Emergency responder recalls Czechoslovakian air crash
Memories still vivid 50 years later
GANDER, NL – It’s not a place his memories often go, but Maurice Geange can still vividly recall his involvement in the emergency response to the Czech air crash in 1967.
The Gander resident was just 26 years old at the time, starting his first of 25 years with the airport’s fire department.
Just eight months into the position, he was called upon to respond to the crash that claimed the lives of 35 people.
“I wasn’t on the responding team that went in first, but we were all called in to respond to the emergency,” he said.
“While the crash occurred around 1 a.m. it would be 2:30 a.m. before our team arrived on the scene.”
There was no trail leading to the area at that time, so Geange’s team maneuvered an old road to try to position themselves closer to the crash site instead of going out from the end of the runway.
But they couldn’t get across a boggy area, so the team carried whatever emergency supplies they could – stretchers, blankets, first aid kits – and started out in heavy fire gear.
“It was brutal,” he recalled. “It was pitch black and we were heading across the bog, people were falling in, we were falling in really.”
Arriving on the scene, he said, the way the plane had split apart on impact created a ring of fire. Responders would have to brave the flames to rescue some of the crash victims, who were then moved to a safe area.
“One of my biggest problems at the crash was communication. I couldn’t speak to them because we spoke two different languages,” Geange said. “We knew they were wet, they were cold and in shock, so with the basic material we had we covered them and attended to the injuries as best we could.”
Once the survivors had been accounted for, they had to set about retrieving the dead.
While he had played a part in collecting bodies and limbs, out of respect, Geange said, “there are some stories that just aren’t meant for print.”
However, he did recount one particular story.
Approximately 11 hours after the crash, the department had all the survivors off the bog and was carrying out a final search when he thought he heard something.
“I called over my buddy… we listened for a while and by and by we heard it again.”
They came across a section of plane that had doubled over onto itself.
The noise was coming from between the metal.
“We opened it up the best we could with pry bars and when we looked inside there was woman trapped in there,” he said. “We called Gander hospital and got a doctor to come out. We opened it enough for the doctor to crawl in and give her a needle to sedate her. We then got in, pulled her out, and she survived.”
Geange said the wine onboard the plane was transported in wooden crates. When the metal doubled over, the crates held the weight, ultimately saving the woman’s life.
Geange has dealt with numerous aircraft crashes throughout his career –including the Arrow Air crash that killed all 256 on board in 1985 – and he has learned to cope with the tragedies he has faced.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not on his mind.
“Every now and again when you’re somewhere and it comes up in conversation, it brings it back,” he said. “I don’t have any trouble with it as such, but I do think about it from time to time, and anybody who went through it and says they don’t is telling a lie.”
Maurice Geange was only 26 years old and working his first year with the airport fire department when he was called to respond to the Czechoslovakian Airlines crash in 1967.