Mayday (2013) s05e04 Episode Script

Fanning the Flames

NARRATOR: On November 27, 1987, a South African Airways 747 flies from Taiwan back home to South Africa.
- Everything good? - Fine, Captain.
Ready to take over? Yes.
Nine hours into their flight over the Indian Ocean, the main crew returns to their seats, allowing the relief crew to rest.
The crew prepares for a scheduled stop on the island of Mauritius.
Valerie Lottering has enjoyed her first overseas vacation, joining her husband, Corrie, while he was on business.
WOMAN: My father was on a business trip and my mum had gone with for holidays.
My dad had actually gone to the East to secure cell phone technology, which was just sort of happening in South Africa at the time.
The plane is a modified 747 known as a Combi, short for 'combination'.
A passenger plane and a cargo plane in one, it's designed to accommodate flexible quantities of passengers and cargo.
The Combi has a large cargo area down below, like a regular 747.
The Combi also has a large cargo area right behind the last row of economy-class seats.
The cockpit sits one level above the cabin.
You could load from 6 to 12 pallets on the main deck, adjusting the bulkhead for the number of passengers you wanted to carry, and this turned out to be a very worthwhile and useful tool.
Flight 295 is carrying 159 people as well as six large pallets of cargo.
Known as the 'Helderberg', the 747 Combi is a vital member of the South African Airways fleet.
It's particularly useful for long-range flying.
FRED: For South African Airways during the days of apartheid, a plane like the Combi helped them in that respect because they had to fly around the bulge of Africa over the Atlantic.
To protest South Africa's white racist regime, the vast majority of black African states refused to allow South African airlines to fly over their airspace, causing them to fly longer routes.
WOMAN: There were sanctions, heavy sanctions, against South Africa on political, economic and cultural fronts.
South Africa was not welcome anywhere credible in the world.
On Flight 295, less than an hour before its stop in Mauritius, the smoke alarm breaks the calm of the cockpit.
It's for the cargo area on the main deck, directly behind the passengers.
By the time the crew gets to it, the fire is raging.
It's bad.
Shall I get another bottle over there? Yeah.
Hurry! (COUGHS) Read out the fire checklist for us, please.
In fire emergencies, the crew follows a standard checklist to extinguish the fire.
The breaker popped as well.
We'll check the breaker panel as well.
The fire is burning through the plane's wiring, causing short circuits.
Move as far forward as you can.
But there's a more immediate problem.
Passengers are having trouble breathing.
Duct isolation valve switches .
Pack valve switchesall open.
Recirculating fan switches .
The fire checklist instructs the pilot to land at the nearest airport but the closest one is on the island of Mauritius, still more than 300km away.
There's not a lot Captain Uys can do.
He asks a member of his flight crew to help fight the cargo fire.
Bring me another bottle.
(PASSENGERS COUGH) Captain Uys initiates an emergency descent.
He calls the airport on the island of Mauritius, which is on good terms with South Africa.
It's just before 4:00 in the morning when Mauritius air traffic control receives the call.
Mauritius, Mauritius, Springbok Two Niner Five.
Springbok Two Niner Five, Mauritius.
Good morning.
Go ahead.
Good morning.
We have a smoke, uhproblem and we're doing emergency descent to level 1-5uh, 1-4-0.
Confirm your wish to descend to level 1-4-0.
We've already commenced due to a smoke problem in the aeroplane.
Do you, uh, request a full emergency, please? Affirmative.
That's Charlie Charlie.
Captain Uys sounds calm but he has to find a way of getting rid of the smoke on his plane.
Whatever's burning in the cargo hold is producing thick noxious smoke which is pouring into the cabin.
It could be deadly to the passengers.
Your actual position, please.
- Uh, say again.
- Actual position.
Captain Uys is losing power to many of his instruments.
We've lost a lot of electrics.
We haven't got anything on the aircraft now.
He's not sure where he is.
The airport prepares for an emergency landing, while the crew of the 'Helderberg' follows instructions from another checklist to get rid of the smoke.
