The Hostess Survived

by Frank Tibbo

Seventeen survived the crash of Sabena OOCBG in 1946 and all had different stories to tell. Jean Rookx, a hostess, was the only crew member to live through the ordeal near Dead Wolf Pond, 35 km south west of Gander. Twenty-one passengers and six crew members were killed or died shortly after the crash.

Miss Rookx was airlifted to the Banting Memorial Hospital at Gander Airport. She had been in the forest for three days. A few days later, she was flown to New York for further treatment in that city's West Side Hospital. It was while she was there that she was interviewed.

She said that the weather had been good for the whole trip and the crew, with whom she had flown before and in whom she had complete confidence, told her the plane was in perfect condition. It was her first flight to New York, and she was looking forward to seeing the city.

For most of the 12 hours across the Atlantic, Miss Rookx was in her seat in the rear of the plane. When John Verstraeten, the navigator, came out and told her they would land at Gander in 25 minutes, she woke Jeanne Bruylant, the other hostess, and then went around waking the passengers and telling them to strap themselves into their seats.

"I became quite busy then,” she said. "It was very bumpy and six of the passengers became sick. I went around passing out paper bags to be sick in, and cups of water. Then I went back to my seat." She attached her heavy web seat belt and noticed that Jeanne Bruylant had opted to leave hers unbuckled. Bruylant, who was much more experienced than Rookx, had already told her it was a waste of time.

Miss Bruylant's remark about the seat belt was the last thing Miss Rookx remembered. "The next thing I knew I was on the ground. I didn't know where I was, I thought I was asleep and making a dream. I thought I was in a cathedral. I couldn't understand. After a while I realized I was in a forest, lying on the ground, the trees all about me, and there was a flickering light, like candles on an altar. It was the plane burning, of course."


Miss Rookx had been thrown out of the aircraft, her shoes and stockings were torn off, but her uniform was intact. She tried to get up but her legs were broken.

"I yelled then," she said. "I yelled the names of the crew, but no one answered me. It was perfectly quiet except for the noise of the flames. There was no one around. I thought I was the only one left. I was lying there when John King (20-year-old son of the Chinese
Ambassador to Belgium) came to me and moved me farther away from the plane."

She asked John King to see if any more had survived. By this time, unbeknown to Rookx, Mr. King had already rescued some of the passengers by dragging them away from the flames.

Philip Henricot, 16, had also survived and, like King, was able to help others. Henricot and King brought the engineer, Mr. Fassbender, from the wreck. "He was in terrible shape, one of his arms was torn off, he was in bad pain. He kept asking us to end it for him, to strangle him." He died several hours later.

"It was raining," said Miss Rookx, "and it was cold. We were wet, wet to the skin, and we were cold unto the bone. Those who were alive dragged themselves over to us. We counted 22."

Some of the survivors had already spoken of Miss Rookx in glowing terms. She had dragged herself around despite her broken limbs and helped administer whatever assistance she could to the injured passengers. She said she would rather not talk about her own actions. John King said, "She was the only member of the crew left, and naturally we looked to her for leadership, even though she couldn't walk, because we all considered her the only one in authority left."

Miss Rooks described the conditions. "That first night was a terrible ordeal. We were cold, bitterly cold, and didn't know if a rescue would ever come. I tried to tell them that we were just outside the airport, even though I didn't know any more than they. We kept our arms about each other for warmth. We had only swamp water to drink. And the dead were around us, some of them relatives of the living."

Miss Rookx was released from the New York hospital three months later.

Contributed by F. Tibbo



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