A stowaway who grabbed the landing gear of a jumbo jet and survived an 11-hour flight from South Africa to London has spoken of his terrible journey for the first time.
He remembered coming out of a coma months later to learn that his best friend had fallen 5,000 feet from the plane by the time he died.
Themba Cabeka, whose identity is being revealed for the first time, was hospitalized for six months after being discovered on the ground at Heathrow Airport. When the British Airways jet flew from Johannesburg on June 18, 2015, it was out of oxygen and was exposed to temperatures of -60 ° C.
Just minutes before landing, Carlito Vale – a friend who had also escaped the poverty of his South African campsite and crawled into the wheel arch of the Boeing 747-400 with him – fell from BA Flight 54. His body was found in the air conditioning of an office building in Richmond, six miles from Heathrow.
Cabeka, 30, recalls: “When the plane was flying, I could see the ground, I could see the cars, I could see little people. After a while, I passed out from lack of oxygen. The last thing I remember shortly after the plane took off was Carlito saying to me, "Yeah, we did it." ’
INJURIES: Themba Cabeka (right), now taking the British name Justin, is still using crutches after falling off a plane at Heathrow. He is pictured with Channel 4 producer Rich Bentley, who tracked him down to an apartment in Liverpool to be shooting a documentary tomorrow night, "The Man Who Fell From Heaven"
He says that when he came out of the coma a police officer showed him Carlito's passport and asked, "Do you know him?" He replied, "Of course I know him. This is my friend, Carlito."
The officer said to him: “He never made it. He fell on a building. "
109 blind passenger attempts have been recorded around the world – London is one of the most popular tourist destinations – but only 24 people who took their risk in the landing gear of an airplane survived. The first known survivor was Bas Wie, 12, who hid on a flight from Indonesia to Australia in 1946.
After being stowed in the UK, only two people lived: Pardeep Saini, a Punjab auto mechanic who endured a ten-hour flight from Delhi to London in 1996, and Cabeka.
Even now, 25 years on from his escapade, Saini – now married to two sons and a driver at Heathrow – is often traumatized by the experience of his younger brother freezing to death.
Little was known about Cabeka until Channel 4 producer Rich Bentley tracked him down to an apartment in Liverpool to do a documentary tomorrow night called The Man Who Fell From Heaven. Cabeka has now adopted a British name, Justin.
His story began when he met Vale at a Johannesburg nightclub and they were planning their illegal trip to the UK. Vale was a homeless street kid who grew up in an orphanage in Mozambique after the civil war. Then estranged from his wife and daughter, who are now 11 years old, he dreamed of a better life abroad.
Cabeka, who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother at the age of three months, had lived on a campsite near Johannesburg Airport since he was seven.
He said the violence and gang war in the city broke him emotionally. “My background was very tough. I was raised by my cousin who adopted me as a child. Everything was normal until she died. I went to school but had to drop out because I couldn't pay the fees.
“When my cousin died, everything started to collapse. So I thought, "this is the end for me".
“I lived in a church, but people there were jealous because I had a house. They wanted to kill me to get the house. I ended up in the hospital for three days and had to leave the ward. “After landing in the warehouse near the airport, he said he had to beg for money for food. “My life would be wasted. It is very difficult to be homeless. I tried to build myself up, but it was too hard. "
It was at this point that he met Vale. He said, “I was sitting at a table in the club. He came up to me and looked for cigarettes and I gave him one. I saw that he had nothing, so I said, "Come on, sit down with me and have these beers."
"He told me he was married, but he separated from his wife and he had a daughter.
“He told me he was homeless. I said, “Look at me. I'm like you. We have to stick together. "’
Cabeka was out of oxygen and exposed to temperatures as low as -60 ° C when the British Airways jet flew out of Johannesburg on June 18, 2015. His friend Carlito Vale fell off the plane and his body was found in an office building in Richmond, six miles from Heathrow
Cabeka invited Vale to live with him at the campsite, and the two grew closer. “He opened his heart to me and I opened my heart to him, so we became friends. He was a good guy because he was quiet. He didn't like violence. We had the same thoughts because of our situation. I had no family and thought, "It is better for me to leave the country and look for a place to start." He felt the same way. "
Their escape plan was hatched after looking at Vale's collection of engineering books, which included one on airplanes. Cabeka says: "I wrote down all the details so that there is the way if we want to get on a plane."