Supplementary vent fan switchoff.
Recirculating fan switches .
- Smoke condition.
- MAN: Hold on.
I'll check downstairs.
The crew gets more bad news from the cabin.
The smoke is getting thicker.
It's worse.
(COUGHS) We can't breathe down here.
With the plane approaching an altitude of 4,500m, the checklist advises the captain to execute an emergency manoeuvre that few pilots have ever performed.
We need to open the doors.
Repeat - open the doors.
Opening the plane's doors in midair is the only hope for thinning a cloud of smoke that could kill the passengers before the struggling jet can land.
MAN: Plaisance, Springbok 295.
We've opened the doors to see if we can Uhw-we should be OK.
Block that! UYS: Close the bloody door.
Joe, switch up quickly then close the hole on your side.
Smoke is now building in the cockpit but there's no outside door to open.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: Temperature is 22, 2-2, and the QNH is 1018 hectopascals.
The air traffic controller now focuses on giving the captain the information he needs for an emergency landing.
UYS: Roger.
Affirmative, and both runways are available, if you wish.
And, 295, I request pilot's intention.
We'd like to track in on 1-3.
- Confirm runway 1-3.
- Charlie Charlie.
You're cleared direct to Foxtrot Foxtrot.
- Your report approaching 5-0.
- OK.
Captain Uys has one hope.
He must make it to the island of Mauritius, 265km away.
The 'Helderberg' continues on its desperate journey.
295, Plaisance.
But at 4:08 in the morning, a call by the air traffic controller is not returned.
Springbok 295, Plaisance.
Springbok 295, Plaisance.
With no response from Flight 295 for 36 minutes, air traffic control Mauritius formally declares an emergency.
An alert goes out to search-and-rescue crews.
Several aircraft take off from Mauritius and search the dark waters for the missing plane but find nothing.
At the airport in Johannesburg, South African Airways officially declares Flight 295 delayed.
SAMANTHA: We were supposed to be going away on our annual holiday so we were all very excited, 'cause from picking my parents up from the airport we were supposed to go off to three-week holiday.
I think that's maybe the extent of the differences of the emotions - that you're so anxious and excited for them to come home and then the absolute devastation of the news, getting the news that the aircraft has gone missing.
In the afternoon of the next day, a rescue plane spots the first signs of floating aircraft wreckage.
Rennie van Zyl, the head of South Africa's Aviation Safety Board, is assigned to the 'Helderberg' case.
A normal investigator will only handle a major accident about once in 20 years in his career, so this was quite a big wake-up and a challenge to us to start running with this investigation in that morning.
Eight bodies are found in the water, all suffering from extreme trauma.
It was round about two o'clock that we, in fact, were advised that the wreckage and an oil slick had been spotted .
and it was then quite apparent that the airplane was lost.
The most astonishing thing is that my parents had actually the night before they had flown had sorted out their wills, had sorted out their insurances, had sorted all of their documentation and paperwork before they flew, which was quite amazing.
My father made very, very close family friends of ours our guardians, our godparents and we were to live with them.
South Africa quickly becomes obsessed with what caused the crash.
In the early days, there's very little to examine, only small bits of the plane that are floating on the surface.
Contained within that debris, Rennie van Zyl's team discovers three wristwatches.
The watches give them a probable time of impact.
These wristwatches were, in fact, part of the baggage, and when examined we were able to find that one had stopped and two others were still running, and the two running ones were the exact Taiwanese time but the stopped one did give us the minute indication of what we could establish as the impact time of the airplane.
The impact time is only three minutes after the last communication with the plane.
The 'Helderberg's demise was sudden and dramatic.
In the press and in public opinion, it reinforces the idea that something sinister brought the plane down.
In the years leading up to the crash, South African Airways offices around the world had been the target of protests.
The South African Airways airline at that particular time was a government body.
It was owned by the government.
It was the national carrier but it was also very much perceived to be part of the South African government.
So another aspect of this plane crash and another theory that was put around was that there could have been a bomb in the cargo, that, in fact, we were a target.
