We have received the reflections of the family of the victims of the disaster. These are very personal reflections of the 10th April 1973 and days and weeks after the crash. Click the links to read.
My story, Helen Batt
Phil Batt and I were work colleagues in Weston-super-Mare – he was 21, I was 24 and we worked at adjoining desks. We both worked hard at our office jobs, and were great friends. I was sorry I’d married the first man who asked me, when I was 20, because I fancied him like mad, but it was too late by then.
Tuesday 10 April was unseasonably hot, and our desks were beside a plate glass window that didn’t open. In our lunch break I went down to the shops and came back with an ice lolly for each of us. While we were eating it, at about 2pm Phil’s phone rang; it was Peter Cooke, his brother-in-law. Pete had just heard a BBC radio report about a plane that had crashed in Switzerland. They said it was businessmen on a trip, and there were no reports of any casualties.
I saw Phil go white – I could see his dark beard through his clean-shaven skin. He thought the worst from that moment.
Other phone calls followed, and the news got worse. It became clear that it was the plane his parents and many other of his friends and relatives had boarded that morning at Bristol.
We went to our separate homes at the end of the working day – Phil to Congresbury, me to Cheddar. I looked into my parents’ home in Cheddar first, to ask if they’d heard the news. Mrs Filer, our neighbour, was using our phone to try and call the emergency number – her only child, Jean Baker was on the flight. Jean was the mother of 3 young children, and Mrs Filer had bought Jean’s ticket as a rare treat. The Filers didn’t have a phone – many people didn’t in 1973.
I called next on my mother-in-law, also in Cheddar, whose best friend was on the plane. She and her mother were watching Hughie Green doing Opportunity Knocks. Appalled, I asked whether they’d heard the news about the plane crash? They had. I asked if they would turn the television off while we talked about it, and they said no. That was when I realised I didn’t want to be a member of that family any more.
After tea, I went to the airport where I knew Phil would be. There was little concrete news. There didn’t seem to be a definitive passenger list, or names of casualties or survivors. We all went our different ways much later, and I didn’t sleep at all that night. All I wanted to do was look after Phil.
In August 2023 we will celebrate our 49th wedding anniversary.
My story, Jacki Sutton nee Gill
In 1973 I was 18 years old and lived with my 1 year old daughter Elsa in the family home Walnut Cottage Brinsea Rd Congresbury with my mum Aileen, dad Dennis, sister Linda 21 little sister, Hazel 9 and my elderly grandmother Elsie. Our family carrier business J. Gill & Son was run from here. My uncle Ivor, auntie Marie cousins John and David lived next door in The Horts with Cousin Rose married and living in Clevedon
Mum and Dad were founder members of the Memorial Hall Social Club and both played skittles in the club teams. They were best friends with Beryl and Ray Batt who also were very active in the social club. Beryl worked at Lulsgate Airport then a small regional airport (now Bristol International). Charter flights had just started from the airport and Beryl organised one day trips to places like the Tulip fields Holland, a long weekend in Benidorm and the day trip to Basel Switzerland for sightseeing shopping and a boat trip. The ladies skittle team members went on these trips with other friends and family from surrounding villages of Claverham, Wrington, Redhill and Bristol.
The trip to Switzerland had been delayed on a number of occasions with I believe the original plane company being taken over by Invicta Airlines who also had financial difficulties. Some people who were going on the trip cancelled and sold their tickets on to others. A couple of people had bad feelings about the trip. My mum bought Hazel’s ticket as a special treat from a lady who later revealed she had a dream seeing all her friends laid out in the snow. Uncle Ivor, Auntie Marie and cousin John were also going on the trip
The evening of the 9th Hazel was really excited about the trip and went to bed early. I said don’t forget to come and say goodbye in the morning. Elsa was teething and crying so about 3am mum came in and said tuck her in with you. Something unheard of but she had woken the household up and they were leaving early morning. The next I knew Mum came in saying they were off. Linda and I got up and shouted out the window to Hazel “bye bye have a lovely time!” The last time we saw her!
