21 January 2000

A plane crash legacy

It was a crash that hit the headlines for a day or two.

But for one Essex farmer the story continues.

Johann Tasker reports

IT started as a regular drive home. Then came the phone call that plunged Christmas into chaos.

Farmer Andy Streeter had just left a meeting of the Worshipful Company of Farmers in London and was driving back to his wife and two sons on his Essex farm, a stones throw from Stansted Airport. Then the mobile phone rang.

"I got a phone call from my son," Mr Streeter said later. "He said Dont worry, were all alive. But theres a jumbo jet in the lake." Mr Streeter made it home almost in record time.

The jumbo was a Korean Air Boeing 747 cargo jet which crashed in flames two minutes after taking off from Stansted at 6.40pm on Dec 22. All four air crew were killed as the plane plunged to earth on the edge of Mr Streeters 1214ha (3000- acre) family farm at Beggars Hall, Great Hallingbury. The main section of the aeroplane had landed less than 100 yards from the home of Mr Streeters next-door neighbour, farmer Martin Mugele.

"I heard this appalling whining noise and rushed to the window in time to see the nose of the plane hit the ground," Mr Mugele later told the Daily Telegraph. "There was an explosion and the plane disintegrated, leaving a trail of debris 150 yards long."

One month later Mr Streeter surveys the crash site. Even now, the air is heavy with the smell of aviation fuel and hydraulic oil. The planes cockpit remains embedded 30-40ft underground in a crater in the bank of the farm lake. Among the twisted wreckage are strewn the remains of 170,000 ink-jet cartridges that the plane was carrying to Milan, Italy.

A few years ago, Mr Streeter had planted the lakeside with fir trees and silver birch. Where there was once foliage, only charred stumps and what look like post holes remain.

"Every time I come here, I still cant get over the lack of trees," says Mr Streeter. "Where have they all gone?"

Assessors estimate that the bill for the damage the incident caused will top £1m. Since the crash, Mr Streeter has spent most of his time in meetings with safety officials and inspectors who are investigating the accident.

Back in the farm office, he pores over a series of maps laid out on a covered snooker table that serves as a make-shift desk. The map shows the farm with the crash site highlighted in felt-tip pen. The enterprises are mainly combinable crops but include a 120-cow dairy herd, land farmed under a management contract, a country club and golf course.

"The plane flew over our dairy herd," says Mr Streeter. "Everybodys traumatised. The farm manager feels very bad about it."

The 20-strong RAF recovery team which has cleared the majority of the wreckage was due to leave the farm yesterday. But Mick Watkins, the RAFs aircraft recovery officer, estimates that 80t of the 377t aeroplane still need to be recovered. "We havent had anything of this magnitude since Lockerbie," he says.

The rest of the plane, including the cockpit, will be recovered by farm consultants ADAS who are branching out into environmental management. They have a tough job. On the night of the crash, it rained with burning debris for 20 minutes. Experts believe the plane would have taken out 120 houses had it hit the nearby town of Bishops Stortford.

Colin Rudd, the ADAS principal partner in charge of the operation, estimates it will take more than six months to get the aircraft remains out.

"Were in the process of assessing the situation now and characterising the area so we can do a risk assessment," he says. "It is going to take some time."

A road must be built through a recently planted field of winter beans to enable recovery equipment to reach the crash site. It is estimated that 2 acres of the field will be lost, replaced by a steady stream of 40t dumper trucks.

These days, Mr Streeter finds little time for farming. Since the crash, he has attended meeting after meeting about the accident. Today, Mr Streeter has to attend an emergency planning meeting at his local council to get permission to build the road. More than 10,000t of topsoil polluted by hydraulic oil and chemicals leaking from the wreckage must be removed.

Mr Streeter says: "More of the problems are starting now because they cant get access."

There is also the bank of the lake to sort out. It holds back up to 6m gallons of water from surrounding farmland and has been fractured. It must be dammed and partially drained so the cockpit of the plane can be removed.

Mr Streeter is unlikely to receive any money for the disruption it has caused. The insurers have classified the crash as an uninsurable loss. He says: "Were not going to get any compensation. Nobody gains out of this sort of thing."

But there is still hope that the area will again look as it once did. Mr Streeter hopes the land around the lake will be re-planted and can be turned into a memorial.

"It will be dedicated to the air crew and made open for the Korean nation," he says.

Essex farmer Andy Streeter surveys the wreckage caused by Britains first jumbo jet crash since Lockerbie in 1988.