South Africa or this SAA plane was a target of terrorists who had the worst interests of this country at heart.
Experts examine the small bits of wreckage they have, searching for the telltale signs of an explosion - impact cavities, surface pitting or spatter cavities.
Spatter cavities are caused by the white-hot fragments from a high-explosive device striking and melting the light alloys of the aircraft's structure.
But experts spot no sign of an explosion.
And when air traffic control tapes are studied, Van Zyl hears that the crew appeared to be coping with the emergency.
MAN: Plaisance, Springbok 295.
We've opened the doors to see if we can Uhw-we should be OK.
We've had rumours of atomic bombs, for example, in the airplane.
That won't cause the airplane to burn.
It will take out the airplane.
We did not have that same experience here.
This airplane flew for 22 minutes.
It's out of the ordinary circumstances.
This was not an explosion that took out the airplane.
An American salvage company is hired to find the wreckage and black boxes, but time is running out.
The boxes have built-in locating devices called 'pingers', which run on batteries and will eventually run down.
MAN: A driving factor was that the pinger on the data and voice recorders was transmitting, and it only had a 30-day guaranteed shelf life.
If we couldn't get out there in 30 days, the chances were that we wouldn't be able to detect it.
By the time the proper equipment can be assembled in the Indian Ocean, only seven days remain before the batteries and the pingers will die out.
Meanwhile, blood tests are performed on the human remains pulled from the debris field.
All show traces of soot in their trachea.
It's determined that at least two of the passengers died from smoke inhalation.
Investigators face a disturbing realisation - even as the crew were struggling to land their plane, some of the passengers were already dead.
While searching for the black boxes, investigators continue to examine the floating wreckage.
Amongst the hundreds of recovered items, a partly melted graphite tennis racquet offers a telltale clue about the fire.
Graphite only burns at temperatures greater than 600 degrees Celsius.
Investigators now know that the fire on the 'Helderberg' was extremely hot.
This discovery may explain why a fully charged extinguisher from the front of the plane is recovered with other floating wreckage.
Investigators notice a melted piece of cargo netting on the outside of the extinguisher.
They determine that the extinguisher is from the passenger cabin, suggesting that as the fire burned, a crew member grabbed the extinguisher and brought it to the cargo area.
STRAUCH: A full fire extinguisher in a plane that was brought down by a fire shows that, for whatever reason, it wasn't discharged because the crew member couldn't access the area because of the heat.
Or the fact that there was melted metal on the fire extinguisher is further evidence to the intensity of the fire.
Before this accident, in the 20-year history of the 747 Combi, no-one had ever died from fire or smoke.
When we heard about a fire in the 'Helderberg', this was the first time for a wide-body airplane.
It was news, and because it was so new and the thought was that we really couldn't have anything like that.
What could've caused such an intense fire on the 'Helderberg'? Was it a wiring problem on the plane, or had the cargo itself somehow started the blaze? VAN ZYL: Initially, the investigation, of course, focused on what was the cargo.
The fire obviously had originated in the main-deck cargo compartment, so the logical thing is to look What did the waybills indicate was carried in the airplane? Investigators learned that there were six pallets of cargo on board Flight 295.
Using master waybills, van Zyl's team is able to determine that 47,000kg of baggage and cargo was officially on board.
Investigators discover that before take-off, a Taiwanese Customs official performed a random inspection of some of the cargo.
He found nothing suspicious.
More than ever, investigators need to find the rest of the plane, and locate the 'Helderberg's black boxes.
Well beneath the grey waves of the Indian Ocean, the wreckage of the 'Helderberg' remains hidden.
Now one man, Rennie van Zyl, must decide whether to spend the money needed to recover the plane's wreckage.
But almost two months after the 'Helberberg' slammed into the Indian Ocean, no-one even knows the precise location of the main wreckage.
Van Zyl decides he must try to recover what he can.
Without the wreckage, we'll never know the truth.
So they spent on one investigation what we spent in six months of conducting all of our investigations in the United States.
