ғʟʏɪɴɢ ɪɴ ᴛʜᴇ ғʟᴀᴍᴇs – ᴠᴀʀɪɢ ғʟɪɢʜᴛ 𝟾𝟸𝟶

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.

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.

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.

Sometime around 13:56, a passenger likely dropped a lit cigarette into the trash chute in the rear starboard lavatory. The cigarette quickly ignited the trash, starting a fire that soon spread to nearby plastic and wood fixtures inside the lavatory. 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.

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.

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.

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.

The smoke beagen to change from white to black, increasing in density as it steadily filled the plane from back to front.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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