Flight 764 crash site and monuments
The site of by far the worst airline disaster in the history of Suriname
; flight 764 crashed on approach to the international airport on 7 June 1989, killing 176 of the 187 on board, including a team of Surinamese footballers from the Netherlands. It was a national tragedy of the highest order and is still remembered bitterly. At the crash site is a crude monument, and plane wreck pieces are still to be seen; in addition there’s a large symbolic monument at one of Paramaribo
More background info:
Flight 764 was a regular scheduled passenger flight from Amsterdam
, set to land in the early hours of 7 June 1989 after a 12-hour overnight transatlantic flight. The Surinam Airways plane was a 20-year-old McDonnell Douglas DC-8, which had already had issues in the past. But the cause of the crash was not the plane or a technical failure – it was the crew’s fault! The crew had been hired through an agency and included a 66-year-old American pilot, who should not even have been allowed to captain the plane according to Surinam Airways’ own regulations (which stipulate that a captain’s permissible age must not be over 60), and had previously been suspended for landing on the wrong runway. The co-pilot apparently had false identity papers. But evidently there were no proper checks on the part of the airline.
Moreover, the pilot was reckless. The flight had received a warning about limited visibility due to fog from the tower at Zanderij International Airport in Suriname
(now called Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport, JAPI) some 50 km south of Paramaribo
. Despite being instructed not to do so, the captain activated the plane’s instrument landing system (ILS), even though the corresponding system at the airport hadn’t been properly installed yet and was not supposed to be used. The plane’s ILS then provided the wrong readings and, what’s worse, when the aircraft’s security system gave a warning alarm indicating that it was slipping below its minimum altitude ceiling, the pilot simply switched it off and continued, relying on the faulty ILS readings, and all that in severely fog-impaired visibility conditions.
Hence the plane was going way too low and eventually hit some treetop with one wing, and then another one with the other wing, flipping the plane over. It crashed into the ground upside down – and most of the 187 people on board were killed on impact, including the entire crew. Of the 178 passengers only 11 survived. Another survivor was a dog – who was subsequently and predictably given the name Lucky.
Most of the passengers were Surinamese visiting the country from their ex-pat homes in the Netherlands
. Also on board, however, was a charitable exhibition football team of Surinamese players called the “Kleurrijk Elftal (‘Colourful 11’). This was a team put together from Dutch-Surinamese players which was part of a charity founded by a social worker also of Surinamese descent that tried to engage disadvantaged youngsters in football. The Colourful 11 Team was supposed to play a guest appearance in their country of origin, some returning for the first time since they had left the country in the wake of the 1980 military coup (see under Suriname history
). There were many top-ranking Surinamese players at the time, including three who had been part of the winning Dutch team of Euro ‘88 in Germany
. However, these players, Aron Winter, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit were not allowed by their clubs to go on the trip to Suriname
. (Had they been amongst those killed in the crash, this would certainly have made much bigger international headlines – and the football world would have lost some of its pre-eminent talents at the time.) Several others of lesser fame were also not given permission by their respective clubs, though two of them ignored this and flew out to Suriname on their own ahead of flight 764, nominally “on holiday”, but with the intention of joining the rest of the team.
So the 18 team members, including the coach, on board flight 764 were not so internationally well-known, but to the Surinamese they would still have been icons. Only three of them survived, none were able to play professionally again (although one of them had a short stint at trying, but couldn’t regain sufficient form; the other two were left with permanent injuries). One of the survivors, Edu Nandlal, who left the world of football and started a charitable cleaning business giving immigrants and people with a criminal record a chance of employment, was hit by tragedy again when his 5-year-old son was diagnosed – on 7 June, of all dates! – with a brain tumour, of which he subsequently died. At least Nandlal claimed it healed him of his survivor’s guilt.
In the Netherlands
the tragedy is primarily known because of the footballers, but in Suriname
with its small population, the impact was much more widespread – so many families lost members or people they knew in the crash. It’s still regarded as a national tragedy.
At the crash site, the debris from the plane was simply buried in a big hole and a modest monument was erected to mark the spot. Another monument was set up at a cemetery in Paramaribo
What there is to see: The crash site is right by the road approaching the airport from the west – aligned with the runway, so you can sometimes see planes flying parallel to the street on the very same approach path as flight 764 did, only higher.
