‘As a child I saw the plane crash that killed my sisters'

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Harriet Ware-Austin

When Harriet Ware-Austin was eight she witnessed a plane accident in which her two older sisters died. She has spent much of the last 49 years in what she describes as a "tunnel" of private grief. But recently she set out to connect with others touched by the same tragic event.

Harriet was standing with her parents on an open-air platform at Addis Ababa airport that April day in 1972. The Easter holidays were over, and Harriet's sisters, 12-year-old Caroline and 14-year-old Jane, were flying back to England from Ethiopia to start the new school term. As the girls reached the top of the steps to the plane they turned back to wave goodbye, and then disappeared inside.

Soon their plane was thundering down the runway, getting up speed to lift off the ground. But instead of soaring skyward there was a loud shrieking of brakes. Out of control, the plane veered around before careering down a steep verge at the end of the runway.

"And then, all of a sudden, this great big plume of black smoke came up," Harriet recalls.

Harriet's father, Bill, ran off towards the plane, leaving Harriet and her mother, Elsa, standing, hand-in-hand, watching in quiet disbelief.

Image source, Bill Ware-Austin
Image caption,
Passengers enter the rear door of the East African Airlines VC10 at Addis Ababa airport on 18 April 1972

Thousands of miles away, at a boarding school in Warwick, 12-year-old Graham Townsend was waiting for his two younger brothers, Christopher and Kenneth, to arrive back after the Easter break. Ordinarily all three boys would have spent the holidays with their parents in Addis Ababa, but this year there'd been a change of plan and Graham hadn't gone, so he was eager to find out what adventures his brothers had been having.

When he got the bad news, the details weren't clear. There had been an accident and it involved a flight, but to begin with it didn't occur to Graham that something might be seriously wrong.

"My first thoughts were, 'Wow what a fantastic tale they're going to have when they come back!'" he says. "I was almost feeling slightly jealous."

He carried on playing, trying to balance three brightly coloured glass marbles on top of a stool with a slightly curved top. Two of the marbles rolled away, leaving just one.

"And that was when I suddenly thought, 'Gosh, I might be on my own here.'"

Nearly half a century later, Harriet Ware-Austin spoke to Life Changing on BBC radio about the event that had left such a deep imprint on her life.

Harriet's sister, Caroline, and her friend Debbie, had managed to unclasp each other's seatbelts and get out of the plane, Harriet explained. But Caroline had run downhill, where fuel from the ruptured tanks was pouring, while Debbie fled in the opposite direction and escaped the fire that engulfed her friend. Caroline was still alive when her father found her, but all of her clothes had been burned off her body, leaving only her shoes.

She died four days later, having been carried back to the UK on an RAF rescue flight, accompanied by her parents and Harriet.

The eldest sister, Jane, had died instantaneously of a ruptured aorta caused by the pressure of the seatbelt on her torso.

They were two of the 43 people who lost their lives, out of a total of 107 on board the East African airlines VC10.

Image source, Bill Ware-Austin
Image caption,
Caroline, Harriet and Jane picnicking in Ethiopia with their mother and Benjy the dog, during the 1972 Easter holidays

Harriet didn't return to Ethiopia until 2009 - 37 years later - on a trip connected with her job as a human rights consultant.

It was a powerful experience, "excruciatingly difficult and emotion-ridden", though she had to hide it all and get on with her work.

She remembers landing at Addis Ababa airport and gazing from the plane window down the gully where her sisters' plane had burst into flames.

The smell of the air, when she walked out on to the tarmac, was exactly as she remembered it from her childhood. But along with all the painful emotions, Harriet also felt close to her sisters, "because that's where we all were last".

Harriet has been to Addis Ababa many times since, and on every visit she feels that same connection with Caroline and Jane. There's no memorial to the 43 people who lost their lives in the VC10 accident though, and sitting in Addis Ababa airport one day, looking out over the runway, Harriet felt overwhelmed by a longing to know what had become of the survivors and relatives and how the crash had affected their lives.