And so they went to the airport on the evening of June 18, 2015.
"The airport was guarded, so we jumped over the fence when it was dark," said Cabeka. "We dressed in black because we have to dress in a way that nobody sees us – two T-shirts, three jackets, two jeans."
After getting over the fence, they hid for about 15 minutes until they spotted a plane ready to take off.
It's not clear if they researched which plane to jump on, but they chose British Airways because they recognized the paint job. Cabeka says they purposely avoided American planes because they didn't want to fly over large expanses of water.
The BA Jumbo to London started at 10:15 p.m. It was the first time that either man was on an airplane. “We had to force ourselves to be pushed into it. I could hear the engine running, ”he said.
“My heart had been beating before, but it wasn't in my head at all that day because I'd just made the decision to do it.
“I knew how dangerous it was, but I just took my own risk. I didn't care if I lived or died. I had to leave Africa to survive. "
Cabeka tied herself to the plane with an electric cable around her arm. Aviation experts say it is very rare for stowaways to survive in an unheated, depressurized part of an aircraft. However, there is room in the four sets of a 747 undercarriage, each in a car-sized case, as long as they are kept away from the wheels when entering one of the corners.
Very soon, however, Cabeka passed out from lack of oxygen.
He still can't believe he managed to survive temperatures that would have dropped to -60 ° C. The first thing he remembered was lying on the runway with a broken leg.
"The thing that made me wake up is the way I got off the runway," said Cabeka, who is still using crutches due to injuries in the fall. & # 39; I was there. The plane was there. I asked myself, "How did I get off the plane?" I could see these guys, they were the guards, they carried me up and I passed out again. I woke up in the hospital after being in a coma for six months. "
Doctors believe Cabeka survived because the freezing temperatures kept him in a "floating animation" state. When the body temperature drops, the heart, brain and other critical organs are put into a “standby mode” in which they do not need nearly as much oxygen, which limits damage to cells and organs.
"I was lucky enough not to hurt my head," he said. “I had two burn marks on my arm, but it's okay now because I had an operation. But there is still something wrong with my leg. I hope you can sort this out. "
Clinging to the landing gear of a British Airways jumbo jet, it survived an 11-hour flight from Johannesburg to London (file image).
Cabeka applied for asylum to stay in the UK and was granted a permit – although he's not sure why it was granted.
He simply says, "When I applied as an asylum seeker, I went through the process and was accepted."
He now lives in a one bedroom apartment in Liverpool and is unable to work due to his injury.
"I'm waiting for a passport now. It takes five years to get a British passport and then I can fly on a plane." He jokes, "Then I'll be a Scouser."
He's still struggling with the guilt his friend didn't have during his survival. “I missed his funeral because I was in a coma.
"I was sad that he was buried and I couldn't say goodbye. So I went to put flowers on his grave.
“I miss his presence. I called him "my brother from another mother". He's the only one who knew me more than anyone, where I'm from.
"I feel like the two of us are going on a long journey together, so he's still my friend – no matter he's gone."
Documentary filmmaker Bentley said the deaths of Vale – and many other stowaways – probably wouldn't stop other people trapped in desperate poverty from hiding on airplanes.
"I've spoken to several stowaways and their story was the same," he said. "People like Themba Cabeka are in an impossible situation and have no choice.
"We are inundated with stories of people trying to get to the UK." As I explored their stories – and spoke to them first hand – I realized how extreme the circumstances they are in are.
"I hope that by highlighting this example, it resonates with others and gives a voice to people who are so desperate they don't feel they have a choice."
Despite his friend's death and his own injuries, Cabeka said his decision to risk his life to start a new one here was well worth it.
“I had to leave Africa to survive. But I would give advice to other people: it's not safe. It is a life or death situation. "
The man who fell from the sky, channel 4, tomorrow, 10 p.m.
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