Authorities hopeful sole survivor of Libyan crash can return home to Netherlands this weekend

By Tarek El-tablawy, AP
Friday, May 14, 2010

Dutch crash survivor could go home this weekend

TRIPOLI, Libya — Authorities said the Dutch boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash in Libya may be flown home to the Netherlands as early as Saturday, offering a glimmer of hope as investigators began the daunting task of identifying bodies and determining the crash’s cause.

Rescuers found 9-year-old Ruben van Assouw still strapped in his seat and breathing in an area of desert sand strewn with the plane’s debris. His father, mother and 11-year-old brother are believed to have been among the 103 people on board who were killed Wednesday when their flight from South Africa crashed short of the runway in Tripoli.

One of the lead doctors treating the boy said he may be able to return home as early as Saturday.

“The situation is stable,” said orthopedic specialist Sadig Bendala. “He’s OK. He’s not getting any worse. He’s progressing quite well.”

The doctor said many factors could have played a role in his stunning survival, including where he was seated in the plane.

“It’s something from God, that he wanted him to live longer,” Bendala told The Associated Press.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry instructed the hospital to more tightly guard the boy’s privacy after a Dutch newspaper managed to contact him through a phone call to one of the hospital staff. The newspaper said a doctor handed his mobile phone to the boy to let him talk to its reporter.

That prompted the Dutch ambassador to order the hospital to be certain it is preventing anyone other than doctors and relatives from having any access to the boy.

The child was recovering well after 4 1/2 hours of surgery to repair multiple fractures to his legs. His aunt and uncle rushed to Libya from the Netherlands and were visiting him in a hospital in Tripoli.

Officials have said the boy is still not aware that his parents, Trudy and Patrick van Assouw, and brother, Enzo, perished in the crash. They have also not officially confirmed their deaths since the forensic investigation was in its initial stages.

Most of those on board the Afriqiyah Airways flight from Johannesburg were Dutch tourists.

The Airbus 330-200 may have been attempting a go-around in poor visibility caused by sunlit haze, safety officials and pilots familiar with the airport said Thursday.

Naji Dhou, the head of the Libyan committee investigating the crash, said the pilot “did not declare any problems, as far as we know at this point” during the plane’s approach. Dhou declined to comment further, saying the investigation was ongoing.

Both black boxes, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder, were immediately recovered at the crash site in the capital. Investigators from the United States, France, South Africa, and the Netherlands are helping Libya with the probe.

Dutch forensics teams will start work with Libyan officials to identify the bodies — a task that could take a week at least, depending on the condition of the bodies, said Ed Kronenburg, a senior official with the Dutch Foreign Ministry.

He expressed some concern about the initial security of the crash site and said care should be taken to ensure that victims’ personal items are kept safe so they can be returned to their relatives.

“We had the impression that anyone could have walked over the site,” Kronenburg said.

Relatives of the dead will be asked to provide details of distinguishing marks such as tattoos and scars, along with DNA and medical records to help identify them, said lead Dutch investigator Dann Noort.

“We try to collect information about the victims and try to get DNA, fingerprints and dental records,” Noort said, adding that the bodies are being stored in the morgues of two local hospitals. Identification work will take place in Libya, he said. Dutch officials said the bodies would be repatriated individually, as soon as each is identified.

Other investigators from France, South Africa, the Netherlands and the United States will work with their Libyan counterparts to look into the cause of the crash, Dutch and Libyan officials have said.

Officials have declined so far to comment on what may have caused the crash. Shards of metal from the plane, the remains of the seats’ metal frames and the victims’ personal belongings — clothes, books, shoes and souvenirs — blanketed the area. Large chunks of the plane’s body were widely scattered across the site.

A National Transportation Safety Board team of investigators from the United States is to arrive Friday since the plane’s engines were made by U.S. manufacturer General Electric. The team will include an NTSB engines specialist as well as technical advisers from the Federal Aviation Administration and General Electric.

Ruben and his family had gone to South Africa during the boys’ spring school vacation to celebrate the couple’s 12 1/2-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 Falls, the Kruger National Park game reserve and across the border into Swaziland and on to Lesotho.

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.

Associated Press writer Toby Sterling contributed to this report from Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

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