PROBE SET UP INTO LIBYA PLANE CRASH

BRITISH air accident investigators were in Libya today to probe a plane crash in which a Hartlepool man survived.

Refinery worker David Wilkinson, 47, from Seaton Carew, swam to safety after the Belfast-built Shorts SD-360 aeroplane ditched in the Mediterranean five miles from its destination at Marsa el Brega, a petrochemicals complex in northern Libya.

But five other Britons including one man from County Durham and another from Middlesbrough, died in the tragedy and their bodies were today expected to be flown home.

The Foreign Office named the victims, all oil workers, as Patrick Cox from Willington in County Durham, Thomas McNeilly from Coatbridge near Glasgow, Ronald Jarred, from Middlesbrough, John Morton from Birkenhead, Merseyside, and Roy Parfitt from Lymm, Cheshire.

They were among 22 men from eight countries who died in the crash on Thursday lunchtime. In all, 41 people were on board.

Investigators from Britain will examine the wreckage, the twin-engined plane's data recorders and radio messages for clues to the accident.

Their examinations are likely to centre on whether fuel problems caused an apparent simultaneous engine failure in the SD-360, which has a reputation for reliability, forcing the two Swiss-trained Libyan pilots to ditch in the sea.

The investigators have also offered to take the aircraft's black box flight recorder for examination at the Air Accident Investigation Branch headquarters at Farnborough in Hampshire.

The seven British survivors including Mr Wilkinson, who were plucked from the sea by local fishing boats, were recovering from their ordeal in Tripoli.

Relatives of Mr Wilkinson said his escape was nothing short of a "miracle." He had only returned to Libya a day before the tragedy after spending Christmas with relations in England.

His ordeal was reported in yesterday's Hartlepool Mail . Mr Wilkinson's brother Alan, of Oval Grange, said he had been "up all night" and had only just got over the news that David escaped by climbing out of the plane's window.

The Wilkinson believe that a survival course David took a few years ago may have saved his life.

The air crash was not the first major incident Mr Wilkinson had survived. He was in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war when his living quarters were bombed.

Mr Wilkinson was unhurt but went back into the accommodation to save an injured friend who had been hit by shrapnel.