Today in history: Fire on Saudi jet kills 301

On this day in (August 19) 1980, a fire aboard a plane bound for Saudi Arabia forces an emergency landing.

The Saudi Airlines flight began in Karachi, Pakistan, headed for Jidda, Saudi Arabia, with a stopover in Riyadh. The first leg of the flight was uneventful, and the Lockheed L-1011 took off from Riyadh with no problems. Shortly after takeoff from Riyadh, the pilot reported a fire onboard the plane and told air-traffic controllers that he needed immediate clearance to head back to the airport.

The fire started while passengers onboard were cooking with a portable butane stove. Apparently, this was not unusual, as Middle Eastern airlines are often willing to accommodate their Muslim passengers’ needs to follow the strict dietary laws of their religion. The pilot was able to land the plane back at Riyadh safely and headed to the end of the runway where a rescue crew was waiting.

When the plane reached the end of the runway, however, it burst into flames. The crew sprayed fire-fighting foam at the fire, but it was no match for the intense blaze. None of the 301 people onboard escaped the fire. It is still unclear why there were no survivors. Bodies were found piled up near the escape hatches. One theory is that panic on the plane caused a stampede that prevented the hatches from being opened. Another possibility is that the crew failed to depressurize the cabin, which would have prevented the hatches from opening. It is also possible that everyone on the flight was overcome by fumes before they could save themselves.