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Nationair crash marked quietly

July 11, 2011 – Montreal – The deadliest aviation disaster involving a Canadian-registered aircraft marks its 20th anniversary Monday, its memory faded from the collective national consciousness even before the crash debris was cleared away.


July 11, 2011
By The Canadian Press

July 11, 2011 – Montreal – The deadliest aviation disaster involving a
Canadian-registered aircraft marks its 20th anniversary Monday, its
memory faded from the collective national consciousness even before
the crash debris was cleared away.

The lives of all 261 on board the ill-fated Nationair plane,
including 14 Canadian crew members, were lost on July 11, 1991 when
the plane crashed down in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

While Canadians have seen a public inquiry and several memorial
sites dedicated to the 1985 Air India tragedy, few today recall the
crash that currently ranks as the 15th-worst aviation disaster in
history.

"Maybe it's because it didn't happen on Canadian soil," said
Dale Humphrey, a former Nationair senior flight attendant. "Apart
from the initial report, it never really got very much press."

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Though Humphrey was offered the contract to work that particular
charter shift, he turned it down.

It turned out to be a wise decision.

Two tires of Flight 2120, chartered by Nigeria Airways to
transport Muslims to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage, ignited upon
takeoff. Shreds of burning rubber were kicked up into the wheel
well, quickly spreading flames throughout the fuselage.

A third tire exploded just after the DC-8-61's landing gear
retracted, knocking out the craft's electrical and hydraulic
systems.

Within minutes the flight, fully engulfed in flames, broke apart
in midair and plummeted into the desert.

"When it happened, it was all over CNN for a week. But a lot of
people (in Canada) didn't even hear about the crash," said Lina
Colacci whose 23-year-old sister Dolores, a flight attendant,
perished in the disaster.

Allegations of questionable safety practices had long been
rumoured at Nationair.

Subsequent media reports revealed that the carrier regularly flew
aircraft that were not airworthy _ and that Transport Canada was
aware of the practice.

They said the under-inflated and well-worn tires were due to be
changed days earlier. However, delays from the previous day's
emergency repairs for wing and radar issues _ along with a misplaced
set of keys for the tire storage depot _ prompted the airline to
dispatch the un-airworthy plane that morning, as planned.

The federal government declared after an investigation, in 1998,
that there were deficiencies in a number of operational and
management areas at Nationair, especially in maintenance work.

"My sister had kept a journal,'' said Colacci, “and she had
written how she was scared that the safety of Nationair was
lacking."

Colacci recounted journal entries that described staff
implementing makeshift repairs, such as plugging up holes in the
bathroom with rags.

"She was getting ready to quit because of the fear of something
happening."

This was mere weeks before the crash.

After an early-morning phone call from a Nationair representative
informing the Colacci family that there had been an accident, it
took another week before they learned that Dolores' body could not
be recovered.

"They said the bodies were cremated in the air because of the
explosion," said Lina Colacci.

However, the airline did offer an alternative as it recognized
the need for closure for Colacci's mother: it volunteered to put
some sand in a coffin and ship it back under the pretext that it
contained Dolores' remains.

The Colacci family declined.

"We never received anything from Nationair," said Colacci,
"not even an apology."

Although a number of surviving family members launched a wrongful
death class-action lawsuit against Nationair, Colacci said their
efforts were fruitless. "They went bankrupt (in 1993) and that was
it."

Four months after the crash, Nationair staff went to a scheduled
union negotiations meeting and found themselves locked out of their
jobs, leading to one of Canada's longest airline labour disputes. It
was 16 months before they returned to work and, within a week of the
staff retraining period, Nationair filed for bankruptcy protection.

At this point, Nationair owed the Canadian government in excess
of $60 million in unpaid taxes and landing fees.

Former Nationar president Robert Obadia was ordered to pay
$234,000 to company creditors by a Quebec court in 1993, after he
had pleaded guilty to eight counts of fraud. His current whereabouts
are unknown.

Despite the strained relationship between Nationair management
and in-flight staff, the flight attendant crew had formed a very
close bond _ one that endures 20 years after the accident.

A group of Toronto-based Nationair flight attendants pooled
funds, soon after the crash, to establish a memorial plaque
inscribed with the victims' names. They also planted a cherry tree
to commemorate their colleagues who perished in Jeddah.

The memorial has a permanent home on the grounds of the Greater
Toronto Airport Authority.

The survivors are united in their sentiment that Monday's
memorial not be a maudlin event. “We all did that 20 years ago,''
said Humphrey, describing the trauma of attending three friends'
funerals on one day.

Instead, they're making a concerted effort to honour their former
colleagues' memories as opposed to mourning their deaths.

Former Nationair flight attendant Suzanne Regan wrote in an email
that, "… this memorial is not about us. It is definitely for us
but not about our individual experience."

Humphrey made and maintains a website not only as a tribute to
his friends, but to all the passengers. "People always tend to
forget that there were another 247 people who died."

"Their death taught me, at (age) 21, to see the big picture,"
said Regan, "not take things for granted, and that nothing lasts
forever. Except love."