1992 Israeli Jet Crash In
Holland Carried Nerve
Gas Chemicals And D.U.
By Carol J. Williams
LA Times Staff Writer
Among the substances now known to have been burned in the El Al inferno were 800 pounds of depleted uranium and three of the four chemicals needed to make sarin, including about 50 gallons of dimethyl methylphosphonate, or DMMP.
AMSTERDAM --As sirens wailed and flashing lights swept the fiery wreckage of a 12-story apartment house hit by an Israeli El Al cargo jet in 1992, the "black box" cockpit voice recorder disappeared from the evidence bin where firefighters insist they put it.
Five hours into the rescue effort, after Dutch security police had cleared the crash site of emergency workers and press, men in white hooded fire suits were seen jumping from a helicopter into the smoldering rubble and carrying off debris in unmarked trucks.
Police videotapes were erased before investigators had a chance to review them, and vital details of the cargo's hazardous contents--recently revealed to include components of the deadly nerve gas sarin--were kept secret for years.
The investigation of the disaster, which took at least 43 lives on the ground and four more aboard the Boeing 747 jet, now looks to be either a monumental bungle or a textbook cover-up.
But if Israeli or Dutch officials conspired to hide the full extent of the risks to which those in the crash area were exposed, they overlooked an important source of evidence: the survivors.
Six years after the crash in the densely populated Bijlmermeer district, at least 1,200 residents and rescue workers are complaining of physical and psychological ailments they fear were caused by something carried in the El Al cargo hold.
With the disclosure this month that the jet carried sarin components, passions have flared among sick residents and their baffled doctors. A Dutch parliamentary inquiry has been ordered to try to discover the truth about the disaster.
"We need to know what our patients were exposed to in order to treat them," said Nizaarali Makdoembaks, a Suriname-born doctor whose family practice treats 250 people suffering from unexplained skin diseases, nervous disorders, birth defects and, most recently, cancer.
Woman Found to Have Encephalomyelitis
Herma Sprey was preparing Sunday supper on the evening of Oct. 4, 1992, when the groaning engines of the El Al jet, which had just taken off from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport after a refueling stop on its flight from New York, drew her to the kitchen window. She watched awe-struck as the jet lurched, then nose-dived into an apartment complex two blocks away, where she herself once lived. She ordered her children to stay inside and ran to the crash scene.
"It was horrible because you couldn't help anyone. There was nothing you could do because it was so hot from the fires burning everywhere," recalled Sprey, now 45. She found one friend amid the chaos and helped her lead others out of undamaged but smoke-filled apartments nearby. She spent at least five hours in the crash zone.
"After half a year, my hair fell out and I started getting these muscle cramps. I thought I had arthritis," said Sprey, who recently has been diagnosed with encephalomyelitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.
Jorgs Ijzermans--a prominent physician with the Netherlands' biggest hospital, the Amsterdam Medical Center, located only a couple of miles from the crash site--was asked by the Dutch Health Ministry earlier this year to study people who had been at the accident scene and were complaining of mysterious illnesses.
"Because we don't know what was on board, we don't know if their complaints are related" to the El Al crash, said Ijzermans. "A lot of people have skin problems that won't go away. There are also arthritis-like symptoms in knees, elbows, hips, and allergy and breathing complaints. Several diseases with longer incubation times are just now showing up, like cancer."
The medical center issued an appeal in June and July for people with health problems they suspect might be connected with the air disaster to submit to reviews by Ijzermans' team of investigators. More than 800 people from the Bijlmermeer neighborhood have been interviewed, he said, and at least 300 more from other parts of Amsterdam are being included in the study.
"When we include firefighters and rescue workers and those who have been relocated from the ruined apartments, we have 1,200 or 1,300 cases, and people are still calling in," said Ijzermans.
Sarin Components Burned in Crash
Among the substances now known to have been burned in the El Al inferno were 800 pounds of depleted uranium and three of the four chemicals needed to make sarin, including about 50 gallons of dimethyl methylphosphonate, or DMMP.
Dutch residents just learned those facts from a report in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper timed for the sixth anniversary of the crash. The report was based on copies of the cargo manifest obtained from sources at the Dutch air transport authority, the RLD.
The Transport Ministry, which oversees the RLD, was properly informed of the shipment by El Al. However, it didn't consider the cargo hazardous other than being flammable, said ministry spokeswoman Judith Sepmeyer. She acknowledged that the government's response to the disaster has been called into question and will be part of the parliamentary inquiry.
The sarin components were destined for the Israeli Institute for Biological Research, a high-security defense installation in the Tel Aviv suburb of Nes Ziona. Questions have emerged about what Israel was doing with such quantities of nerve-gas components. The government has said it was using them to test gas-mask filters.
