'Falling man' changes London neighborhood
The suburban stillness of the comfortable, two-story homes in west London's Mortlake neighborhood is broken only by the roar of jets thundering overhead on the final approach to Heathrow Airport. It's a pleasant place, with easy connections into central London, generally free of crime and congestion.
That changed early on a sunny Sunday morning in September when a man from Africa literally fell from the sky and landed with a loud thud onto the sidewalk of Portman Avenue, half a block from a convenience store, an upscale lingerie boutique, and a shop selling Chinese herbal remedies.
In the hours after the crumpled body was found, as early risers were getting up to walk their dogs, get the papers, or go to church, police thought the man was a murder victim. But it was soon determined that he had been a stowaway who fell from a passenger plane when it lowered its landing gear directly above Portman Avenue.
"It was scary, there was a body on the street, and nobody knew at first that he had fallen from a plane," neighbor Stephanie Prudhomme said. "There were police everywhere."
The identity of the man remains a mystery three months later. He carried no identification, but police believe he may have been from Angola. They are asking the public to help identify the man, whose death has traumatized the neighborhood.
Some heard the noise on impact; others were alarmed when they opened their doors and saw a crumpled badly disfigured body lying on the street. Some didn't know anything was amiss until the police and an ambulance arrived, followed by homicide detectives.
Police came to believe the man stowed away on a passenger jet bound from the African nation of Angola to London, only to die en route and then fall when the landing gear opened - an occurrence that is rare but not unheard of.
"There is great sadness," said Catherine Lambert, who lives a few doors down from the spot where the man landed. "To think that the end of the line for him is a suburban street, miles away from his world."
The event shattered the neighborhood's sense of being immune from the world's troubles, she said, a feeling compounded by the inability of police to identify the man.
"I felt, what was he running away from? What made him think he could survive? And how will his family ever know? He's a lost soul now; his father and mother are probably waiting for him to make contact," said Lambert, 41.
Frustrated police have released a composite electronic image of what they believe the man's face looked like before his fall, as well as a photo of a tattoo on his left arm, in hopes that he may be identified.
Based on circumstantial evidence, including some currency found in his jeans pocket, they believe he may have been from Angola, but discussions with Angolan authorities have not provided useful clues.
In the days after the macabre discovery, some residents moved by the man's death placed flowers at the spot where his body landed.
Unofficial representatives of London's Angolan community trekked to Mortlake to pay their respects to the man, even though no one knew who he was.
They prayed and also left flowers - but the bouquet was quickly removed by residents after the delegation departed, for fears that it would become an unwanted, permanent shrine to the unknown passenger.
Some are still unwilling to discuss the falling man.
"Is this about the man from the sky?" asked one woman when approached by a reporter as she parked her car on Portman Avenue. "I don't want to talk about it. That was my house."
Aviation safety specialist Chris Yates said Sunday that poor perimeter security at a number of airports in Africa - including the main Angola airport at Luanda - and in other parts of the world has made it easier for people to stow away on planes.
But it's dangerous, and often fatal, not least because areas such as the cargo hold or the wheel base, where stowaways often climb into, aren't necessarily pressurized. Yates said the man who crashed to the pavement in Mortlake had probably lost consciousness and died within the first hour of his flight.
"When you start moving beyond 10,000 feet, oxygen starvation becomes a reality," he said. "As you climb up to altitude, the issue becomes cold as well, the temperature drops to minus 40 or minus 50 degrees centigrade, so survival rates drop."
The sidewalk has been cleaned and the flowers are long gone, but residents and local workers are still talking about the man, said Jay Sivapalan, 29, an employee at the Variety Box convenience store near where the body landed.
"It was just a strange thing," he said.