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Willi Vögtli experienced the worst early on in a plane crash
Willi Vögtli, a doctor from Solothurn, was one of the first responders to the worst plane crash in Switzerland. On 10 April 1973, 40 years ago, a British charter plane crashed in Hochwald. The result: 108 dead, 37 survivors.
Actually, I haven’t thought much about the plane crash in all these years”. This is what 67-year-old Willi Vögtli, a retired doctor from Solothurn, says today. He has lived with his wife in Rüttenen ob Solothurn for many years. “Our job today is mainly to look after our grandchildren three days a week. It’s a nice thing,” Vögtli says happily. Asked about the terrible accident that happened 40 years ago when the plane crashed in his home village of Hochwald, some 16 kilometres south of its actual destination, Basel Airport, he begins to recount: “I remember that Tuesday morning well.” Vögtli was just under 27 years old at the time. “I was busy at home preparing for my medical state examination.
Plane with 100 people crashed
Shortly after half past eleven, exactly at 11.37 a.m., I was startled by the fire horn.” Vögtli, like most men in the village at the time, was a member of the fire brigade. The fire horn sounded because the power was out in parts of the village due to the heavy snowfall that day, so the church bells could not be used to sound the alarm. “I heard from a neighbour that a plane with about 100 people must have crashed, and it was in the area of the Herrenmatt farm. As a fire brigade paramedic, I quickly put on my uniform and ran with the first-aid bag, which contained some dressing material, to the assembly point at the schoolhouse. But there was no one there, so I set off in the direction of Herrenmatt.”
In the meantime, a colleague had caught up with Willi Vögtli, and the two of them fought their way through the impassable terrain, which was covered with about 40 cm of heavy, wet snow. “I remember that in the forest I had the feeling that a big tree was falling behind us. But later I thought it must have been my imagination. Today, however, I am convinced that this tree had only slightly missed us, because the plane crash and all the snow caused some trees to fall.”
The only fresh blood that day
Vögtli did not see any plane wreckage anywhere because the fog was very thick and all sounds were muffled by the snow. But then they encountered a group of about 15 injured passengers accompanied by a resident of Herrenmatt. “I asked the local girl to take this group to the farm because, you could see that the people were hypothermic. We went further and met two stewardesses who were taking care of two injured women. One of the stewardesses was even smoking a cigarette. One woman was lying on the ground with a badly bleeding wound on her ankle. I made a tourniquet for this woman.” This was the only fresh blood Vögtli saw that day. He also told these women to go to the farmhouse.
Then Vögtli and his colleague met other helpers, scouts who were staying in a camphouse nearby. “They were carrying an injured woman on a tarpaulin, I told them too to go to the farmhouse.” Meanwhile, more firefighters and helpers arrived and they began carrying away more injured people on tarpaulins. “The hostess, who was smoking, told me that there must be other living people trapped in the wreckage of the plane. I was afraid to enter this debris field, but we had to go there.” At the edge of the debris field were two policemen from the Basel-Land police, Vögtli recalls. “They said it was too dangerous to go near the wreckage because of the danger of explosion. But I didn’t see any fire. We had to free the injured people after all, because the screaming and whimpering of these people was very hard to bear.”
“The colleague had to throw up first”
“At the wreckage, I tried to free a trapped woman who was hanging upside down in the straps. I didn’t succeed right away and called a colleague to bring me a knife. He threw up first, but then he gave me a knife and I was able to cut the belts. The woman was badly injured and even today I don’t think she survived the crash.”
Vögtli falters with his narrative. The cruel memory images come up. It almost takes his breath away. Silence. After two minutes he is able to continue. “That’s how we got some people off the plane. I can’t and won’t say what all we stepped on. It was bad. Desperate, full of fear and mostly unsuccessful, I took the pulse of quite a few snow-covered people and looked for other signs of life. It was depressing. Finally, after some time, I saw two or three men in white clothes. I realised: These are real doctors who could really help because they had the appropriate instruments with them. I saw that they were already intubating casualties on the spot, which made a big impression on me and calmed me down. Now I was no longer the only ‘doctor’ at the crash site. Then I helped to lift some of the injured onto vehicles. At about 1.15 p.m. all the injured were recovered. I then went to Herrenmatt to see if the people there were well taken care of. After that I went home, it was between 2.30 and 3 pm.
Living a normal life
At home, his wife had cooked a vegetable soup for her husband and two colleagues. She too remembers this event well. “You came home and said almost nothing. You didn’t touch the soup either.” And Vögtli adds: “A few days later, someone brought me my fire helmet, which I had lost somewhere.”
How does one process such an experience? Images of badly injured, screaming women and children. “By simply continuing to live normally,” says Willi Vögtli. “At that time there was no such thing as debriefing or a care team. Everyone had to deal with it themselves somehow. And as far as I know, everyone actually managed to do that.” Of course they talked to each other about it, but “not about the worst things. More about banal things. How we got lost in the snowstorm, for example. Three months after the accident, the Vögtli family moved away from Hochwald and life as a doctor in the Solothurn hospital began. He had to give information about his experiences a few more times; to an air accident expert, to the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau. Then he no longer wanted to talk about the accident. He still remembers the smell of paraffin in his nose for some time. Vögtli tended to avoid the crash site. “It used to be our picnic spot in the forest. The last time I was there was in 1974, a year after the crash, when a memorial plaque was dedicated. Not since then.”
“I experienced the worst”
It was only when a village chronicle was published in 2008 and he was asked to write a chapter about the crash that he pulled out all the documents and newspaper clippings and looked into it again, he said. Did the experience influence his life as a doctor in any way? “I don’t think so. Maybe it made me less afraid of encountering something worse. Because I always told myself: I have experienced the worst. There is nothing more horrific.”