A stowaway who clung to the undercarriage of a jumbo jet and survived an 11-hour, 5,639-mile flight from South Africa to London has spoken for the first time of his terrifying journey.
He recalled how he emerged from a coma months later to learn his best friend had fallen 5,000ft from the aircraft to his death.
Themba Cabeka, whose identity is revealed for the first time, was unconscious in hospital for six months after being discovered on the ground at Heathrow Airport. He had been starved of oxygen and subjected to temperatures of -60C as the British Airways jet flew from Johannesburg on June 18, 2015.
Only minutes before landing, Carlito Vale – a friend who had also escaped the poverty of their South African camp site and had crawled with him into the wheel arch of the Boeing 747-400 – fell from BA Flight 54. His body was found in the air-conditioning unit of an office block 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 small people. After a little time, I passed out through lack of oxygen. The last thing I remember just after the plane took off was Carlito saying to me: “Yeah, we’ve made it.” ’Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
INJURIES: Themba Cabeka (right), who has now adopted a British name, Justin, still uses crutches after falling from the plane at Heathrow. He is pictured with Channel 4 producer Rich Bentley who tracked him down to a flat in Liverpool for a documentary, The Man Who Fell From The Sky, to be screened tomorrow night
He says that when he came out of his coma, a police officer showed him Carlito’s passport and asked: ‘Do you know him?’ He replied: ‘Of course I know him. That’s my friend, Carlito.’
The officer told him: ‘He never made it. He fell on top of a building.’
There have been 109 recorded stowaway attempts around the world – London being one of the most popular destinations – but only 24 people who took their chances in a plane’s landing gear have survived. The first known survivor was Bas Wie, 12, who hid on a flight from Indonesia to Australia in 1946.
Only two people have lived after stowing away to Britain: Pardeep Saini, a car mechanic from Punjab, who endured a ten-hour flight from Delhi to London in 1996, and Cabeka.
Even now, 25 years after his escapade, Saini – now married with two sons and working as a driver at Heathrow – is often traumatised by the experience, during which his younger brother froze to death.
Little was known about Cabeka until Channel 4 producer Rich Bentley tracked him down to a flat in Liverpool for a documentary, The Man Who Fell From The Sky, to be screened tomorrow night. Cabeka has now adopted a British name, Justin.
His story began when he met Vale in a Johannesburg nightclub and they plotted their illegal journey to Britain. Vale had been a homeless street kid who’d grown up in an orphanage following the civil war in Mozambique. Then estranged from his wife and daughter, now aged 11, he dreamt of a better life abroad.
Cabeka, who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother when he was three months old, had been living since the age of seven in a campsite near Johannesburg Airport.Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
He said the violence and gang warfare in the city had left him emotionally broken. ‘My background was very hard. I was raised by my cousin, who adopted me as a child. Everything was normal until she passed away. I was going to school but I had to drop out because I couldn’t pay the fees.
‘When my cousin died, everything started to break down. So I thought, “that’s the end for me”.
‘I was living in a township but people around there were jealous because I had a house. They wanted to kill me to get the house. I ended up in hospital for three days and had to leave the township.’ After ending up in the camp near the airport, he said he had to beg for money for food. ‘My life was going to waste. It’s very hard being 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 inside the club. He came over to me looking for cigarettes and I gave him one. I saw he had nothing so I said: “Come sit down and join me and drink these beers.”
‘He told me he was married but he’d broken up with 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 had been starved of oxygen and subjected to temperatures of -60C as the British Airways jet flew from Johannesburg on June 18, 2015. His friend Carlito Vale fell from the aircraft and his body was found in an office block in Richmond, six miles from Heathrow
Cabeka invited Vale to live with him at the campsite and the pair grew close.