It was the 19th of August 1980, Saudia flight 163 set off from Karachi, Pakistan bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was to turn around in Riyadh for refueling and to allow some passengers to disembark. The Lockheed L-1011-200 Tristar performed the first leg of the journey uneventfully and then set off again for Jeddah. There were 287 passengers on board.
The flight crew that day, were captain Mohammed Ali Khowyter, first officer Sami Abdullah M. Hasanain and flight engineer, Bradley Curtis. The purser was Fatima Suppialo Francis. Abden Jafer Al Rehman was the only male flight attendant onboard the flight. The rest of the team were Zorayda Hernandez, Fauzia Saifuddin, Ellen Bautista, Rita Zulueta, Margarita Sarmiento, Lorna Bautista and Alice Manalo and mostly had been hired by Saudia, in the previous year. Annaleeb Masood and Louise Henderson were only two months in the airline and were still to complete their line checks on the L-1011. The cabin crew were of mixed nationalities and all in their twenties, a young crew.
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Just seven minutes into the flight, warnings went off in the cockpit, that there was smoke detected in the cargo hold. The flight crew were unsure of the warnings and sent the flight engineer into the cabin to check. He confirmed that there was smoke. Passengers seated in the last few rows of the left-hand side were getting nervous. The captain decided that they should return to Riyadh. The first officer radioed their plans. Just three minutes afterwards, one of the cabin crew went into the cockpit and reported that there was fire in the cabin.
The first officer alerted the tower that fire trucks would be needed but never declared an emergency. Another cabin crew had attempted to reach the rear of the cabin. She reported to the flight crew that fire was burning through the cabin floor. The passengers at the back were moving towards the front of the aircraft to escape the smoke and flames.
What happened next
The cabin crew made repeated announcements, asking the passengers to please sit down, put their seatbelts on and remain calm. They repeated them in English, Arabic and Urdu. They were very calm and collected in the circumstances and prepared to secure the cabin for landing. The cabin crew continued to make announcements asking passengers to sit down and move away from the aisles. They said that the aircraft was not in danger and that everyone should stay seated.
Meanwhile, the flight crew continued to prepare for a ‘normal’ landing in Riyadh. They seemed unaware of the seriousness of what was happening in the cabin. A cabin crew member again went into the cockpit reporting fire at the rear left door. The first officer informed the controller that there was a fire in the cabin. The purser had instructed the flight attendants to get fire extinguishers from their galleys. She repeated the command again.
Fighting the fire
The purser, went back to the cockpit and reported that she could not get to the back of the aircraft and that passengers were panicking and fighting in the aisles. She again commanded the cabin crew to get all fire extinguishers available and fight the fire. An announcement was made for all passengers to stay seated again in English, Arabic and Urdu. The cabin crew had already used six fire extinguishers in a desperate attempt to extinguish the flames. The announcements continued to try and calm the passengers and keep them from moving to the front of the aircraft.
A crew member went into the cockpit and informed the captain that there was too much smoke in the cabin. The captain finally acknowledged her, but was focused on a thrust lever that had jammed. The flight engineer was working on the smoke alarms. The captain decided that they would shut down one of the engines on the final approach. A passenger was making an announcement begging his compatriots to please stay seated.
The purser returned to the cockpit and asked ‘Shall we evacuate?’ The flight crew were still focused on other things. She asked again, ‘Should we evacuate the passengers?’ and ‘Can we evacuate the passengers?’ The flight engineer said ‘When we are on the ground, yes.’ The captain responded with ‘No, after we have stopped the aircraft.’ She tried to confirm again. ‘Do you want us to evacuate the passengers, captain?’ He told her to ‘Take her position’ not answering her question. She instructed the cabin crew to take their positions.
Prepare for landing
The cabin crew continued with their announcements trying to keep order in the cabin. ‘Give me your attention please, be seated ladies and gentlemen, we are about to land there’s no reason to panic’ was heard. ‘We are about to land, ladies and gentlemen, place your hands behind your head for impact.’ The purser ordered the crew to demonstrate to the passengers, the impact position. She announced it was half a minute before touchdown and that they should put their hands behind their head. The crew continued to repeat the brace instructions. Again, the purser asked if they could evacuate. The captain said ‘Tell them not to evacuate.’ No one knows what instructions were given. Passengers would have moved to the front of the aircraft but the cabin crew never opened the exits. Were they told not to, or it’s possible they couldn’t reach them because of the passengers blocking the front of the aircraft? Or had they passed out already from smoke inhalation?
Just 21 minutes after the first smoke alarm had sounded the aircraft landed in Riyadh. The aircraft inexplicably continued to taxi along the runway for a further 2 minutes and 40 seconds. The fire trucks and rescue service were waiting at the point of landing expecting the aircraft to stop there and the evacuation to start. The aircraft engines were still running so when they got to the aircraft, they could not approach it. No external fire was visible but flames were observed inside at the rear of the cabin. Over 20 minutes had passed before one of the rear doors was finally opened by the rescue team but just three minutes later the aircraft was consumed by fire.
All passengers and crew had perished through smoke inhalation and died long before the exit was opened. It seemed pointlessly that 287 passengers and 14 crew had died and the accident could have been survivable. It was deemed that the captain had failed to prepare the cabin crew for evacuation, had not braked the aircraft earlier on landing and evacuated, and the failure to use the flight crew effectively throughout the emergency.
“All evidence indicates that the cabin crew functioned normally, in fact they acted commendably. They attacked the fire as well as they could and at the same time did everything they could to calm the passengers. They also made every attempt to keep the captain advised of the very serious nature of events occurring in the passenger cabin and to extract from him the essential order to evacuate immediately on landing.”
– GACA accident report.