The for­got­ten story of … the Colour­ful XI tragedy

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Nick Miller

Edu Nand­lal couldn’t sleep. Many of the other pas­sen­gers on Suri­nam Air­ways flight 764 from Am­s­ter­dam Schiphol to Para­maribo Zan­derij had de­cided to get some rest on the 12hour jour­ney. But this was the first time Nand­lal had re­turned to Suri­name since leav­ing for the Nether­lands af­ter the mil­i­tary coup in 1980. He wanted to see home as the plane ap­proached.

Most were still sleep­ing when the flight be­gan its de­scent, in the early hours of Wed­nes­day 7 June 1989. Nand­lal looked out of the win­dow and saw lights from houses in the jun­gle shin­ing. Then he felt some­thing hit the plane. And then some­thing else. “Shit,” he thought, “I’m dead.”

‘Ev­ery­thing was good when we left’

The Colour­ful XI was the ini­tia­tive of Sonny Has­noe, a Dutch-Suri­namese so­cial worker based in Am­s­ter­dam. Has­noe fre­quently worked in the most de­prived ar­eas of the city, where many fel­low im­mi­grants lived. Has­noe no­ticed chil­dren in these ar­eas tended to ben­e­fit hugely from foot­ball: their be­hav­iour was gen­er­ally bet­ter and they were more likely to en­gage and con­nect with wider Dutch so­ci­ety.

Thus he de­cided to try rais­ing money and aware­ness of their plight and the pro­file of Dutch-Suri­namese foot­ballers by bring­ing to­gether a team of such men who would play some ex­hi­bi­tion games. The first was in 1986: a few were played in the Nether­lands, in En­schede and Hen­gelo, with­out huge na­tional fan­fare but that was only half the point. The games had a fes­ti­val at­mos­phere, with food and Suri­namese mu­sic. Play­ers such as Regi Blinker and Ken Monkou made ap­pear­ances for what be­came known as the ‘Kleur­rijk Elf­tal’ – the Colour­ful XI.

In 1989, plans were made to take the games home. The team would take part in a mini-tour­na­ment with three other teams in Para­maribo, Suri­name’s cap­i­tal, and the hope was that some of Dutch foot­ball’s big­gest names would take part. The pre­vi­ous year’s Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship-win­ning squad fea­tured a num­ber of play­ers from a Suri­namese back­ground: Aron Win­ter, Ger­ald Va­nen­burg, Frank Ri­jkaard and of course Ruud Gul­lit. If some of those Dutch he­roes would make the trip, the team’s pro­file would grow enor­mously.

But, per­haps pre­dictably, their em­ploy­ers weren’t so keen. Gul­lit and Ri­jkaard played for Mi­lan, who weren’t happy for their stars to make an ‘un­nec­es­sary’ transat­lantic jour­ney at the end of a long sea­son. Sim­i­larly Henk Fraser, who had made his in­ter­na­tional de­but ear­lier that year, joined Win­ter, Bryan Roy, for­ward Henny Mei­jer and goal­keeper Stan­ley Menzo in be­ing de­nied per­mis­sion to travel by Ajax. Menzo and Mei­jer ig­nored these in­struc­tions and flew out to Suri­name sep­a­rately on 5 June, os­ten­si­bly go­ing ‘on hol­i­day’ but with the in­ten­tion of play­ing any­way. On 6 June, the rest of the squad gath­ered at Schipol air­port.

The at­mos­phere among the 17 play­ers, plus coach Nick Stien­stra, was cel­e­bra­tory. The stars might not have been there, but plenty of tal­ent was: FC Twente de­fender Andy Scharmin de­cided to go rather than play in the Toulon tour­na­ment, at least in part so he could take his mother and aunt on the trip home; Steve van Dor­pel was about to sign for Roda JC af­ter tear­ing Ajax apart ear­lier that sea­son; An­dro Knel was a ris­ing star and colour­ful char­ac­ter who would reg­u­larly roller­skate to train­ing.

