Sheffield couple’s decades-long fight to improve safety standards after Manchester air disaster

William and Linda Beckett lost their daughter Sarah in the Manchester air disaster 30 years ago. Picture: Andrew Roe
William and Linda Beckett lost their daughter Sarah in the Manchester air disaster 30 years ago. Picture: Andrew Roe
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“We can’t bring Sarah back but we can help towards someone else not suffering.”

Sheffield couple William and Linda Beckett have travelled the world campaigning for improved safety standards in the wake of the Manchester air disaster in which their 18-year-old daughter died.

Sarah Beckett who died in the Manchester air disaster 30 years ago with her brother Marcus. Picture: Andrew Roe

Sarah Beckett who died in the Manchester air disaster 30 years ago with her brother Marcus. Picture: Andrew Roe

The have faced frequent frustration in dealing with Government departments and giant airline companies as they try to bring in changes designed to save lives.

But the pressure applied by their group – and others set up in their wake in places like America – has contributed to a raft of improvements and increased accountability over accidents.

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A picture of the damaged British Airtours plane following the disaster

A picture of the damaged British Airtours plane following the disaster

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The couple, who lost their daughter Sarah in the 1985 disaster, say making sure no other families have to go through what they and the others bereaved in the disaster have suffered has been the motivation behind their years of campaigning for air safety improvements.

Linda, aged 69, said: “That is what has always driven us and why we have to try to make changes for the better. Otherwise, they will have all died in vain.

“This should never happen again.

Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, visits the scene of the Manchester air disaster

Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, visits the scene of the Manchester air disaster

“We can’t bring Sarah back but we can help towards someone else not suffering.”

Sarah had been going to Corfu to work as a nanny and was taking her first flight alone when she got aboard the early-morning British Airtours flight on August 22, 1985.

She made the fateful decision to sit at the back of the plane as she thought it would be safer.

But an engine fire broke out before take-off, resulting in the deaths of 55 people onboard and others narrowly escaping with their lives.

Her parents, who live on Ecclesall Road South, said they still have vivid memories of the awful day.

William, 69, a businessman, said: “I had taken my daughter to the airport and left her to get on the plane.

“We got a phone call at 8am from friends of ours who lived very close to the airport and they had heard on the radio there had been a major accident and it could have been the flight Sarah was on.

“We put on the television and saw the plane and thought ‘My God, how is she going to get out of that?’.

“We went through this horrific situation of trying to phone and find out what had happened to her. The lines were permanently engaged.

“We had not heard anything from her by 11am and we started phoning all the hospitals to find out if she had been admitted. That went on until about 5pm. In the end, we realised there was no hope.

“It was 1am in the morning when a police sergeant came to the door and told us she was missing, presumed dead.”

He added: “The worst thing was they insisted on everybody being identified before they released the names of those who had died.

“They were using the dental records and someone’s dentist was on holiday. So it wasn’t until five days after that it was officially confirmed. That five days was total purgatory, it was unbearable.

“We couldn’t plan a funeral or do anything. We just sat there in a numb state.”

William and Linda, who have three other children, said the family still keenly feel the impact of Sarah’s death.

William said: “She lit up the room when she walked in and she had a fantastic sense of humour. Anybody that was ever with her always enjoyed her company. She was the life and soul of parties.

“It is criminal that her contribution to improving the lives of others was cut short.”

Working with others affected by the disaster who they had met during the inquest process, the pair went on to establish the Survivors Campaign to Improve Safety In Airline Flight Equipment, a group known as SCI-SAFE.

The group was formed in 1988 as they waited for the publication of an official report into what had caused the disaster.

It took around three-and-a-half years for the accident report to be published, containing 31 recommendations for improvements to be made to aeroplane safety.

The official report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch said ‘evacuation delays’ had contributed to deaths caused by those on-board inhaling toxic fumes from the engine fire.

It said the narrow gap between seats to one of the exits had impeded passengers trying to escape, with regulations at the time being ‘inadequate’.

The report said: “The major cause of the fatalities was rapid incapacitation due to the inhalation of dense toxic/irritant smoke atmosphere within the cabin, aggravated by evacuation delays caused by a forward right door malfunction and restricted access to the exits.”

SCI-SAFE made presentations to senior Government ministers, both on improving airport safety and how survivors and bereaved families are dealt with in the aftermath of such disasters.

Their campaign has taken them all over the world, to places such as Japan and the US, to put pressure on airline companies and Governments to improve safety standards.

They have also helped with the formation of groups such as the National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation in America.

William said: “The positive thing we have always been able to say is being the first campaign group were awe able to help develop the American group who are powerful and do have a major influence.

“There is no doubt all these air safety groups have made things more accountable.

“Nobody had heard of groups like the Civil Aviation Authority. Now almost everybody has. In that regard we have made people accountable.”