On this day in history : 8th April 1968 – BOAC flight 712 bound for Sydney catches fire shortly after takeoff from Heathrow…. Air stewardess Barbara Jane Harrison is awarded a posthumous George Cross for her bravery….

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Barbara Jane Harrison GC – Fair use

22-year-old Jane (as she preferred to be called) from Bradford, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, had joined BOAC in May 1966…. She was at the time living in Kensington, London, sharing a flat with other BOAC flight attendants…. She had volunteered for the long haul flight to Sydney, which was to travel via Zurich, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Bombay (now Mumbai), Singapore and Perth….as she had been invited to a wedding in Sydney. It is also thought that she was possibly hoping to meet up with a pilot she had met a few months previously, who flew with Qantas….

BOAC flight 712 took off from Heathrow mid afternoon with 116 passengers and 11 crew on board; almost immediately after takeoff the No.2 engine of the Boeing caught light…. Officials on the ground watched in horror as the wing was engulfed in flames and then to add to the terror the engine fell from the aircraft….a fierce fire raged where the engine had been positioned….

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The aircraft in flight over Thorpe, with the detached engine (circled) – Fair use

The plane made an emergency landing back at Heathrow – a perfect landing and quickly came to a halt….but by now the fire had intensified….

Jane’s duty was to help the steward at the back of the aircraft to open the rear door and inflate the emergency escape chute – and then to assist passengers at the back of the plane to leave in an orderly manner…. Only the chute twisted and the steward had to climb down to straighten it before it could be used…. Jane was left to attend to the passengers alone….

Approximately six made it down the chute before it disintegrated in the heat and flames…. Jane encouraged the remaining passengers to jump – even pushing some…. All the while flames and explosions were all around her….

It seems she was making preparations to jump herself – but at the last moment she turned back into the burning aircraft…. She was not to be seen alive again….

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Fair use

Jane had gone back to try and help a disabled passenger, an Israeli woman, Esther Cohen – their bodies were found close together…. Along with them perished a young Australian teacher, Catherine Shearer, a widow named Mary Smith and an 8-year-old girl, Jacqueline Cooper, who was emigrating to Australia with her family….

In August 1969 Jane was awarded the George Cross; she is the only woman to have received it during peace time – and the youngest woman ever to be a recipient of it…. The award was collected by her father….

Jane is buried at Fulford Cemetery near York….

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Jane’s grave, Fulford Cemetery, York – RHaworth CC BY-SA 3.0

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