Before investigators can salvage the 'Helderberg', they must find it.
The wreckage lies somewhere very deep underwater.
61 days after the crash of the 'Helderberg', van Zyl receives some intriguing news from his team.
Sophisticated sonar equipment has detected a large object 4,400m underwater on a flat plateau.
It could be the 'Helderberg'.
And they presented me with a piece of paper with a lot of black dots of various sizes on it, and they said, "That's your wreckage.
" And my question to them was, "How do I know it's the wreckage of the 747?" Maybe this is a submarine from the Second World War or something.
And the response was just, "Rennie, it is it, because we tell you it is the wreckage.
" But no-one's ever gone that deep to salvage anything, including the 'Titanic'.
Van Zyl has no choice - to find out whether the sonar images are in fact the wreckage, he must launch the most expensive part of the investigation, Operation Resolve.
A remote-controlled sub called the 'Gemini' will be sent to the ocean floor to videotape what's there.
If it is the 'Helderberg', the 'Gemini' will search for key items, including the black boxes.
The problem is that the mini sub must be attached to the mother ship by a flexible fibre-optic cable that's almost 7km long.
No cable that long has ever been built.
ROY: We needed a 20,000ft cable.
There was no existing cable, so we had to go to a cable manufacturer and get a cable designed and built.
But before the fibre-optic cable is assembled, van Zyl launches a separate investigation into the firefighting capabilities of the 'Helderberg'.
He would discover that the very design of the Combi may have doomed the flight.
Investigators want to know whether the Combi was properly designed to protect the passengers on South African Airways Flight 295 from fire.
The smoke should not have entered the Combi's cabin.
The American team leader in the investigation, Barry Strauch, goes to Boeing's headquarters in Seattle to find out how the Combi was tested for certification and fire prevention.
Strauch's team learns that to comply with federal regulations, Boeing's fire tests were conducted by setting a bale of tobacco leaves on fire.
When a technician enters the cargo area to fight the demonstration fire, no smoke enters the passenger cabin.
The smoke remains localised.
The fire is quickly extinguished.
STRAUCH: Well, that was in the test conditions that Boeing used to get the airplane approved.
But in the reality, as we saw in this accident, it didn't work that way because it didn't have a nice clean fire with fans blowing the smoke towards the ceiling.
You had pallets.
You had a fire that would've grown considerably before the smoke was generated, and you had plastic sheeting that would provide fuel to the fire, in addition to all the cardboard and packing materials within the pallets themselves.
The Combi is designed to prevent smoke from entering the passenger cabin.
The air there is kept at a slightly higher pressure than in the cargo area.
When the door between the two is opened, the air should flow into the cargo area, keeping the passengers safe.
Investigators then conduct their own test.
They set a large pallet of tightly packed cargo on fire, mimicking conditions on the 'Helderberg'.
The blaze is more intense, and the temperature is hotter.
Investigators discover that this much hotter flame has a radical impact on the air in the cargo hold.
When the cargo door is opened, the smoke now flows into the passenger cabin.
STRAUCH: Boeing tests used tobacco leaves and batches of tobacco.
In the fire in the 'Helderberg', it was a very, very different fire than the kind of smoke-generating fire that Boeing used in their tests.
Heat would've been generated within the cargo compartment that would've created its own pressure and would've negated the pressure differential between the cargo compartment and the passenger compartment.
Without the pressure differential, there would've been nothing to restrain the smoke and keep it on the cargo side, and therefore the smoke would have penetrated into the passenger side - smoke that contained, as we know, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
Then investigators discover something potentially more lethal.
As the passenger cabin filled with smoke, a checklist instructed the crew to turn on the cabin's recirculating fans.
The intention of the checklist is to dissipate the smoke in the passenger cabin after the fire has been extinguished.
Recirculating fan switches .
But in this case, turning the fans on may have been deadly.
Fans draw air from above the cabin's ceiling and from the cargo compartment, before recirculating it back to the passengers.
