A Survivor's Story
By Ashley ColombeAsk Alena Zimova for the secret to her remarkably youthful appearance and the 80-year-old will tell you (only half-joking) that at the age of 33, she was "reborn" in Gander, Newfoundland, a world away from her Czechoslovakia home.It was September 5, 1967, and Alena was embarking on the final leg of a long journey, flying from Prague, Czechoslovakia to Cuba, to carry out work on behalf of the Academy of Sciences in Prague (where she worked as a biologist). In the wee hours that morning, the Ilyushin 1L-18D turboprop operated by Czech Airlines made a scheduled refuelling stop at Gander International Airport. At 2:40 a.m., flight 523 taxied down the runway carrying 69 passengers and crew.âI was waiting for the moment when the airplane gets up, because itâs always for me sort of a crucial moment. After that I relax,â says a soft-spoken Alena, whose voice still carries a thick accent from her homeland. Once the airplane ascended and was flying smoothly, Alena says she felt comforted and closed her eyes to rest.âVery shortly after that I heard an explosion. In the first moment I sort of wished it wasnât us, that it wasnât true. I opened my eyes right away and at that moment I already saw the fire coming into our cabin. The fire was so strong that the curtains, which were at the entrance to the cabin, just flew to the sides and the fire was coming in,â she recalls. âI immediately stood up and unbuckled and wanted to run away. I looked back and realized that I couldnât go anywhere, there was nowhere to run. So I stayed standing where I was.â As the burning aircraft sailed towards the ground just 4,000 feet beyond the runway, its passengers trapped and engulfed in fire, Alena says she was feeling grateful. In the past her young son, Ondrej, had accompanied her on her travels; this time sheâd left him home. With that thought in mind, Alena says she buried her face in her hands and prayed that death would come quickly. Surprised to be aliveâMamichka! Mamichka!â The panicked cries of a young child searching for her mother amid the planeâs wreckage roused Alena from unconsciousness. Alena remembers the girl, about four years old, bending over her.âWhen I opened my eyes I guess she was horrified to see that it wasnât her mother, so she ran away,â says Alena. Then, as she lay on the ground outside the plane, which was still burning, Alena came to terms with the shocking realization that she had, somehow, survived. She was far from unscathed, however. Much of her body was severely burned and her left leg was dislocated. The state of her hands was particularly concerning for her; she recalls how the skin had peeled away and hung âlike gloves inside-outâ from the tips of her fingers.âI actually didnât feel individual pains from my body. It was just the overall shock, terrible shock,â she says, adding that she did feel an unbearable, penetrating cold. On impact, the plane tore through this section of the Newfoundland Railway tracks. Courtesy Gander Airport Historical Society Eventually rescue and medical personnel were on the scene searching for survivors and Alena finally saw the figure of a woman emerge from the darkness. âI heard her voiceâ¦she was horrified. She said, âOh dear!â and she took her coat off and put it over my shoulders,â she recalls.With that, Alena says, she was out cold again and spent the next several days (how many, exactly, sheâll never know) drifting in and out of consciousness at the hospital in Gander, and then at a hospital in Halifax, where she was later transferred. Of 69 passengers and crew, she was among the 34 survivors. The rescue effortMaurice Geange was on duty at the airportâs fire hall when flight 523 went down. âThat night she crashed I donât think there was a star in the sky; it was as black as pitch,â he says. On impact, he says, the plane tore off telephone poles and ripped through the tracks of the Newfoundland Railway.As he neared the crash site, located on a bog near the airport, Maurice says he encountered about a half-dozen survivors - who were, incredibly, able to walk - all headed towards the lights of the fire trucks.âOne particular woman fell in the bog,â recalls Maurice. âWhen we met her they had just got her up out of the bog and then a couple of our crew walked with them back to our trucks.â Thanks to the tireless efforts of helicopter pilot Austin Garrett (since deceased), many others, including Alena, were evacuated by helicopter. Others werenât so lucky. Maurice remembers watching helplessly as one young, panicked boy ran back to the burning plane, searching for his mother. âAnd we didnât get him out,â he says. The survivors were transported to James Paton Memorial Hospital in Gander, where additional medical staff soon arrived from hospitals in Grand Falls-Windsor and St. Johnâs. Ethel Fogwill of Gander was getting her children ready for school before her nursing shift when the phone rang just before 7 a.m.âI didnât have the radio on or anything,â says Ethel. âThe supervisor who was in charge called me and said, âWhat are you doing? Get in here!ââ Ethel says she dropped everything and headed to the hospital immediately.In the days and weeks that followed, Ethel would meet and tend on a dancer who lost both her feet, a young girl whose mother had perished, and others for whom survival was bittersweet. A nurse for 35 years, Ethel watched her fair share of patients come and go through the hospital doors during her career, but she says she always wondered about the survivors of flight 523. âNever in my wildest dreams would I ever meet them,â she says. So Alenaâs return to Gander this September - nearly half a century after that tragic day - held special meaning not only for her, but also for Ethel, Maurice and others involved in her rescue and recovery.Jack Pinsent, president of the Gander Airport Historical Society (also the air traffic controller on duty the night Alenaâs plane crashed) arranged a warm welcome for Alena; her son, Ondrej Saar; and her son-in-law, Alistair Ingram, on a sunny mid-September day in Gander. The day began with Ethel accompanying Alena on a tour of the James Paton Memorial Hospital, including the ward where she began her long recovery 47 years ago. Later Maurice, along with director of safety and airside operations at Gander International Airport Brian Hicks, led a tour to the very spot where flight 523 met its fate out on the bog. Alena Zimova, 80, visits the bog where she nearly lost her life. Only a few pieces of metal remain to mark the tragedy. Like Alena, whose youthful, healthful appearance belies all that sheâs been through, youâd never know that a disaster unfolded here in 1967 (save for a few pieces of metal strewn about).âWhen I see the pieces of the airplane I just cannot believe. Maybe only now I realize how brutal everything was,â she says.âIt all comes back you know, because you will never forget those moments.â And while most of Alenaâs scars arenât skin deep, theyâre there. Since the crash sheâs been tormented by recurring nightmares about fire and suffers from claustrophobia. But it hasnât stopped her. After spending nearly two months in hospital, Alena finally returned home - only to move permanently to Canada the following year, amid the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. She went on to earn a PhD in genetics and today lives in Barrie, Ontario. And though she admits, unsurprisingly, that she doesnât trust planes, she still flies.In addition to gaining closure on a painful part of her past, Alenaâs trip was something of a homecoming. Normally a very reserved person, Alena says she was taken aback by the strong connection she immediately felt upon meeting Maurice, Ethel, Jack and others involved in the aftermath of the crash. They were strangers, but they felt like family. âI just feel they are very, very close to me because they helped me through the worst part of my life. I just feel extreme gratitude, I cannot even find enough words to express it,â says Alena. âItâs just a very strong feeling here.â Alena and her son, Ondrej, share a quiet moment at the spot where flight 523 crashed. Editor's note: The cause of the crash of flight 523 remains a mystery to this day. The aircraft was practically brand new and weather was not an issue. According to the Gander Airport Historical Society, Czechoslovakian authorities confiscated vital pieces of evidence after the crash, crippling the Canadian investigation. Furthermore, Alena's testimony, and that of other survivors, was discounted by Czech investigators. Many theories (including political motivations) have been raised, but none have been proven.