Hopeful family members arrive at hospital to see Dutch boy who survived Libyan plane crash

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

Hopeful family members visit Libya crash survivor

TRIPOLI, Libya — Hopeful family members rushed to a Libyan hospital Thursday to reunite with the Dutch boy who was the only survivor of a plane crash that killed 103 people and doctors said the 9-year-old was out of danger after surgery on his shattered legs.

An unnamed spokeswoman from the Dutch Embassy in Tripoli told Dutch state broadcaster NOS that the boy immediately recognized his relatives when they came in to see him, and smiled at them.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry said the boy had told an embassy official his name is Ruben, he is 9 years old and he is from the southern city of Tilburg in the Netherlands.

A Dutch newspaper quoted a woman who appeared to be the boy’s grandmother as saying he had been in South Africa on safari with his brother and parents, who were celebrating their wedding anniversary.

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

Dr. Hameeda al-Saheli, the head of the pediatric unit at the Libyan 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.

Officials at al-Khadra hospital said three Westerners visiting the boy Thursday were his relatives. The Dutch Foreign Ministry said the boy’s aunt and uncle were in Tripoli. The hospital officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.

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

The Dutch daily Brabants Dagblad quotes a woman named An van de Sande as saying her grandson Ruben was in South Africa on safari with his brother and parents. However, she said relatives who had seen TV footage of the boy in the hospital were reluctant to confirm his identity.

The newspaper identified the boy as Ruben van Assouw from Tilburg.

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

Officials 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.

Libya’s transport minister, Mohammed Zaidan, said the plane’s two black boxes had been found and turned over to analysts. He said the cause of the crash was under investigation, but authorities had ruled out a terrorist attack.

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.

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 wheelwell.

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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