By following their checklist, the crew may have fed toxic gas into the passenger cabin.
VAN ZYL: And it might very well have been that most of your passengers were asphyxiated before impact.
No checklist for a 747 Combi had ever foreseen the 'Helderberg's simultaneous problems - a cargo fire problem and a cabin smoke problem.
The smoke removal checklist is predicated on the assumption that the fire has been extinguished.
In that event, descending to 14,000ft and opening the cabin door would be the appropriate thing to do.
It would get the smoke out of the airplane and enable people to breathe regular air.
If the fire hasn't been extinguished, then it would have the function of actually increasing the airflow to the fire and increasing the supply of oxygen to the fire.
We think that's what happened in this case - that the fire had never been extinguished, and, in fact, the crew's attempts to make the situation better may have in fact made the situation worse.
Investigators begin to realise that fighting a fire in the Combi's cargo area is much more difficult than previously thought.
STRAUCH: If there was a fire in one of these pallets, it was quite likely that by the time the crew was alerted to the fire, it would be too late.
Then the cabin instantly filled up with smoke.
But van Zyl still doesn't know what caused such a fierce fire.
How had the blaze started? And how had it brought the plane down? The answers are still deep under the ocean.
It takes months to build the fibre-optic cable that's long enough for the 'Gemini' to reach the bottom of the sea and to modify the submarine for this mission.
We had to take the existing ROV that we had, which was designed for 6,000 feet, and we had to modify it so it would go to 20,000 feet.
Roy Truman's team had to give the sub thicker walls to withstand the enormous pressure it would encounter, and modify its cameras for the extreme depth.
On September 23, 1988, the 'Gemini' begins its record-breaking journey.
We were hesitant to say that everything would work because we didn't even have time to do sea trials on this .
all of this new equipment.
The cable allows technicians at the surface to manipulate the 'Gemini' at 4,400m.
It also carries video signals from that remarkable depth.
It's the first time that video images have been recorded from this deep in the Indian Ocean.
Marine biologists are fascinated by the discovery of unique new species.
Then one year to the day after it disappeared, the 'Helderberg' is found.
From a depth of 4,400m, the submarine sends back images that could only be the wreckage of South African Airways Flight 295.
There would be lots of luggage just strewn all over the seabed.
Massive structures - the wings, tail, huge parts of the cabin split open, and you could see all of the ribs and the wiring, the hydraulic piping.
I mean, it was incredible just to see everything that went into a machine spread over an area of about five, six square miles.
It was incredible.
Van Zyl's expensive gamble is beginning to pay off.
Descending to the 'Helderberg's wreckage is a triumph for him and his team.
But just finding the debris isn't nearly enough.
A year after the accident, van Zyl is still hoping for the improbable - the recovery of the cockpit voice recorder.
Hundreds of hours of videotape are recorded.
It's exhausting work.
If you can imagine being on a football field with a flashlight that only illuminates a square foot of the football field and you're looking for an earring one of the football players lost during the game in the dead of night, that's similar to what it's like when we're on the seabed.
Then at 9:00 one morning, something catches the eye of one of the technicians.
Go back.
Go back for a second.
We might have passed it.
At long last, the black box is discovered.
That's it.
That's it right there.
Michael, we found it! We found it! The South African media turns the discovery into front-page news.
It's now 1989 and the apartheid government is still running the country with an iron fist.
Van Zyl makes an unusual decision.
He takes the sealed black box to Washington and opens it there.
VAN ZYL: 'Cause otherwise I would have been accused of having covered up something or left something out or whatever.
And we, the FAA and the NTSB guys all listened to this tape at the same time for the first time.
Tension in the room is high.
The cockpit voice recorder should be a tape of the last 30 minutes of the flight - as the crew fought the fire.
But the tape turns out to be a major frustration.
After a year on the bottom of the ocean, it's difficult to understand anything.
(STATIC) (STATIC) For 28 minutes, the tape reveals nothing unusual.
Then everything changes.
(ALARMS BEEP) The next minute, of course, the alarm bell goes on the CVR.