I was doing things around the house. Gran’s very deaf friend Mrs Jones had come to sit with Gran as she couldn’t get around very well. Later on, a knock on the door, dads cousin, David Wookey’s 13 year old son said “mum sent me to tell you the plane has crashed but she said don’t worry they said everyone is alright”.
That was the start of the nightmare. I didn’t know what to do, so got some lunch sat down at the table with the two old ladies and fed Elsa. The phone went it was Connie Wookey who told me that it was announced people were injured and the info was to ring Bristol Airport. Again I was in tears, Elsa picked up on this crying non stop and gran and Mrs Jones were looking at me strangely.
Dad used to call into the Wheatchief Carriers office Bristol to collect messages and parcels late morning so I phoned and asked to speak to him . He came on the phone and in his Somerset accent said “what’s up then” in a jokey manner! The plane’s crashed Dad. He went silent what do you mean? I told him he had to ring the Airport.
At this point Elsa was still crying non stop so I started to pack her pram to go to my friend Helen Streets mum, I didn’t know what to do. Dad phoned back and said I had to stay by the phone as the Airport would be ringing me. He said Linda’s boss was bringing her home. My Auntie Rita phoned and asked if it was their plane and that Uncle Don, my mums brother was coming home and they would be over soon.
The phone rang again and a voice asked me if I could give the names of the people from Congresbury on the plane -I thought it was the airport- so I listed out people I knew were on the plane but then couldn’t remember who else was there so then asked them what news they had. To be totally gobsmacked when they said ‘this is the daily mail london!’ They kept ringing and ringing over the next few days. (I have in 50 years only bought that paper twice for a specific article and immediately burnt the papers)
Lot’s of family then started to arrive at Walnut Cottage and I think it was then that Sue and Gillian Batt also arrived. So had the media, there were lots of reporters outside the house some had stepladders and were trying to get photos of us inside the house. One particular reporter was frogmarched from our doorstep down the road by my uncle Don.
There were no mobile phones and hardly any faxes, things were done by telex and because of the snowstorm in Basel there was no information. We all sat around not knowing what was happening. The next morning we had newspapers delivered and of course the Daily Mail was there. There was a photo they had been given of the ladies skittles team on the front page not all of them were on the trip! Also they listed names of the Congresbury party and I was terrified I may have given incorrect names. It was OK – they had obviously pestered elsewhere to check!
Gradually information started coming through on TV listing survivor names we only tuned in for this news. Eventually, we were told a plane to take relatives to Switzerland had been organised. It was decided that Linda and Uncle Don would go to find our family, Dad was in no fit state and cousin Rose was heavily pregnant and advised not to fly. The morning that they were due to fly out the church warden phoned and said turn on the TV they have listed some Gills on the survivor list. However, when they arrived in Switzerland they found there had been a mix up of lists of survivors and deceased.
The rest of the family were still plagued by the press but we and other Congresbury relatives would not speak with them we were all just waiting news from Switzerland. I was never sure exactly what happened in Switzerland. I believe it was dreadful for them, we at home were not told everything to shield us from the worst.
I do know that they arrived in Switzerland in the evening, people who had survivors were taken off to the hospitals and everyone else taken to a Swiss nuclear bunker where they all slept in the same dormitory. The next day were taken to the school in Dornach where all the coffins had been placed and not allowed them to be opened. They had to look through photographs to identify and personal possessions were laid out in grids, as below.
After a day the relatives were flown home on a flight landing at RAF Lyneham airport.
