In the afternoon of 17 September 1961 a four-engine DC-6 passenger plane SE-BDY Albertina took off from Leopoldville, the capital of the former Belgian Congo, bound for Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (then part of the British-run Central African Federation). On board was a Swedish flight crew, the Swedish UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskj÷ld, members of his staff and an armed security team: in total, 15 men and one woman. Hammarskj÷ld's plane never made it to Ndola. Instead, just after midnight local time on 17/18 September, as it turned over high ground while making its approach, the DC-6 ploughed into trees in rough bushland several miles to the west of the airfield. By the next afternoon, when Rhodesian police finally discovered the shattered, melted wreckage resting on and around a vast termite mound in the bush, there was only one survivor: the American chief security officer and Korean War veteran, Sergeant Harold Julian. The remaining crew and passengers on the Albertina perished in the fireball that consumed the DC-6 when it hit the ground and broke apart, spilling thousands of litres of aviation fuel. Thrown clear of the fire, Hammarskj÷ld might have survived for a time after the crash. It was somewhat surprising that Julian, exposed to the tropical sun, was still alive. The police took him to Ndola hospital suffering from 50 per cent burns, a fractured, dislocated right ankle, skull injuries and uraemia. Before he died a few days later, Julian told Inspector Trevor Wright of the Rhodesian police of sparks in the sky, and an explosion. He also said that shortly before the plane hit the ground Hammarskj÷ld had demanded that they 'go back'. Eager to prove that the crash was an accident rather than the result of a bomb or action by a hostile plane, the first Rhodesian inquiry into the disaster dismissed Julian's confused ramblings, arguing that the symptoms of uraemia included spots and flashes of light before the eyes.
LRB 9 August 2001 | PDF Download