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Salvaging positives from a catastrophic flight

Hours afterward: One of the first pictures taken after the accident. Helvetiafjellet is in the background and a few meters further on is the steep slope down to Koslådalen. FOTO: Tore Dahlberg

Salvaging positives from a catastrophic flight

Geir Hekne and Stig Onarheim experienced things few can imagine on Operafjellet nearly 20 years ago. Both have continued to rescue people since.



12.02.2016 kl 12:58

Erik Nygaard was a summertime officer for The Governor of Svalbard and on duty that morning. A Tupolev 154-M with 127 adults, three children and a crew of 11 were expected at 10 a.m., about the time Nygaard went to the airport.

"I remember saying that it is strange that an airplane can land in such a fog," he said.

Something cannot be described

Sometime during this period, an alarm sounded in the cockpit of the aircraft from Vnukovo Airlines. The pilots saw Operafjellet suddenly emerge and cried out. Seconds later there was a bang. A long series of errors led to what is still the worst air disaster on Norwegian soil as the passenger plane flew into the ground on the morning of Aug. 29, 1996. All aboard died instantly.

The sight that met rescuers cannot be described and the working conditions were the worst. Yet many of those present have since turned their experiences from the tragedy into something positive. The accident also led to new, pioneering methods for identification of the deceased, and important lessons about supporting colleagues and following up with those affected.

At approximately a quarter past ten came the message: "Erik, we've lost touch with the Tupolev. We need to scramble. "

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Tore Dahlberg said hey had to show the images for people to understand how it was there. Tbhis is an overview of the crash site. FOTO: Eirik Palm

"The next days and weeks were unreal," Nygaard said.

A Sea King helicopter on the way back to the mainland was diverted to assist with the search.

Tore Dahlberg, a physician at the hospital at Longyearbyen's hospital at the time, was part of the team.

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Humbled: "I must say with hand on my heart that I have not been worn by the Operafjellet accident, but I have been humbled," says Erik Nygaard (at left). Along with Tore Dahlberg, he participated in a discussion about the tragedy nearly 20 years ago. FOTO: Eirik Palm

The two men discussed the drama and their experiences during and after the crash at a Svalbard Seminar on Tuesday. More than 200 people attended the seminar at The University Centre in Svalbard to hear about the operation which 310 people were involved in. Among the 200 in the audience were Geir Hekne and Stig Onarheim, both of whom said they remember the incident well.

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It was packed auditorium during the presentation of the accident nearly 20 years ago. Geir Hekne and Stig Onarheim followed the lecture with interest. FOTO: Eirik Palm

'You know what you're going to?'

Shortly after the plane was reported missing, Hekne's and Onarheim's phones rang. The latter was operations manager of the Red Cross and was told to provide a crew. They were next instructed to go to the Advent Beacon in Adventdalen. At 12:36 p.m. the wreck was located and the first crew was flown up.

"I remember what he said when he opened the door: 'You know what you're going to?'" Hekne said, recalling the moment he was boarding the helicopter.

"This is going to be absolute hell," Nygaard recalls being told before they were sent to the scene. But at that point it was still a rescue mission.

"We had expected cries and moans," Dahlberg said. "But it was silent."

Around the wreckage lay a few bodies. The rest of the remains were amidst the wreckage or buried in snow.

Dahlberg quickly realized nobody could have survived and canceled the rescue operation. Then the operation entered a new phase.

A third of the wreckage had fallen down Koslådalen and triggered an avalanche. Down in the steep slope, partially buried by two to three meters of snow, the exploration crews worked.

It was about zero degrees Celsius when the accident occurred, but eventually the temperature changed and went down to minus 16 degrees. Nygaard described the situation as chaotic. Everything was soaked in fuel and, as it got colder and froze to the surface, they had to use shovels to continue digging. Every time they lifted the snow, fuel vapor rose up. Many of those laboring were suffering.

"It is clear that it was a terrible burden over several days for those we were with," he said. "It was the stench of jet fuel, and the strong visual and sound impressions."

'Good guys' photos

Seminar organizers discouraged allowing minors to attend the discussion because it featured graphic, uncensored photos from the crash site.

