Worst air disaster killed 583 as two jets crashed on runway on holiday island

A perfect storm of miscommunication and a wave of flights being re-directed to a packed airport because of a terrorist incident claimed the lives of 583 people across two jets.

The crash occurred amid foggy conditions on March 27, 1977, when a Dutch KLM plane started its take-off run while a Pan Am 747 was still on the runway on what is now called Tenerife-North Airport, formerly Los Rodeos.

Both flights had been diverted from nearby Las Palmas airport because a bomb planted by the separatist Canary Islands Independence Movement exploded in the terminal of Gran Canaria Airport, injuring eight people.

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All 248 passengers and crew aboard the KLM plane died, as did 335 passengers and crew aboard the Pan Am plane, leaving just 61 fortunate survivors.

An investigation concluded that the fundamental cause of the accident was that KLM Captain Veldhuyzen van Zanten, a respected pilot and KLM poster boy, attempted to take off without clearance.

He thought he had got clearance from the signal tower because he heard the term "OK", but this is not official aviation terminology.

He turned on the engines and hurtled towards the US plane with no time to fully swerve out of the way.

"Goddamn, that son-of-a-bitch is coming!" yelled the Pan Am captain, while first officer Robert Bragg yelled, "Get off! Get off! Get off!"

The Americans made a desperate last ditch attempt to get off the runway and onto the grass, but the Dutch plane's left-side engines, lower fuselage, and main landing gear struck the upper right side of the Pan Am's fuselage.

This ripped apart the centre of the Pan Am jet almost directly above the wing. The right-side engines crashed through the Pan Am's upper deck immediately behind the cockpit.

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A full load of fuel the Dutch captain took on to save time, causing an earlier delay, burst into a fireball that could not be subdued for several hours.

Of the 61 survivors of the Pan Am flight, many of whom escaped through holes ripped in the plane, one said that sitting at the front of the machine saved his life.

All 248 passengers and crew aboard the KLM plane died, as did 335 passengers and crew aboard the Pan Am plane.

As a result, Los Rodeos Airport, the only operating airport on Tenerife in 1977, was closed to all fixed-wing traffic for two days.

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It took a week for the airport to be full re-opened, after wreckage had been fully removed and engineers had repaired the airport's runway.

Investigators suggested the KLM captain's desire to leave Los Rodeos as quickly as possible because of company-imposed time keeping rules may have contributed to the disaster.

KLM initially refused to accept blame and even pointed the finger at the Spanish controllers, saying that control tower crew had been listening to a football match on the radio and may have been distracted.

However, KLM eventually backed down and paid the victims' families compensation ranging between £219,000 to £2.27million in today's money.

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