"Where were they? How were they? How had their lives been on the long climb back?" she says. "We had lived in a tunnel of our own grief and construction of a new life for the decades following 1972, but suddenly I became consumed with needing to find out about the others."

By sharing her story with the BBC, Harriet believed she might be able to find some of them.

A trailer for the programme went out on 6 April 2021 as Graham Townsend and his wife, Gillian, were driving down the 280 freeway near San Francisco, on the way to get their Covid jabs.

It nearly caused an accident.

"Graham almost skidded off the motorway," Gillian, wrote in an email to Harriet later that day.

By the time the programme was broadcast, just over two weeks later, Harriet and Graham had exchanged numerous emails, comparing notes about Ethiopia where Harriet's father had worked on a soil conservation programme, and Graham's for the International Labour Organization, as well as every detail they each remembered about the accident.

"As we learned more about each other's circumstances we worked out that our experiences were very complementary, so they gave us a completely different perspective," Graham says.

Harriet was the youngest of three girls, while Graham was the eldest of three boys. Harriet had been there when the accident happened, while Graham had not.

Image source, Graham Townsend
Image caption,
Kenneth, Christopher and Graham Townsend in Ethiopia, in late 1971

Their parents hadn't known each other before the tragedy, but then they had exchanged letters and Christmas cards, and they had met up around the anniversary for the next 21 years, even after the death of Graham's mother, Barbara.

Harriet yearned to understand how Graham had coped, being the one who was left behind, as she was. While Graham was keen to know whether, like him, Harriet had always wanted to have three children - and she had.

"There was a lot of sadness," Harriet says, "but also a lot of happy memories and laughter. Mainly it was this fascinating exploration."

The pandemic prevented Graham from attending the funeral of his father, who died in November 2020 at the age of 92, but this summer he was finally able to make the trip back.

"My father was the last person in our family, apart from me, to have known my brothers," Graham says. "When he passed away there was no-one else I could now speak to who really understood."

Losing his father brought into sharp focus a need like Harriet's to keep his siblings' memories alive. So finding traces of what had happened to them among his father's belongings - the condolence letters and the accident report - was of great importance to him. There were also family photos and cine film.

"I'm gradually digging out all these precious things and it helps me put together a timeline of what was happening," he says. "Being an engineer, I like to have everything in order."

Although they'd never met before, Harriet says she recognised Graham straight away. "I saw his father's face and I remembered him - a very lovely man," she says.

They found they were discussing their innermost feelings in no time.

"There was none of the awkwardness of meeting a stranger," Harriet says. "It was quite an extraordinary 'reunion' really, complete strangers with an instant connection and shared past."

Image source, Graham Townsend

On the day of the crash, Graham's brothers, Christopher and Kenneth, were eventually found by their father, Jack - recognisable only by the matching Timex watches still strapped to their wrists. They hadn't survived.

As a child, Graham had often wondered whether things might have turned out differently if only he'd have been travelling with his brothers, as he normally would.

"I remember saying to my parents, 'I wish I'd been on the plane,' meaning that I could have helped," he says. "And I even thought maybe it would have been better to die with them, because then I wouldn't have all this sadness and guilt now."

Reading the accident report and discussing things with Harriet have helped settle Graham's mind.

"I started to realise that where people were sitting in the aircraft was a massive factor in whether they lived or whether they died and as I learned more and more, it seems that had I been with them then it wouldn't have made any difference."

Since her radio programme was broadcast, Harriet has been contacted by more than 200 people from around the world.

Some are strangers who just want to say they are sorry. Others were at school with Caroline and Jane and had never fully understood what had become of the warm, friendly, funny Ware-Austin girls.

Their voices are heard in the programme in a taped farewell message they had recorded on a cassette player before leaving for the airport. This was a family custom; Harriet and her parents would listen to the messages when they returned home after waving the girls off.

