Written and Photography by IJsbrand Wildeman
The island of Texel, the biggest of the Dutch Wadden Islands, has an important place in my personal history; my grandfather and my mother (his daughter) were both born on the island. My grandparents still live there and I regularly visit their former-farmhouse. In a conversation about the history of Texel and the place of disasters within that history, they mentioned a plane crash in 1996. They could not recall too many details but reckoned it must be the most recent event on or around Texel that has to be classified as a disaster.
Research on the internet led me to find an investigation report by the Netherlands Aviation Safety Board on the causes of the plane crash in question. The report states that in the late afternoon of the 25th of September 1996, a Dakota DC-3 aircraft, in possession of the Dutch Dakota Association (DDA), crashed in the Waddenzee. Earlier that day it had successfully flown from Schiphol to Texel. On its return flight, shortly after taking off, the left propeller engine had to be shut down due to a technical malfunction. The Dakota should have still been able to sustain sufficient speed and altitude to reach the nearest airport, but the plane suffered from a second technical error. The propeller of the malfunctioning engine could not be ‘feathered’; which means the blades could not be turned edge-first, in order to reduce drag. The loss of power, the increased drag and high workload on the pilots resulted, just ten minutes after take-off, in a loss of control and eventually crashing into the Waddenzee (Netherlands Aviation Safety Board, 1997: 54-56). No one survived the crash. All 6 crewmembers and 25 out of the 26 passengers were killed instantly; one passenger was taken to the hospital, but eventually passed away later that night as a result of his injuries (ibid.: 2).
The airplane crashed on the sandbank called Lutjeswaard (see Figure 1). At the moment of the crash, water levels on the sandbank were about 2,5 meters high. Therefore the airplane was still visible after the crash and salvaging the wreckage was relatively easy (Figure 2). This disaster left no permanent marks in the landscape, due to its location (the sandbank).
Figure 1. Location of the sand bank Lutjeswaard on Google Maps
Figure 2. Dakota airplane, shortly after crash on Lutjeswaard by ANP / Politie Luchtvaartdienst
Entering the field: the monument on Texel
My grandparents pointed me to the fact there should be a monument on the Texel International Airport, to remember the 32 lives lost on that disastrous day. Upon visiting several websites with information about the events, such as Wikipedia and Aviacrash, I learnt about the technicalities of the crash but was not able to find a lot of information about the monument on Texel. I found confirmation about the existence of a monument on Texel, and one in Haarlem, but could not find a picture or other visual evidence of the existence of the monument on Texel.
On Sunday the 27th of April, I drove from the residence of my grandparents to the Texel International Airport. I was curious to see how the monument would interact with its environment and with me as an observer, and how the memory of the disaster would be activated. I reckoned, there might also be other symbolic traces in the landscape or in the airport. With these points of interest, I stepped in the car to take the twenty-minute drive from my grandparents to the airport.
I parked the car in front of the main airport building, got out and inspected the front. The image did not really chime with what I had in mind; an airport usually has a kind of flashy image, with lots of security, signs and directions. At this airport everything was silent; there was no sign of any human presence. The main entrance was closed. I reckoned it must have something to do with the date: it was the Sunday of Easter weekend. In this deserted place, I started looking for the monument. I walked around the building, which was perfectly possible because of the absence of fences or other obstacles. I could now see the runway, which is nothing more than a large piece of land covered with grass. Now walking past the other side of the building, I made a discovery: there was a small museum attached to the airport. When I looked inside, I could see an older women sitting at the counter: the first ‘sign of life'. I decided to first look if I could find the monument by myself, before I would potentially ask for advice.
I discovered a monument only several meters from the entrance of the museum, but it was not the one I was looking for. I saw a tree with a small encryption. It read, in Dutch: ‘for all those fallen, 1940-1945'. This small text made it clear to me that this tree must have been planted in remembrance of the victims of Nazi-German oppression during the Second World War. Although it was not the monument I was looking for, for me it transmitted the message that people in the area, possibly the people in charge of the airport, are aware of historical events and to some extent have the need to remember dark stages of history.
