The New York-bound tourists were chatting and happily comparing notes about their two glorious weeks in the Spanish sun as they boarded a chartered DC-10 at the Mediterranean resort of Málaga last month. Then the moment of horror: For reasons not immediately known, their Spantax airliner crashed and burned after an aborted takeoff. Of the 380 passengers, most of them U.S. citizens, and 13 crew members, SO died, 27 were unaccounted for, and 40 were hospitalized with serious injuries. Two of the surviving passengers were a Manhattan couple, Mary Gibbons, 30, and Don Deliquanti, 40. Married two and a half years, Mary is an attorney, Don a photo editor at the New York Times. Though they suffered bruises and smoke inhalation, Mary and Don considered themselves “very lucky.” Still, they chose to complete their trip via a long train trip to England, there to board the Queen Elizabeth II for New York. In London they gave PEOPLE’s Jerene Jones a harrowing account of the crash.
Don: We had had a great vacation in Spain. We had all our souvenirs and were looking forward to getting home. I’ve always told Mary that vacations end when they close the airplane doors. This time they closed the doors, and we started down the runway, but I never really thought our lives might end there, too.
Mary: When you’ve flown for any amount of time, you become aware of certain sensations, how your body is sort of pressed back in your seat by G-forces on takeoff. This time that feeling never came. It was just like a car that was out of control. And then Don said, “We’re aborting.” I looked out and realized that we were off the runway and in a hayfield. The airplane broke through two stone fences and over a metal barrier. Then you could feel the airplane do a bump, and I said, “We’re on a road.” We didn’t know at the time we had hit cars and a truck. Finally we were on another field and, for whatever reason, the plane stopped with quite a jolt.
Don: When the plane stopped we were sitting upright so we were all jerked forward. But no one was killed by the impact.
Mary: With seatbelts on we were doubled over. Then I sat back up and saw the ceiling panels, about four feet by two feet each, coming down in waves as if they were dominoes or an accordion. They didn’t hit us. Then I looked at the window and there was this fire, this tremendous redness. It was like being inside a blowtorch. I said to Don, “We’re on fire.”
Don: We released our seatbelts, got up and went a few steps toward the back of the plane. We took a couple of steps towards death. It was obvious we couldn’t get out that way.
Mary: I recall seeing bodies up against the back door and remember hearing someone say that the door wouldn’t open. And at that point Don said, “We have to go the other way.”
Don: I didn’t say that. I just did it.
Mary: Well, you did it, and I guess I just knew what you were thinking.
Don: Before that, when Mary first saw the flames, she grabbed my arm and said, “Honey, we’re going to die.” We’ve been married for two and a half years; we’ve known each other for four, so we know certain things about each other. Mary’s the attorney who can sum up situations and, believe me, she was right. Without some degree of out-and-out luck, we were dead. The smoke was coming into the cabin and we were inhaling it. We were in a sealed container. I was really frightened. I got a rush of adrenaline, and I just knew I wasn’t going to die in the back where the flames were. I moved away from the flames, and Mary moved with me.
Mary: We cut across the airplane through the middle to the right-hand side. When I saw the flames come inside the cabin I thought we didn’t have a prayer. It wasn’t to be believed how fast the plane filled with smoke—dark, brackish smoke. The people who died in that plane, regardless of what they looked like afterward, passed out and died from breathing that smoke.
Don: We would have given anything for one breath of fresh air. It’s like having this liquid plastic in your lungs. Even eight hours later Mary would have these terrible dry heaves when she was just coughing and nothing was coming up. It was like that smell was too deep inside her.
Mary: We had to climb on top of seats and over those ceiling panels. We saw a spot of light and came out through a hatch above the wing.
Don: It was as if there were two separate plane crashes, one for the people in front and the other for those in back. There was no fire up front. The stewardesses quickly and efficiently deployed the emergency slides, and the front half of the plane emptied without incident. People were coming to the exits carrying some of their souvenirs until the stewardesses yelled, “No souvenirs.” But in the back it was really hell. We finally got out with Mary hanging onto my waist. When we were out onto the wing, it was so hot it burned the feet of a barefoot passenger. We jumped the seven feet down off the wing and started running because we were sure the plane was going to blow up. There were people just standing there in a state of shock. But Mary and I had this feeling of euphoria. Even though we were coughing and gagging, we were alive.
Mary: The happenstance of where you sat on that airplane was virtually the determinant of whether you had a good or bad chance to live. Just the sheer chance of it all is the thing that’s so incomprehensible. You stand in a line to get your boarding pass and neither the passengers nor the people handing out the passes could have known that a seating decision casually made would turn out to be the decision on which people lived or died. We got to the airport late. There were people ahead of us complaining about their seats. Some of them with front seats wanted to sit with friends in the middle. But it turned out the passengers forward would get the best chance to live. Theirs was almost a textbook evacuation of an airplane. The people in back were in an inferno. There was smoke from plastics burning. You couldn’t breathe, you couldn’t see, you couldn’t walk because of the collapsed ceiling panels.
Don: We talked to the father of one of the stewardesses who was a heroine, who died doing her job, died trying to open a door to save other people’s lives. We also talked with a father who showed us a picture of his young daughter and asked, “Did you see this girl?” They wanted to know what happened. We don’t know why we survived or why the others didn’t. It didn’t have anything to do with skill or anything. It was just luck.
Mary: I know there is no official word yet on what went wrong with the airplane. But the first thing I noticed when we got on was that the little pockets on the seat backs had torn sides. The plane was not clean, and I thought, “Well, this must be where they cut corners.” But you don’t think the engines and mechanisms of the airplane are going to be in the same shape. Also, there was little control over what people brought onto the plane—large packages, odd-sized ones, more than one piece of hand luggage. It’s supposed to be what you can put under the seat, but it was much more.
Don: Our major mistake was that we tried to save money on the air fares. The charter trip was costing us $399 round trip as compared with $543 on a scheduled transatlantic carrier. Ours was a cheap flight, but we paid dearly for it. Up to now Mary and I were among the greatest proponents of air travel, both for work and pleasure. You can get someplace quickly, the whole world opens to you. Now we’re not going to be the same people when we return. We’re going to be exhausted by what happened, exhausted by the fear of flying. We took one cheap airline trip too many. We can’t picture ourselves on an aircraft again. That door is closed to us.