An aerial photograph of the Vancouver International Airport. (photo by Alejandro Erickson via en.wikipedia.org)
On Oct. 21, Governor General of Canada David Johnson awarded Haim Peri, a member of the local Jewish community and a former Israeli, with the Canadian Medal of Bravery. Five other heroes from the Greater Vancouver area received the award along with Peri – all for saving passengers from a burning airplane that crashed at the Vancouver International Airport three years ago, in October 2011.
In an interview with the Jewish Independent, Peri talked about that afternoon, when he and the others witnessed a plane crash and participated in the rescue of its seven passengers.
“It happened about 200 metres from where I work. I’m a driver for Amre Supply. I just finished my workday and took a smoke outside when I saw the entire thing happen right before my eyes. As I later learned, the plane took off for Kelowna and immediately encountered a mechanical problem. It had to turn back. The pilots tried to land the plane on the runway but couldn’t. I remember hearing the engines struggle. They roared. The plane was too low and coming down at great speed. One of the wings clipped a lamp post, and then the whole thing made a sharp left turn and hit the ground. The cockpit was instantly engulfed in flames. There was choking black smoke, and spilled jet fuel could ignite at any moment…. It was as cinematic as it was horrific, and then there was silence.”
According to the reports later available to the media, several people saw the crash and tried to get away as fast as they could. The fire was spreading, the heat was intense and an explosion could have occurred at any moment. Despite the imminent danger, Peri and the other rescuers rushed towards the burning plane.
“I didn’t know how many people were on board, or who had survived the crash, but letting people die was not an option,” he recalled. “There were no fire fighters or medics there. They all arrived a few minutes later, but a few minutes is a long time in such situations.”
He remembered running towards the plane the moment it crashed. “By the time I arrived, the door had just been opened, and someone was already trying to drag out a passenger. He was struggling, and I told him we could lift her together.” He stepped into the plane to pick up the passenger’s legs, while his partner lifted her shoulders. They carried the injured woman some distance from the wreckage.
“I had had first-aid training so I checked her for bleeding first,” he said. “There was none, but she was in terrible pain, and I feared she may have suffered internal injuries and broken bones. By that time, other rescuers had stepped in to get the remaining passengers off the plane, so I focused my attention on the woman, talked to her, tried to make her as comfortable as possible.”
Six weeks before the plane crash, Peri had received sad news: his 30-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. “As I sat with the woman I saved, I prayed to G-d,” he said. “I told him: ‘I’ll take care of this woman. Please, you take care of my baby, help her.’ He did. She is better now, free of cancer. She recently had a new baby, my eighth grandchild.”
Eventually, emergency crews arrived and took control of the crash scene, and the injured were taken to the hospital. “And I walked back to work across the street,” Peri recalled.
That daring rescue wasn’t the first in his life. When he served in the Israeli army in his youth, he was a landmine specialist, trained to spot and disarm mines, as well as plant them. He and a group of others were assigned to rebuild a barbed-wire fence in the Golan.
“The Syrian military had planted thousands of mines on the Golan Heights,” he said. “We were told that the area was already clear of the mines, but I decided to look around anyway. That’s when I saw the spherical shape of the top of an anti-tank mine. ‘Don’t move!’ I shouted to the others. They all held still. I slowly retraced my footsteps back to the main road. One by one, I had the other soldiers follow my tracks, until all 15 of my men were out of harm’s way. I later discovered four additional landmines were buried along the same path.”
The events of that day and the plane crash of 2011 were separated by more than 30 years, but the man was still the same, keeping others safe. While both pilots unfortunately died in hospital, all of the passengers survived because of the rescuers’ swift actions.
“The City of Richmond presented all of the rescuers with the awards for bravery,” Peri said, displaying his medals. “The recognition continued with the Lions Club’s Medal of Merit and the RCMP award. And now, Canada’s Medal of Bravery. It has my name on it.”
The other five B.C. recipients of the Canadian Medal of Bravery were Peri’s fellow rescuers, who ventured into the burning aircraft with him on that autumn day in 2011 to save its seven passengers: Jeremy Kerr, Lonney Lee, Shawn Nagurny, Francis Nand and John Redmond.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].