Shortly after 9.30 this morning, I learned – via Twitter – of the plane crash at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands. A Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 came down short of the Polderbaan runway, where it promptly broke into three pieces. It was a miracle that it didn’t turn into a fireball and that so many passengers escaped uninjured (at time of writing, there are 10 confirmed dead – including two pilots and four cabin crew – 6 seriously injured and another 70-odd with injuries ranging from moderate to walking wounded, out of 143 on board. Early eyewitness reports suggested the plane had seemed to just fall out of the sky, rumours followed that it had run out of fuel. These are all matters for the crash investigation team.
Apart from the fact that just two months into the year there seems to have been a high number of plane crashes in 2009, I have a personal interest in this crash. I lived in the Netherlands for nine years, mostly just outside the capital, Amsterdam, in a small commuter town within spitting distance of the airport. Schiphol is a big and busy airport in a small and very crowded country (16 million people in an area the size of Switzerland, which has less than half that population). It’s the fifth busiest airport in Europe and has six runways. Compare that to Heathrow, the busiest, which has only two runways.
The hinterland around Schiphol is crowded with commuter towns that have sucked up the overspill from Amsterdam – Badhoevedorp, Hoofddorp, Abbenes, Nieuw Vennep, Zwanenburg… Everyone lives under a flight path and it’s possible to hear aircraft passing overhead approximately every 90 seconds during the day. Everyone lives in fear of a crash in their town – it was only in 1992 that an El Al Boeing 747 crashed into a tower block on the Bijlmermeer housing estate in south-east Amsterdam, killing an estimated 47 people. And still the airport planners want to expand Schiphol. When I left the Netherlands in 2004, there was talk of building an extra runway off the coast, in the North Sea. They are still talking about it today, and still the locals are fighting the expansion plans. Today, the locals had a lucky escape – eyewitness reports suggest the pilots tried hard to land safely, but if the plane had come down even half a kilometre away it would have hit an urbanised area and the fatalities would have been far higher.
As the Netherlands mourns the dead, the powers that be must also consider the safety of the population. Schiphol has an extremely good track record in safety but it is unsafe to my mind to even think of further expansion in such a confined space – even when I lived in the shadow of the airport there was a running joke that towns were built inside the airport, rather than vice versa.
Taking a different tack, I logged into the Dutch news feeds as the story rolled out, as well as the #schiphol hashtag on TwitterSearch. It does appear that the story broke first on Twitter and even CNN confirmed it had learned of the crash there. It was quickly apparent, though, that the #schiphol feed was full of noise – wild speculation, “facts” that had no confirmed sources and general chatter as people expressed their shock and condolences. Finding hard news on TwitterSearch was difficult. Turning to the Dutch sources, I found the tabloidy broadsheet de Telegraaf to have the most reliable, and very frequent, updates, while Dutch news service NOS had rolling TV/internet coverage.
My Dutch is somewhat rusty these days (not that it was ever fluent to start with), but in between proofreading a book, I tweeted English translations of the most reliable updates I could find. At one point, I appeared to be scooping BreakingNewsOn, which was seemingly tweeting my updates just minutes behind me. I didn’t mind, except that I’d rather they’d retweeted me. Whatever – it’s not a competition. I was only interested in passing on relevant news, given that most people don’t speak Dutch.
I’ll end by saying my thoughts are very much across the Channel tonight. Whatever caused the crash, I hope the authorities will not increase the chances of another one by continuing to construct yet more runways across what’s left of the Harlemmermeer polder. People will always be more important than planes.