The bodies were flown back to Lulsgate Airport and taken to RAF Locking on the outskirts of Weston-super-Mare. Our Congresbury villagers were later brought home where they were placed in the Refectory. Our local branch of the British Legion stood daytime guard of honour and the Yeo Trogg Venture Scouts of whom Cousin John belonged, stood guard for the nights. They also were pallbearers for John
Over the following week the funerals took place. Dad went to all of them but Linda and I only went to Beryl and Ray Batt’s on the 19th of April. It was in the morning and then our family was the same day in the afternoon. It was surreal when 5 hearses formed a line outside our house and I remember going out to have a look and wondering why Hazel was in such a big coffin. St Andrew’s Church was full for the funeral of our five family members we did not allow the press into the church or grounds and the gates were manned to keep them out
I taught Hazel at Congresbury Junior School. Hazel was a delightful pupil always eager to help me and others. She was An extremely bright girl and always worked hard with excellent results. We were all devastated when the Swiss air disaster took so many lives in Congresbury and to lose a young, friendly, cheerful, clever girl Hazel was unbelievable. I can still remember her.Jacky Wigley
There was a real community spirit in 1973. Everyone knew everyone in the village and rallied around us. We had casseroles left on the doorstep etc. We also received hundreds of cards and letters from all over the world. I know it’s a bit naughty, but we nick named them Sorry your Deads! Over the years there has been mentions of bereavement counselling! We didn’t know what it was and certainly wasn’t offered to us. We all helped each other and our own doctors and church visited to ensure we were OK.
Our family five are all laid to rest next to each other in Congresbury churchyard next to best friends Ray and Beryl Batt and Irene Weaver.
The disaster changed the face of the village so many businesses from the pubs, shops, village school had so many people missing from daily life. It was never quite the same again.
Philip Batt gave an interview to ITV on his reflections of the days after the crash.
We woke to a beautiful clear morning and my parents left our house in Stonewell Drive, Congresbury very early. They shouted their goodbyes from the front door before I was even out of bed. I went to work at the Social Security office in Weston and I gazed at the sky thinking it looked like a good day for flying.
I had no inkling that anything had happened until my (soon to be) brother in law (Peter Cooke) phoned at about 2pm to ask if I’d heard the news….there had been reports of an aircraft from Bristol crashing in Switzerland.
That was a completely numbing moment and, being a natural pessimist, I immediately assumed the worst.
I stayed at work until 5pm in a dazed state and made several calls to Bristol Airport, where I knew a few people, my mother worked there and I had done weekend work there during the summers of 1971 and 1972. The calls were inconclusive but they tried to assure me that as far as they knew there were no casualties, the tone however was not at all encouraging and I feared the worst.
The lack of communication only reinforced my sense of doom and later that evening I drove up to the airport to try to get some information. Even to this day that seems to be what people do when an air crash happens and even now, 50 years on, whenever a crash is reported on, the sight of relatives at whatever airport wherever in the world fills me with horror.
Bristol Airport was a very small place in 1973 and the loss of a plane from there was certainly a ‘first’ for all the staff there. There was no good news though and it was beginning to look catastrophic. We (a growing number of friends and relatives) were being kept in a private part of the old terminal building and shielded from a growing press interest. It was now 12 hours after the crash and the lack of tangible reassurance was awful even though news was filtering through that the aircraft was not a total loss.
I was called out of the private area to see a work colleague who had come to the airport to support me and I briefly met with her before returning to the miserable people waiting for news.
Eventually there was nothing to be gained by staying at the airport. The next few hours are, and have remained forever, a complete blur. The following morning it was absolutely clear to me that there was no hope and I bought a copy of every newspaper the shop in Cleeve had, I don’t know why Cleeve, but it was probably a spur of the moment decision on my way to Nailsea, then Bristol. My father had a brother who was a Metropolitan policeman and another who had been a navigator in the RAF, both had witnessed traumatic incidents and were to become a great help in the next day or so.
I obtained my parents’ dental records and was able to fax them (yes FAX in 1973!). The only fax machine in Bristol was at the police station in Bridewell.
Before the crash I had had no idea how many of my own family were involved and to this day I’m not sure who to count beyond mother, father, grandmother, two aunts, three cousins and a great uncle. There were others, second cousins and the like, all from Bristol.
An aircraft, a DanAir comet, or was it a 1/11, was chartered and took a lot of relatives to Basel where we embarked on a grim and gruelling identification of the dead in which my two uncles were enormous help. I was reunited with £65 worth of Swiss francs, all soaked in aviation fuel, which I had sent my father off with to purchase an Omega watch. Also my mother’s and father’s and grandmother’s rings, one of which was cut from my father’s finger. Identifications completed we returned to RAF Lyneham on a Freddie Laker DC10 and the process of building a new life had begun.
