Captain David Barker facing the media - Nicholas McAvaney / AFP
He was the man whose news we expected, almost frantically. Via press conferences where tweets on the account of the Guernsey police, Captain David Barker, coast guard of the small English island, informed the world of the progress of the searches he was conducting to find Emiliano Sala , in the first hours after the plane disappeared on January 21, 2019. A year later, 20 Minutes met with David Barker to look back on these intense and emotionally charged days.
A year later, are you still thinking a lot about these few days in January 2019?
Not that much, no. But right after, we spent a lot of time debriefing and analyzing what had happened and what we could have done better. Obviously, the outcome of the story is terrible. But our conclusions are that, in general, we were very well helped by France, the United Kingdom, and that we were happy with the way we had responded in a general way. There are technical aspects to the way in which we coordinated the research that could have been done better, in particular on the use of communication channels.
Can you tell us about the beginning of the research. Did you immediately know that Emiliano Sala was on the plane?
Not at all. At 8:00 p.m. on January 21, we received the first indication from the Jersey air traffic control center that we had lost contact with an airplane. It doesn't happen every day, but it does happen. So we weren't more worried than that. Search operations and calls on all available frequencies have been started without success. The concern was growing. But it wasn't until the next morning that we realized that Emiliano Sala was on the plane. It didn't change the way we do our research, but it meant that there would be a lot of media interest in our research very quickly and I had to make sure that it didn't interfere with it.
That is to say ?
Personally, I took on the role of responding to all media to allow research teams to continue their efforts without having to worry about that. Despite this, some journalists found the reception number of the police office and called him, which we did not want. And even some called me home at the end of the day to find out what our research had produced. It took me some time personally, but it didn't have any impact on the research, that was essential.
In all, your research lasted more than three days ...
Absolutely. We used a lot of ways to search: helicopters, aircraft, survival boats, people on foot. I spent a lot of time reminding the media that there were two people on the plane, not just one, and that we were looking for both. Our job was to find the survivors, not to find the remains of the plane or the crash site. The searches were not affected by the presence of Sala. We used very sophisticated modeling programs to decide where we were looking. And the more time passed, the larger the area to search. But as we know now, our chances of finding something were very small.
After the first hours of research, the situation became almost impossible…
I have a lot of experience on the subject and what I know is that if you don't find it very quickly, the chances of survival go down just as quickly, especially under these conditions: it was January, the water temperature was below 10 ° C, and a person in the water without survival equipment quickly fell unconscious.
It is said that the Argentine government contacted you very quickly. Did they press you to continue your research?
No. I contacted the Argentine ambassador very quickly, the next day I believe. As well as with the families of the two people on the plane. My decision to continue the search was based only on the possibility that the two men survived. When it became clear that there was no longer any chance of finding them alive, that is where we stopped the search. The searches were not affected by the presence of Sala.
Despite everything, the media coverage of this disappearance gave rise to a particular follow-up, and the general public participated in a way by proposing from right to left many theories. Have you followed any of them?
Many were from social media. I went there a lot afterwards to see what was said there and there were indeed a lot of theories, some useful, others not really. Some people encouraged us, others were very negative. I have read very derogatory comments towards the research teams and myself. But that is to be expected when people are so engaged and worried.
But for example you went to the small island of Burhou, where a hypothesis said that he could have taken shelter in a small stone house…
Yes. We were pretty sure that the last location of the plane was quite far from this island, but there was information coming out that flares had been seen from the island near Alderney (Saint-Anne) and we had to check that out. And when Sala's family arrived, they were convinced that he was on this island. They must have heard somewhere that there was a chance he was there. I tried to explain to them as best I could that I didn't think it was possible, but they were convinced. Some family members went to Alderney to find a way to get to Burhou as quickly as possible, but the weather was not suitable. Finally, I flew Emiliano Sala's mother over the island, and teams were able to walk there the next day, but of course there was no sign of him.
Take it with tweezers ... But can it be possible? ... 🥺😭🙏🏼 #PrayForSala #SalaComeBack pic.twitter.com/Yejvi8RNuo- Adrien Mericka 🔰⚽️ (@MerickaAdrien) January 24, 2019
After abandoning your research, it was David Mears' team who took matters into their own hands in an attempt to locate the plane underwater. Have you contacted him?
He contacted me after being hired by the family to find the remains of the plane. I was able to give him our most precise idea of where the boat could be and as you know, they managed to find it quickly, it was very close to this position. I was surprised they found it so quickly. But the photos confirmed what I thought, the plane hit the water with a lot of angle and at very high speed.
We still have no record of the pilot's body. Do we have a chance to find it one day?
It happens that bodies reappear from the water after six to eight months, sometimes even more. But I don't think, after a year, that we can find it. Why haven't we found any remains of him? It is difficult to explain but the plane touched the water at very high speed and the nose first so it was subjected to enormous pressure at the time of impact. Either he was ejected at that time, or he was smashed and his body would have been lifted from the plane once in the water.
Sometimes tourists come to the scene of a tragedy in a sort of "pilgrimage". Have you seen this in Guernsey?
Not that I know, maybe we will see for one year. The family, on the other hand, absolutely wanted to see where the plane was last seen. I took them myself to fly over the area. I don't know if it helped them, I hope.
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