconscious by the smoke, suffering burns to the inside of his lungs and to his back where hot pieces of metal fell on top of him.
Trajano was in a coma for 30 hours after his arrival at the hospital, and during that time he was mistakenly identified as flight attendant Sergio Balbino — they had a similar build, and Trajano’s clothes had burned away. Back in Brazil, Balbino’s family was told that he had survived and Trajano’s family was informed that he had died. Only after Trajano woke up from the coma was he able to correct the mistake, by which time his family had already begun funeral preparations.
Trajano was in the hospital in Paris for 7 weeks, then spent another 5 weeks in a hospital in Brazil before he was deemed healthy enough for release. However, he did make a full recovery. One year after the crash, he returned to the ticket counter where he bought his round trip ticket to London and asked for a refund. Only after the ticket agent recognized him as the passenger who survived Varig flight 820 was he able to get his money back!
Investigators could not determine beyond doubt what started the fire, but they considered a cigarette dumped in the trash chute to be the most likely possibility. It would not be the first time that a fire in the lavatory waste bin caused a fatal crash in France. Only five years earlier, Air France flight 1611 crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 95 people on board, after a fire broke out in the rear lavatories. Around the world, lavatory waste bin fires were commonplace, and all too often deadly. Although smoking was so prevalent at that time that it could not be banned outright, investigators felt strongly that something must be done to prevent lavatory fires.
In their final report on the crash, investigators recommended that smoke detectors be installed in aircraft lavatories; that passengers be reminded of the lavatory smoking ban upon entering the aircraft; that ashtrays be clearly visible; and that flight attendants carefully monitor lavatory use to ensure that no one is smoking. They also made several recommendations aimed at preventing fires from spreading once they got started, including that lavatory waste bins be flush to the countertop to prevent paper from spilling over the edges when the bin is full; that the walls of the bin be fire retardant; that flammable objects be removed from lavatories wherever possible; and that more fire extinguishers be made available, along with equipment to remove wall panels that might conceal a fire. Several recommendations were also made to help increase survival rates, including that there be sufficient masks for all flight attendants; that studies be made to find the most efficient ways to evacuate smoke from all aircraft types; that cabin crew be trained regarding the danger of even small cabin fires, and on how to conduct emergency actions in a smoke-filled environment; that a direct communication link be added between the cockpit and all flight attendant stations; and that firefighting equipment be periodically inspected on a set interval.
Today, although smoking on airplanes has long since been banned, every airline traveler is familiar with these anti-smoking measures. Before every flight, passengers are reminded that smoking in the toilets is not allowed and that tampering with lavatory smoke detectors is a crime. The story of Varig flight 820 perfectly exemplifies why these rules are necessary. If smoke detectors had been installed in the lavatories, the flight attendants would have known that the fire was in the starboard toilet and could have concentrated their firefighting efforts there, perhaps delaying or halting the spread of the fire. In the absence of smoke detectors, the fire was able to grow out of control so rapidly that there was no hope of a safe outcome — the smoke incapacitated everyone far too quickly. Among the crew, survival came down to luck, as those nearer to the front of the plane were able to flee the toxic smoke and those near the back were not. And the passengers never stood a chance.
It might be hard for the crew of flight 820 to recognize their own heroism, considering that all but one of their passengers did not survive, while they themselves escaped with mostly minor injuries. But, although tragedy tempered their success, the flight crew and cabin crew alike followed all the applicable procedures and tried every available method to mitigate the situation. Unfortunately, the design of their aircraft, the lack of equipment, and limited training hindered their ability to fight back. The only small comfort is that regulations changed to prevent others from suffering the same fate as the 123 people who died from a single carelessly discarded cigarette.
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