Safari vacation ends in tragedy for Dutch boy who survived Libya crash; parents, brother die

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

A safari ends in tragedy for lone crash survivor

TRIPOLI, Libya — The Dutch family — mom, dad and two young sons — were headed home from a dream safari in South Africa when their plane plunged to Earth in Libya. Rescuers found a single passenger alive: 9-year-old Ruben, still strapped in his seat.

The sole survivor slept peacefully Thursday, a stuffed orange Tigger tucked under his arm in a hospital room filled with bouquets of flowers. His left eye, forehead and slim torso were marked with bruises and scrapes; his left leg was immobilized in a blue and white cast.

Ruben smiled and spoke briefly to an aunt and uncle who rushed to his bedside from Holland, but has yet to be told his parents and 11-year-old brother are dead.

“He’s awake. He’s talking. He is listening,” a Dutch Foreign Ministry official, Ed Kronenburg, told The Associated Press after visiting the boy. “Of course he also sleeps quite a lot because he got anesthesia yesterday and is still a bit dizzy.”

The child was recovering well after 4½ hours of surgery to repair multiple fractures to his legs, Kronenburg said.

Ruben, his brother Enzo and their parents Trudy and Patrick van Assouw had gone to South Africa during the boys’ spring school vacation to celebrate the couple’s 12½-year wedding anniversary, a Dutch tradition.

In his travel blog, Patrick Van Assouw, wrote about the camping trip that took them through some of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders — South Africa’s Mac Mac Falls, the Kruger National Park game reserve and across the border into Swaziland and on to Lesotho.

Pictures he posted included one showing Ruben and Enzo posing in front of the waterfalls.

“We ran into a very large number of impalas, which we nicknamed deers,” he wrote. “Enzo’s second find was the elephant. Also saw buffalo, gnu, fox, zebra, more deer, ostrich, a lot of birds, turtle, giraffe, apes, boar, more deer.”

The following day the family encountered two rhinos, and later in the trip they saw a hippo, he wrote in the entry posted Monday — the day before the family boarded the ill-fated return flight.

Their Libyan-owned jetliner was minutes from landing in Tripoli on Wednesday after a more than seven-hour journey across Africa when it crashed into a sandy field at the edge of the runway, killing 103 people.

Ruben was found still strapped in his seat by rescuers who noticed the boy was breathing, said a Libyan safety official, Col. Baloul al-Khoja. The bodies of three crash victims were nearby.

The child was semiconscious and unresponsive, bleeding from wounds to his legs, al-Khoja said. As rescuers moved him, he grimaced in pain.

Kronenburg said the child was discovered about half a mile from the tail section of the Airbus A330-200, indicating he may have been sitting in the front of the aircraft when it broke into pieces.

Aside from the tail, little was left of the Afriqiyah Airways plane. A trail of wreckage more than 150 yards (meters) long lay scattered Thursday in the sand.

Among the bits of fuselage were a romance novel, “Zoete Tranen,” — Dutch for “Sweet Tears” — open to page 225. A charred boot, black high-heeled shoe and a motorcycle jacket with Marlboro and Ferrari logos were nearby. The carcass of a dog buzzed with flies; trees were shredded to chunks of wood.

The walls of a house just yards from the site were pockmarked by debris. The 54-year-old owner, Ramadan al-Seid, said he and his family heard the crash and when they looked out the window they saw a massive cloud of smoke and dust, with an overwhelming smell of fuel. Then they heard the ambulances coming.

“Thank God it didn’t strike the house,” said the shaken al-Seid, a school administrator.

In a quiet room in the pediatric wing of Tripoli’s Al-Khadra Hospital, Ruben lay sleeping Thursday, a gauze bandage across his bare torso and the leads of a heart monitor stuck to his chest.

A large black-and-white stuffed tiger was draped across the foot of the bed and a half-dozen bouquets of red and white roses, carnations and lilies lined the window sill. The shades were drawn against the bright sunlight.

Ruben’s aunt, Ingrid van Assouw, and an uncle, Jeroen van der Sande, visited him at the hospital, where they were presented with flowers by a group of Libyan Boy Scouts.

Kronenburg also visited the boy. “I spoke to the doctors who are treating him and they are very satisfied about his condition. Actually, I’ve seen for myself that he’s OK,” he said.

Ruben suffered four fractures to his legs and lost a lot of blood, Dr. Hameeda al-Saheli, head of the pediatric ward, told the Libyan news agency JANA. But his neck, head and face were not seriously injured, and a large bandage placed on his head after the crash had been removed Thursday.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, met with the boy’s relatives, Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Ward Bezemer said.

Dutch officials said Ruben could be flown back to Holland as early as this weekend.

In the boy’s hometown of Tilburg, a bouquet of white flowers wrapped in pink tissue was propped Thursday against the door of the van Assouw’s home, a two-story brick town house in a quiet neighborhood of the city south of Amsterdam.

In his blog posting, 40-year-old Patrick van Assouw wrote that Ruben started out the journey sick, throwing up on the plane trip to South Africa and again in the car at the start of the family’s safari.

There was one other mishap — a flat tire in a desolate spot near Sani Pass, which connects South Africa and Lesotho. After changing the tire, the family stood on a remote bluff overlooking a stunning panorama of Lesotho. It was the final day of the safari, May 9.

“Beautiful Mother’s Day gift,” he wrote.

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

will not be displayed