This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
On 8 April 1968, a BOAC Boeing 707 aircraft operating as flight 712 bound for Sydney via Zurich and Singapore experienced an engine failure shortly after take off at London Heathrow.
The engine caught fire and subsequently fell from the aircraft. The aircraft successfully made an emergency landing. However, the fuselage was engulfed by flames.
Of the 116 passengers and 11 crew, 5 people were killed including BOAC stewardess Barbara Jane Harrison who received a posthumous award of The George Cross for her bravery in assisting with the evacuation.
The exact events are described in an entry for Barbara Harrison’s George Cross in the London Gazette:
No. 2 engine of B.O.A.C. Boeing 707 G-ARWE caught fire and subsequently fell from the aircraft, leaving a fierce fire burning at No. 2 engine position.
About two and a half minutes later the aircraft made an emergency landing at the airport and the fire on the port wing intensified.
Miss Harrison was one of the stewardesses in this aircraft and the duties assigned to her in an emergency were to help the steward at the aft station to open the appropriate rear door and inflate the escape chute and then to assist the passengers at the rear of the aircraft to leave in an orderly manner.
When the aircraft landed, Miss Harrison and the steward concerned opened the rear galley door and inflated the chute, which unfortunately became twisted on the way down so that the steward had to climb down it to straighten it before it could be used. Once out of the aircraft he was unable to return; hence Miss Harrison was left alone to the task of shepherding passengers to the rear door and helping them out of the aircraft.
She encouraged some passengers to jump from the machine and pushed out others. With flames and explosions all around her, making an escape from the tail of the machine impossible, she directed her passengers to another exit while she remained at her post. She was finally overcome while trying to save an elderly cripple who was seated in one of the last rows and whose body was found close to that of the stewardess.
Miss Harrison was a very brave young lady who gave her life in her utter devotion to duty.
Barbara Jane Harrison remains on the only female recipient of The George Cross for gallantry in peacetime.