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The first plane YOGYAKARTA - It was less than one week before it really happened. I was in Kuala Lumpur to settle some official stuff, and when drinking an iced tea I took some time off in the evening to visit a friend. It was getting late and however we usually only 'speak' to each other on the internet, we had some serious issues as well. Sometimes it's best to make a small joke about accidents and disasters. The people on board of the missing Adam Air plane are having a splendid time diving there, things like that, whether they are fun or not. As long as it doesn't happen in your own direct environment, you can still say things like that. I also told that I always missed such events; earthquakes when I'm away; other disasters beyond my easy reach and other things like that.

Yes, I should consider myself really lucky with that, but with saying that I might just have opened a Pandora's Bo. Within barely one week the earthquake that struck western Sumatra, still out of reach, but it scares me with the fact that it hit just so soon after my remarks. Less than 24 hours from that it was Yogyakarta that was world news. At less than ten kilometers from the place I currently call home a pilot from the Indonesian airline Garuda tries to land his plane safely, but things go wrong and the plane crashes into rice paddies just east of the landing strip. An explosion occurs and remarkably only 21 people die, 119 others manage to get to safety without too many injuries. It was the first Garuda Indonesia flight to Yogyakarta that day.

Well, that was close all of a sudden indeed. When hearing the news I directly remembered the words I said in Kuala Lumpur. Directly after that I remembered that earlier that morning - it was already light outside, but I turned around for some more sleep - I heard sirenes. I thought it was just a someone important that drove around here, so I fell asleep quickly after waking up. Once really awake, still those sirenes, but probably it was that important person going back home now. There were no strange clouds to be seen and the Merapi volcano was still at the same spot. That calmed me down. At least until I grabbed my laptop to see the daily load of misery (news). My eyes were pulled towards a message containing 'Yogyakarta' and pesawat (plane). Ai, that wasn't a good combination at all, since proper landings are not reported.

Getting into action

However I am not a journalist at all, I like to look for some sensation. I am honest about that as well, with the remark that others are most likely just as curious but they won't admit it that easy, but that's another story of course. Directly after putting the news online I grabbed my stuff - camera, zoom lens, bottle of water, keys of the motorbike - and headed for the airport. Because I was still interpreting the message on the internet I only decided later that I didn't have to go to the airport itself but a little more towards the east. The plane departed from Jakarta and had probably with the wind direction towards the east. The plane would probably be located more there. The entrance of the air force base was nearby, so it should not be too difficult to get there.

A jeep with a SAR (Search and Rescue) team rushes to Adi Sucipto airport in Yogyakarta after a plane crashed there, killing 21 people.
A jeep with a SAR (Search and Rescue) team rushes to Adi Sucipto airport in Yogyakarta after a plane crashed there, killing 21 people.

That seemed quite easy, because everyone could have thought of the fact that roads would be closed. That was indeed the situation. However the camera around my neck generally makes me a journalist - not a single person feels he needs to ask anything - that didn't work out this way now. Probably it was related with the fact that there was a military base nearby. The motorbike was no good anymore. I looked for a parking space and find my way walking. Earlier I had seen a possible route; via the railroad tracks. There was a flow of Indonesians and a lost bule (westerner) proceeding to the crash site. I would be crazy if I didn't try this as well.

After the Prameks commuter train passed by I jumped on the track at the still closed crossing. It was an easy way; just follow the tracks towards the east. The loose gravel made the short walk in the scorching hot sun somewhat dangerous, especially near a bridge which didn't have any support for pedestrians. In my fast pace I passed some small groups of laughing Indonesians. I was approaching the point where there was the police checkpoint; the main road was closed for all traffic with the exception of aid like ambulances, army and police. I didn't have to pass that now, because these tracks worked out just fine. I felt I had passed the biggest barrier already. Now it was just walking.


The line of walking Indonesians crossed the street towards the airport just after the small bridge. The road besides the track, that was closed, was used as walking lane under the tall trees. The last section to the outer fence of the airport was under the burning hot sun, over a bumpy, grassy field between ambulances and cars of emergency teams. From a distance you could already see the tail of the plane, just between the trees and other vegetation. This was the only part that wasn't engulfed in flames or blackened. When arriving at the fence, I noticed that it was higher than it's surroundings, which made it quite difficult to see anything from the crashed airliner. The flow of people followed the main road again in the direction of the air force base. I followed obediently.

Walking along the fence I noticed an entrance that wasn't there officially. A pile of trash was used as emergency road for the ambulances to get to and from the plane. The strict security in the form of several staff of the air force was here as well. No use of starting a discussion here, you wouldn't succeed for sure. Walking again and looking for a next possibility. Back to the main road besides the railroad track, where the rest of Yogyakarta seemed to walk at the moment. The pedestrian zone that had formed by closing off the main road gave a pretty good image of how the city center could be, if only it were free of cars.

Around the corner, but still not there, the road brought me even closer. The fences here were higher. On top of the earthen hills were air force men. Not a single Indonesian would be allowed to take a look from up there, knowing that if one is allowed, the others want to do the same; humans are just like a herd of sheep. Just keep walking. Eventually everyone arrived on the main road to the air force base itself. The main gate at the road Yogyakarta-Solo was closed, so no way to get in there as well. I was happy I chose to walk all the way, however I was covered in sweat by now. I also forgot to bring my bottle of water, so I had to look for a new one as well.

