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The Diplomacy of Tragedy: Burmese Airways Crash Kills 14 Americans in 1987

In the early morning hours of October 11, 1987, a Burmese turboprop plane transporting 49 passengers, including 36 foreign nationals and four crew members, departed from Rangoon (now Yangon) and began its flight towards the popular tourist town of Pagan.  Approaching the airport, the plane’s wing clipped the ridge of a mountain just outside the city, sending it crashing down the ridge. All 49 people aboard the plane were killed.

Among the 49 killed were 14 Americans, seven Swiss, five British, four Australians, three West Germans, two French, and one Thai national. In the wake of this tragedy, the U.S. embassy in Rangoon was faced with the challenge of identifying and returning the bodies and belongings of the American nationals back to their families in the United States. This challenge proved difficult due to different standards of identification, the state of the victims’ bodies, and the looting of the crime scene by local villagers.

Aloysius M. O’Neill was  the Chief Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. O’Neill was the American counterpart on a team of diplomats from various embassies who were responsible for returning the nationals killed in the crash to their home countries. A career Foreign Service Officer, O’Neill served in various posts throughout East and Southeast Asia in addition to Burma (now Myanmar), including Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.  Below is an excerpt of his interview conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2008.

CLICK THESE LINKS to learn more about Myanmar (Burma) or to read the full oral history of Aloysius O’Neill.

Aloysius O’Neill, Chief Consular Officer for Burma (1986-1988)

O’NEILL: My biggest American services case. Early every morning, seven days a week, a twin engine 44 passenger Fokker-27 turboprop would take off from Rangoon and make a circular flight to Pagan to Mandalay to Taunggyi, then back to Rangoon. It would repeat the circuit in the afternoon. On the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend 1987, that morning flight hit a ridge near Pagan, in fact, the only elevation anywhere near Pagan, which was on the broad Irrawaddy plain. The plane flipped over and went down the ridge killing all 49 people on board including 14 Americans.

This started something that carried me through the remaining nine months of my time in Rangoon. Under normal circumstances a plane crash, even a relatively small one like this, would be a tragedy. It was an extremely complicated major tragedy in the case of Burma. None of the Americans had any relatives or contacts in Burma. In fact, most of them were travel agents or tour guides mostly from California who were being invited by one of the big tourist agencies in Bangkok to look at Burma as another tourist destination. In addition to the Burmese crew and Burmese passengers, including a baby which was the 49th person killed, there were 14 Americans. There was also one Thai and there were Australians, Swiss, Germans, French and Brits, 36 foreigners in all.

“The bodies and everything else, were in central Burma outside Pagan in an inaccessible place”

Unfortunately there was one local connection. Heather Harvey, the Australian vice consul, lost her father and stepmother in that crash. She had seen them off that morning at the airport. Heather was devastated and had to be flown back to Australia right away. From Ambassador Burton Levin to Chris Szymanski the DCM, to the defense attaché’s office, everybody was extremely helpful to me. Eldon Bell, the doctor and the GSO people — General Services Office people who dealt with logistics matters — were tremendously helpful to me in sorting out what was a real mess. Because we had the largest number of foreigners involved and could call on outside resources, we were the ones that had the lead for all the embassies.

The bodies and everything else, the plane, personal effects, etc., were in central Burma outside Pagan in an inaccessible place. The people who did get to it first were the local villagers, followed by the police. The police got the bodies over to Pagan airport from which Burma Airways flew the bodies down to Rangoon on the afternoon of the next day. We were immediately in contact with the American citizen services office in the Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to get help. We had no idea who the U.S. victims were, first of all, and we were trying to find that out from immigration records and flight manifests on that Sunday. We learned very quickly that there were numerous errors in the flight manifest both in terms of names and their alleged nationality.

The two planes with the bodies on them came down on Monday, the next day, and when they approached, consular officers from different embassies were on the tarmac with police and army officers and other officials. The smell of the bodies just came wafting over us as the planes pulled up. I don’t know how the crews could stand the 45 minute flight down from Pagan, but they did.

“The only good thing was that everybody died instantly”

About 40 hours elapsed between the time of the crash and the time the very first bodies got refrigerated at all. Of course, the condition of the bodies was very bad. You can imagine: the plane flipped over on its back and then went down a nearly mile-long ridge so the bodies were in extremely bad shape. A lot of them were decapitated. The only good thing was everybody died instantly. They could barely have had any idea that anything was wrong when the left wingtip clipped the ridge. It was a mess, trying to identify all the bodies, the different national views on what constituted identification, starting with the Burmese and going through the Swiss and others, as well as the complications of dealing with the Burmese government. I think there were five ministries involved, including Foreign Affairs, Transportation, Health, Home, and Religious Affairs (which included police and immigration).