The work colleague who came up to the airport on the evening of 10 April 1973 is still around, we’ve been together for 50 year
My story, Malcom Brean
I was working at PJ Hare Presses Wrington on the 10th April 1973, we had the radio on as per usual when it was announced that a plane had crashed in Basel Switzerland.
The plane was carrying 140 people mainly mothers from North Somerset, they were on a day out to go shopping and sight seeing. My work colleague Chris Sanders said wasnt Pam going on that trip with her Mum, I said no they changed their minds and did not go. Next thing we heard was my Father in Law Bill Weavers voice on the radio being interviewed by Points West presenter who’s name I cant remember, I dropped everything and rushed home to Pam my Wife and my 7 month old son Paul.
The only thing we could think to do was to go to Bristol Airport to get more information, there were lots of people there all for the same reason, Simon Bull and his Dad Brian, Brian Board, Trevor Cleeves, Andrew Frappel, David Coles to name just a few. We were ushered up stairs away from other passengers to be with other anxiously waiting relatives. There was a Salvation Army lady there who said how nice it was that Paul our son was there as a bit of a distraction from all of the negative thoughts that were going on in every ones heads. She also said what beautifull shaped lips he had, and a lot of girls would be envious as he had the perfect shaped lipstick line.
News was very sketchy but it eventually emerged that the the Invicta Airlines Flight 435 from Bristol had hit a mountain while trying to land in a snow storm. Survivors of the crash recalled how they heard the aircrafts engines roaring and the sound of trees being brocken by the aircrafts wings as they were crashing into the snow covered mountain. One can only imagine the fear and pandemonium that must of ensued on those poor soles.
The death toll was high, 108 people died that day, mainly mothers and lady skittlers.
My Father In Law, Bill Weaver stayed with us that awfull night and I could hear him talking in his sleep to his wife Irene, there seemed to be an actual conversation taking place in the bedroom, at this stage we still didnt know if she was alive or dead, I too had a strange experience that night and didnt know if I dreamt it or if it was real. Irene wanted to talk to me down in the lounge but I woulnt get out of bed, too scared I think of what I might find!
Next day the relatives were flown out to Switzerland including Pam and Bill where they were shown photos of deceased and personal items such as wedding rings ect. They were not allowed to see the bodies as their injuries were too horrific. Bill identified Irene as being one of the deceased. Pam was advised not to look at photo of her Mum so she didn’t.
The relatives were housed in an under ground air raid shelter in Dornack near to the crash site and the locals made them very welcome. The Swiss people collected thousands of pounds to give to the relatives which I think was mainly meant for the motherless children. No one from Wrington, Congresbury or Redhill survived, the only person I knew to survive was Mrs Rogers who used to run the Bungalow Inn at Redhill but ironically the new landlady of the pub Mrs. Palmer was killed!
The coffins of the dead from Congresbury were brought back to lay in rest in Congresbury Church and strangely and quite by coincidence Irene’s coffin was placed in the same spot as Bill used to sit when he attended Church in his younger days. We lost one member of our Family, one girl I know from Congresbury Rosemary Gill lost five members of her family leaving her traumatised for the rest of her life (later in life my circumstances changed and I went out with her for a while).
Bill was in total shock for years after, and so was Pam it affected the whole family. Eventually Bill received compensation for the loss of his wife – £12,000 a small price for a life! If you read the air crash report download here there are some startling facts about one of the Pilots, basically he was inexperienced and incompetent.
Our story, Mike and Liz Bell
Liz Bell and I were running a Venture Scout unit (15- to 20-year-olds) and a separate Ranger Guide Unit (14- to 18-year-olds) from our home in Park Road. Our program and training activities were separate but joint activities were scheduled every 3months or so. John Gill one of the first Venture Scouts to be enrolled was now my assistant leader. To celebrate his mother and fathers return to good health after years of sickness he spent his prize money as top apprentice of the year at Coventry and Jeffs, on taking them to Switzerland for the day. His younger brother who was a boarding school pupil at Q. E. H. Bristol and was in the Lake district with a school trip at the time of the crash.