Gathered crowds watch the plane's wreckage from as close by as possible. Police and spectators play games around the police lines during the day. The wing of the plane is still erected, but was taken down the following night.
Gathered crowds watch the plane's wreckage from as close by as possible. Police and spectators play games around the police lines during the day. The wing of the plane is still erected, but was taken down the following night.

Gathered crowds

Further ahead in the street there as already a crowd of people, that was all I could see. To see more I had to get to higher ground, to the level of the rice fields. That was a short climb over an already bent fence - caused by hundreds of people who jumped the fence here - and climbing another earthen wall. With the slippery grass and simple sandals it was not really easy, but I managed. On top it was like I saw the eighth wonder of the world for the very first time, freshly discovered in the rice fields outside Yogyakarta. Hundreds of people with black hair were looking in the direction of the blackened remains of a plane, the tail still erected with pride. A small plume of smoke rose from the back part of the wreckage.

When discovering this eighth world wonder, a cold shiver overwhelmed me for a moment. The exact spot where many lost their lives just a few hours earlier has already become a real Indonesian tourist destination. The electronic sounds of the different ice-cream companied, drinks and snacks were louder than the rescue crew working in the wreckage and the firefighters putting out the remaining smoldering fires after the earlier explosion of fire. With sweat dripping from my forehead and back I looked for a location where I could see the wreckage better than now. Because the temporary world wonder was surrounded by rice fields, those who wanted to have a closer look had to figure out a route over small paths themselves. Amazingly that went all pretty good, seen the missteps into the rice paddies could be counted on one hand.

Crowds of people on the first rows were merely meters away from the remains of the plane. In fact that it what I wanted to try as well. Because it was not possible to penetrate the dense crowd of people here, I gambled the possibilities were better on the other side, so I walked there. That was also the side where the plane was ripped open and where rescue workers were dissecting the plane even further, looking for possible remains of passengers aboard which didn't manage to escape the plane before it turned into a raging fireball, just several minutes after the pilot parked his plane in the fresh green rice fields.

Even outside the fences of the airport I walked in a tape-like group of people, behind some school kids. They were also looking for a quick way to get closer. I decided to follow them, because it was most likely the fastest way to install myself on the other side. Before I knew it, I was climbing through a gate in the fence, probably never locked and used by the public because there was no need to do so. Within several minutes I came as far as the airports lighting for the landing strip. They were off, the airport was closed. Crowds of people here as well. Maybe at about 15 meters of the cockpit people were smiling, smoking or making pictures with their mobile phones. I grabbed my camera to make the first pictures.

Rescue workers search through the rubble of the crashed Garuda plane's cockpit. However the pilots got out alive, 21 others died in the accident.
Rescue workers search through the rubble of the crashed Garuda plane's cockpit. However the pilots got out alive, 21 others died in the accident.

The general image is that people are having their day out. It didn't really make a difference with watching TV as far as I noticed. The situation was friendly, but because a lack of beer, soda, iced tea and sandwiches were sold. A perfect alternative for the spectators here, because I'm sure the workers here can't use violent crowds at the moment. With as many people as there were here at the moment, it was already a game between the police and military and the crowds, who wanted to get a closer view if possible. Maybe there is an empty seat in the cockpit? The police didn't let that happen, and sometimes with yelling and an angry face, most people retreated back to the original yellow police lines one rice field away, where they originally came from as well.

Bizarre situation it was. The body bags were filled with human remains just a few meters in front of the crowds. Totally burned and like a piece of ice frozen in one position the bunch of bright yellow bags created a creepy scene. People were still having fun and making pictures. Always good to have so they can show them to friends and relatives later. I am probably the only one to remove those pictures of body bags and bodies. Not because people cannot handle that, but just for those few who can't. School kids in their uniforms are drinking from a bag of iced tea while inhaling the last plumes of smoke. A plastic bag with straw is thrown over the fence in the direction of the plane. Thorough investigation will probably be a quick one here as well, so that plastic bag will probably even not being noticed between empty boxes and Aqua bottles which are brought within yellow police lines.

After I shot a series of pictures from every possible angle around the wreckage, I had already had some iced teas again, and it took me around two hours to get to this point. In the hurry I also forgot to put on sun block, I realized all of a sudden. The sun wasn't too bright today, so I could just hope that I didn't have three more days of painful arms and neck. My face felt warm, but that was most likely not just from the sun, but also some excitement and irritation I suppose. Walking towards one of the many unofficial gates I made some pictures with my zoom lens. I brought this so I didn't have to be in front of everyone here, but I was still able to make some nice pictures. People loved to trade places with me - just for a moment - but I didn't need that right now.

With more and more people arriving at the site of the crash like colonies of black ants, it got more urgent to just go home for the day. Three hours after the crash, the airport was reopened again, which caused a mass of people to 'flee' the area directly in line with the landing strip as a military plane was the first to land at the airport after the crash. Even before hundreds of people were forced out of the zone, the green plane flew over the heads of the people. Yes, then they will run, but it's already too late now. The plane touched down with a small plume of smoke from the tires several seconds later. Jokes were made that it better not be a Garuda Indonesia or Adam Air plane landing here now. When I arrived at the parking, a new Garuda plane arrived. With a big circle over the city it touched down safely at the airport. Life continued as if nothing happened here.

Posted in Travel @ 17 March 2007 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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