Nand­lal, by his own ad­mis­sion, wasn’t the most tal­ented player in the world, more a work­horse, a mid­field grafter who forged a de­cent ca­reer in the Nether­lands since ar­riv­ing in 1980, aged 18. He played for Utrecht un­der Dick Ad­vo­caat but was told he wasn’t tough enough. Af­ter mov­ing to Em­men, he was then sold to Vitesse Arn­hem, with whom he won pro­mo­tion to the Ere­di­visie. “This was the first time I’d been back to Suri­name since leav­ing,” he says now, speak­ing to an English pub­li­ca­tion for the first time since 1989. “All my friends were say­ing they were go­ing to sleep, but I wanted to stay awake to see the land­ing.”

The flight was de­layed by 12 hours be­cause the plane, a 20-yearold DC8 called the ‘An­thony Nesty’, named af­ter the Suri­namese swim­mer who won gold at the 1988 Olympics, was late ar­riv­ing from Mi­ami. Still, the mood was cheer­ful. “Ev­ery­thing was good when we left,” says Nand­lal. “There was a band, the Draver Boys, who played mu­sic on the plane. The whole flight over the sea was per­fect.” The foot­ballers played cards, the Draver Boys sang, and any­one who could sleep through all that got some rest. As they ap­proached Zan­derij air­port, about 45km south of Para­maribo, Nand­lal looked out. “I could see the lights of the small houses in the jun­gle,” he says. “It was dark, so that’s all I could see.”

About 20 min­utes be­fore land­ing, the cock­pit re­ceived a weather re­port which told them vis­i­bil­ity was at around 900m be­cause of fog: this, ap­par­ently, took them by sur­prise as vis­i­bil­ity was pre­vi­ously judged at about 6km. Cap­tain Will Rogers de­cided to de­ploy the in­stru­ment land­ing sys­tem (ILS), de­signed to help planes land in poor weather, de­spite not be­ing cleared to do so by the con­trol tower at the air­port, who told them to fol­low the stan­dard bea­con to the run­way. “Legally, we don’t have ILS,” said co-pi­lot Glyn To­bias. “We have to use it,” said Rogers. The ver­sion in­stalled at Zan­derij hadn’t been prop­erly de­vel­oped and wasn’t sup­posed to be in use yet.

Two at­tempts at con­nect­ing with the ILS were un­suc­cess­ful. “I don’t trust that ILS,” said To­bias, as they tried for a third time, even­tu­ally managing to con­nect. But the in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by the ILS wasn’t re­li­able, giv­ing an in­cor­rect ap­proach an­gle. Yet To­bias said he could see the run­way, and what he could see more or less aligned with the ILS in­for­ma­tion.

As they de­scended, they passed through some low cloud. “Tell ‘em to put the run­way lights bright,” said Rogers, twice. An al­ti­tude warn­ing alarm sounded, but it was ig­nored, the crew de­cid­ing to trust the ILS. They de­scended to 300 feet, 200 feet, 150 feet. It was only then they re­alised they were com­ing in too low. “Pull up!” said the flight en­gi­neer, War­ren Rose. On the cock­pit recorder, the sound of the first im­pact was au­di­ble. “Pull up!” said Rose again. Then: “That’s it. I’m dead.”

The plane was com­ing in so low that one of the wings hit the top of a tree, not vis­i­ble from the plane be­cause of the fog and cloud. “We were go­ing down, then I felt some­thing hit­ting the air­plane,” says Nand­lal. “I thought: ‘Shit. Some­thing’s hap­pen­ing.’ Ev­ery­one started waking up.” Then the other wing hit a another tree, and the plane flipped over and crashed into the ground, up­side down. Most of the 187 on board (178 pas­sen­gers, nine crew) were killed on im­pact. Ortwin Linger, a de­fender for FC Haar­lem, sur­vived for three days but died later in hospi­tal. In to­tal, only 11 sur­vived (al­most all be­cause they were thrown from the wreck­age), plus one dog. In­evitably, the dog was sub­se­quently named ‘Lucky’. Fif­teen of the 18 Colour­ful XI party died.