And we had about a minute's worth of relevant recording on the tape before the tape stopped.
Normally, the black box records the final moments of a flight.
But not this time.
Instead, investigators are able to listen to the start of the accident, before the recording mysteriously stops.
It's not what van Zyl was hoping for but it gives him crucial new insight into the fire.
Read out the fire checklist for us, please.
14 seconds after the fire alarm goes off, the plane's circuit-breakers start to pop.
The breaker popped as well.
- Check the breaker panel as well.
- Yeah.
Investigators estimate that up to 80 circuits were disabled.
The wires to the cockpit voice recorder are destroyed only 81 seconds after the fire alarm first goes off.
Van Zyl has not received the key evidence that he hoped for, but the fire is revealed as more violent than previously thought.
The recording leaves many questions unanswered.
But it does help van Zyl to arrive at a personal opinion as to why the plane may have crashed.
VAN ZYL: A lot of things were happening in the cockpit.
And we believe that he probably was faced with up to 80 circuit-breakers popping in the cockpit at the time.
It may have made controlling of the aircraft extremely difficult.
And the possibility, then, even of the airplane just gradually descending into the sea.
Whether it was a controllable flight, er, I have my doubts.
But investigators still don't know what triggered the 'Helderberg' fire.
The mystery can now only be solved by salvaging parts from the crashed plane.
We realised that what we had to do was just to continue recover as much wreckage as we could from the ocean floor.
Van Zyl's focus is on certain key pieces of the Combi's cargo area.
They're brought to a hangar and reassembled, like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
His plan is to reconstruct the section of the cargo area where the fire most likely started.
Van Zyl discovers that the cargo-area floor is untouched by fire.
So we know that the fire never burnt lower than 1m of the cargo floor.
But the walls and ceiling at the front of the cargo area reveal severe fire damage.
Van Zyl makes a dramatic discovery.
The seat of the fire was on the front right pallet of the cargo.
So, we were looking at a very localised fire on one pallet.
The front right pallet was mostly filled with computers, protected by polystyrene packaging.
Investigators suspect that a fire within the pallet came in contact with the polystyrene packing material, producing gases which accumulated near the ceiling.
When the gases became hot enough, they ignited into a flash fire that spread throughout the cargo hold.
Once smoke penetrated the polyethylene sheets, that fire would have been very, very hot.
But even if the packing material had helped spread the blaze, van Zyl still didn't know why it started.
After millions of dollars and more than a year and a half of work, he has to end his investigation.
I would have felt a lot better if we had been in a better position to give more factual information to the Board to consider.
But that was not to be.
And we were not going to fabricate.
But interest in the wreck of the 'Helderberg' doesn't die.
Dark rumours circulate about a possible cause of the fire.
It's against this backdrop of a very repressive apartheid government.
At that particular time, the first thought, I think, for many, many South Africans was, "What was on that plane?" "Was there something in that cargo hold "that could have caused that terrible fire?" Because planes don't just burst into flames midair and crash.
Then, a South African Government chemist makes a startling discovery which leads to a controversial new theory.
A microscopic iron particle on the nylon netting next to the pallet has a unique profile.
The airflow patterns on the iron suggest that it travelled at a very high velocity while in a molten state.
The discovery could mean that the fire on the 'Helderberg' was not a flash fire triggered by packing materials.
This was a different kind of fire.
This was a fire that had its own oxygen.
If you can imagine something like a sparkler, which has fuel and its own oxygen, it was some kind of material similar to a sparkler that we feel was the cause of the fire.
A British fire and explosion analyst examines the exterior skin of the plane above the pallet and comes up with another piece of evidence to support the new theory.
The skin on the outside of the plane reached temperatures as high as 300 degrees Centigrade.
You must remember that it's very difficult to burn through an airplane's skin in flight because of the tremendous amount of cooling from the airflow on the outside of the skin.
Dr David Klatzow is one of numerous experts who question what caused the fire.
DR KLATZOW: It would have involved substances which normally would not have been carried aboard an aircraft.
