‘I passed out with the lack of oxygen’: truth of Heathrow stowaways’ tragic journey

An almost unbearably painful moment comes halfway through a new Channel 4 documentary about the extraordinary story of a man who survived stowing away on a flight from Johannesburg to London – and his friend who didn’t make it. It happens when the daughter of the man who died is presented with the first photo of him she has ever seen by the makers of The Man Who Fell from the Sky. The film-makers had travelled to his native Mozambque, attempting to piece together the desperate bid for a new life he made in 2015.

“She doesn’t recognise him,” says her mother, Anna, as 11-year-old Chemilla looks at a picture of Carlito Vale on a mobile phone. As tears flow, Anna adds: “I am very grateful to all the people who continue to recognise that he’s a human being.”

Vale’s tragedy started to come to light when his body was found on a roof below the Heathrow flight path after he had fallen from a BA jet’s landing gear as it approached the runway after an 8,000-mile journey. But little has been known about the man who survived – until now.

Like other journalists who flocked to the area around Heathrow in west London after Vale’s remains were found in the summer of 2015, I wanted to know more not just about him but about the survivor who remained in a critical condition. A few months later, I learned more about Vale after speaking to the founder of an orphanage where he grew up who wanted to thank those who had left flowers at the scene near Heathrow.

Vale’s was a young Mozambican whose initial venturings abroad took him to Uganda and South Africa. But despite the efforts of many journalists, the fate of his companion in the UK has remained untold. That changes in The Man Who Fell from the Sky when the documentary maker Rich Bentley finally meets Themba Cabeka – who now goes by the name Justin – on a street corner in Liverpool.

Justin has been living in the UK for the past five years, and has been granted leave to remain. His story is all the more poignant at a time when men, women and children are drowning in the Channel, people who, like Justin and Vale, desperately try to reach Britain in search of a better life.

“I thought it was worth it,” the 30-year-old told me in December. “Because of my situation, and what I was going through it was the only choice that I had to survive.”

In The Man Who Fell from the Sky, the story of Cabeka and Vale’s journey to the UK slowly unfolds over the course of a five-year project undertaken by producer Bentley and director Sam Forsdike. In their previous documentary The Stranger on the Bridge, the pair followed a man on his search for the stranger who stopped him taking his life from Waterloo Bridge in London. Their latest – an impressive mix of gumshoe journalism and social commentary – has similar aspects but is more sweeping in its ambition.

To begin, we are told that there have been up to 109 recorded stowaway attempts involving aircraft wheel wells and that London is the most common target destination. Since October 1996, there have been at least 16 reported instances of people stowing away on flights that have come through London. And those are the ones we know about. Interviews included feature west London residents who were abruptly reminded of the realities of the global south when a stowaway fell from the sky above them.

The breakthrough comes on Christmas Eve 2019, when a man to whom Bentley had spoken three years earlier called to say he had “found” Cabeka.

Before that is an interview with a pilot who was landing a flight from Delhi at Heathrow in 1996 when an Indian teenager fell from the wheel well. “In terms of warmth and in terms of oxygen, he might as well be outside,” says Bentley during a scene in which he climbs into the wheel well of a decommissioned jet while the same pilot looks up from the ground. That teenager’s name was Vijay Saini, and his body was only found three days later. His brother Pardeep, who was then 22, survived the 10-hour journey from Delhi in freezing temperatures and was given compassionate leave to stay in Britain for a year after appealing to the Home Office.

Nineteen years after the brothers Vale and Cabeka put their plan to reach the UK into effect when they scaled the perimeter fence at the international airport in Johannesburg, climbing into a BA aircraft after selecting it in the belief that the journey would be shorter than alternative flights to the US. Coverage in 2015 had focused on the suspicion that the pair must have had inside help from a Johannesburg airport worker, but Cabeka insists they did it alone.

“I was not far from the engine. The engine was opposite but outside. You could feel it outside when it was rotating,” he says, and sustained burn marks after wrapping his arms through cabling. He still remembers the last words that Vale uttered to him. “He said: ‘We made it,’ and then I passed out with the lack of oxygen.”

It was the cabling that saved his life, as he managed to remain on board while his friend plummeted to the ground as the landing gear opened. His next memory was of lying on the tarmac at Heathrow, semi-conscious and with a shattered leg.

“I could see the guards. They carried me up and the next thing, I woke up in hospital,” Cabeka recalls in the documentary. Six months of treatment following, according to Justin, after which a police officer showed him a picture of Vale. “He said: Do you recognise this person? I said: ‘He’s my friend, Carlito.’ He said: ‘No, he did not make it.’”

Cabeka, who never knew his mother and was brought up by his grandmother, was left alone at the age of 13 or 14 when she died in 2009. Years later, he met Vale on the street and offered him space in the tent where he lived. “He was a good guy who liked to do his own thing, quietly,” recalls Cabeka in the documentary.

The plan to reach Europe by air started when Vale came back one day to their camp with a pile of books on topics such as engineering and aviation. “[The books] were talking about different planes and I took down all the details, so I knew if we want to go in the plane, there was another way you could use it. We had an idea now,” adds Cabeka. While proud of their plans, neither man was aware of the danger, including the very immediate threat of succumbing to a lack of oxygen.

“It didn’t even matter to me. I just wanted to be out from where I was. Everything was just falling apart, so we decided: ‘Let’s just get out of the country. Let’s go somewhere else.’”

Today, Cabeka lives with the life-changing injuries he sustained when he fell after the plane had landed. When we first see him, it’s a shot from behind as he moves on his crutches along the streets of Liverpool. After a period of homelessness in London, he has come to find some sort of happiness in Merseyside and has been able to begin slowly making new friends and and attempting to forge a career in hip-hop.

“It’s easy here. The people here are gentle and nice,” he says after the film-makers finally meet him. But he is still haunted by memories of Vale, his “brother”, adding: “We’ve come a long way together. He’s gone but he’s still my friend because nobody else is going to take his place.”

It is one of the final notes of sadness in The Man Who Fell from the Sky, though it leaves you in awe of the lengths to which humans will go in search of a better life for themselves and those they love. It’s no bad thing to be reminded of that.