Nand­lal sur­vived thanks to a mid­flight act of cour­tesy to a man who wasn’t even sup­posed to be on the flight. Jerry Haa­trecht was a mid­fielder who started his ca­reer in Ajax’s youth ranks, but had slipped down a few lev­els and had been play­ing am­a­teur foot­ball. His brother Win­nie, a pro­fes­sional who played for Heeren­veen, was in­vited but could not travel be­cause of his club’s in­volve­ment in pro­mo­tion play-offs, so suggested Jerry. Dur­ing the flight Haa­trecht, a rangy mid­fielder, was one of those who wanted to get some sleep: Nand­lal, a shorter man, of­fered up his seat which was near the emer­gency exit, so had more legroom, and they swapped.

“I felt pain in my head, pain in my ear,” says Nand­lal. “It was to­tally dark. It was a com­plete black­out. They found me at 5am. My seat was in the mid­dle of the air­plane. I didn’t have my seat­belt on, and when they found me I was near the cock­pit.” He was dis­cov­ered by the emer­gency ser­vices about an hour and a half af­ter the crash.

Re­mark­ably, the man who heard his cries for help recog­nised him. “He said: ‘Hey, Edu – I know you. You were in my class at school.” But even with the de­bris around him, Nand­lal didn’t com­pre­hend what was hap­pen­ing. “He said the plane has crashed, and I said: ‘No, why are you telling me that? We’re here to play foot­ball.’ You can tell I was in deep shock. I could smell gaso­line. I heard peo­ple scream­ing ‘I’m dy­ing, help me!’ I could hear chil­dren scream­ing. But still all I could think was: ‘This is not true, it’s a dream, we’re land­ing. We’re go­ing to play foot­ball.’”

Nand­lal had bro­ken his back. He spent five days in hospi­tal in Para­maribo, be­fore be­ing flown back to Holland. He spent 14 months in re­hab, some of which spent in a wheelchair, and was told he would never walk again. “I prayed to God. I said to him: ‘Can you let me walk a lit­tle? Only a lit­tle. Then I’ll feel bet­ter. I don’t have to play foot­ball, but let me walk a lit­tle.’” In the end it was prob­a­bly more med­i­cal ex­per­tise than divine in­ter­ven­tion, but he even­tu­ally did re­cover. These days he has a limp, but is broadly fine.

The two other sur­vivors from the team were Sigi Lens and Rad­jin de Haan. Lens, a tall at­tacker who played for For­tuna Sit­tard and is the un­cle of Sun­der­land winger Jere­main, never played again but went on to be­come an agent. “I of­ten won­der: what would be­come of those play­ers?” he said in a 2014 in­ter­view to mark the 25th an­niver­sary of the dis­as­ter. “Andy Scharmin was a great tal­ent. He could have gone to the tour­na­ment in Toulon with Jong Orange, but chose Suri­name be­cause his mother had not been there for a long time. Flo­rian Vi­jent. Lloyd Does­burg. Jerry Haa­trecht. Fred Patrick. Fred was like a lit­tle brother to me.”

De Haan was the only one who played af­ter the crash. Seven months later he re­turned to foot­ball, but didn’t last long. He be­came a coach, work­ing at home and abroad, in­clud­ing a stint in Libya. “I never do much on 7 June,” he said in a rare in­ter­view last year. “I was 19 and had a lot of luck. I broke my third ver­te­brae, tore my shoul­der blade and had a lot of bruises. But be­cause I was so young, I was able to work on my re­cov­ery very quickly.”

The 15 who died were Scharmin, Van Dor­pel, Knel, Haa­trecht, Stien­stra, Fraser, Linger, Her­a­cles de­fender Ruud De­ge­naar, Lloyd Does­burg (an Ajax goal­keeper), Frits Good­ings (a team-mate of Nand­lal’s at Utretcht), Vir­gall Joe­mankha (the only mem­ber of the team to play out­side Holland, for Cer­cle Brugge), Willem II full-back Ruben Ko­gel­dans, Fred Patrick of PEC Zwolle, De Graaf­schap winger El­fried Veld­man and Tel­star’s Flo­rian Vi­jent.

