Harriet Ware Austin was eight when she saw a plane crash in which her older sisters, Harriet and Janet, died. She describes her 49-year journey as a "tunnel of private grief." Recently, she decided to reconnect with other people who were affected by the same tragic event.
Harriet stood with her parents at Addis Ababa's airport open-air platform on April 7, 1972. Harriet's sister, Caroline, 12, and Jane, 14, were returning from Ethiopia for the start of school term. The girls, who had reached the top of the flight steps, turned around to say goodbye and then went inside.
Their plane soon began to thunder down the runway and was quickly accelerating at high speed to lift it off the ground. Instead of flying high, there was a loud squeeking of brakes. The plane spun around, before descending a steep slope at the end.
Harriet recalls, "And then, all at once, this great, big plume of dark smoke rose up."
Harriet's father Bill ran towards the plane leaving Harriet with her mother Elsa standing hand-in-hand in silent disbelief.
Graham Townsend, 12, was thousands of miles away at Warwick's boarding school. He was waiting for Christopher and Kenneth to return from Easter break. Normally, all three boys would spend the holidays in Addis Ababa with their parents. But this year, Graham was waiting for his younger brothers, Kenneth and Christopher, to return from Easter break.
The details of the bad news were not clear to Graham when he received it. Graham didn't realize that there had been an accident, and that it was a flight.
"My first thought was, "Wow! What a wonderful tale they're going have when they return!" He says. "I felt almost jealous."
He continued to play, trying to balance three brightly colored glass marbles on top a stool with slightly curved top. Two marbles fell off, leaving only one.
"And that's when I thought, 'Gosh! I might be alone here.'
Half a century later Harriet Ware Austin spoke on BBC radio to discuss the event that left such a profound impression on her life.
Harriet said that Harriet's sister Caroline and her friend Debbie had managed to get out of the plane by unclasp their seatbelts. Caroline ran downhill as fuel from the leaking tanks was pouring out, and Debbie fled in the other direction to escape the flames that consumed her friend. Caroline was alive when her father found them, but her clothes were all gone and only her shoes remained.
Four days later, she died after being transported back to the UK by an RAF rescue flight accompanied her parents and Harriet.
Jane, Jane's oldest sister, died instantly from a ruptured abdominal muscle due to the pressure on her torso from the seatbelt.
Two of the 43 passengers who died on the East African Airlines VC10 were these two.
Harriet did not return to Ethiopia until 2009, 37 years after her last trip as a human right consultant.
It was an intense experience that was "excruciatingly hard and emotionally-ridden", but she managed to keep it all under wraps and continue her work.
She distinctly remembers landing at Addis-Ababa airport, gazing out of the plane window into the valley where her sisters' plane burst into flames.
When Harriet stepped out onto the asphalt, the smell of the air was exactly the same as it was in her childhood. Harriet felt close to her sisters despite all the pain and emotions. "Because that's where all of us were last."
Harriet has visited Addis Ababa numerous times since then, and each time she feels the same connection to Jane and Caroline. Harriet was overwhelmed by the desire to find out what happened to the relatives and survivors of the VC10 crash. She sat in Addis Ababa airport looking out at the runway and felt overwhelmed.
"Where were they?" What were their lives like? How long had their lives been on this long climb back? She says. "We had lived in a tunnel, coping with our grief and building a new life for decades. But suddenly, I was consumed by the need to learn about the other."
Harriet shared her story with BBC and believed that she might be able find them.
The trailer was released on April 6, 2021 by Graham Townsend and Gillian Townsend, who were on their way to San Francisco to receive their Covid jabs.
It almost caused an accident.
Gillian wrote an email later that day to Harriet, "Graham nearly skidded off of the motorway."
Just over two weeks after the broadcast Harriet and Graham exchanged many emails. They compared notes on Ethiopia, where Harriet’s father had worked in soil conservation, and Graham’s for the International Labour Organization.
Graham states, "As we got to know each other better, we realized that our experiences were very complimentary. So they gave us a completely new perspective."
Harriet was the youngest among three girls and Graham the oldest of three boys. Graham was not there, but Harriet was there.
Although they hadn't been in touch with each other prior to the tragedy, they exchanged Christmas cards and letters, and continued to meet up on the anniversary for 21 years.
Harriet wanted to know how Graham had managed, since she was the one left behind. Graham wanted to know if Harriet, who was left behind, had ever longed to have three children.
Harriet states that there was much sadness, but also lots of laughter and happy memories. It was mainly this fascinating exploration.
Graham was unable to attend the funeral of his father in November 2020, at the age of 92. However, Graham was finally able this summer to travel back.
Graham states that my father was the last person, other than me, in our family to have known my brothers. "After he died, there was no one else I could speak to that truly understood."