We had at the time some 25 venture Scouts and 20 Ranger guides from the surrounding area from Backwell to Cheddar, Banwell, Winscombe, Congresbury, Wrington and Churchill. Between them some 14 members lost close family and parents. Gillian and Sue Batt lost eleven members of their family including parents. Dave Gill and Jacki Gill (1st Cousin) lost five members of their family David his mother, father and John his brother and Jacki her mother and sister. Q. E. H. kept David away from the news until Jim Gill and I could drive up to the lakes tell David what had happened and bring him home.
We were very fortunate in being able to have an open house, large garden and conservatory and for the next two weeks or so we were able to put on a light program That allowed the young people to share their situation, relax, cry, laugh and do things together. There was always half a dozen or more at any time of the day or night at home finding comfort in their shared bereavement.
My company CEO gave me 4 weeks leave without me asking. He then promptly kept the freezer full of food. Hot dogs, Beef burgers, frozen chips, Heinz beans and Ice creams. The Tabloid papers would not leave the youngsters alone often following them up the road but one unfortunate man tried too hard and left his foot in our doorway. We were not bothered by him again.
Come the time of the funerals we in Congresbury had some 20 coffins in the front rooms at the Rectory. We had no incumbent at the time. The Police and local authorities were very concerned about the publicity and the “lunatic fringe” wanting to perform their rites. The feeling in the village was we did not want to leave the coffins alone. The British Legion offered to be present during the day and the Venture Scouts did an all-night vigil until the last funeral.
What of the immediate future of our local young adults? David Gill and his dog Susie came to live with us and our three children. Jacki Gill and her daughter Elsa also came to live with us, two years later we moved to a larger house and David met the next-door neighbour’s daughter Susan Pearce (cousins of the Roynans who had lost 4 of their family). They married in1978 and have had three daughters.
Jacki met Charles Sutton and married in 1987. Sue Batt who was already engaged to Peter Cook a Venture Scout married in late 1973 and have two children. Gillian Batt who had met Mike Latham Venture Scout (who had lost his mother from Cheddar) during joint activities. They married 1977 and know have three children living in Cheddar.
These young people changed our lives forever to the good. We are pleased that we were in the right place at the right time.
My story, Rosemarie Pittts nee Gill
Tuesday 10th April 1973 – a date etched in my memory forever – the day I lost 5 members of my family in such tragic circumstances and our family life changed forever.
I was 25 years old, married, living in Clevedon and 6 months pregnant with my first baby, an event my parents were very much looking forward to. Mum worked part time in the local VG shop, dad was a caretaker at the school and brother John was a fully qualified motor mechanic with a large garage group in Bristol. They all worked hard and were very much part of the local community. In their spare time mum played skittles for Congresbury Ladies, dad assisted with the local British Legion branch and helped his brother Dennis with the family carrier business. Our brother John was an assistant leader with the local Venture Scout Group.
These trips were proving popular with villagers and the previous year mum and dad enjoyed a trip to the Dutch Bulb Fields. The sightseeing/shopping visit to Switzerland was another trip they were all very much looking forward to. I visited home on the Sunday of that week for our usual family catch up, and after tea said goodbye saying that I hoped they would all enjoy their much anticipated day trip.
My husband Ray used to come home for lunch and we would listen to the news on the radio before he went back to work. That lunchtime Tuesday 10th April, a news flash came on about a plane that crashed in Switzerland , but with no loss of life and only a few casualties. I remember thinking that our mum, dad and brother had gone on a trip to Switzerland that day with our aunt and young cousin. Immediately I started to shiver as I thought that’s too much of a coincidence. Panic started to seep into my mind…..what to do next? We had no phone or car. My youngest brother Dave (a boarder at QEH School in Bristol) was away on a school trip to the Lake District.
My husband went to ring my Gran’s house from his work and later my cousin Jim arrived at our flat to take us to Congresbury, where we hoped that we could get more information. Our close relatives were already gathered there to support us and offer help. By 6pm that evening news came that the plane was from Bristol, and that there were many more casualties and deaths but no further details. We were all too stunned to comprehend what was happening to us. News reports from Switzerland were sparse due to bad weather and the crash location. Panic and exhaustion was taking its toll on me and I was advised to return to our flat in Clevedon to get some rest. Someone would come and get us if any further news arrived. Sleep evaded me and I stayed up all night staring at family photos. Finally at 5am I switched on the radio for the first news report of the day which stated some survivors but many deaths.
