Dutch boy who survived Libyan plane crash greets relatives who rushed from Holland with smile

By Tarek El-tablawy, AP
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Boy who survived Libyan crash smiles at relatives

TRIPOLI, Libya — The Dutch boy who was the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed 103 people greeted his relatives with a smile Thursday after they rushed from Holland to his hospital room in Libya and doctors said the 9-year-old was out of danger after successful surgery on his shattered legs.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry said the boy’s aunt and uncle were in the Libyan capital Tripoli and officials at al-Khadra hospital said a group of Westerners visiting him were his relatives. A Dutch Embassy spokeswoman in Tripoli told Dutch state broadcaster NOS that the boy immediately recognized his loved ones and smiled at them when they came in.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry said the boy told an embassy official his name is Ruben and he is from the southern city of Tilburg in the Netherlands. A Dutch newspaper identified him as Ruben van Assouw and quoted a woman who appeared to be his grandmother as saying he had been in South Africa on safari with his brother and parents, who were celebrating their wedding anniversary.

“We don’t understand this at all,” she told the Dutch daily Brabants Dagblad. “It’s like we’re in a movie.”

A bouquet of white flowers, the traditional color for mourning, was propped against the door of the van Assouw family home — a two-story brick town house with white curtains covering the windows in a quiet neighborhood of Tilburg, 70 miles (115 kilometers) south of Amsterdam.

Dr. Hameeda al-Saheli, the head of the pediatric unit at the hospital where the boy is being treated, said he is breathing normally and his vital organs are intact. She told the official Libyan news agency he suffered four fractures in his legs and lost a lot of blood, but his neck, skull and brain were not affected and he did not suffer internal bleeding.

“As soon as his health permits he will be brought to the Netherlands,” the Dutch Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The boy was on the Libyan plane arriving from South Africa Wednesday when it crashed minutes before landing at the airport in the capital Tripoli.

Libyan television showed images of him Wednesday laying on a hospital bed after the crash, breathing through an oxygen mask with his head bandaged and face bruised and swollen.

The woman quoted in the Dutch newspaper who appeared to be the boy’s grandmother, An van de Sande, said she was not positive the boy was her grandson because family members could not be sure based on the brief television images aired so far.

The Airbus A330-200 was completing a more than seven-hour flight across the African continent from Johannesburg when it crashed. More than half of the crash victims were Dutch tourists who had been vacationing in South Africa.

Transportation Minister Mohammed Zaidan told The Associated Press that a joint investigation into the cause of the crash was under way involving investigators from the United States, France, South Africa, the Netherlands and Libya.

He said the two black boxes recovered from the crash site had been turned over to the team but he wouldn’t comment further pending the investigation’s completion.

Officials also had no immediate explanation for how the boy survived the crash that killed everyone else on the plane.

But there have been at least five cases this decade of a single survivor in a commercial plane crash. Last summer, a young girl was found clinging to wreckage 13 hours after a plane went down in the water off the Comoros Islands.

“The idea of a lone survivor might seem a fluke, but it has happened several times,” said Patrick Smith, an American airline pilot and aviation author.

In a field near the Tripoli airport runway, little was left of the Afriqiyah Airbus.

Afriqiyah Airways said Flight 771 was carrying 93 passengers and 11 crew.

It said the passengers included 58 Dutch, six South Africans, two Libyans, two Austrians, one German, one Zimbabwean, one French and two British. The nationality of 19 more passengers have yet to be established, it said in a later statement. All 11 crew members were Libyan, it added.

However, the Dutch Foreign Ministry said it now believes 70 Dutch people were among those killed, including 61 who apparently had been booked by two travel agencies.

Many of the passengers were booked to travel from Tripoli on to other destinations in Europe.

More than 600 A330s have been built since the type entered service in 1994. The Afriqiyah crash is only the second fatal accident involving an A330 in airline service. The other was the crash of Air France flight 447 a year ago off the coast of Brazil.

But last month, an A330 belonging to Cathay Pacific was forced to make an emergency landing in Hong Kong because of engine trouble. Fifty-seven passengers suffered mostly slight injuries in the ensuing evacuation.

The Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department said control problems with the two Rolls-Royce engines forced the Airbus to land at a higher-than-normal speed, damaging an engine cowling, puncturing the tires and causing a small fire in the wheel well.

The pilots reported that they were unable to get the engines to function normally, and that during the approach and landing phase one was operating at 17 percent of thrust while the other was stuck at 70 percent.

Associated Press Writers Arthur Max and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.

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