Particularly a passenger aircraft.
In other words, it could not have been a normal packing-material - wood, cardboard, plastic - fire.
You don't carry things of that nature, which carry their own oxygen which can produce an accelerated fire, for a number of reasons.
One of which - they are generally unstable.
The second reason is that normal fire-extinguishing methods will not put them out.
What could start such a fire? The only dangerous goods listed on the cargo manifest are computer batteries.
Some believe the 'Helderberg' must have been carrying cargo that wasn't listed.
The media fuels the flames of suspicion that the government was using passenger jets to secretly import weapons.
Armscorp is the corporation responsible for supplying the South African forces with munitions.
At the time, there was a need to produce a better rocket system, a more efficient rocket system for dealing with the enemies in Angola.
And the rocketry systems which were used for those purposes had as their propellant A major component of the propellant is ammonium perchlorate.
And that is what I believe was being carried aboard the 'Helderberg'.
But it is not the sort of compound you want on an aircraft when you are flying on that aircraft, because it is unstable.
It is susceptible to self-ignition by any kind of vibration and violent movement.
The official investigation into the crash does not come to the conclusion that the 'Helderberg' was carrying illegal arms.
I can just imagine But the rumours won't go away.
And more than 10 years after the crash, the dark theories force a very different South African Government to take another look.
The 'Helderberg' accident revealed that the 747 Combi was vulnerable in the event of an on-board fire.
South African Airways immediately stops using the 747 Combi.
American officials take notice.
BERESWILL: And the FAA went through and developed some new regulations.
But for the weight and everything that was going to have to be added in there did not make it economically feasible.
And so, essentially, after the 'Helderberg' accident, 747 Combis were not used anymore.
There are tributes and memorials to the 159 victims.
But closure does not come easily for the families.
SAMANTHA: I need an answer for why I was orphaned at 14.
And I feel that As I say, I'm probably touching on hearsay.
But there's a lot of evidence that does point to something not being right on that flight and that the flight was carrying something illicit.
10 years after the 'Helderberg' crash, the new South African Government launches a commission to re-examine the accident.
PATTA: The Truth Commission was tasked with basically uncovering the truth about apartheid atrocities.
And one of the areas it was tasked to look at was the role of the SAA in sanctions-busting during the '80s and whether or not the 'Helderberg' was a freak accident or not.
In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes a controversial conclusion .
namely, that nothing that was listed in the cargo manifest could have caused the fire.
And the Truth Commission recommended that there was something untoward about what had happened to the 'Helderberg'.
DR KLATZOW: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission exposed the improbabilities of the government version as to what had happened.
If nothing in the cargo inventory caused the firewhat did? And how did it get on board? The reality, unfortunately, is unless somebody today comes up and says, "Yes, I did this," or, "Yes, we were responsible for this," and you can prove them not to be involved in a hoax, that will be possibly the only time in which we will really know what had happened in and caused and was the source of the condition of the fire.
In its final report, the Commission suggests that the Attorney-General's office continue to investigate the accident.
PATTA: But surprisingly, that has never happened.
The ANC-led government hasn't pursued that, and, of course, we have to ask ourselves, "Why?" And I think that the answer lies in what many people believe - is that it's just going to be too costly.
They don't want to open it for the simple reason that it will be financially disastrous for the airline.
Rennie van Zyl devoted years of his life to solving the mystery of the 'Helderberg'.
His inability to definitely prove the cause for the fire does not stop him from seeing the benefit of his investigation.
I believe that we, as a team, had done the best that we could under extreme, challenging conditions and circumstances.
What we had done had never been done before.
It was pioneering work.
The frustration is we could not establish the source of ignition.
And we will probably never know.
SAMANTHA: I believe that those people are still out there that know exactly what happened to that aircraft.
I know that their thought processes at the time were, "Our country was at war," and they were doing their duty for their country.
But I just feel that they should have a heart for the families and .
bring out that information.
Supertext Captions by Red Bee Media Australia