Remembering Flight 123, deadliest single-plane crash in history – and one of the most incredible
Mourners trek up mountain to recall 520 who died in JAL crash that took place 30 years ago, in which tail was blown off and passengers had time to write final letters
It remains the world’s deadliest single-plane air disaster, and one of the most incredible.
Relatives of the victims of Japan Airlines Flight 123 commemorated the 30th anniversary of the tragedy today, climbing to the accident site in the mountains northwest of Tokyo to pray for their loved ones.
Flight 123 was bound for Osaka with 524 passengers and crew aboard on August 12, 1985, when an explosion snapped off almost the entire upright section of its tail.
For 32 minutes, pilot Masami Takahama and first officer Yutaka Sasaki battled valiantly to control the horrifically damaged jumbo jet. Some of those aboard had time to write final messages to their loved ones.
Watch: The crash of JAL Flight 123
Passenger Hirotsugu Kawaguchi, 52, wrote to his children, telling them to “be good to each other” and their mother.
“Dad is very sad but I’m sure I won’t make it . . . the plane is turning around and descending rapidly. I am grateful for the truly happy life I have enjoyed until now,” the seven-page letter said.
Mariko Shirai, 26, captured the horror that would claim her life: “I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared. Help. I feel sick. I don’t want to die.”
Ultimately, the crippled plane smashed into the Osutaka Ridge in Gunma Prefecture, flipping onto its back. Miraculously, four women survived in spite of a badly bungled rescue operation – it took rescuers 12 hours to arrive at the site of the crash.
Today, relatives climbed the steep mountainside to the site to mourn for the dead at grave markers and a monument located on Osutaka Ridge.
JAL President Yoshiharu Ueki was also scheduled to climb the trail to pay his respects to the victims and pledge aircraft safety.
In the evening, a memorial ceremony will be held at “Irei-no-sono” (Memorial Garden) in the village of Ueno, Gunma Prefecture, at the foot of the mountain, with relatives, villagers and JAL officials attending.
Participants will light 520 candles, one for each victim, and offer silent prayers at 6.56 pm, the time the 747 crashed into the mountain around 40 minutes after taking off from Tokyo’s Haneda airport.
Investigators concluded that a rupture in the plane’s rear pressure bulkhead blew off its vertical stabiliser and destroyed its hydraulics, rendering the aircraft uncontrollable.
In 1987, a Japanese government investigation commission concluded that the accident was caused by improper repairs conducted by Boeing, the maker of the aircraft, on the pressure bulkhead that JAL did not detect in its maintenance checks.
Gunma prefectural police charged 20 people including Boeing employees in 1988 with negligence, but prosecutors declined to seek indictment after Boeing refused to cooperate.
With the year marking the 30th anniversary of the accident, some of the relatives have started to speak out, in the hope that the tragedy will not be forgotten and the importance of transportation safety will be passed on to younger generations.
A group of relatives published a collection of essays this summer written by around 40 people close to the victims, including by a child born after the accident.
In 2006, JAL opened the Safety Promotion Center near Tokyo’s Haneda airport, a museum it positions as “cornerstone of safety” to hand down the lessons from the accident and reconfirm the importance of flight safety.
The centre, open to the public, displays the wreckage of the crashed jumbo jet and items including the collapsed pressure bulkhead, damaged passenger seats and some of the passengers’ notes to their families, written as the plane was in its death throes.