Japan - The Mount Fuji Disaster, by James Wilson (1966)

It was a Saturday in March 1966; a perfect late winter day in Tokyo; clear blue skies, bright sunshine, with a magnificent view of Mount Fuji from the city. The BOAC city office did not usually open on a Saturday, but as Manager Japan I had gone in that morning to write a letter of condolence to my counterpart at Canadian Pacific Airlines after one of their DC-8s had crashed the previous day on the seawall at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. By the afternoon, I was doing some carpentry on the patio of our house in Azabu; my wife Diana had gone to the hairdresser – it was a very ordinary Saturday afternoon.

Then, with a phone call from the BOAC operations office at Haneda, my world fell apart. A BOAC Boeing 707 which was late, for reasons which were going to be very significant, had failed to report after its initial departure message and now there were reports of an aircraft falling from the sky in the Mount Fuji area. At first it was believed that aircraft involved was a Japanese self-defence force fighter, then it seemed possible that it was our 707. That was the news on the radio at the hairdresser. I was already on my way to Haneda, not to be home for a week.

The 707 had arrived late after diverting to Fukuoka on the flight up from Hong Kong. Since it had only a few passengers booked from Tokyo, we had agreed to delay further the departure to Hong Kong so as to take a group of 75 American Thermo-King dealers who were on an incentive tour of the Orient. There were 124 people on the flight including the crew. The American group had made an immediate transfer from a Japanese domestic flight at Haneda.

During the night we began to piece together messages about wreckage on the mountainside in the area of Taboro. It became clear that it was our aircraft and that there were no survivors. Why a large jet airliner should fall out of the sky in apparently perfect weather was a mystery to which we could give no answer.

The whole weight of the overpowering Japanese media fell on us. We had no experience of an accident in Japan. I was to learn a lot, very quickly.

The first lesson was that Japanese newspapers had commandeered all the available helicopters, so that when I came to look for one to go up the mountain on the Sunday there was every problem. Eventually I found one at a heliport in the suburbs and chartered it to come to Haneda to pick me up.

One of our Japanese traffic clerks was detailed to come along as interpreter. Suzuki-san looked terrified. I cannot say I blame him but it was only later that I realised how terrified he was. The weather had changed completely. Sunday was wet and windy with mist swirling around Taboro. As I climbed into the helicopter the crew said in Japanese “where to?” “Taboro” I said. “But where in Taboro?” “Oh! I don’t know, perhaps the post office.” That must be easy to see, I thought. After forty minutes of nothing, the pilot suddenly said, “There is the post office. I cannot land there. I will put you down that schoolyard, and then I must go away to wait at a heliport further up the valley. OK?”

Suzuki-san and I jumped out into the deserted yard with a feeling of absolute abandonment, which was made much worse when we realised that we might be locked into a compound. Eventually, after half an hour of desperate searching through the empty school buildings, we found a fire exit leading to the street.

On later reflection, the whole trip took on a surreal quality. When we found some of the scattered remains it was necessary to keep telling oneself that this really was part of the complete destruction of an aircraft with everyone on board.

Much of the rest of that visit was spent reviewing arrangements at the temporary morgue to which bodies were starting to arrive. Now that a BOAC team had arrived by road from Tokyo, there was no excuse for not returning to face the outside world in Tokyo. I called for the helicopter to fetch us, but Suzuki-san had disappeared, not to return for a couple of days. He really had been badly shaken by the experience. I made the return trip alone.

As with all disasters, the organisation to deal with the consequences takes on a life of its own. Gradually it became apparent that there was a special dimension that follows from the Japanese belief in personal responsibility in such situations. We could not hide behind lawyers and insurance loss adjusters.

A committee was formed to represent the families of the dozen Japanese killed in the accident (including the Japanese stewardess) and I was expected to negotiate personally all claims with this committee. This process was to take more than a year. However, immediately there were extraordinary requirements. Every Japanese was to receive “condolence money”, about 400 for each victim, for which there was no precedent in our system. At first there were objections from head office that this could acknowledge responsibility yet to be established. I rather think that events overtook any objection. Payments were made within hours.

I also attended Shinto ceremonies all over the city. The Japanese press had surrounded our downtown offices, making entry and exit very difficult. A co-ordination centre took over our reservations area in the basement of the Sanshin Building.

As one might expect, there were bizarre overtones. One group on board had been the “Blue Boys” a transvestite cabaret act moving from Japan to Hong Kong as part of a world tour. The group presented particular problems in identification to the rescue teams. But nothing was to surpass the effrontery of the agent in Japan who called demanding a refund of the fares which he claimed to have paid for their journey to Hong Kong. In telling him to wait I think I may have been rather rude.

Later, from a rural corner of France came a communication from the aged mother of one of the “boys”. It was clear that she had lost contact with her son many years before, but we met her request to be taken up the mountain to see his grave. It seemed a particularly worthwhile task.

The presence of a large American group on the aircraft was a particular worry to our USA organization. With the complete mystery as to what had caused the accident – it was well before the days of terrorist attacks like the Lockerbie disaster – the scene could have been set for American lawyers to have a field day. We had people from the BOAC USA offices working in our Tokyo accident centre in an effort to meet the US requirements including briefing the US media. I received excellent advice from a US born Japanese lawyer working in Tokyo who understood some of the cultural differences in the approach to such matters.

An explosive decomposition at altitude makes for extreme difficulty in positive identification of the human remains scattered over a considerable area. After some days, the experts had accounted for every passenger and crew member so that the wishes of relatives could be met, with the exception of one English stewardess. We seemed to be close to declaring that no trace could be found of this young woman. However, there were some remains which had not been linked positively with any other and following what could perhaps be called a process of elimination it was possible for the experts to say that no one would have to be for ever in the missing category. The stewardess had only one relative, her aged mother, and I thought how terrible it would have been if that old lady alone were deprived of what comfort there might be in a funeral, a grave, those certainties that conclude a life.

The investigators ultimately concluded that the accident was caused by clear air turbulence associated with the wind shear that can occur over a high mountain when the jet stream is as strong as that reported on that day of clear blue skies. The strong metal fuselage had been torn apart after being subject to stresses that could not, at that time, ever have been envisaged. All the stories about the 707 flying into Mount Fuji were set on one side.

However, it is not surprising that I carry with me an intense dislike of all those images of the sacred mountain so popular in Japanese culture. Years before I had climbed to the top and believed in that guarantee of one’s return to Japan; now I saw it in an altogether different light.

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