The Gambia squad travelling to Ivory Coast for the forthcoming 2023 Africa Cup of Nations “could have died” during a flight that was aborted, coach Tom Saintfiet has claimed.
The Air Cote d’Ivoire flight turned around just nine minutes after leaving the Gambian capital Banjul on Wednesday because of a lack of oxygen in the plane, which prompted many of the delegation to fall asleep.
Saintfiet praised the quick thinking of the pilot for keeping his team safe.
“The local crew said there was a problem with the air conditioning before we took off but that it would be all fine when we took off,” Saintfiet told BBC Sport Africa.
“After a few minutes, it was very hot in the plane.
“We all fell asleep because there was a lack of oxygen – some of the players couldn’t be woken up. The pilot noticed and we had to return.
“People got headaches and if the flight had gone on for another 30 minutes, the whole team would have died. The strange thing is that the oxygen masks didn’t come out – it’s good that the pilot realised that this was a deadly situation and so turned back.
“But we are still in shock.”
Saintfiet believes the passengers could have been facing carbon monoxide poisoning, but Gambian FA (GFA) president Lamin Kaba Bajo refuted that suggestion.
“I never felt it and it’s not clinically, scientifically or medically proven,” Kaba Bajo told the BBC.
“Those are individual observations and perceptions but there was not anything like that. I was almost sitting next to the coach and I didn’t see anyone collapse.
“I know that people, when a plane takes off, they sleep.
“Some people were dozing, sleeping, but we landed safely. There was not a single incident, we all came down and boarded the bus to go back to the terminal.”
Air Cote d’Ivoire has been contacted for comment.
The incident came four months after the Gambian team, who will face defending champions Senegal, Cameroon and Guinea in Group C, were caught up in September’s devastating earthquake in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, when over 2,000 people died.
Despite the experience on board the aborted flight, The Gambia chose to train upon their return to Banjul on Wednesday night, even though some of the squad were unable to do so.
“Some players could not train because of what happened. They still have headaches and that is worrying, while some of the players are still dizzy,” added Saintfiet.
“The team requested to train as we had been travelling overnight from Saudi Arabia to return home on Sunday, and Monday as well.
“We trained in a bid to release the stress.”
The Gambia, who reached the quarter-finals of their maiden Nations Cup two years ago despite being the lowest-ranked team, are due to face neighbours Senegal on Monday in their opening game.
However, Saintfiet said it is unclear when the Scorpions will now travel to Ivory Coast, after refusing to return to the same plane for the flight across West Africa.
“We have been asked to fly on the same plane to Ivory Coast but captain Omar Colley and I have refused,” the Belgian explained.
“If we don’t get a different plane, we will return home and not go to Afcon.
“We want to fight and die for the country on the football pitch but not off it.”
Kaba Bajo said the players had not been asked to fly on the same plane, but on a similar Bombardier model to the one used in the initial flight.
He added that an Airbus is being arranged for the Gambia delegation to use instead to fly later on Thursday.
Video footage posted on social media by one of the squad, former Manchester United youngster Saidy Janko, shows heavily-sweating players leaving the plane after its return to The Gambia.
Now based in Switzerland, the Young Boys striker called the situation “unacceptable”.
“As soon as we entered the small plane hired to fly us, we noticed the immense heat that left us dripping in sweat,” he wrote.
“It was assured to us by the crew that the air condition[ing] would start once in the sky.
“The inhumane heat mixed with the occurring lack of oxygen left many people with strong headaches and extreme dizziness. Furthermore, people started falling deeply asleep minutes after take-off.”
Janko also praised the pilot, saying the consequences could have been a lot worse.
“Knowing what could have happened, if we would have been exposed to the situation for any longer – in an airplane, running out of oxygen,” he said.
In a statement, the GFA said that “preliminary investigations indicated that there was a loss of cabin pressure and oxygen”.