Embakasi Airport was Nairobi’s main airport before the opening of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in 1978. Constructed in 1978 and opened by the Kenya’s last colonial governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, the facility is now base to the Kenya Army’s 50 Air Cavalry Battalion (50 ACB).
On November 20, 1974, the airport was the scene of the world’s first fatal crash involving a Boeing 747, then the largest passenger airliner. The crash shook the aviation industry and world attention focused on Nairobi.
Lufthansa Flight 540, a Boeing 747-130, was a scheduled commercial flight carrying 157 people – 140 passengers and 17 crew members. It was flying the final segment of its Frankfurt-Nairobi-Johannesburg route. The airliner took off from Embakasi Airport’s runway 24 but failed to gain height. It crashed at the end of the runway and burst into flames. A massive cloud of smoke could be seen from all corners of Nairobi and even from as far as outlying towns such as Athi River and Limuru.
According to a report from the official accident investigation, the pilots felt a buffeting vibration as the aircraft cruised down the runway and at take-off. The pilot continued with the take-off run and retracted the landing gear shortly after he was aloft.
However, the jet started to descend and continued until it grazed bushes and finally the ground at the end of the runway. It then struck an elevated access road and broke up. The left wing exploded and fire spread to the fuselage. The final toll was 59 dead – 55 passengers and four crew members.
SA Azim was then Chief Photographer at The Standard newspaper. He had been assigned to cover a press conference at the airport. That routine assignment, turned out to be professionally fateful. Because of the pictures he took, his name would gain fame around the world and he would soon join the global news agency, Associated Press.
This is Azim’s eye-witness account of that event: “The news conference I was covering took –place in the VIP lounge of the airport. It was a routine assignment and I don’t even recollect much of it. But as I was leaving the lounge and started the drive back to town, I saw the big Lufthansa jet taking off.
“It took off in the direction of Ngong Hills where the landing traffic normally comes from. Something was immediately wrong with that plane and I noticed it wasn’t climbing into the sky as planes usually do. I slowed down and watched in horror as it started descending.
“My instincts told me the worst was going to happen and I stopped. There was little time to think anything. The plane came down and exploded into flames. I raced to the scene as firefighters and other emergency services did the same. Actually, I was at the scene with the very first emergency crews, before many others arrived.
“You must understand that airport security was not as tight as it is today. In those days there were waving bases which the public freely accessed. In this case, being within the airport perimeter, I was able to access the crash site very easily.
“It was nothing but horror. Billows of smoke rose from the fuselage of the jet. I took the first pictures of the plane as the fire consumed it. I was as near as the heat could allow me. I will never forget the cries of agony from the stricken passengers and crew. The emergency crews did a fantastic job fighting the blaze and evacuating the injured and ferrying them to hospitals in the city. But it was a veritable scene of death and destruction.
“The worst thing for me was the smell of burning flesh amidst the fumes of kerosene, the jets fuel. It was horrific. It would be years before I was able to eat meat again because I was haunted by those smells.
“My pictures received world acclaim but the images of suffering haunted me for years. It was an early lesson in the hazards of my profession. As you are feted for your heroism, few people think about the psychological trauma that you are undergoing.
“It is better today because media managers are more alive to this problem. At that time, you just suffered in the silence of your privacy. I have been at this job for more than forty years and that accident remains one of the most enduring memories of any assignment that I have undertaken. And it was all by accident.”
SA Azim still works for the Associated Press today. And, according to the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia, Lufthansa still flies from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, but no longer stops at Nairobi. Also, Lufthansa omitted the “D-ABYB” registration on their new 747-8 aircraft out of respect for the victims of the crash.