The command from [Burmese leader] Ne Win to the Burmese officials was that those bodies which they had gotten on Monday would be identified by Tuesday morning at 6 o’clock. Despite a lot of flaws in their procedures, the Burmese did some very useful work, Tourist Burma and the police in particular. Not all the bodies had hands, you realize, but in those cases where they could, they took fingerprints, and that proved to be enormously helpful later.

Under that order from “Number One,” the working level officials brought to the morgue at Rangoon General the Tourist Burma ladies, who had helped see the plane off at the airport that morning, to help identify these bodies which, of course, produced nothing of any use. By six on Tuesday morning they told us the foreigners were all identified. Almost all the so-called identifications that they did under such duress were proved totally erroneous in the following weeks.

“We lost track of the FBI team”

Meanwhile, we were working through the State Department to get FBI fingerprint experts out of Washington and also army forensic identification specialists from CILHI, the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. They normally worked on identification of war remains from World War II, Vietnam, Korea, etc. We were dealing with deep suspicions on the part of the Burmese that these U.S. officials were coming in to investigate them or to investigate the crash itself which they considered their sovereign responsibility.

We were constantly hampered, among other things, by the fact that it was not unusual to take two and a half hours to get a phone call through to the States. Burma had a manual phone system. You had to contact an international operator from your house to start the call. Getting cut off in mid-call was not unusual, which added to the frustration. While there were certain things that we could do by cable, there were things that we really needed to do by phone.

At one point, we lost track of the FBI team of five or six forensic experts and a special agent. They were supposed to arrive on Monday a week after the crash. We didn’t know where they were and nobody else knew either. All of a sudden they showed up on the Thai International flight on Tuesday. They had managed somehow to get hold of a Burmese embassy officer in Bangkok after hours which was an extraordinary achievement, get visas, and get into Burma.

They came in, though, with a video camera which was a normal tool of their forensic work. One of Ne

Win’s decrees was that no video cameras could be brought into the country by anybody for any reason. Right there in the airport, we got into a great discussion with the Burmese officials over what to do. Ultimately, we agreed that the FBI camera had to be impounded at the airport, but they would allow a Burmese state television crew to go to the mortuaries to tape their identification work. In other words, bless their little hearts, the Burmese did find a way for the FBI people to do what they normally did in these crash situations, but they just didn’t do it the way we originally planned.

The CILHI, the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii sent two experts, one of whom was the Army’s only forensic dentist, and a civilian woman who was a forensic anthropologist. They did amazing work and so did the FBI people. We were encountering endless difficulties with the various Burmese bureaucracies over all sorts of things. When the bodies were removed from the crash site, none had any identification on them at all. They had no wallets, they had no passports. I was initially surprised at this when Dr. Eldon Bell and I first met with the police surgeon at Rangoon General Hospital to start discussing what could be done about identification. By the way, Eldon brought with him a couple of boxes of ordinary surgical latex gloves as a little present for Dr. Bah Choon, the police surgeon (the chief of forensics). He said “This is a precious gift.” I’ll never forget the words.

“Once we got those fingerprint records that was a big help”

We learned later that the first villagers on the scene had looted all the bodies, so there were passports and wallets and ID cards scattered all over the crash site. Eventually we got all those effects, or at least most of them, but there was no association between body X and a passport and wallet.

Over the next several weeks the identification process went on even after the American experts helped grease the skids a great deal; they invited the Burmese counterpart experts involved in every part of the process. Another helpful thing was that most of the American dead were from California, and the Department of Motor Vehicles had taken fingerprints as part of the licensing process. For the Californian victims, once we got those fingerprint records that was a big help.

The foreigners had come from a stay in Thailand and had left a lot of luggage in the famed Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. With the help of our embassy in Bangkok, the FBI got permission to go into their luggage at the Oriental. They were able to bring out things like airline menus and other paper items from specific identified baggage. They lifted fingerprints off those menus, and using the fingerprint records that the Burmese had taken the night that the bodies came down from Pagan, they were able to identify quite a number of American victims. Others were eventually identified by dental records where such existed. Some of the bodies did have intact jaws, fortunately. It was relatively easy to rule out a number of the Burmese simply by dress if nothing else. The air crew’s uniforms and bodies in longyis (sarongs) put them in the Burmese category.

