/ 30 November 2010

The plane crash that wasn’t

“URGENT-PLANECRASH-ORTAMBO” came over the South African Press Association wires at 7.48am on Tuesday morning.

Quoting Unathi Batyashe-Fillis, spokesperson for the Airports Company South Africa, the domestic press agency said the plane from Sydney, Australia, “crash-landed at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Tuesday morning”, and that only 50 passengers had been accounted for from “290 passengers on the plane”.

Nine minutes later, the wire service issued a statement saying “KILL-KILL-KILL SUBS/NEWSEDS: Please KILL our ‘PLANECRASH-ORTAMBO” issued from JOHANNESBURG on Tuesday, November 30 and headlined ‘PLANE CRASHES AT OR TAMBO’. The Airports Company of SA (Acsa) has advised Sapa that it was only a drill.”

A number of media organisations, including the Mail & Guardian, briefly ran the story.

Batyashe-Fillis told the M&G on Tuesday morning that the “crash” was in fact an emergency simulation exercise, and was held every two years. The last exercise, in 2008, had a plane being hijacked at the airport.

Batyashe-Fillis said she had sent an email to Sapa “earlier this month” informing the wire service about the drill.

This email reads: November 2010 Operation Phoenix: Airline ABC crash lands at OR Tambo International Airport At 3.30am this morning, Airline ABC en route from Sydney crash landed at OR Tambo International Airport with 290 passengers and 16 crew on board.”

“Air Traffic Control received a distress call from the captain reporting smoke in the cockpit of the Boeing 747-400, flight YY9064 shortly before crashing at the airport.

“The airports [sic] emergency response team responded immediately and is currently at the scene of the crash with the full support of Gauteng Emergency Services as well as local authorities.

“At this stage only 50 passengers have been accounted for and are currently receiving treatment for various wounds sustained.”

At the bottom of the email, this sentence appears: “This is a full scale emergency simulation exercise and it is part of OR Tambo International Airport’s preparedness for aviation and other emergency situations the airport.”

Batyashe-Fillis said she considered the drill to have been a success and that apart from reporters, Gauteng’s emergency services, coroners, hospitals and the police were involved.

Sapa editor Mark van der Velden said on Tuesday that “we don’t seem to have the email”, and had ran Batyashe-Fillis’s statement while they investigated the incident.