Just as some Chapecoense play­ers did be­fore their crash in 2016, in the days be­fore the flight sev­eral of those in­volved felt un­easy. “Nick Stien­stra’s wife told me she woke up one night, and he was ly­ing on his back like he was in a cof­fin,” says Iwan Tol, who wrote Des­ti­na­tion Zan­derij, a book about the team and the crash. “An­dro Knel said a few days be­fore to his mother: ‘This is strange to say, but just know that I love you.’”

In re­al­ity the cause was more pro­saic. “Ev­ery­thing that could go wrong, did go wrong,” says Tol. “Sigi Lens said that when he stepped on to the plane, he could see it was very old. Some things were just held to­gether with tape.” Rogers, the pi­lot, was a 66-year-old Amer­i­can who should not have been able to cap­tain the flight: Suri­namese reg­u­la­tions dis­qual­i­fied any­one over 60 from tak­ing charge of a com­mer­cial air­line.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Rogers had re­cently been sus­pended from fly­ing af­ter land­ing on the wrong run­way, and his co-pi­lot To­bias had false iden­tity pa­pers. The crew were hired via a sep­a­rate com­pany by the air­line, SLM, but the rel­e­vant checks were not prop­erly car­ried out. They ig­nored alarms from the ground prox­im­ity warn­ing sys­tem that told them the plane was com­ing in too low, turn­ing off the alarm af­ter a few se­conds. As­sorted pro­to­cols, in­clud­ing use of the ILS, were not ob­served.

The com­mis­sion which in­ves­ti­gated the crash con­cluded that “as a re­sult of the cap­tain’s glar­ing care­less­ness and reck­less­ness the air­craft was flown be­low the pub­lished min­i­mum al­ti­tudes dur­ing the ap­proach”, while also plac­ing blame on the air­line who failed “to ob­serve the per­ti­nent reg­u­la­tions as well as the pro­ce­dures … con­cern­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion dur­ing re­cruit­ment and em­ploy­ment of the crew mem­bers.”

‘It’s al­ways about the foot­ballers but lots of peo­ple died’

Of course, this isn’t purely a foot­ball tragedy. Mau­rice Lede is a Dutch TV pre­sen­ter and Andy Scharmin’s cousin. In 2014, to mark the 25th an­niver­sary of the dis­as­ter, Lede went to Suri­name to make a doc­u­men­tary about the crash, and he found a coun­try that has not, and al­most cer­tainly will not, for­get.

“Ev­ery­body in one way was in­volved,” says Lede. “Ev­ery­body lost a fam­ily mem­ber, or some­one [close]. It was in­tense. A lot of peo­ple weren’t will­ing to talk about it be­cause it was re­ally emo­tional. A lot of peo­ple were crying, just when I talked about it. The im­pact was huge. For a lot of peo­ple it felt like yes­ter­day. It’s quite a dif­fer­ence to here in Holland. Here it be­came known be­cause of the foot­ball play­ers, but over there it’s known as the dis­as­ter of the coun­try.”

And be­cause it’s pri­mar­ily known be­cause of the foot­ballers who lost their lives, the other vic­tims are of­ten for­got­ten. Most were Suri­namese peo­ple liv­ing in the Nether­lands, but three top-rank­ing mil­i­tary of­fi­cers – Suri­name army Chief of Staff, Ma­jor Ray­mond Lieuw Yen Tai, air force com­man­der Ma­jor Eddy Djoe and army Chief of Op­er­a­tions, Cap­tain Ar­mand Salomons – were on board too.

“So many more peo­ple were on the plane,” says Lede. “Young chil­dren who were trav­el­ling to see their grand­par­ents. A cou­ple who were on their hon­ey­moon. If the foot­ball play­ers weren’t on the flight, it wouldn’t have got as much at­ten­tion. Peo­ple say: ‘It’s al­ways about the foot­ball play­ers but a lot of peo­ple were killed.’”