I took a walk alongside the back of the building, between the runway and the airport building. At the end of the paved section, I finally saw another object which looked like a monument: I saw a shiny base, about a meter across, with a shiny shaft on top, on which a plane was mounted (Figure 3).
Figure 3. View of the Dakota-disaster monument upon arrival
Figure 3 shows my view while walking towards the monument. Because of its location with respect to the airport building and the museum, this monument did not strike me to be of much importance. It stands slightly tucked away, at the end of the access path. When my gaze fell upon the monument, it did grasp my attention, due to the shiny shaft and the miniature-airplane on top.
I decided to walk towards the monument, in order to make a closer inspection. The first thing which struck me was the fact that someone had placed some flowers and a small lantern next to the monument. The image of flowers and a candle are powerful to me because it resembles almost every other actively visited monument. Some flowers still had some colour in them, but most of them were withered and seemed old. It told me that are still people who consider it important to have a visual representation of memorisation; people who still feel the need to remember the disaster.
Figure 4. The Dakota-disaster monument upon closer inspection
The next thing I saw, were the names which are inscribed on the shiny base of the monument. I counted the names and came to the number of 32. Even without my prior knowledge of how many people lost their lives in the disaster, it was clear that these people were being remembered here. I looked up, and for the first time that day, I experienced my presence in relation to this disaster. I looked at the only runway at the airport and realized that I was looking at the exact location of where the victims of the disaster had final contact with ‘regular' ground. The next contact with soil meant their death. This was a strange sensation because the atmosphere was so very quiet and peaceful. The only thing I could see was a vast, flat landscape, filled with clean-looking grass. The only thing I could hear was the wind blowing across the grassy plain. The monument had something peaceful to it, but at the same time, to some extent, transmitted a message of neglect. The actual disaster site, in the middle of the Wadden Sea, is not accessible, and in trying to come as ‘close’ as I possibly could I find a monument tucked away in the corner of the paved area of the airport, with some colourless flowers, battered by the wind.
As I walked back towards the museum, I wondered if the older women in the museum could tell me something about the monument, or about the disaster. I entered the small building and greeted the woman. Next to the counter, I now saw an older man sitting on his walker (‘rollator' in Dutch). The woman immediately had a message for me: it was five minutes to five in the afternoon, so the museum was about to be closed. I apologised but told her that I just had one small question. I asked her if she could tell me when the Dakota-disaster monument was installed: was it shortly after the crash in 1996, or did it take some time? After a deep sigh, she turned her attention to the older man and repeated my question. He then told me that the monument is private property; the families of those deceased have put the monument in place and are responsible for maintenance. The families still hold a memorial service, he continued, every year on the day of the disaster. The museum and the airport do not hold any responsibility or contribute to these services.
Based on this new information, the location of the monument made more sense to me: it is a bit tucked away may have something to do with the ownership. The families probably felt the urge to put a monument in place, as the people of the airport and the museum did not feel this urge. In this context, the location on the outskirts of the airport is more logical.
I asked the man if he could remember the disaster. He sort of murmured, and then said: ‘Yes… It was terrible.’ I now felt like I was no longer in the position to actively ask more about the disaster because I might have struck a nerve. I just nodded, and the man continued. He did not need a lot of time to remember where he was and what he did that day. On the contrary: he immediately told me that he shook hands with every single person on board of that plane. ‘I stood behind the counter. They even took some presents with them’, he said. He now pointed at a framed picture behind the counter (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Framed picture of the crew and passengers of the Dakota DC-3 airplane on the day of the crash
He explained that it was a very strange experience to see a group of people take off, with whom you shook hands and have waved goodbye, and then hearing less than an hour later that they are lying in the Wadden Sea. Immediately after this statement, he mentioned the injuries: ‘All broken necks, broken spines. One survived at first, but he didn’t really stand a chance.’