A survivors list was then given out which gave our family name, but with no indication as to which member of the family it was. I now felt completely numb and shell-shocked. The nightmare was fast becoming too real. Who from our family had survived?
Again my cousin Jim collected us from Clevedon and brought us back to our Gran’s house. The tension was awful and the news very bleak. The press with their cameras were gathering outside of the house attempting to get interviews and photos. We were afraid to step outside for fear of being photographed or interviewed.
Our vicar Mr Cran who had recently retired came to visit us. Decisions then had to be made, as we had just heard that a plane was going to Switzerland that day to assist in identifying those who had died. It was decided that my cousin Linda and her uncle Don would go as I was over 6 months pregnant and not allowed to fly, and uncle Dennis was not in a fit state to travel. This upset me greatly as I desperately wanted to go, but I had to think of my unborn baby.
Then I had to get my youngest brother Dave back from his trip to the Lake District, who at that time was unaware of the tragedy unfolding. After frantic phone calls to the Hostel and speaking to staff I was told Dave was out on a trip. It was then arranged that on Dave’s return he would be told he had to return home due to an accident. His belongings were to be packed ready for him to leave with a teacher. Back in Congresbury it was decided that Mike Bell, my cousin Jim with his wife Suzanne and my husband Ray would travel up to collect Dave. They would meet up at a roughly halfway point to pick up Dave and bring him home. I asked that he not be told the full extent of the accident until he arrived back. That could wait until we were together. Dave arrived back very late that night and after spending time with family and Liz and Mike Bell, we decided to return to our family house The Horts to spend the night. I recall Dad’s ever faithful dog Suzie being very restless and whining uncontrollably – I am sure she sensed something was badly wrong.
Finally, on Thursday 12 April whilst we were at Liz and Mike’s house the news came that 4 of our family had been identified but not our mother. As there were many women of a similar age, identification was proving difficult. Eventually, after several frantic calls to Switzerland our mother was identified as a victim. It was very difficult to comprehend that all 5 members of our family had perished.
The press were still being relentless with front page news everyday, this being the biggest disaster to hit the West Country probably since the Aberfan tragedy. We were shielded as much as possible by family and friends. During this terrible time Liz and Mike Bell were a source of wonderful and constant support to us, without which I am not sure how we would have coped. No grief counselling was available back then, so we just had to cope the best way we could with the help of family and friends.
I remember being told that our local MP Jerry Wiggin would come to visit us at the Memorial Hall Social Club where families had gathered, to offer his condolences and any immediate assistance. There were also condolence messages from HM The Queen, the Prime Minister Edward Heath, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and Michael Heseltine MP from the Department of Trade and Industry, and also officials from the Swiss Government. The following day a Memorial Service at the Church had been arranged and over 700 people attended with the service being relayed to many people who had gathered outside.
Finally, we were told that all the bodies were to be repatriated to RAF Locking with the 20 Congresbury victims being taken to the Church Vicarage to lay at rest. I remember visiting the Vicarage that evening and placing a single rose on each of our family coffins.
Congresbury was a small village and such a tragic loss of life affected so many of the families, and it seemed that almost everyone you knew had lost someone. Village life was never going to be the same again. We were also very aware that other villages had lost many people which saddened us all greatly.
There were funerals for the villagers at the church for almost 2 weeks. Our funeral day was Thursday 19th April, and the sight of 5 funeral hearses and cars lined up outside our family home ready to take our family members on their final journey seemed almost surreal.
Looking back many things were wrong that fateful day – the trip should have gone ahead the week before, there was the freak snow storm over Basel, aircraft repairs had not been done correctly, there were inconsistencies with pilot credentials and malfunctions with the radio beacons at Basel. A recipe for disaster. We later learned after the Civil Aviation Accident Report was published that the radio frequency for these beacons around Basel had been changed, so that this would NEVER happen again.
