The Mystery Man Who Fell from the London Skies

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". What you're about to hear is an unusual and sad story. On a cold September morning last year, residents of a leafy west London suburb were awoken by the sound of a loud impact in their street. In the road was the body of a man. The then unidentified man had been a stowaway. He had hidden himself in the landing gear of a plane from Angola to London and fallen to his death when the gear was lowered on the approach to London. Like thousands of others each year, he had been seeking a way of reaching the west in search of a better life and, like many others, he lost his life doing so. The BBC's Rob Walker has been investigating this story and he has produced a documentary about the case. The stowaways in the wheel wells of airplane, Rob, it's pretty common, sadly, but in the case of this man it wasn't apparent how he ended up in the road at first. How did it emerge that he had been a stowaway?

Rob Walker: Yeah, that's right. I mean when he first appeared in the street on a Sunday morning last September, people initially thought either he's been murdered or he's a victim of a traffic accident. But then it became clear that neither of those possible scenarios added up.

Werman: Now, the police managed to uncover this man's identity and to locate some of the people knew him, but it wasn't easy. I mean you followed this. What was the trail of getting to this man's identity like?

Walker: What happened was that the police found in his pocket a phone and they called the numbers on that phone. Surprisingly one of those phone numbers was a number in Geneva. It turned out that this was his former employer, a lady called Jessica Hunt, and she'd employed the stowaway when he was working in South Africa.

Werman: All right. So he falls in London, they find a woman who employed him. She's living in Geneva, but had employed him in Cape Town, South Africa. So who is this man?

Walker: So his name is Jose Matada. We know now that he was age twenty-six. Sadly it was actually his twenty-sixth birthday when he fell from the plane over London. We know that he was originally from Mozambique, not Angola, although that's where he took the plane from, and that he moved to South Africa, he worked for a time in South Africa. He found this job with her and she described to me a little bit about what he was like.

[Recording plays]
Jessica Hunt: Joseph was a really nice man. He was a really good person. I miss him. I just thought, "Oh, Joseph, what have you done? Why did you get into that plane? Why weren't you more patient?"
[Recording ends]

Werman: Rob, did Jessica give any sense of what Joseph wanted when she knew him in South Africa? Was he really eager to leave and go to the west? What did she say about that?

Walker: Yeah, what she said was that he was sort of very keen to get a job and he saw getting to Europe as a means to get a better job for himself and provide some means of assisting his family who didn't have much money. She said what happened was that when she finished living in South Africa she returned to Europe, returned to Switzerland, and she actually sent him some money to try and help him get a visa, get papers to come to Europe. Unfortunately, she said that that money he took and paid to someone in Mozambique who swindled him, took the money, didn't give him the papers he was hoping to get. So at that point he then took the decision to travel back to South Africa and then from South Africa overland to Angola, and we know from phone records that once he got to Angola he called his former employer, Jessica, to say that he made it to Angola. And at that point she didn't have more money to give to him and she was hoping that she'd hear from him in a little while, hopefully when he'd found somewhere to live, got some kind of job in Angola, but we know that that final call between him took place just three days before he got into the plane and eventually she didn't hear from him again. It was the British Police, of course, that she heard from when they called to say what had happened to him.

Werman: Do we know how high an altitude Joseph fell from in London?

Walker: I'm not sure exactly. I mean obviously the plane travels at thirty-five thousand feet or so and then it comes in to land. What normally happens in these cases is that the stowaways become unconscious during the course of the flight because of the cold and the lack of oxygen, and so when the wheels are lowered they're obviously not able to hold on to anything and that's normally the point at which they fall.

Werman: You know, we always hear about the people who stowaway like this and die. Do any survive this kind of journey in the wheel well?

Walker: Yes, I mean extraordinarily, I mean if we take the cases into London, if you look since the late 90s, there have been around a dozen cases in total. Now, extraordinarily, two people have actually survived. One person survived a couple of years back because he was coming on a relatively short haul flight from Vienna in Austria and, as luck would have it for him, there was was bad weather, so that plane flew at low altitude and so he survived the flight of two hours or so. There was an even more extraordinary case though, Marco. If we go back to 1996, two brothers stowed away on a flight from India all the way to Heathrow. When the plane was coming in to land, one of the brothers, when the wheels were lowered, one of the brothers sadly fell out and died, but extraordinarily the other brother survived and was found on the tarmac at Heathrow. And the story he told was that when they were trying to get to UK in this way they paid someone in India who told them that if they managed to get into the undercarriage, there would be a door in the undercarriage through which they could move into the rest of the aircraft, and he said [??] at the time that that's why he did it. Of course, that's completely untrue. There is no door. I've actually been myself into the undercarriage of an aircraft to try and get an idea of what's it's like in there and once you're in obviously you're sealed in.

Werman: You yourself climbed into the wheel well to see what that was like?

Walker: Yes, that's right. That was at an airfield an hour or so from London. It was a disused Boeing 747. What struck me doing that was that when you approach the underneath of the aircraft, that space actually looks quite big. What happens though after takeoff, the wheels, those huge wheels come up and what you can't know when you climb in, unless you're familiar with aircraft, is where those wheels go once they move up inside the undercarriage. And there have been cases where, sadly, stowaways have been crushed or indeed burnt by those wheels as they come up because you're basically having to chance where you're going to wedge yourself. I mean the actual sort of sense of being in there I have to say was, even during the day, it's quite claustrophobic because even when it's light outside it's pretty dark in there, so you can imagine someone, like the case you've been following, Jose Matada doing that at night, and these stowaways normally do stow away on planes at night. You can imagine how awful it would be, you're there in the dark, the noise, the vibrations approaching takeoff, and at one point, the detail of this case, we know that Jose Matada, the only precaution he took from that cold and extremes was a couple of bits of tissue paper he crammed in his ears either before or during takeoff. Apart from that, he had no other precautions. He had a pair of sneakers on, a pair of jeans, and a thin hooded-top, and so you just kind of assume, in his case, that he had hardly any idea of what was to come.