While listening to this older, somewhat grumpy man, and looking at the framed picture shown in Figure 5, I experienced a closeness to the disaster which I had not yet felt. I was in conversation with an ‘eye-witness’, who was one of the last persons to see the 32 passengers alive. He showed, although suppressed, emotions with regard to this disaster, which took place almost 20 years ago. The relatively prominent place of the framed picture, directly behind the counter of the museum, showed the emotional attachment of at least one member of the museum personnel. This attachment to that disastrous event, even after all these years, shows that the disasters still holds some importance for the people working at the airport.
He then asked rather suddenly: ‘are you related to one of those people or something?' I felt kind of startled by this question, but then told him I was interested in the disaster because I had read about it in the context of an assignment for my education. He nodded and immediately said: ‘well, take some pictures then, write it down!' These rather direct recommendations transmitted a double message: on the one hand, I felt like this man wanted to make sure I would have a truthful representation of the disaster and my visit to the airport, but on the other hand felt a more positive message: this man really wanted me to tell this story. He pointed to a large picture of an airplane (Figure 6): ‘that’s the plane, it was total-loss.’ He recommended me to take a picture for the second time and got up to turn on the lights; while talking to the man, the older woman had already turned off the lights in the small museum.
Figure 6. Picture of the crashed Dakota DC-3 airplane, on display in the Texel airport-museum
A different picture of the passengers and crew of the disastrous flight was on display here, on the bottom left of the picture. Under the picture, a token of friendship between de Dutch Dakota Association (the owner of the Dakota DC-3) and the Texel International Airport hangs on the wall. Of all my personal moments of remembrance with regard to this disaster, the moment upon looking at this picture shown in Figure 6, I had the least amount of connection with the event. The memory was now displayed in a less activating manner: within the context of the museum, it automatically seemed ‘old' and more ‘at a distance' in my experience. I reckon that a museum-experience has a lesser impact than a physical presence, a monument or an eye-witness. As the museum should have been closed by now, I thanked the man and the woman behind the counter and stated that I learned a lot. I walked out of the small museum-building and looked at the runway one last time.
I now walked to my car, got in, and on the way back to my grandparents, I contemplated on what I just had experienced. I definitely experienced some closeness with respect to the victims, while standing at the monument and looking towards the runway. But because of the monument being somewhat tucked-away, it seems a bit neglected and the view of the runway is that peaceful, it reaffirmed the temporal and geographical distance between me and the disaster. This distance became less present when the older man told about his experience of that 25th of September, almost 20 years ago. His experience is so strongly linked to the final moments of the victims, that I seemed to address a lot of (historical) authority to his account of the event. Although he did not see the actual plane going down, he did see it going up for the last time; it was the closest I could get, I reckoned.
In respect to academic insights and thematic discussions within the anthropology of disasters, the concept of memorisation could be interesting to apply to this ‘disaster site’. Why did those in charge of the airport, or those in charge of the public space surrounding it, not decide to erect a monument on a more prominent space? Is there a reason for placing the monument for the Second World War-victims more within the line of sight? The connection between placement of the monument and the experienced temporal and geographical distance to the disaster could provide interesting insights on how people perceive and remember a disaster.
RTL Nieuws special concerning the Dakota Crash
Fragments of NOS Journal about the crash
VLIEGEN DOE JE VEILIG OF NIET GEORGE MARLET; HANS MARIJNISSEN– 23 november 1996 Ze groeiden van een vriendenclub uit tot een volwaardig luchtvaartbedrijf dat jaarlijks tienduizend passagiers vervoert. Ondanks de ramp bij Den Helder wil de Dutch Dakota Association haar vliegactiviteiten volgens de oorspronkelijke plannen uitbreiden. Maar de vraag rijst of het nog langer verantwoord is dat een bemanning met tientallen gelegenheidspassagiers in een historische kist laag over Nederland scheert. Lees Meer...