It’s been nearly six years since the Spanair plane accident, where 154 people died. But why has the nightmare continued for those who survived?
Madrid airport is one of the most important in Europe and welcomes more than 100,000 passengers per day. On the 20th of August 2008, sixty-two of those daily passengers would board a Spanair plane to Gran Canaria. But what should have been a routine flight would turn into one of the worst plane accidents in Spanish history.
The catastrophe highlighted the airlines negligent behaviour and called attention upon the ineptitude of those involved in maintaining safety regulations. It also put into serious doubt the care and attendance of victims and their families after the catastrophe. 154 passengers — out of 172 people on board — died and 18 survived with serious physical and emotional scars.
A survivor vs a giant
Those affected by this tragedy have been living a nightmare, made even worse by Mapfre, one of Spain’s leading insurance companies, refusing to pay out compensations nearly six years after the accident. Rafael Vidal — one of the eighteen survivors — initiated on the 24th of February 2014 a petition on ‘Change.org’ to demand that the multinational company must settle compensation for survivors and victims’ relatives.
“For six years we’ve been trying to end this chapter of our lives and move on”, states Vidal in his petition. After undergoing fifteen surgical operations, all of them paid by himself with the aid of loans, the young telecommunications engineer is forced to wear a metal support frame permanently attached to his left leg. “What I want to claim is the right to a trial, and to have a judge decide whether I’m entitled to what I’m demanding or the unacceptable offer from Mapfre” said Vidal in March during a televised interview.
The victims association: searching for change
Two months after the tragedy, the first and only association of aircraft accidents was born in Spain: ‘La Asociación de Afectados del Vuelo JK5022‘ (The Association of those Affected by Flight JK5022). Currently it has more than one thousand members, eighty of them related directly with a victim or survivor of the accident. Together they claim for necessary changes in the Spanish system to ensure that similar tragedies never happen again.
One of the people traumatised by that fateful day was Pilar Vera Palmés, now President of the Association and aunt of one of the deceased passengers. She accepted an interview request to discuss the conflict with Mapfre last March: “This battle is, firstly in name of the Association, but also in the name of all passengers that use air transportation” said Pilar, referring to Rafael Vidal’s initiative on ‘Change.org’. According to a statement released by Mapfre in its shareholders meeting on March 14th 2014, the company has paid compensation to 60% of all victims. However Pilar denies this, claiming she is only aware of thirty-eight cases of closed agreements.
Survivors and relatives of the victims continue to live a nightmare that is not only limited to the struggle with Mapfre but also goes back to the first reports of the investigation into the causes of the accident. On the 29th of July 2011 the Commission of Investigation of Accidents and Incidents of Civil Aviation (CIAIAC), under the supervision of the Spanish Ministry of Development, made public its final report naming the pilots as the main culprits. However, according to Spanish aviation professionals and the Association itself, this report only hides the truth. On the 20th of August the plane didn’t have all its permissions approved, they had been granted an extension of one month without a proper inspection.
The actual causes of the crash are much much more complicated and in order to explain them fully, the Association launched in 2012 the documentary: ‘JK5022; Una Cadena de Errores’ (JK5022; A Chain of Errors). Pilar claims that “Here in Spain the documentary has been silenced”.
This lack of justice has recently led them to seek help in Strasbourg, filing a lawsuit before the European Court of Human Rights denouncing violations committed by Spanish jurisdiction. “We want to express our desolation as Spanish citizens having to go out of our country to seek the justice that has been denied to us”, the last sentence of the document reads.
“If Rafael wins, we all win”
Within two weeks Rafael Vidal had 150,000 signatures supporting his petition on ‘Change.org’. Now he has nearly 170,000 which again proves how outraged many Spanish citizens are with Mapfre.
All the survivors, like Vidal, suffered serious physical injuries and emotional scars. One of the most dramatic cases was of a woman that is now in a wheelchair and, according to Pilar, “agreed a personal deal with Mapfre”. However, Rafael’s struggle is unique because of his involvement in all the Association’s activities and his active fight for justice. “This tragedy has taken away the best years of his life, and it is because not even the doctors have given him a solution. A few years ago, he was told that the only option he had was to lose his leg”.
But the nightmare that all the affected people have gone through has reunified them to fight and claim for rectifying the mistakes that were made. Their strength — as a result of the pain and injustice committed by the Spanish system — has made them a powerful community that seeks justice for the 172 people on board flight JK5022 and also an improvement of air transportation. In the words of the Association’s president: “If Rafael loses, he loses it alone, but if he wins he wins it for all of us “.
Words by Victoria Medina