The Tenerife Airport Disaster Memorial

Today (27 March) is the anniversary of the world’s worst plane disaster (not due to terrorism), the Tenerife Airport Disaster.

For those unfamiliar with the accident, the key points (taken from Wikipedia) are that two Boeing 747 passenger jets, operating KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736, collided on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport (now Tenerife North Airport) on the Spanish island of Tenerife on 27 March 1977. It resulted in 583 fatalities. A terrorist incident at Gran Canaria Airport had caused many flights to be diverted to Los Rodeos, including the two aircraft involved in the accident. The airport quickly became congested with parked airplanes blocking the only taxiway and forcing departing aircraft to taxi on the runway instead. Patches of thick fog were drifting across the airfield, hence visibility was greatly reduced for pilots and the control tower. The collision occurred when the KLM airliner initiated its takeoff run while the Pan Am airliner, shrouded in fog, was still on the runway and about to turn off onto the taxiway. The impact and resulting fire killed everyone on board KLM 4805 and most of the occupants of Pan Am 1736, with only 61 survivors in the front section of the aircraft. The subsequent investigation by Spanish authorities concluded that the primary cause of the accident was the KLM captain’s decision to take off in the mistaken belief that a takeoff clearance from air traffic control (ATC) had been issued. Dutch investigators placed a greater emphasis on mutual misunderstanding in radio communications between the KLM crew and ATC, but ultimately KLM admitted that their crew was responsible for the accident and the airline agreed to financially compensate the relatives of all of the victims. The disaster had a lasting influence on the industry, highlighting in particular the vital importance of using standardized phraseology in radio communications. Cockpit procedures were also reviewed, contributing to the establishment of crew resource management as a fundamental part of airline pilots’ training.

Having researched about the world’s deadliest single plane crash, JL123 on 12 August 1985, since 2007, and watched a number of documentaries I was well aware of the Tenerife Airport Disaster. So, I was delighted that on 28 December 2019, while on holiday in Tenerife, I was able to go to the airport and also the memorial. I have mentioned this briefly before in a Facebook post on my page, but I wanted to take the opportunity to say a bit more about my visit.

This particular memorial is significant to my research, as while working on my article about the modifications made to one of the memorials of the flight JL123 crash, which was published in the journal Mortality, I found that the Tenerife plane disaster is one of the few examples (the Concorde AF4590 crash being another) in Europe of where there has been a modification to memorialise a public transportation accident. As you can read in the Wikipedia article about the Tenerife Airport Disaster, there were already memorials in the Netherlands in the USA before a memorial was established near the airport in 2007, the 30th anniversary of the crash. The article I wrote about in relation to the modification to the JL123 crash memorial also related to a modification made after 30 years. In the case of the Tenerife Airport Disaster, although the ‘modification’ was a brand new memorial at a different site, it marks a modification to the memorialisation of the disaster itself and so is comparable in that regard.

Compared to many memorialisation sites that I have been to it struck me how open the site is. On a hill some kilometres away from the airport, at first glance it looks like an observation point rather than a memorial site for such a sad event. There are no names of victims written anywhere, unlike the case of the JL123 crash, for example. Although the site was tidy, there are few signs that it is maintained on a regular basis. That the building (a restaurant?) next to it seems to be neglected probably doesn’t help.

The location of the memorial in relation to the airport

There is very limited information about the crash at the memorial site itself…

Luckily I had done research about the site before going, and so I had downloaded a documentary about the crash to my phone. So I sat down with my son (aged 13) and a nephew (aged 11) who had come with me to the site and we watched the documentary in full. This is probably one of my most powerful memories of the visit, indeed the whole trip to Tenerife, how the pair of them sat in total silence diligently taking in all of the information, only asking me to pause the video when they wanted to ask for some extra details or clarification about things. This is what such documentaries and memorialisation sites should be about. This is how such terrible events, and the families caught up in them, don’t get forgotten and how we can respect the victims.

As for the memorial itself, the focal sculpture is very impressive and I will include a couple of photographs here…

On the way to the main memorial, you go along this following walkway. I couldn’t see any explanation about the design, which is a shame, or even confirmation that it is related to the memorial itself. Perhaps that could be added to the Wikipedia page and also the official memorial page.

After we had been at the site for about an hour and then going to the local town to have lunch, we went over to close to the runway of the airport itself. Standing next to the runway where the accident actually happened, I was really struck by how small the airport is. I just couldn’t imagine a jumbo jet being there, let alone two or more planes.

The runway (and approximate location of the crash) in the foreground and airport terminal in the background

From this vantage point, it was still just about possible to make out the memorial on the hillside…

If you look carefully at the main side wall of the building, you can just about see the memorial tower

Although Tenerife North is a relatively minor regional airport now, as Tenerife South airport takes the bulk of the flights, while we there we were lucky to see a Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” take off. It is a beautiful plane. But I couldn’t help feel a tinge of irony in seeing this plane taking off from the point where so many dreams were stolen away. At least lessons have been learnt from the Tenerife Airport Disaster and many millions of travellers can fly safely today because of it.

I don’t know whether I will continue my research about the memorialisation of public transportation accidents or not, or whether the modification to the Tenerife Airport Disaster does fit with the model that I proposed in my article, but I am so glad that I’ve had the chance to visit there.

To the victims of the disaster itself, may you rest in peace, and to their families and others caught up in the disaster, I wish you all well.

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