Harriet's need to preserve his siblings' memories was brought into sharp focus by the loss of his father. He was very grateful to his father for preserving traces of their past, including the accident report and condolence letters. Also included were family photos and cine film.
He says, "I'm slowly digging out all these valuable things and it helps to me put together a timeline" "I like everything to be in order because I am an engineer."
Harriet claims that Graham was the first person she recognized even though they hadn't met before. She says, "I saw his father and I recognized him. He was a very nice man."
They discovered that they could talk about their deepest feelings in no time.
Harriet states that there was no awkwardness in meeting strangers. "It was an extraordinary reunion really, complete strangers with an immediate connection and shared past."
Graham's brothers Kenneth and Christopher, who were still wearing their matching Timex watches, found them by Jack on the day of the crash. They didn't survive.
Graham wondered often as a child if things would have turned out differently if he had traveled with his brothers instead of traveling alone.
He recalls saying to his parents, "I wish I'd been aboard the plane," meaning that I could have assisted." "And I thought maybe it would be better to die alongside them, since then I wouldn’t have all of this sadness or guilt now.
Graham was able to settle his mind by reading the accident report and talking with Harriet.
"I realized that the place people were sitting in an aircraft had a huge impact on whether or not they live or die. As I learned more, it seems that if I was there it wouldn't matter."
Harriet has been contacted more than 200 times since her radio program was broadcast.
Others are just strangers who want to apologize. Others had been at school with Jane and Caroline, but had not fully understood the strange, warm, and funny Ware-Austin girls.
The programme features their voices in a taped farewell message that they recorded on cassette before departing for the airport. Harriet's parents used to listen to these messages after Harriet waved the girls off.
"Hello Mummy, Daddy, and Harriet... Thanks for a wonderful holiday...I'll always be grateful... Even if I am sitting in the school classroom, I will think of you all. Jane says, "We don't forget about you, and we're always thinking about you."
"Thanks for a wonderful holiday... "Thank you for a wonderful holiday... Caroline says "Bye bye."
Harriet states, "It is very difficult to listen, but it can also be so precious that these voices can be preserved," and "they're entitled to being heard."
Harriet was told by some of the people who reached out that they hadn't forgotten her sisters and had visited their graves regularly, left flowers, and left notes to try to get in touch with her. Harriet, whose parents had to rush to decide where the girls would be buried, found relief in this.
Harriet has received heartbreaking stories from other people who have written to her to share their grief about their loved ones - brothers, sisters, fathers, brothers and friends. One woman stated that she has wept more in the past week for her deceased father than in the 49 years she'd been listening to Harriet on the radio.
Many said that they hadn't really faced their emotions about the terrible day until Harriet's eloquent account was broadcast on the radio nearly half a century later.
Harriet was deeply touched by the messages and is grateful to everyone who shared their stories.
She says, "Each one of these is a living connection with my sisters."
One man reached out to say he had nursed Caroline for two days in Addis ababa after the accident. He wrote, "I believe that was your sister."
Harriet said that "he understood my need for every detail" and it was very comforting to know that she had a gentle, loving man to look after her."
Harriet was also contacted by one of the RAF pilots. He said he had never forgotten the children in need and the smell of burned flesh.
One week after the accident, a woman working at the British Embassy in Addis said that she had bought a horse from a family that had lost two of her children.
"She had bought Honest Joseph, my beloved big-white horse!" Harriet says. "And she had wonderful times with him, so it was nice to know."
Debbie, who was sitting next to Caroline, also emailed her with her memories.
She wrote, "I returned to school for the final weeks of the summer term" and that her friends were exactly what she needed. They were a great distraction. "They called me 'rotten luck' or some such thing, informed me of gossip and followed my 'bacon strips (skin grafts), with great interest.
Harriet never stops imagining the different life Harriet would have had if Debbie and Caroline hadn't let go after they jumped out of the plane.
Harriet and Graham wish to commemorate 50 years since the tragic accident.
Graham states, "We don’t want them forgotten."
He would like to have a memorial service. His daughter-in-law is a stonemason and can help him to decide how to best restore the headstone of his brothers.
Harriet and Graham want to pay tribute to their siblings but also remember the lives of all those who have lost their lives and those who are still living.
Graham states, "We are all part of one thing."
Harriet will be traveling to Addis next month to visit a cemetery, where she discovered some of those who died in the accident are buried. As her sisters have done, she will photograph the graves and place flowers on them.
She says, "Because their families have never visited them, which just seems to be the saddest and loneliest thing."
Caroline and Jane, in her mind, are always present.
She says that she has never stopped feeling the loss and it is often quite intense. "I think about them not only once a week, but many times a year - they are just always there."
All photos courtesy Harriet Ware Austin unless stated otherwise
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