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Johannesburg - His body cramped, starved of oxygen and frozen, stowaway Jose Matada was probably still alive when he plummeted from the undercarriage of an airplane and smashed into the middle of a quiet suburban street in London.

Portman Avenue in Mortlake, with its neat gardens and carefully-trimmed hedges, would become the centre of an enduring mystery that stretched across two continents, and eight countries, including South Africa.

A BBC radio documentary has tried to establish whether Matada clambered inside the airplane’s undercarriage on the flight from Luanda in Angola to Heathrow Airport in early September 2012 to meet his alleged lover, a British-Swiss woman, who he had worked for in South Africa. Or did he risk death because he was desperate to find work in Europe to escape a life of grinding poverty in Mozambique?

The programme relates how stunned residents of Portman Avenue awoke on September 9 to a “massive bang” that sounded like a “door being dropped from a height”. A bloodied body was lying on their pavement. They thought he was a murder victim.

Then the penny dropped for residents of the suburb, which is on a flight path – Matada had fallen from the sky. His face “had suffered horrendous injuries on impact”.

“It looked like there was no face left, his head had split open,” resident Claire Watson told the broadcaster.

All Matada had was some currency – Angolan – in his pocket, a cellphone and a SIM card. British authorities couldn’t recognise the service provider. He had no identity documents and no passport. A tattoo, with the letters GZ, was on his arm.

Tissues were crammed inside his ears.

Later, mortuary officials would tell the broadcaster how they “reconstructed the face from the inside... to try and pack the face out a little bit”.

There have been a dozen cases of stowaways hidden on flights to London since the late 1990s. Only two have survived.

Then, there was a breakthrough. Police would find a second SIM card tucked in the pocket of Matada’s jeans, yielding phone calls and text messages – the last number called was Swiss.

“It would just ring and ring when I called it. But then… it called me back,” Detective Sergeant Jeremy Allsup told the BBC. “It was a lady who was half Swiss and half English. I told her about the stowaway who had fallen out of the plane.

“She kept on asking why I was asking her about a stowaway. But as soon as I said the plane had come from Angola, she knew straight away. She started to cry.”

The woman, named in the broadcast only as Jessica, told Allsup that she had been living with her family in South Africa in 2010 when they employed Matada as a gardener and housekeeper.

The Z in his tattoo was in honour of the nickname his mother gave him.

The two grew close. “He had a really soft manner about him,” she said. “He was straightforward. He didn’t talk much, but if he did, it meant something. He wasn’t afraid of much. He was a free spirit. It was lovely to have him around.”

They would travel together – she would later join him on a visit to Mozambique. “I was trying to help him, to find work for him. I cared for him. He was really like my family.”

She later moved back to Switzerland. “When I came back to Europe, the first thing I did was send money to him so he could follow the steps to obtain a visa.”

But that lifeline disappeared because of corrupt officials in Mozambique, she believes.

“So he travelled again to South Africa, going overland through Botswana to Angola,” said the BBC, where Matada crept onto a plane and hid inside the landing gear.

“Once inside… did he realise he had made the biggest mistake of his life?” wondered the BBC.

Jessica was newly married and eight months pregnant when she heard of his death.

“I just thought: ‘Oh Joseph, what have you done? Why did you get on that plane? Why weren’t you more patient?”

The BBC traced Matada’s family in Maputo. They had read about his death in a local newspaper, Verdade. His brother, Paulino Domingos Matada, told the broadcaster he had also found “declarations of love” to Jessica on another SIM card Matada had left behind.

“He was going after that woman, his boss. I found a message ‘Jose loves Jessica’. He would say when he came to visit that he was seeing someone there in South Africa. He said he had a white girlfriend.”

A coroner determined that Matada, who is buried without a headstone in Twickenham Cemetery in the UK, died “at the moment of impact or shortly before”.

It was ruled that his death was accidental.

Saturday Star