On the 10th April 30 years later I made a trip to Switzerland for a memorial service. The flight was uneventful until we were about to land when the pilot announced he would have to do ‘a go around’ as heavy snow was falling with high winds. My heart went up to my mouth….was this really happening? I remember clutching the arm rest as the plane was buffeted from side to side. I could not help thinking…. was this what it was like 30 years earlier on that fateful day? Eventually the plane landed safely to my great relief. I was later told that the Swiss people have a saying which translates as “you can never be sure it won’t snow here until after the 10th April.”
Although 50 years may have passed since that awful day, we still remember those dark times, but try to focus on the many happy memories we have. As a family we have picked ourselves up and have gone on with our lives to raise families with a generation of grandchildren. LIfe goes on…….but we will never forget our family members whose lives were taken from us so tragically that day.
Hansruedi Vögtli was interviewed by Andreas W. Schmid in 2023 for a Swiss magazine.
The original interview was in German and has been translated. We are grateful to Andreas for his permission to publish this interview with Hansruedi Vögtli, one of the first people at the scene.
Hansruedi Vögtli stands in front of his house and points to the sky with his crutch. “The plane flew over here,” he says. “But I didn’t see much because of the thick fog. That was 50 years ago – a long time in which memories can also fade behind a thick layer of fog or even disappear altogether. Vögtli, now 88 years old, still remembers exactly what happened on his doorstep in the hamlet of Herrenmatt above Hochwalder on 10 April 1973. “You can’t get something like that out of your head”.
That morning, the farmer wants to take his family to the Muba, which was still a social event at the time, but has since stopped. But it is snowing so hard that he first has to shovel his car free. Suddenly he hears a tremendous noise above him – the roar of an aeroplane engine. “I immediately thought: it’s coming too low, it’s going to crash”. Instead of an explosion, however, a few moments later all that could be heard were strange noises that were difficult to describe. Vögtli tried anyway: “It sounded like whistling. And then suddenly there was only silence”. He was sure that the plane crashed. He ran into the house. As fire chief of Hochwald, he knows what he has to do, first he calls the fire station in Basel. Did they know about an aircraft that was missing? If so, it had crashed here near Herrenmatt. The Basel fire brigade contacted Basel-Mulhouse airport, where they said they knew nothing about a missing aircraft. The airport employee does not realise that the air traffic control is in a hectic state at this very moment because a plane from England has disappeared. The fire watch calls Vögtli back and says everything is fine.
The plane “Oscar Papa” is unsuccessfully on its way to land, but nothing is in order.
Before, everything seemed to be going quite normally at the airport. Although there is a snowstorm with poor visibility, eleven planes land in Basel-Mulhouse without any major problems. Only the pilot of a Learjet from Stuttgart decides to turn back. Then a Vickers Vanguard arrives from England. The eleven-year-old aircraft with four propellers, which has been given the call sign “Oscar Papa”, comes in for a landing. On board: six crew members and 139 passengers. Because of the bad weather, the airport tower orders an instrument flight. The pilots abort the first landing approach. A second attempt also fails. They report that they want to try a new approach and loop back. The two are considered experienced pilots who have flown to Basel dozens of times.
Retired Swissair pilot Roger Beck was passing the time there when he saw the aircraft flying dangerously close; at first he even feared that it might hit one of the observatory’s anemometers. Beck called the airport: “Hello, Tower! A four-propeller plane has just flown through here not 50 metres above our house. If it continues on this course, it will crash into the mountains.” The air traffic controller asks: “Are you really talking about 50 metres?” “Listen,” says the caller, “I was a Swissair pilot until recently”.
Air traffic control in Zurich also reported that they had received a radar echo indicating that an aircraft was moving in the direction of Hochwald and whether this was correct, the alarm bells started ringing in the Basel tower. After a thorough check of the situation in the control office, it becomes clear that the aircraft is indeed on the wrong course.
The air traffic controller warns the pilots: “I think you are heading south of the airfield!” South, a full 16 kilometres from the airport. There are indications that the crew in the cockpit did notice their errant flight at the last moment. They pull up the “OscarPapa” abruptly. Too late a Passenger later told the media that he suddenly saw “mountains and fir trees crashing against the plane”. The plane skidded sharply, dived nose-first into the forest and finally flipped onto its back.