"We chose a small selection of 'good guys' photos," Dahlberg said. "But we had to show the images for people to understand how it was there. It is impossible to imagine what it looked like."

The pictures show the human remains amidst the wreckage.

"You envision before arriving that it is something dynamic," he said. "I wondered if it was a rockery or a wreck there. It was an unimaginable experience."

"We did the best we could"

Hekne and Onarheim were among the first at the scene. Visibility was minimal and they started searching. An upwardly-turned nosewheel suddenly appeared. They realized then they were right in the casualty area. They describe the moment as unreal.

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The names of all the 141 fatalities are written on the memorial at the foot of Operafjellet. FOTO: Eirik Palm


"You steeled yourself," Onarheim said. "It was a grotesque sight we met there. But everything was sterile because it was so cold. It was just the smell of fuel."

"It was grotesque," he said. "I also remember they were very concerned about the ethics of this. We did the best we could."

The following day the work crews began registering the remains at the wreck site. The action lasted for many days from early morning until late afternoon. The crews consisted of professionals and volunteers. Nygard, as a police officer, had disaster training, but that didn't reveal how he would react in a real situation.

What did it do to him?

"The lack of reactions was perhaps the most daunting. I worked on things and I sorted. Than I saw half of a man and I unwisely opened his wallet. Then I saw a picture of a man sitting with two kids on his lap. Then the reactions came and I know that they come now," said Nygaard, who himself had two toddlers on the mainland.

Safety valve

DNA technology was used to identify the remains of the 141 people killed, with the findings matched with DNA provided by relatives. It was a groundbreaking feat in accident work.

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Geir Hekne, Tore Dahlberg, Erik Nygaard and Stig Onarheim looking back at the accident after the lecture is over. FOTO: Eirik Palm

Emotions were running strong and it was obvious many assisting in the effort needed to let off steam. A team of emergency psychiatrists had come, but they related poorly to the group at the scene. Instead, crews kept together and had debriefings at the fire station every afternoon, Onarheim said. Then they went out, ate and spent time together.

"We in the group took it in there and then," he said. "Solidarity was important. And it was important to not just go straight home."

"You must have a light tone"

"We just simply concluded subsequently that the work we did, it did not happen as intended," Dahlberg said regarding the crisis management of the crew.

He said he has since thought the main part of processing the impacts was the crew members talking with each other. Gallows humor served as an outlet and they held together.

"This was colleague support in its infancy," Nygaard said. "It was gallows humor and one needed to vent. I think that is necessary. You cannot go around and cry. Then you won't do anything."

Dahlberg nodded in agreement.

"You must have a light tone."

Both emphasized the rescue crews worked hard to preserve an ethical standard.

Humbled and proud

During the lecture, Nygaard referred to a filing cabinet as a metaphor for his adventures. When a person can open the drawers, take something out, look at it and put it back without a problems with the drawers, things are fine. When drawers creak and don't close, one needs help.

"My file cabinets I have never had problems with," he said. "I am working on that still yet. We talk a lot about it."

"I must say with hand on my heart that I have not been worn by the Operafjellet accident, but I have been humbled."

Nygaard and Dahlberg also participated in a discussion about the accident in 2010 in Longyearbyen, after which many involved in the incident talked with the pair afterward.

The same thing happened this week.

Are such encounters something of a debriefing?

"Oh, yeah, I think so," Dahlberg said. "One needs to go through the event to get it put behind them."

"It is important that a crisis becomes harmless. A crisis also means development."

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Ongoing: Geir Hekne and Stig Onarheim are still involved with rescuing people. Here they are at the front of Operafjellet. FOTO: Eirik Palm

Hekne is still involved with rescues as Longyearbyen's firemaster. Onarheim also remains involved with rescue operations, flying a helicopter ambulance before returning to Svalbard as a helicopter pilot for Lufttransport.

Both talked about being humbled and proud to have been involved in the efforts after the Operafjellet accident.

"Personally, it was definitely a bit heavy at the beginning," Heckne said. "But as the years have passed it has gradually become something positive. But it is something that will be with me my entire life. It's part of me."

Translated by Mark Sabbatini

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