"Hello Mummy and Daddy and Harriet… Thank you for a super holiday… I'll always remember it... When I'm sitting shivering in the classroom at school… I'll think of you all. We don't forget you, we're always thinking of you," Jane says.

"Thank you for a lovely holiday... I'll think of you all the time, so don't worry too much. Bye bye," says Caroline.

"It's very hard to listen, but it's also so precious that those voices can be preserved," Harriet says, "and they're entitled to be heard."

Some of those who got in touch told Harriet they'd never forgotten her sisters, had regularly visited their grave, laid flowers, and even left notes there to try to make contact with her. For Harriet - whose parents had to hastily decide where the girls would be buried - this alleviated the guilt she has felt about not being able to visit them more often at the cemetery next to their school.

Image caption,
Both Harriet (pictured) and Graham say grief can be triggered unexpectedly - for example when filling out a form that asks how many siblings they have

Other people have written to Harriet to share heart-breaking stories about the people they lost - fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and friends. One woman said that she'd wept more for her dead father in the week since hearing Harriet on the radio than she had in the previous 49 years.

Some said they'd never really confronted their feelings about what happened that awful day until hearing Harriet's searing account on the radio, almost half a century later.

Harriet has been deeply moved by all of the messages and is grateful for every story shared.

"Each of these is a living link with my sisters," she says.

One man got in touch who said he'd nursed a girl called Caroline for two days in Addis Ababa following the accident. "I think that was your sister," he wrote.

"He understood my need to know every detail," Harriet says, "and it was very good to know she'd had this really lovely, gentle man looking after her."

And one of the RAF air crew also wrote to Harriet. He had never forgotten the poor children, he said, and the smell of burnt flesh.

A woman who had started a job at the British Embassy in Addis a week after the accident said she'd bought a horse from a family who had lost two children in the crash.

"She had bought Honest Joe, my beloved big white horse!" Harriet says. "And she had wonderful years with him, so that was nice to know."

Image caption,
Harriet and Honest Joe - Ethiopians called her “the little girl on the big white horse”

Debbie, who'd been sitting next to Caroline on the plane, also emailed with her recollections.

"I went back to school for the last weeks of the summer term and found my friends were just what I needed," she wrote. The other girls provided a welcome distraction. "They said 'rotten luck' or something, filled me in on the gossip, and monitored the progress of my 'bacon strips' (skin grafts) with interest."

Harriet has never stopped imagining how different life would have been if Caroline and Debbie hadn't let go of one another after jumping out of the plane.

It will soon be 50 years since the accident, and both Harriet and Graham would like to do something to mark the anniversary of the day they lost their cherished sisters and brothers.

"We don't want them to be forgotten," Graham says.

He'd like to hold a memorial service and is hopeful that his daughter-in-law, a stonemason, can advise him how best to restore his brothers' headstone, on whose soft, local stone flurries of pale grey lichens and the elements have already taken their toll.

Image source, Graham Townsend
Image caption,
The outline of the VC10 plane, which Graham contributed to his brothers' headstone, has largely worn away

But as well as paying tribute to their own siblings, Harriet and Graham also want to remember all the other people who lost their lives, and those they left behind.

"We're all part of the same thing," Graham says.

Next month Harriet will travel to Addis to visit a cemetery where she has discovered that some of the people who lost their lives in the accident are buried. She will take photographs and put flowers on their graves, as other people have done for her sisters.

"Because they've never been visited by their families, which just seems the saddest, loneliest thing," she says.

In her own mind Caroline and Jane are always very present.

"I have never stopped feeling the loss, and often very powerfully," she says. "I think of them not just once a day but several times a day - they're just always there."

All photographs courtesy of Harriet Ware-Austin unless otherwise stated

Do you have an extraordinary story to tell? Email lifechanging@bbc.co.uk

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