Hansruedi Vögtli even apologises to the airport
Hansruedi Vögtli is sitting at home in the warm. Just a moment ago he was outside in the snow, even though he had received a message from the Basel fire brigade that they had been called out. He said he didn’t see any aircraft missing, so he set off in search of a possible crash site. “But I was going in the wrong direction, looking in the wrong place because of the thick fog”. Afterwards he called the fire brigade in Basel again. “I have to ask again: Aren’t you missing an aeroplane?” No, still not, was the answer he got. Vögtli himself now believed that he must have been mistaken. “I even apologised.” Of course, he preferred it that way, rather than if a plane had actually crashed. He returned to his warm house, somewhat reassured. An hour later the telephone rang and the airport director was on the line. Vögtli still remembers the exact words: ” Loose Si,” says the airport manager, ” Loose Si, what exactly did you hear?” A plane is missing after all. Vögtli alerts the local fire brigade and goes with his sons to the nearby scout camp, where 30 children and youths are holding their scout camp. Although they are only 200 metres from the scene of the accident, they have heard nothing; the half-metre-high snow has swallowed up the sound of the impact. Finally, Vögtli’s son Erich, then 14 years old, comes across a group of bleeding people speaking English in the forest. He calls his father over. “Some of them were walking without shoes,” he recalls, “they had taken them off during the flight because it was more comfortable that way”.
He leads them to Herrenmatt, where his wife and the neighbours take care of the injured. Hansruedi Vögtli and a few helpers tracked down the accident site. They found some injured people and many corpses. He remembers trying to rescue a boy. “He was caught between two dead bodies and suddenly opened his eyes”. It is one of the few joyful moments he experiences that day, otherwise the horror prevails. “Especially the screams of the people reverberated for a long time”. Psychological help was not available at the time, and he had to cope with the experience alone.
The rescue vehicles with their summer tyres had no chance. The few helpers at the scene were also left to their own devices at first. Outside help is slow in coming. The situation is chaotic. Because of the snow, the Basel rescue vehicles with their summer tyres have no chance. A power cut in the area does not help either, nor do the onlookers who want to see the whole thing from close up and thus clog the access routes.
In the following days, the “Basellandschaftliche Zeitung” even reports of commercial car trips that were offered in a hurry with the destination Hochwald. When some trees collapsed over the access roads due to the snow load, the arrival of the rescue forces was delayed even more. But also in terms of information technology, there was a complete mess. Basel airport informs various services that an aircraft has crashed – but not the Basel fire brigade and certainly not the Solothurn police, who are actually responsible for Hochwald. The fact that the two directors of Basel-Mulhouse airport, the Swiss Stauffer and the Frenchman Roques, are not on the same wavelength and do not like to ignore each other’s decisions does not help much either. Valuable time is lost, even if the investigating commission later states – perhaps somewhat euphemistically – that no more lives could have been saved because of this.
At the end of the day, those responsible count 104 dead bodies that are laid out in the gymnasium in Dornach. Two bodies are only discovered under the rubble during further clearing work. Two injured people die weeks later in the Basel Cantonal Hospital. A total of 37 people survive, some of whom write heroic stories. One of them was the stewardess Elizabeth Low, who was the only one to escape without a scratch and immediately set about helping the injured.
This coming Easter Monday 2023, many are present at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary; it will take place above Herrenmatt at the memorial commemorating the victims of that time. Hansruedi Vögtli will also be there. The plane crash has left its mark on his life. Once a woman from America came to visit and said to me: “Thanks to you, I’m here”. Vögtli has also been asked to give a lecture about his experiences. He initially refused, but then let himself be pushed into it “out of friendly neighbourly relations”. The first time there were 250 people in the hall, “I was shaking all over”. At another in Interlaken, as many as 500 listened. He had no experience with lectures, but knew: The ending has to be right. So he said: “For 37 people, a second life began after the crash in Hochwald. 108 were not so lucky”.