Throughout the months we dealt with the crash, we got absolutely crucial support from the embassy in Bangkok, especially the consul general in Bangkok, David Lyon and his ACS — American Citizen Services — staff. David offered Ed Wehrle, one of his ACS officers, to help out for about a week, without my asking.

“The Swiss simply wanted ashes in urns”

In any case, we had huge problems on the diplomatic side, because of the wildly different standards of identification among the various embassies involved. Frankly, the Swiss simply wanted ashes in urns, and they didn’t care what whose they were or where the ashes had come from. They wanted ashes in urns with the name of each Swiss on it, and that was it. There was no resident Swiss embassy in Rangoon. Initially they sent a vice consul from Bangkok to be on hand for a bit.

As it happened, Phil Henry, my Australian counterpart, and I went out together to Kyandaw Cemetery 

which is where the main crematory was and also the mortuary where some of the bodies were kept. We happened to run into this young Swiss officer, and I just casually asked him, “How long do you plan on being here?” He said, “As soon as I get all the Swiss cremated, I’m going back to Bangkok.” I said, “Nobody is going to be cremating anybody until all the embassies are completely satisfied that the identifications are as certain as possible.” Phil said, “You’re right, mate.” We thought that was clear.

A day or so later I was trying to find this young Swiss officer, and I called an Anglo-Burman named Leo 

Nichols. He acted as the honorary consul for a number of the Nordic embassies and the Swiss and others who didn’t have a resident embassy there. When I asked how I could talk to the Swiss officer Nichols said that he was at Kyandaw cemetery supervising cremations.

You know the expression “speechless with rage?” Well, I was speechless with rage, and as you can tell I’m a very voluble person normally. I ran upstairs, burst in on the ambassador and the DCM, and when I could actually speak, I said what was going on. Ambassador Levin said, “Go to the cemetery.” Before I got out the door I could hear the DCM Chris Szymanski yelling at the 180 Burmese chief of protocol at the foreign ministry. I raced out to the cemetery; came jumping out of the car. The Swiss officer was nowhere to be found, fortunately for him. There was a Burmese official from the Rangoon city government who was actually a major in the Burmese army.

“The Swiss were irritated the process was taking so long”

I identified myself and demanded that the cremations completely stop. Some of the bodies had been cremated already because of this Swiss intervention, and we later confirmed that some of them were Germans and some Americans. Within that potential horror, there was some good news: in the case of the Americans who were cremated by order of the Swiss and with the acquiescence of the Burmese, all turned out to be people whose families eventually wanted cremation. So we had dodged a gigantic bullet. All the families of the 22 non-Americans wanted cremation. In the end, there were four American families who insisted that the bodies be returned, four out of 14. Fortunately, none of them had been cremated by order of the Swiss.

One of the four was the wife of an Air Force officer who had been a POW in North Vietnam for many years. There were two things in his case: he was a Catholic, and because his wife had stuck by him all those years that he was a POW, he felt a particular need to have her body returned for burial. The identification process lasted longer than the FBI and CILHI people could stay but they were able to do a lot of their identifications from afar. The Swiss were really irritated that this process was taking so long. In fact, they sent a consul, a higher ranking official, from Bangkok to hurry the process along.

I encountered him out at Kyandaw Cemetery when I was there for the cremations of some Americans, and he complained that it was “a scandal” that the identification process was taking so long. My response, which we put in a cable to Bangkok and the State Department, was that the only scandal was the Swiss behavior in the face of the desires of the British, the French and the Germans, not to mention the Australians and Heather Harvey. Heather got her chance at this Swiss consul a bit later. After she returned from her emergency leave following the death of her father, she was at the Foreign Ministry with this same Swiss embassy officer and the rest of us. When he had the gall to repeat his complaints about delayed identification, Heather said, “You wouldn’t even care if they cremated a goat or a cow and put the ashes in an urn and sent it back.” By that time everybody felt the same about the Swiss.

“The families were quite grateful”

In the end, we did send back four embalmed bodies, as best we could. We got four international transfer cases from Embassy Bangkok to ship them. They also sent us embalming fluid because there was none in Burma. Poor Eldon Bell, the embassy doctor, one of his nurses and a couple of people from the general services office had the truly grim task of trying to get embalming fluid into what was left of these bodies. Afterwards Eldon told me this wasn’t what he went to medical school for, but he and his staff did what was needed in terrible circumstances. Indeed, the families were quite grateful.