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Dutch Probe '92 Jet Crash After News of Toxic Cargo

Nerve gas: At least 1,200 people are complaining of ailments they fear are linked to El Al accident.

October 13, 1998|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMSTERDAM — As sirens wailed and flashing lights swept the fiery wreckage of a 12-story apartment house hit by an Israeli El Al cargo jet in 1992, the "black box" cockpit voice recorder disappeared from the evidence bin where firefighters insist they put it.

Five hours into the rescue effort, after Dutch security police had cleared the crash site of emergency workers and press, men in white hooded fire suits were seen jumping from a helicopter into the smoldering rubble and carrying off debris in unmarked trucks.

Police videotapes were erased before investigators had a chance to review them, and vital details of the cargo's hazardous contents--recently revealed to include components of the deadly nerve gas sarin--were kept secret for years.

The investigation of the disaster, which took at least 43 lives on the ground and four more aboard the Boeing 747 jet, now looks to be either a monumental bungle or a textbook cover-up.

But if Israeli or Dutch officials conspired to hide the full extent of the risks to which those in the crash area were exposed, they overlooked an important source of evidence: the survivors.

Six years after the crash in the densely populated Bijlmermeer district, at least 1,200 residents and rescue workers are complaining of physical and psychological ailments they fear were caused by something carried in the El Al cargo hold.

With the disclosure this month that the jet carried sarin components, passions have flared among sick residents and their baffled doctors. A Dutch parliamentary inquiry has been ordered to try to discover the truth about the disaster.

"We need to know what our patients were exposed to in order to treat them," said Nizaarali Makdoembaks, a Suriname-born doctor whose family practice treats 250 people suffering from unexplained skin diseases, nervous disorders, birth defects and, most recently, cancer.

Woman Found to Have Encephalomyelitis

Herma Sprey was preparing Sunday supper on the evening of Oct. 4, 1992, when the groaning engines of the El Al jet, which had just taken off from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport after a refueling stop on its flight from New York, drew her to the kitchen window. She watched awe-struck as the jet lurched, then nose-dived into an apartment complex two blocks away, where she herself once lived. She ordered her children to stay inside and ran to the crash scene.

"It was horrible because you couldn't help anyone. There was nothing you could do because it was so hot from the fires burning everywhere," recalled Sprey, now 45. She found one friend amid the chaos and helped her lead others out of undamaged but smoke-filled apartments nearby. She spent at least five hours in the crash zone.

"After half a year, my hair fell out and I started getting these muscle cramps. I thought I had arthritis," said Sprey, who recently has been diagnosed with encephalomyelitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

Jorgs Ijzermans--a prominent physician with the Netherlands' biggest hospital, the Amsterdam Medical Center, located only a couple of miles from the crash site--was asked by the Dutch Health Ministry earlier this year to study people who had been at the accident scene and were complaining of mysterious illnesses.

"Because we don't know what was on board, we don't know if their complaints are related" to the El Al crash, said Ijzermans. "A lot of people have skin problems that won't go away. There are also arthritis-like symptoms in knees, elbows, hips, and allergy and breathing complaints. Several diseases with longer incubation times are just now showing up, like cancer."

The medical center issued an appeal in June and July for people with health problems they suspect might be connected with the air disaster to submit to reviews by Ijzermans' team of investigators. More than 800 people from the Bijlmermeer neighborhood have been interviewed, he said, and at least 300 more from other parts of Amsterdam are being included in the study.

"When we include firefighters and rescue workers and those who have been relocated from the ruined apartments, we have 1,200 or 1,300 cases, and people are still calling in," said Ijzermans.

Sarin Components Burned in Crash

Among the substances now known to have been burned in the El Al inferno were 800 pounds of depleted uranium and three of the four chemicals needed to make sarin, including about 50 gallons of dimethyl methylphosphonate, or DMMP.

Dutch residents just learned those facts from a report in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper timed for the sixth anniversary of the crash. The report was based on copies of the cargo manifest obtained from sources at the Dutch air transport authority, the RLD.

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