Friday, October 29, 2010

Remembering SQ006: 10 years on

By Ion Danker – October 29th, 2010

From “surviving to winning” – that’s how former Singapore Airlines (SIA) pilot Cyrano Latiff describes how he’s turned his life around since surviving Singapore’s worst-ever aircraft disaster.

Then a First Officer with Singapore Airlines, Cyrano was one of three pilots in the cockpit of SQ 006, the SQ Boeing 747-412 jet that crashed on a rainy night at Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-Shek airport on 31 October, 2000.

83 of the 179 passengers on board died after the Singapore flight that was bound for Los Angeles ploughed into a cluster of heavy construction equipment as it tried to take off from a runway in bad, stormy weather. The plane broke into several pieces upon impact as explosions ripped through the aircraft’s entire middle section.

Among the dead were 26 Taiwanese, 24 Americans and 12 Singaporeans and Indians.

Speaking to Yahoo! Singapore in an exclusive interview ahead of the 10th anniversary of the crash this Sunday, Cyrano described the entire experience as “humbling”.

“After going through this, you realise everyone is important to you,” said the 46-year-old Singaporean, who had been flying with SIA for six years before the night of the tragedy.

After having his contract terminated by SIA in 2002, Cyrano joined Lufthansa as an aeronautical consultant for two years. He then ventured into the food and beverage industry before becoming a lecturer for the Diploma in Aviation Management & Services at Temasek Polytechnic’s (TP) Engineering School in 2008.

Latiff Cyrano became a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic, teaching Aviation Management & Services since 2008.
Life for the married father of four since the crash has been anything but smooth.

Recalling that fateful day ten years ago and the immediate scenes of panic and chaos that ensued after the crash, he said, “The fire was like flames of a furnace from the lower deck as I started to call everyone to jump from the upper deck to evacuate the burning plane.”

“So I assessed the situation, and tried to kick the burnt slide. I thought if I jumped on it first, it might ‘untangle’. After I took the plunge, everyone saw it was possible to make it down to the tarmac so we started getting people to jump,” said Cyrano, who was the flight’s co-pilot.

As the remaining passengers made it to safety, Cyrano described what he saw when he glanced sideways.

“I was stunned when I saw the plane lying on its belly without the landing gears. The aircraft had broken up and its skin was burning away. But the most important thing was making sure everyone was evacuated safely,” he said, as he showed the scar he suffered from a deep gash during the jump.

Firefighters putting out the blaze on SQ006 ten years ago. (AFP Photo)
Cyrano and the other two pilots, Captain Foong Chee Kong and First Officer Ng Kheng Leng, were made to stay in Taiwan as investigations got underway after the crash. They were kept away from the Taiwanese media throughout that period as anger and bitter finger-pointing reached fever-pitch.

Said Cyrano, “We stayed in different locations and moved around, as the Taiwan media were trying to track us down and each day, the tabloids ran big stories of the accident. It came to a point where security personnel were assigned to us.”

The “scary” moment came after 52 days when the pilots were finally allowed to leave Taiwan and return to Singapore.

“We had to slip through Taiwan customs as if we were tourists. I remembered our bodyguards left us after entering the first door of the airport and the three of us went our separate ways to avoid being recognised by the local and international media,” he said.

Describing what happened next at the immigration counter, he said, “As our passports were burned from the accident, I gave a substitute travel document to the Taiwanese immigration officer who looked at it before holding up the letter and loudly proclaiming, ‘Is this your document?’.”

“The next thing I knew, a large group of people came charging forward from behind the pillars, cameras appeared out of nowhere and I thought to myself, ‘How could these guys manage to get into this restricted area?’” said Cyrano, who revealed his sense of helplessness after realising the Taiwanese media were on a witchhunt to find someone to blame for the crash.

He added that the reporters and photographers started surging forward, following him all the way to the boarding area, before he boarded his flight back to Singapore.

Worse was to follow when he returned to Taipei two years later after investigations into the crash concluded.

After being briefed by airport officials on the plane before arriving in Taiwan, he said, “The area was cordoned off for us to leave the plane but you could see the media lunging forward. It came to a point where the media came rushing towards us and I remember our bodyguards signaling us to follow them while the rest came to shield us as we fought our way to the vehicle.”

Crash investigators inspecting the remains of SQ006. (AFP Photo)
The final investigation report issued by the Taiwan Aviation Safety Council (ASC) on 24 April 2002, blamed the flight crew for not taking off from the correct runway, despite having all the relevant charts. As a result, the report said the pilots were unaware the aircraft had entered the wrong runway, which then had an area under construction.

However, Singapore officials disputed ACS’ report and said that it failed to present a complete account of the incident, as it appeared to pin full responsibility on the SQ 006 flight crew and played down equally valid contributing factors.

According to reports, the team from Singapore that participated in the investigation felt that the lightings and signages at the airport did not measure up to international standards. It added that critical lights were missing or not working, and no barriers or markings were placed at the start of the closed runway, which would have alerted the flight crew that they were on the wrong runway.

Is he still troubled by what happened ten years ago?

“I don’t think I am, even though I do still think about it. It was an accident. My conscience is clear and I managed to turn things around by positioning things differently,” he said.

“Moving ahead, I am keen to get back into the cockpit, pick things up after ten years and experience commercial flying again.”

Read more about Latiff Cyrano’s remarkable story and how he rebuilt his life since the crash in Part 2 of “Remembering SQ006: 10 years on” on Monday.