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Stowaway tells how he survived 11-hour flight to UK in new film

Posted at Jan 03, 2021

A South African man who survived an 11-hour flight from Johannesburg to London after hiding in a plane’s undercarriage has told of the last words he exchanged with a friend whose body fell from the same British Airways flight as it came in to land at Heathrow.

“He said: ‘We made it,’ and then I passed out with the lack of oxygen,” said the man, who was then known as Themba and who has spoken publicly for the first time about the desperate journey both men undertook in 2015.

While he survived and has been living for the past five years in Liverpool, where he goes by the name of Justin, the young Mozambican migrant who came with him died from multiple injuries after falling 430 metres (1,400ft) from the flight in June 2015.

The man who died was named in the Guardian in 2016 as Carlito Vale, who had grown up in an orphanage in Mozambique’s second city, Beira, and who had ventured to Uganda and South Africa before attempting to find a new life in London.

The men had prepared to stow away on a BA flight on the runway in Johannesburg by studying aircraft designs in a book, Justin told the Guardian. This week, his story and that of Vale will be told in a Channel 4 documentary, The Man Who Fell from the Sky.

“We thought we could go for Delta, but we thought let’s go for a shorter [flight] … let’s take one to London,” said Justin. Neither had any idea how dangerous their plan was.

While it has long been believed that the men may have had inside help to gain entry to the airport, he insists that they did it alone, jumping over perimeter fences and putting on layers of clothing in preparation.

“I was not far from the engine. You could feel it outside when it was rotating,” he told the documentary-makers. He sustained burn marks after wrapping his arms through cabling, which ultimately prevented him from falling out. “You could even see the houses down there when the plane was flying.”

The next thing he can remember is waking up on the runway in London, with a shattered leg.

Vale and Justin, who grew up in a poverty-stricken township in Johannesburg and suffered violence at the hands of gangs while living on the streets, had dreamed of a fresh start in Europe. Vale planned to bring his family members over from Mozambique after a few years.

“I remember when I spoke to Carlito … he said that he wanted to be a DJ and that he was going to go back and get his daughter after a few years,” said Justin. “I really wished the best for him, and so I thought it was a good idea for us because we were looking for a better future.”

Carlito Vale with his mother. Photograph: Facebook

He recalled the moment, after waking up in a hospital bed, when police investigators showed him a photograph of Vale.

“When the plane landed, I fell out and remember thinking that Carlito must still be in it,” he said. “But then later they showed me the passport and said: do you know this guy? I said yeah. They told me that he didn’t make it, and I was shocked.”

Justin has embraced a new life in Liverpool and is slowly building up a new circle of friends while harbouring hopes of pursuing a musical career.

“I find it is easy here, because the people here are gentle and nice,” he tells documentary-maker Rich Bentley in the film, after they first meet on a street corner in Liverpool. “Everyone has their own situations and they leave because of something that is happening in their backgrounds,” he says, as immigration once again makes headlines with the deaths of people crossing the Channel in small vessels.

  • The Man Who Fell from the Sky is on Channel 4, 10pm, Monday 4 January