At the site is a small clearing with a rather modest monument consisting of a two-tiered red-stone pedestal and a grey object on top that looks like an open book with an inscription that translates roughly as ‘Not what separates us but what binds us’. When I was there some old flower pots were to be seen, slowly withering away. Nothing fresh had been laid down in a while.
While the monument is rather underwhelming, what you can find in the ground of the clearing and amongst the undergrowth behind it is anything but. After the crash the wreck pieces were not taken away but simply buried on-site, and apparently not particularly deep! Now, over three decades later bits of it are reappearing. I saw pieces that I could identify as parts of a wing, a wheel and two pieces from the jet engines. I was not prepared for such discoveries so it came as quite a surprise, if not shock. It certainly made the place feel a hell of a lot darker than the monument alone could have done!
Remarkable too, but in a different sense, is the fact that there is a picnic table with benches right next to the monument. We even used it, as our guide cut up a pineapple he’d bought en route as a lunchtime snack. Fresh fruit snacking at a plane crash site … with debris! Who would ever have thought that possible! Some may find this disrespectful, but maybe it’s intended for relatives who can come here and spend time at the place where their loved ones died and have a drink and snack – a bit like the Russians do at cemeteries, for instance.
On our drive back into Paramaribo
afterwards, we also made a brief stop at Rusthof cemetery
in the south-western outskirts of the city, where there is a larger monument
to the victims. This has an intriguing design vaguely echoing the plane. Atop four double columns of concrete are stylized jet engines
made from metal (the plane was a four-engined DC-8 – see above
!). These mock engines are split through the middle, just like the stelae they are mounted on. At the front of the stelae are black marble plaques listing the names of the victims
. On the gravel square behind these engine stelae is another, smaller monument that looks a bit like an igloo and a plaque
that features the same line as the on-site monument plus an extra line that translates as “As a doe yearning for streams of water, so my soul yearns for You oh God” (apparently some religious quote). The date of the crash is given too, together with that of the first anniversary, so presumably the memorial at this cemetery was unveiled then.
All in all: of the two monuments, the one at this cemetery is certainly the more impressive one, but the plane wreck pieces resurfacing at the crash site are really something else! I’d never encountered anything like that. Now I wonder for how long the site will remain like this or whether the wreck pieces will eventually either be covered with extra earth or removed because their visible presence may be regarded as too macabre.
the crash site is to the west of Suriname
’s international airport’s (JAPI) runway, less than 2 miles (3 km) from it, on the north side of the JFK Highway, a good 35 miles (50 km) from downtown Paramaribo by road. The other monument is at Rusthof cemetery, which is on the south side of Jaggernath Lachmon Straat in the south-west of Paramaribo
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs:
the actual crash site is a bit off the beaten track and requires a vehicle to reach, the cemetery in Paramaribo
should be easier to get to; both sites are as such freely accessible.
To get to the crash site you need a vehicle, ideally a car. There is no public transport. It’s not normally included in any tours either, but when I asked about this it was tagged on after my tour to Jodensavanne (see under Suriname
), as was a stop at the cemetery with the other monument. For the company I used see under Guyana
If you have your own transport – i.e. a hire car most likely – and come from Paramaribo
, then just head for the international airport, but instead of turning left for the terminal at the airport stay on JFK Highway, which bends westwards and after a little over 2 miles (3 km) you’ll come to a small clearing on the right where the squat red monument is. The airplane wreck pieces are to be found in the undergrowth to the north and north-east of the monument.
Time required: Not too long at the sites, perhaps 15 minutes or so each, if that. You’ll need more time getting there – from Paramaribo at least an hour each way, depending on traffic.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The crash site is actually very close to a popular attraction: Colakreek – a body of brownish water (hence the name) with a resort and the Savannah Education Centre; the main thing here is going for a refreshing dip in the creek. The access road (aptly named “Weg naar Colakreek”, or ‘way to Cola Creek’) branches off JFK Highway to the north a few hundred yards to the east of the crash site.
For more, see under Suriname
- 1 - flight 764, main monument at the crash site
- 2 - flight 764, actual plane wreck debris
- 3 - flight 764, engine part
- 4 - flight 764, semi-buried jet engine
- 5 - flight 764, part of a wing
- 6 - flight 764, flight path above the road
- 7 - flight 764, monument on a Paramaribo cemetery
- 8 - flight 764, symbolic jet engines
- 9 - flight 764, split in two