I seek out graves of men who have carried out act of heroism in war time then been awarded the Victoria Cross later on. However this grave bears the bones of a 22-year-old woman who carried out a heroic act in peacetime seconds by before dying on burning jet-plane on the runway at Heathrow Airport. She was awarded the George Cross after her death. Only four of these have been awarded to women and the other three were women who served with the Special Operations Executive in occupied France during World War Two.
This grave was well worth seeking out. I was on the way to Scarborough for a long weekend and decided to pull off the dual carriageway near York to find out this cemetery. There was no church, no spire, no “Church Lane” to guide me in. There was a red brick building and small gate leading into this quiet cemetery, most of it looked on by a housing estate. Nearby I accosted an old woman with bright pink lipstick that’s didn’t suit the leathery skin and asked if she knew of any famous graves. “No….oh, there’s a boxer over there,” she gestured but it wasn’t the grave I sought.
I had a walk up and down the graves with a small grainy picture of the headstone and found it after twenty minutes. Jane Harrison was born in Bradford but was working as a nanny in San Francisco when she applied for a job as an air stewardess with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). Aged 21 she passed the interview and started work flying across the globe. Though it looked a glamourous job the long-haul flights were exhausting and she mentioned to ca colleague she was thinking about leaving.
She should have. In April 1968 she requested to work on Flight 712 Whiskey Echo to Australia as she had been invited to a wedding in Sydney (though the real reason was her hope of seeing a Qantas airline pilot she had met months earlier.) At 4.27pm the Boeing 707 took off carrying 116 passengers. Within a minute an engine was on fire. A Mayday signal was issued and permission to land was granted but an engine fell off before they returned to the runway. An explosion shook the plane. It landed quickly but fire which had engulfed the wing was now spreading through the fuselage. The front of the plane was closed down and the crew and some passengers escaped. However Jane and a colleague were at the rear of the plane where flames were spreading. The escape chute was deployed but twisted. Her colleague climbed down to free it for use and was unable to get back into the plane. Jane was the only crew left to deal the remaining passengers. She remained inside and helped them as fire consumed the plane. Some passengers were encouraged to jump into the chute but Jane pushed others. The fuselage could have exploded at any time.
Time was running out as fire was spreading closer – so close the emergency chute burnt. Flames and choking black smoke were now billowing out of the rear door. The captain screamed at Jane to jump. Witnesses say flames and smoke were now licking around her body. They also reported that she was preparing to jump but turned back into the burning fuselage. There was an explosion and she wasn’t seen alive again. At the time it was not known why – when she was on the brink of safety – she returned to the inferno consuming the inside of the place. Later a fireman suggested it was to help a severely crippled Israeli woman in a wheelchair.
Jane’s body was found in the debris huddled together with four others, all dead from "asphyxia due to inhalation of fire fumes" (one was an eight-year- old girl.)
The entrance to the cemetery. No church or spire to guide me in from the main road…
The engine falling back down to earth…