Monday, January 18

‘Fainted from lack of oxygen’: the truth of the Heathrow stowaways’ tragic journey | Documentary film

AAn almost unbearably painful moment comes in the middle of a new Channel 4 documentary about the extraordinary story of a man who survived by taking a police flight from Johannesburg to London, and his friend who failed. It happens when the creators of The Man Who Fell from Heaven present the daughter of the man who died with the first photo of him he has seen. The filmmakers had traveled to his native Mozambque, trying to rebuild the desperate bid for a new life he made in 2015.

“She doesn’t recognize him,” says her mother, Anna, as 11-year-old Chemilla looks at a photo of Carlito Vale on a mobile phone. As the tears flow, Anna adds, “I am so grateful to all the people who continue to recognize that he is human.”

Vale’s tragedy began to come to light when his body was found on a ceiling below Heathrow’s flight path after he had fallen off the landing gear of a BA plane as it approached the runway after a 8,000 mile trip. But little was known about the man who survived, until now.

Like other journalists who flocked to the outskirts of Heathrow in West London after Vale’s remains were found in the summer of 2015, he wanted to know more not only about himself, but also about the survivor who was still in. critical condition. A few months later, I found out more about Vale after speaking with the founder of an orphanage where he grew up, who wanted to thank those who had left flowers at the site near Heathrow.

Carlito Vale, who died in 2015 when he fell from a plane's steering wheel hole as he approached Heathrow airport on a flight from Johannesburg.
Carlito Vale, who died in 2015 when he fell from a plane’s steering wheel hole as he approached Heathrow airport on a flight from Johannesburg. Photography: Facebook

Vale was a young Mozambican whose first forays abroad took him to Uganda and South Africa. But despite the efforts of many journalists, the fate of his partner in the UK has not been told. That changes in The Man Who Fell from the Sky when documentary maker Rich Bentley finally meets Themba Cabeka, who now goes by the name Justin, on a corner in Liverpool.

Justin has been living in the UK for the past five years and has been granted permission to stay. His story is even more poignant at a time when men, women and children are drowning in the English Channel, people like Justin and Vale desperately trying to reach Britain in search of a better life.

“I thought it was worth it,” the 30-year-old told me in December. “Because of my situation, and what I was going through, it was the only option I had to survive.”

In The Man Who Fell from the Sky, the story of Cabeka and Vale’s journey to the UK unfolds slowly over the course of a five-year project undertaken by producer Bentley and director Sam Forsdike. In his previous documentary The Stranger on the Bridge, the couple followed a man in his search for the stranger who prevented him from taking his life on London’s Waterloo Bridge. His latest, an impressive mix of gumshoe journalism and social commentary, has similar aspects but is more sweeping in its ambition.

For starters, we’re told that up to 109 stowaway attempts involving aircraft wheel wells have been recorded and that London is the most common target destination. Since October 1996, at least 16 cases of people stowing away on flights passing through London have been reported. And those are the ones we know. The interviews included residents of West London who were abruptly reminded of the realities of the global south when a stowaway fell from the sky on them.

The breakthrough comes on Christmas Eve 2019, when a man Bentley had spoken to three years earlier called to say that he had “found” Cabeka.

Themba Cabeka, now Justin, and producer Rich Bentley on The Man Who Fell From the Sky.
Themba Cabeka, now Justin, and producer Rich Bentley on The Man Who Fell From the Sky. Photography: Postcard Productions

Before that there is an interview with a pilot who was landing on a flight from Delhi to Heathrow in 1996 when an Indian teenager fell off the wheel. “In terms of heat and in terms of oxygen, it might as well be outside,” says Bentley during a scene where he climbs into the wheel well of an out-of-service plane while the same pilot looks up from the ground. That teenager’s name was Vijay Saini, and his body was only found three days later. His brother Pardeep, then 22, survived the 10-hour drive from Delhi in freezing temperatures and was given compassionate permission to stay in Britain for a year after appealing to the Home Office.

Nineteen years after brothers Vale and Cabeka set their plan to reach the UK in motion when they scaled the perimeter fence at Johannesburg International Airport, hopping on a BA plane after selecting it in the belief that the journey would be shorter than alternative flights. To the US Coverage in 2015 had focused on the suspicion that the couple must have had internal help from a Johannesburg airport worker, but Cabeka insists they did it alone.

“It was not far from the engine. The engine was in front but outside. You could feel it outside when I was spinning, ”he says, and he sustained burn marks after wrapping his arms with cables. He still remembers the last words Vale said to him. “He said, ‘We made it,’ and then I passed out from lack of oxygen.”

It was the wiring that saved his life, as he managed to stay on board while his friend collapsed to the ground when the landing gear was opened. His next memory was of lying on the runway at Heathrow, semi-conscious and with a broken leg.

“I could see the guards. They charged me and the next thing, I woke up in the hospital ”, recalls Cabeka in the documentary. Six months of treatment later, according to Justin, after which a police officer showed him a photo of Vale. “He said: Do you recognize this person? I said: ‘He’s my friend, Carlito.’ He said, ‘No, he didn’t make it.’

Cabeka, who never knew his mother and was raised by his grandmother, was left alone at 13 or 14 when she passed away in 2009. Years later, he met Vale on the street and offered him space in the tent where he lived. . “He was a good guy who liked to do his thing, in silence,” recalls Cabeka in the documentary.

The plan to get to Europe by air began when Vale returned to his camp one day with a stack of books on topics such as engineering and aviation. “[The books] we were talking about different planes and I wrote down all the details so I knew if we wanted to go on the plane there was another way to use it. Now we had an idea, ”adds Cabeka. Although he was proud of his plans, neither of them was aware of the danger, including the very immediate threat of succumbing to a lack of oxygen.

The wheel well of a decommissioned airliner is inspected in The Man Who Fell from the Sky.
The wheel well of a decommissioned airliner is inspected in The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Photography: Postcard Productions

“I didn’t even care. I just wanted to be out of where I was. Everything was falling apart, so we decided, ‘Let’s get out of the country. Lets go somewhere else.'”

Today, Cabeka lives with the life-changing injuries he sustained when he fell after the plane landed. When we first see him, it is a shot from behind as he moves on crutches through the streets of Liverpool. After a homeless period in London, he has come to find some kind of happiness in Merseyside and has been able to slowly start making new friends and trying to forge a career in hip-hop.

“It’s easy here. The people here are kind and nice, ”he says after the filmmakers finally meet him. But he is still haunted by memories of Vale, his “brother,” adding: “We have come a long way together. He’s gone, but he’s still my friend because no one else is going to take his place. “

It is one of the final notes of sadness in The Man Who Fell from Heaven., although it leaves you in awe of the lengths humans will go to in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones. It is not bad to be reminded.

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