In 2005, An Avoidable Air Crash Claimed 104 Lives in Afghanistan — My Friend Alex was One of Them

With contribution from Daniel Lough

The stunning Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Photo by author.

It was the evening on February 3, 2005, when my phone rang. A clear female voice spoke in English. “I am Alex Meerburg’s mother. BBC TV is reporting a plane crash in Afghanistan.” I wasn’t aware of any such incident yet. “My son was on that flight,” she continued. It took me a few seconds to grasp the information, just told her that I would check and get back as soon as possible. She hung up.

I immediately called our Islamabad office. They confirmed both; there was a plane crash near Kabul, and Alex was on that ill-fated flight. It was a KAM Air flight which our staffers were not supposed to fly.

Alex Meerburg was working in Herat in Western Afghanistan on a project I was managing. Our office pieced together what transpired on that fateful day. Alex was booked on a UN operated flight to Kabul and a Dubai-bound flight the next morning. But there was a forecast for a snowstorm in Kabul, and the UN flight got canceled. That meant Alex wouldn’t be on the Dubai flight the following day. Those who have worked in Afghanistan would know what missing a trip out of the country meant, especially if it were for home leave. Alex did what perhaps many of us would have done. He checked with the other airline that was still flying and booked himself on it. Unfortunately, it was Kam Air Flight 904, a scheduled passenger flight from Herat to Kabul. It crashed into a snow-covered mountain near Kabul shortly after 4:00 pm, killing all 96 passengers and eight crew members on board. To date, it is the deadliest air disaster in Afghanistan.

A group photo of the project team. Standing from L-R, Daniel Lough, Wayne Hancock, and another person whose name could not be retrieved. Middle row: Alex Meerburg (kneeling). Seating: Four Afghan members of the project team. Unfortunately, the names could not be retrieved either. Photo courtesy: Daniel Lough.

I first met Alex a couple of months earlier, most likely in July 2004, at our Kabul guest house. We had been communicating by emails since late 2003 while I was putting together the project team. Climbing up the stairs to the second floor, I yelled, “Alex!” knowing he was there. “Yes!” came back his yell from inside his room. A tall, well-built, sun-tanned, long-haired person with a weather-beaten face and a friendly smile opened the door. We sat comfortably in the lounge, sipping tea and munching nuts and raisins. Our chit-chat continued for almost an hour. He was a freelance irrigation engineer, Dutch national, but lived in Corsica, the French island in the Mediterranean Sea, where Napoleon spent his last days as a captive. We became friends.

Alex showed me a lot of photographs of his garden. He was an amateur sculptor, and it was full of his works. Alex was also volunteering to design and build hygienic toilets in Sri Lanka. “Some people like to wash their bottoms with water,” he chuckled. I guess he donated money to that effort, although he never said that to me.

Below is a brief that Daniel Lough, my friend, and colleague at the time, sent to our head office a few days after that sad event. He was overseeing the project and on a visit to the project site in Herat in Western Afghanistan. Daniel has kindly dug it out from his old emails.

I was woken early Friday (February 4, 2005) by a call from Australia advising a BBC news item was saying a flight from Herat to Kabul had gone missing.

We immediately tried to contact Alex on his (working) mobile — no response. We rang the airline and no comment was given.

This (the crash) was finally confirmed by Kam Air. … We gave copies of Alex’s passport details to the Dutch Ambassador, home address and contacts, and a photo. The Embassy told us we should not contact Alex family, they advised that Dutch DFAT (foreign ministry) and police would do this.

We were then contacted by the Dutch Embassy asking if we would accept calls from Alex’s family. We agreed, and have been in phone contact with Alex’s brother.

At this point we believe that we will arrange for any of Alex’s possessions to be repatriated by the Embassy. We have offered to do anything we can for the family to save stress (e.g. we can identify the body when found if they do not wish to fly to Afg to do so). … That is about all I have at this stage. We have some very distraught people on the team in Herat.

Alex’s passport was retrieved from our records. Courtesy: Daniel Lough.

Slowly, the full story that led to the incident began to form. Flight 904 was approaching Kabul Airport but couldn’t land because the snowstorm made visibility too low, and there were no navigational lights to facilitate landing in such a situation. It then approached Bagram Airbase, the nearest other option. But this airbase was only for the use of the American forces and didn’t grant the pilot permission to land. Flight 904 quickly ran out of fuel and rammed into the mountain nearby.

Ideally, Flight 904 should have carried enough fuel to fly to Peshawar Airport, the closest civilian facility. But those days, the safety of civilians was not in anybody’s mind in Afghanistan (has it changed much even today!), and Kam Air was not willing to spend money on such a petty issue either.

Afghan Government launched an investigation. But the steep terrain of the wreckage site made access extremely difficult. The weather conditions were also severe, and there was a risk of landmines. They found the flight data recorder but not the cockpit voice recorder. The investigation report concluded that the crash was most likely a result of pilot error.

It was an avoidable human tragedy. The aircraft could have taken adequate fuel to fly up to Peshawar. Baghram could have allowed it to make an emergency landing. But in the end, it was I who persuaded Alex to take up this assignment in Afghanistan, where destiny was awaiting him.

I am sure Alex is watching us with his friendly smile through the windows of Valhalla, as Daniel and I pay our humble tributes to him.

A special note to the family of Alex Meerburg:

If any of you come across this writing, please forgive us for not obtaining your permission to publish it. We did try to contact you through all the information we had in our files, but none of them were active anymore. We sincerely hope you will accept this tribute from the friends Alex met in Afghanistan.

#Afghanistan #CivilianDeaths #CivilianCasualty #BagramAirBase #KamAirCrash

Travels and writes as a hobby on history, culture, politics, and contemporary issues.

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