They were strangers thrown together in the most extraordinary and horrific of circumstances: a young woman and a six-year-old girl, both passengers in a Cathay Pacific plane shot down by two Chinese fighter jets in 1954 as it flew past Hainan Island. After three minutes of terror as the plane was raked with gunfire, both ended up clinging to life in a dinghy in the South China Sea - Valerie Parrish calling out for her lost father and brothers, while Peggy Thorburn helped Parrish's distraught mother comfort the little girl. Both owed their life to the heroics of captain Phil Blown, who saved the lives of nine of the 18 people on board by putting the plane into a 560km/h nosedive and ditching it in the sea to escape the attack, the bloodiest event in Hong Kong aviation history. Now, the two women - the only living survivors of the drama on a summer's day - have been put back in touch for the first time in more than half a century by a Sunday Morning Post report into the death of captain Blown, who died aged 96 in New South Wales. An Agenda feature in September told how Parrish, now in her 60s and living in the United States, had written a moving poem to mark the death of captain Blown, whom she called 'my hero', recalling how he held in his arms 'the scared and frightened child of so long ago'. By a remarkable coincidence, the daughter of Thorburn - now 80 and living in Australia - was visiting Shanghai at the time and picked up a copy of the newspaper. Eleanor Hewitt took it home with her to Perth to show her mother, bringing memories of the incident flooding back. Hewitt then contacted the newspaper for Parrish's contact details and the two families have been in touch since, exchanging memories of how the events of 55 years ago and the way it changed their lives. 'Your wonderful story on captain Blown did put the last survivors of the Hainan Incident back in touch with each other,' Parrish said. 'I was so very pleased to hear from another survivor's family and to know she is still living and happy with two lovely grown daughters.' Despite the passage of time, it has become clear that the horror of that day and the appalling loss of life at the hands of the Chinese fighter jets - which apparently mistook the Cathay jet for a Kuomintang plane - are vivid in the minds of the two women. Thorburn, flying back to Hong Kong alone after visiting her sick father at the time of the incident, has circulated a gripping account written in the months after the DC-4 Skymaster came under fire on what should have been a routine flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong. Recalling what happened as the plane came under fire, she wrote: 'Tracer bullets were flying in all directions. Everything had happened so quickly there was no panic amongst the passengers. 'Thinking back, I feel certain that some were killed as they slept and it seems a miracle that anyone survived the stream of bullets which were coming from the two fighters ... The air in the cabin reeked of cordite and smoke. Through the porthole I could see the wing in an angry mass of flames.' She goes on to describe the feeling of impending doom as the plane went into the sea in a terrifying nose-dive: 'The aircraft was diving steeply towards the sea at great speed; the two fighters still on its tail. We were weaving from side to side and obviously out of control. We've had it now, I thought, there's not a chance of escape. 'Although I remained conscious throughout, I have only hazy recollections of what happened next. I heard screams. I remember the terrific shock of impact. I was tossed around like a cork in a whirlpool. The thought that I might survive never occurred to me. 'The feeling of pressure in my lungs made me realise I was clear of the aircraft and struggling in the darkness beneath the waves. How deep we had sunk I shall never know, nor can I recall the moment when I reached the surface. 'I was half choking, half gasping for breath. I began to swim more or less by instinct. The waves were sizeable and obscured everything from my view. I could see no other persons about. The thought that I might be the only survivor terrified me. 'Soon I heard a voice calling, 'I can't swim - help, help.' Amongst the debris I saw it came from stewardess [Esther] Law some few yards away. I grabbed one of the objects that were floating in the water and pushed it towards her telling her to hold on to it.' It was then that she saw Valerie and her mother clinging to a foam mattress in the water. 'I swam to them and asked her [Mrs Parrish] if she was all right but her only concern was the whereabouts of her husband and the two little boys. I tried to reassure her that her husband would be looking after them.' Soon after, the survivors found the rubber dinghy that would serve as their life raft for hours until rescue planes eventually arrived to fly them to safety. 'Little Valerie, with her head settled comfortably against my knee, started asking me questions,' Thorburn recalled. 'She asked 'Why can't we go back in the plane?', 'Where is my daddy and the boys?' I glanced over at her mother but she sat in silence.' The Hainan Incident was followed by a diplomatic row between Britain and China while the survivors were shielded and ordered not to speak to the press. They recovered from their ordeal in hospital and quietly returned to civilian life. There was no counselling or stress management in those days, and Thorburn would later suffer what would now be termed post-traumatic stress disorder and would for years afterwards be terrified of flying. Her daughter, Hewitt, whose chance visit to Shanghai put the two remaining survivors back in touch with each other, said: 'In October 1955, dad put her and his two girls on a ship to have a holiday with her family in Western Australia - he wasn't able to take leave from his job with the bank. 'We returned to Hong Kong by ship in February 1956. But poor mum had to fly with dad and the two of us to Scotland for dad's leave in 1956. That was obviously not a pleasant and easy thing for her to do, and when dad was posted to India in 1957, he flew and we travelled with mum by ship.' She added: 'The nature of dad's job meant that flying was the most practical way of getting from one place to another whenever he was posted to another country. It is always, even now, something she finds difficult to do.' After reading the Post, Hewitt said, her mother was emotional and 'full of regret' that she had not been able to contact captain Blown before his death although she did visit co-pilot Cedric Charlton in Hong Kong in the years after. 'She was quite overcome with the memories that the article brought back,' Hewitt said. Although Beijing accepted responsibility for the incident and paid compensation, the reason for the jet being shot out of the sky remains a mystery. Beijing claimed the plane had been mistaken for a KMT nationalist military transport, but Thorburn pointed out that the pilots must have been close enough to see the Union Jacks on both sides of the plane's fuselage and tail. She speculated that because the plane was behind schedule and because the initials of the Civil Air Transport - an airline that served the KMT government - and Cathay Pacific were similar, the pilots may have at first mistaken the plane for a KMT military aircraft and then carried on firing to cover up their mistake. 'The fighter pilots would know that buzzing of a British airliner would lead to protests to Peking, and therefore, decided that having established the true identity, our loss without trace might lead to more than some embarrassing questions but no proof of responsibility,' she said. 'Certainly, none of us aboard was a person of consequence, whose demise would in any way benefit the communist regime. I am prepared to believe that the attack was a tragic mistake, the blame for which must rest with the Chinese pilots concerned.' Although Blown is dead, the families of both women are now in contact with the pilot's son and daughter-in-law. Through him and the memories of the two remaining survivors, the story of captain Blown's heroics and the survivors' remarkable escape lives on. 'He was an amazing man - one who I hold so very dearly in my heart,' said Parrish, who kept in touch with captain Blown in the years after the incident, from her home in the US. On the other side of the world in Australia, the other living survivor of the 1954 drama - now a great-grandmother - is in no doubt she owes the past 55 years to captain Blown. 'My mother is convinced that it was his skill and experience that allowed her life to continue after what should have been a fatal experience,' her daughter said.