The crash site is now a cu­ri­ous com­bi­na­tion of na­tional mourn­ing hub and grave. Two mon­u­ments have been erected, but much of the de­bris was sim­ply buried in the ground where it fell. “They dug a hole and put parts of the plane in it,” says Lede, “but be­cause many years have passed ev­ery­thing pops up. It was quite in­tense – painful and weird.”

While the crash is a na­tional tragedy in Suri­name, and a fairly well­known story in the Nether­lands, it’s not thought of in the same way as the Mu­nich air dis­as­ter, or Su­perga, or Chapecoense, or the Zambia team wiped out in 1993. This is partly be­cause none of the play­ers who died were house­hold names: un­like those four ex­am­ples, this was not a young, tal­ented team on the verge of great­ness. But it’s also prob­a­bly be­cause many of the vic­tims were im­mi­grants, two cul­tures bridg­ing thou­sands of miles.

“In Holland, they say it was a dis­as­ter that hap­pened far away,” says Tol. “It’s some­where be­tween the two lands, and no­body takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for it. We don’t have a cul­ture of think­ing of our he­roes like they do in Eng­land. The only thing we knew was a few pic­tures on tele­vi­sion of the air­plane. It’s well known by foot­ball fans, but it’s not like the Busby Babes.”

‘The big­gest prob­lems are in your mind’

Af­ter his phys­i­cal re­cov­ery, Nand­lal tried to start a nor­mal life. “Af­ter the crash I don’t worry about foot­ball,” he says. “The big­gest prob­lems are in your mind. You need five

years, 10 years to feel calm. To come to terms with it.”

Sur­vivor’s guilt was in­evitable, hav­ing es­caped the crash that killed so many compatriots. “At the be­gin­ning, I al­ways thought about my friends, the ones who died. I felt guilty.” He’s still friends with Sigi Lens, but also Win­nie Haa­trecht, whose brother died af­ter swap­ping seats, and their sis­ter.

He scouted a lit­tle for FC Utrecht, but in 2002 he started a clean­ing com­pany which he still runs, em­ploy­ing peo­ple who might oth­er­wise find get­ting a job more dif­fi­cult: im­mi­grants, those with crim­i­nal records, peo­ple with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. The guilt lin­gered, but a decade af­ter the crash it dis­ap­peared.

He had a son, Riva, but when he was five-years-old, he was di­ag­nosed with a rare brain tu­mour. Nand­lal re­ceived the news, with the im­plau­si­ble cru­elty that only a ran­dom uni­verse can bring, on 7 June. Riva died in April 2002. “I al­ways said to my­self that if you sur­vive an air­plane crash, you know what lucky is,” says Nand­lal. “But then when my son died, I know what the op­po­site is. I know both. I know what lucky is, but I also know what shit is. I know the pain. From that day, I felt bet­ter [about the crash]. Af­ter my son died, I no longer felt guilty.”

Talk­ing to Nand­lal, a man who has en­dured phys­i­cal and emo­tional trauma that no­body should have to, it’s no­table that he speaks about his life with no anger: at the pi­lot, the air­line, the uni­verse, as he jus­ti­fi­ably could. “I don’t feel an­gry. The pi­lot made a big mis­take,” he says, mat­ter of factly. “I know what life is.”

“Ev­ery 7 June, I al­ways think about the peo­ple who died. Not just the foot­ball play­ers. All the peo­ple who died.” Last year Nand­lal went back to lay flow­ers at the scene of the crash. “It made me feel bet­ter be­cause I could see they still think about the fam­i­lies over there,” he says. “They don’t for­get.”

Wreck­age from Suri­nam Air­ways Flight 764 af­ter the crash in Para­maribo, Suri­name in 1989. Pho­to­graph: ANP/AFP

Four mem­bers of the Kleur­rijk Elf­tal who were on board Suri­nam Air­ways’ fate­ful Flight 764. Edu Nand­lal, left, and Sigi Lens, sec­ond left, were two of the three play­ers who sur­vived (the other be­ing Rad­jin de Haan). Lloyd Does­burg and Steven van...

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