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Memories of 1988 Uganda Airlines plane crash in Italy

Zziwa during the interview. Photo by Henry Lubega

It was 25 years ago when Uganda Airlines Boeing 707-338c registration 5X-UBC met its ill fate at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy. Of the 45 passengers and seven crew members on board, 33 died and 19 survived. One survivor is a Catholic priest, Fr Anthony Andrew Zziwa, now serving in Bunamwaya Parish. He shares what happened during that flight with Sunday Monitor’s Henry Lubega.

On October 17, 1988, I was flying back home to prepare my students at National Teachers college Nkozi for their final exams after my two months working vocation in England. The flight was delayed by four hours, but because I was coming home like a number of other passengers, there was no cause for frustration.
It was a direct flight from Gatwick to Entebbe. However, when we were airborne, we were informed that there would be a stopover in Rome. We were not told why.

In Rome, the plane circled the airport several times. Then I heard a loud thud under the carriage. At first, I thought it was the landing gear that was coming out, then I realised the plane had hit a building; I recall saying a short prayer “Lord save us, Lord help us”.

Suddenly, there was a bright light over our heads and I realised it was a fire. I sustained third degree burns. I was still conscious when we hit the ground and I could hear people crying out for help and others moaning in pain. But I was trapped on my seat. I looked for the seat belt but I couldn’t find it, it was around my neck.
Immediately, I managed to free myself, the scouting instinct got the better part of me.

I started looking for the crying and moaning people, I managed to pull out some from the wreckage, but I never realised what I was doing it was later while in the hospital that those I pulled out told me what I did.
At that time, I was not feeling the pain but looking at helping as many people as I could. As I was doing so I saw a woman I had seen at the airport with her abdomen open, she was lying dead. The other who had a cute baby was in pain crying but the baby was dead.
The few of us who got out tried walking away from the plane, in a direction where we saw cars moving. Before we could get to the road, we saw a fence, and turned to the wreckage. I recall sitting on the wheel of the plane, and soon after, there was a loud bang and fire balls rose up in the air, that’s when the ambulances came.
Worst moment
At that point, I realised I couldn’t walk I was starting to lose consciousness, the rob and jacket I was wearing were cut off my body, as I slipped into unconsciousness. I could not even speak in English though I managed to speak in Latin, Germany and a little Italian. The pain then was getting too much, and I think I was sedated to ease the pain.
Within the two weeks I was in hospital, word reached home that I had died in a plane crash, and a requiem mass was held at my parents’ home. At the hospital, some officials of the Ugandan Embassy in Rome visited, others were mainly Uganda students and nuns in Rome. These helped us a lot in the recovery process. I recall one Ugandan in the hospital who made a call to Uganda, telling his people that he was alive only to pass on that very night.

When I was discharged, I flew back to London. It was here that friends invited me to spend Christmas with them and that is when memories of that ill-fated flight came back. I had about 20 suitcases, but I lost all of them.
Soon after coming back home, whenever I heard noise or saw smoke, I got irritated. I went to Nsambya Hospital where all sorts of tests were done. It was later found out that I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Disorder Syndrome.

I went back to England for six months to have some treatment for the disorder. Even up to now, I still have these problems. I have an aversion with funerals; I don’t want to see dead bodies they bring back the memories. I am so grateful to God that I survived.

Report on the crash

The aircraft took off from London-Gatwick with Entebbe as the final destination via Rome.
During descent to Rome, clearance was received for a descent to 4000 feet in preparation for an approach to runway 16L, and visibility was deteriorating .

A missed approach procedure was carried out at 00:05. A second approach was attempted, this time to runway 25. This was also abandoned due to poor visibility. The crew request radar vectoring to runway 34L.
The aircraft was established on the localizer at 00:28. The aircraft continued to descend below the 420 feet MDA, although the runway visual markings hadn’t been located. Because the flight crew failed to use the indispensable altitude callouts, the GPWS sounded unexpectedly.

The aircraft impacted the roof of a house 1300m short of the runway, 100m right of the extended centreline. It continued and impacted another building 85m further on. The Boeing then broke up and burst into flames.

Probable cause
“The crew’s lack of adequate preparation in the procedure for a Non Precision Approach on runway 34L at Fiumicino Airport, especially in the matter of crew coordination and altitude callouts and their continued descent beyond MDA without having located the runway visual markings.

Besides, the following factors may have contributed to the cause of the accident:
1) Presumed mental and physical fatigue, accumulated by the crew during the two previous landing approaches, which were also carried out in an environmental situation that was extremely unfavorable and operationally demanding.

2) A configuration of the Altitude Instruments, which although sufficient for the approaches that were carried out, consisted of a single radio altimeter with the acoustic warning of the MDA crossing inoperative;
3) The attention of the crew was excessively concentrated on the luminous sources along runway 34L, instead of on the instrument readings.

Furthermore (...) part of the Board of Inquiry as well as the representative of the Ugandan CA, disassociated themselves from the majority, during the phase of identifying the factors that may have contributed to causing the accident.”