Rage at delay that killed crash survivors

Last updated 09:26 24/01/2014
Prime Minister Victor Ponta
Reuters
UNHAPPY: Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

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A small plane crash on a remote mountain wouldn't normally be enough to anger an entire country or threaten the government. Romania, however, is dealing with just this scenario.

So far, four senior officials including the interior minister have resigned or been fired after all those onboard a medical flight initially survived a crash in thick fog on Monday (local time). One of the pilots and a medical student later died of hypothermia among other causes after waiting for hours in deep snow to be saved.

Romanians reacted with fury, taking to social media and talk shows to accuse the government of incompetence and complacency after it emerged the least injured of the survivors called emergency services six times.

It took 4½ hours for local villagers and a woodcutter to locate the plane in Transylvania after it lost altitude and crashed at 1400 metres (4600 feet) above sea level. But medical teams arrived hours later and were reportedly ill-equipped. The plane, carrying two pilots and five medical workers, was on its way to pick up a liver for a transplant.

"The government generally does nothing and in this case they did nothing to locate the plane. A woodcutter had to find them," aviation professor Nicolae Serban Tomescu said. "The rescue operation was like Swiss cheese. There were holes everywhere."

But some officials have defended the government's response to the crash, saying rescuers were working in difficult weather conditions and in darkness.

Nonetheless, public ire has reached a crescendo because many believe the government was unable to muster up-to-date equipment to rescue the crash victims, but is willing to invest its resources heavily on surveillance. Romania, a country of 19 million with no foreign enemies, has seven intelligence agencies, including the main domestic and foreign spying agencies. Democracy activists claim that those in power use intelligence to gain unfair advantages over opponents and dig up compromising data.

A political cartoon on the front page of Romanian daily Jurnalul National on Wednesday suggested the crash victims would have been found sooner if someone on the flight had been under surveillance. The caricature had two well-equipped secret agents joking, "How the hell can we locate the crashed airplane? Hmm, had there been a journalist, a deputy or a Senator on it, well ... !!!"

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There is also anger because the elite telecommunications agency - one of the seven intelligence agencies - invested 40 million euros in the country's national emergency number, and the six calls one of the survivors made didn't appear to be enough to get help there quickly enough.

The blowback has taken its toll on the government, which is vying to win a presidential election in November. Interior Minister Radu Stroe handed in his resignation to the prime minister on Thursday to become the highest-ranking government official to leave his post in the scandal. The country's air traffic control chief, the head of the emergency services and another senior Interior Ministry official have also lost their jobs.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta fired two of those officials and called for the resignations of others not under his authority. Addressing the national mood Thursday, he used his strongest language to date pointing to "serious errors in the rescue operation ... particularly the techniques used for identifying the wreckage". He promised that in the future authorities would be "much more efficient".

Ponta is also trying to save face because it was he who went on a talk show on Monday evening to initially say all seven people on the flight had survived. Romanians had been glued to TV news bulletins, and the story was at first presented by the government as one with a happy ending.

"The pilot did everything he could to save their lives but the authorities were negligent," said Iuliana Popescu, a security guard. "Why did it take them so many hours? Even if they got lost, they should have got their earlier. Nobody had to die."

But former emergency services chief Ion Burlui, who resigned Wednesday, said authorities had done their job properly in difficult conditions, including deep snow, dense fog and darkness.

"Winter is not like summer and the mountain is not like the plains," he said. "These people intervened ... risking their lives to save other people."

The pilot who was killed, Adrian Iovan, had 30 years of experience and was well known in Romania as an aviation expert who went on TV whenever there was an accident. He died of hypothermia and from numerous fractures. Aurelia Ion, a 23-year-old volunteer medical student in her fifth year, died from hypothermia and multiple injuries. No official has said that their lives could have been saved if rescuers had arrived earlier, but many blame the slow response on their deaths.

Cristian Tudorica, a 36-year-old bank clerk, summed up the public mood.

"Those doctors were on the flight to save others," he said. "It is right that the (interior) minister resigned. These people should not have died."

- AP

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