While the sarin-component disclosure has kindled fears among the ailing crash zone residents that they may have suffered nerve damage, government scientists dispute any connection.
"The acute [toxicity] of this compound is very low. You could probably drink it with your tea," said Hendrik Benschop, chemical toxicology chief at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Science Research, a government-funded institute. "There would have to have been frequent exposure and in large amounts for this [DMMP] to be related" to the outbreaks of illness.
But Benschop conceded that the government's handling of the crash investigation left people feeling "manipulated" and their health complaints ignored.
"It's a far more reasonable explanation that the combination of effects from partially and completely burned materials might have unpredictable effects," Benschop said, noting that the jet also was carrying a heavy fuel load. "Because DMMP is a starting material for sarin, it sets off a lot of red lights. But I firmly believe it has nothing to do with the health problems of these people."
Scientists with the World Health Organization in Geneva, however, report that DMMP has induced cancer in laboratory mice.
The Israeli government confirmed that the sarin components were aboard after the NRC Handelsblad report this month. Harn van den Berg, one of the newspaper's two main reporters on the story, said the disclosure has served to spotlight the Dutch government's secretive approach to the disaster as much as that of the Israelis.
"The government has been very passive. When the parliament asks for information, they get 20 or 30 airway bills that they can't make anything out of. They get paperwork, not answers," he said.
More troubling for residents of the crash zone, who have come together in a community alliance calling itself the Air Traffic Working Group, are the many instances of destroyed or lost evidence.
Hearings conducted by the RLD in the first year after the crash included testimony from firefighters who recalled finding and delivering the cockpit voice recorder to the El Al crash investigation site at Schiphol Airport. The RLD's final report on its investigation declared that the "black box" had disappeared in the confusing aftermath.
An Israeli official, who declined to be identified, said in an interview that the voice and flight data recorders "were lost or destroyed or stolen."
Mysterious Men Seen Searching for Cargo
The same official said the mysterious men in white suits were Red Cross workers. But witnesses have told police, crash investigators, their doctors and journalists that the fire-jumpers were clearly searching for remnants of the cargo, not victims.
"They were dressed like Neil Armstrong was when he landed on the moon," Ijzermans said he has been told repeatedly by people being debriefed for the medical study.
Thirty-two videotapes made by Amsterdam city emergency response authorities to document the rescue effort were found to have been erased when investigators were sent to view them.
Records of communications between the El Al pilot and air-traffic controllers also were destroyed after federal security police copied the originals, then lost or destroyed the only copies, said journalist Vincent Dekker of the Trouw newspaper. He has written a book documenting irregularities and contradictions in official reports about the crash, titled "Going Down, Going Down," the last words of El Al pilot Isaac Fuchs.
The missing records also might have explained why Fuchs chose to circle back over heavily populated urban territory and head for Schiphol, eight miles away, instead of attempting a survivable ditching in the much closer Ijsselmeer inlet after both right engines exploded and broke off the plane.
"I think the government now regrets that it was not more open with the public in the beginning," said Lony Wesseling, one of the community alliance leaders trying to elicit a more accurate account of the accident and force diversion of hazardous air cargoes away from urban airports.
Schiphol, Europe's fourth-busiest airport with 350,000 flights last year, has seen its traffic grow by 70% since the accident, intensifying fears that another disaster could be waiting to happen.
"Nothing has changed since 1992--there are still dangerous goods being flown over us every day," said Wesseling, who was en route home in her car with her two children when the jet crashed about a mile away, surrounding them with thick black smoke clouds and a shower of flaming debris.
Israeli officials contend there was nothing aboard the jet that would be harmful to the crash zone residents. A statement earlier this month by Aviv Bushinsky, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, confirmed that 190 liters (about 50 gallons) of DMMP was on board and destined for the defense institute for use in testing gas-mask filters.
"I would like to stress that the chemical is nontoxic and it is used for different purposes in public industry," Bushinsky said.
Likewise, the airline maintains it has no further information relevant to the renewed Dutch inquiry.
"El Al has never hidden any facts or details regarding cargo flown on the flight in question and has always provided full cooperation with the appropriate Dutch authorities and will continue to do so in the future," said airline spokesman Nachman Klieman.
But the Dutch parliamentary inquiry, which opens later this month, was demanded by legislator Rob van Gijzel because, despite repeated requests for full disclosure of the cargo, documents are still lacking for 20 of the 114 tons of freight.
A full report on the medical study is expected early next year, and those complaining of ill health in the crash aftermath hope to learn more from the inquiry that might help their doctors determine the source of their illnesses.
"I'm very hopeful we can do something for these people, but not in the blind," said Ijzermans, the physician. "It's just a pity that this inquiry is coming so late."
Berlin Bureau Chief Williams was recently on assignment in Amsterdam.
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