This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of Jane Harrison’s death – an ‘ordinary’ 22-year-old woman whose immense bravery saved the lives of more than 100 people.
On April 8, 1968, British Overseas Airways Corporation stewardess (Barbara) Jane Harrison arrived at Heathrow Airport, bound for Sydney on a Boeing 707.
Just before 3pm, Jane, who grew up in Scarborough, helped 116 passengers board the plane.
But as the wheels left the runway, a loud bang shook the plane and within seconds flames engulfed one of the engines. Breaking away from the plane, the engine came crashing down into a disused quarry.
Pilots battled to turn the plane around and just three minutes and 32 seconds after take-off the ablaze aircraft landed back at Heathrow.
The evacuation plan swung into action and Jane was stationed at the front of the plane with a fellow steward.
But the bottom of the slide caught fire and he was forced to leave the aircraft to put it out, unable to return.
Jane stayed at her post, thinking only of her passengers, as she encouraged them and sometimes pushed them from the burning aircraft.
When the exit became blocked with smoke she led passengers to the rear of the plane and continued to desperately push them to safety.
It looked as though she was preparing to jump herself when the valiant 22-year-old turned back to help four remaining passengers still trapped on the plane. Soon after there was an explosion and she was not seen again.
The following day her body was found in the wreckage along with an eight-year-old girl, a disabled woman and two other passengers.
Had it not been for Jane’s selfless and heroic actions, many more lives would have been lost.
The Duke of Edinburgh witnessed the tragedy through binoculars at Buckingham Palace and wrote the foreword in Fire Over Heathrow – The Tragedy of Flight 712, a book by Susan Ottaway which tell’s Jane’s story.
The year following her death her father, Alan Harrison, a driving examiner, received a letter from the prime minister informing him that Jane would be awarded the George Cross for her bravery – one of only four women to receive the honour and the only woman to do so in peacetime.
Her sister, Sue Buck, who lives in Scarborough, said: “It’s incredible really. She’s just an ordinary girl doing her job. Anybody who was on the plane would want the steward or stewardess to be responsible, that’s what they’re there for, to save your life if necessary – hopefully it doesn’t come to that.
“I’d like to think that she did her duty and what she was trained for.”
The George Cross is now on display in the British Airways Heritage Centre and just days before the 50th anniversary of her death, Sue, 76, wants Jane’s memory to live on.
She said: “If these stories aren’t brought out, people don’t realise how brave and courageous people can be when called upon in a time of stress or trauma.”
Born in Bradford, Jane’s family moved to Scarborough when she was eight and her mother sadly died just two years later. Jane attended Newby County Primary School and later the Scarborough Girls’ High School.
Sue remembers fondly her mischievous and outgoing nature, saying: “Jane was quite a vivacious and determined person. She did a lot with her short life.”
Before joining the BOAC, Jane worked as a nanny in Switzerland and learned French. Then she crossed the Atlantic to work in Sausalito, in California, and was able to meet her grandfather, who had emigrated to the States, for the first time.
“You couldn’t join BOAC until you were 21,” said Sue. “She lived in a flat in South Kensington with other stewardesses. It was harder to join then than it is now. Everybody thought it was a really glamorous job, I think it was in some ways but obviously it was hard work too.
“They went all over the world. They sometimes had stopovers of two or three days in places like Australia. I think she enjoyed that aspect. She was definitely a people person.”
Since Jane’s death, Sue has met numerous passengers who were on board the flight including two missionary women from Scarborough. Also on board was pop star Mark Wynter who was flying out to Australia to marry his fiancee.
Sue, who later met the Venus in Blue Jeans singer, said he had jumped from the wing of the plane and broke his ankle on landing. She said he got married with a pot on his leg.
Jane’s courageous act has gone down in aviation history and she is the youngest woman to have ever received the George Cross.
“She was the girl down the road, and the sort of person everybody knows somebody like,” added Sue. “I feel it’s important that we keep her memory, and her story, alive.”
Numerous books have been written telling Jane’s heroic tale.
In May, Jane’s story will be told in a new book about the recipients of the highest decorations for bravery, the George Cross and the Victoria Cross. Each story is introduced by a celebrity including Mary Berry and Frank Bruno, with Miranda Hart set to introduce Jane’s chapter.
Her story is also remembered on a local level and an early years room has been dedicated to Jane at Newby and Scalby Primary School.
Chris Knowles, headteacher at Newby and Scalby Primary School, said: “The Jane Harrison room was named after her family approached us to let us know that she had been a pupil at our school. It coincided with our extension being added for Early Years and seemed to be appropriate. We retain a connection with the family and it is wonderful that a relative attends school at the moment.
“It is nice to see that Jane’s achievement is again being recognised in a book. Scarborough can be very proud of her heroic action.”
St Laurence’s Church in Scalby has a plaque in Jane’s memory, and St George’s Chapel at Heathrow Airport and Bradford City Hall have memorial windows.