British airshow crash toll could hit 20: police

A crane removes the remains of a Hawker Hunter fighter jet that crashed onto the A27 road at Shoreham near Brighton in Britain on Monday.
A crane removes the remains of a Hawker Hunter fighter jet that crashed onto the A27 road at Shoreham near Brighton in Britain on Monday. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - The final death toll from a jet crash at a British airshow could rise to 20, police said Monday as an operation began to recover the plane wreckage.

Eleven people are so far thought to have been killed in the crash on Saturday, when a vintage Hawker Hunter military jet failed to pull up in time after a loop manoeuvre and ploughed through cars on a busy road.

The crash at the Shoreham Airshow on the southeast English coast created two fireballs that sent thick, black smoke billowing into the sky.

The pilot, experienced aerobatic stunt flyer Andy Hill, remains in a critical condition in hospital.

Sussex Police assistant chief constable Steve Barry said the death toll could increase. Seven fatalities have been confirmed so far.

"The number of highly likely dead remains at 11, but may rise. However, we do not expect that figure to be greater than 20, probably fewer," he said.

A crane has moved in to lift the debris from the plane wreckage.

"What that will uncover in terms of further recovery work is unknown and it's possible that once the aircraft is moved that we will discover more fatalities," said Barry.

"The plane needs to be made safe. There are issues around fuel in the aircraft still and there is an issue around making sure the ejector seat is still safe," he added.

Local coroner Penny Schofield said identifying the victims would be a "slow and painstaking operation" that could take several weeks.

"The fire was so intense and the scale of the damage so vast, it means that we must very carefully remove the remains in a way that will lead to a formal identification," she added.

Hawker Hunter planes were a mainstay of Britain's Royal Air Force in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The jet appeared to wobble slightly and lose height at the bottom of its loop before ploughing across a major road that runs along England's southeast coast.

Hill's family said they were "devastated and deeply saddened" by the loss of life.

Friend and fellow pilot Neil McCarthy said that in Britain, Hill was one of only around six who flies a Hawker Hunter, of which around five remain airworthy.

He described him as an "exceptional pilot".

"What Andy did is exactly what I would expect to see... it looked exactly the way it should be done," he told BBC television. "But so many things can go wrong: there can be bird strikes, engine failure, an engine fire, there could be all sorts."

The Civil Aviation Authority announced that displays by vintage jets will be "significantly restricted until further notice" as a result of the tragedy.

Steve Andrews was one of the first paramedics in attendance.

"It was a scene of utter devastation. The aircraft was still burning at the time, there were a lot of cars heavily damaged, debris all over.

"Unfortunately there was not a lot we could do for the casualties in the cars."