The Gift and the Guilt of the Sole Survivor

The odds of surviving even the most serious plane crash are 76 percent. The odds of being the only one left alive are infinitesimal.

plane illustration
Bryan Christie Design for Reader’s Digest

On June 30, 2009, French schoolgirl Bahia Bakari, 12, and her mother, Aziza Aboudou, 33, were aboard a packed Airbus A310 on their way to Comoros, a group of islands off the eastern coast of Africa, to visit family for the summer. Minutes from touchdown, Yemenia Flight 626 shook violently in the swirling 40 mph winds; the lights flickered, the engine stalled, and the plane, holding 142 passengers and 11 crew members, plunged into the Indian Ocean, breaking apart on impact.

Bahia was ejected from the plane. With no life vest, food, or drinking water, she clung to a piece of wreckage for 13 hours until a sailor from a private rescue boat plucked her from the ocean. Days later, as she recovered from her wounds in a Paris hospital, a psychologist shared unlikely news: Bahia was the only survivor of the disaster.

Call it a miracle, coincidence, or luck—the distinction of only one left alive is a heavy weight, says Ky Dickens, 36, whose 2013 documentary film Sole Survivor tells the stories of several plane-crash survivors.

“They feel an incredible amount of pressure,” says Dickens, a survivor of a car crash in her teen years that killed several of her friends. Drawn to the topic partly because of her personal experience, Dickens contacted George Lamson Jr., a passenger on a plane that crashed, killing everyone else on board, including his father, and enlisted him to help other survivors share their stories with the world. Says Dickens, “Naturally they wonder, Was I spared for a reason? Am I supposed to do something amazing?”

Here Lamson Jr. and two sole survivors from other crashes, Annette Herfkens and Jim Polehinke, describe what they live with every day as members of a tiny club they never sought to be part of but are very fortunate to have joined.

luggage tag and vintage photo
Gregory Reid for Reader’s Digest

SURVIVOR: George Lamson Jr.
•  Date: 1/21/1985  •  Flight: Galaxy Airlines 203  •  From: Reno, Nevada  • To: Minneapolis  •  On board: 71  •  Crew deaths: 6  •  Passenger deaths: 64 • The flight crew had significantly reduced power to the engine to eliminate unusual vibrations. The captain lost control of the aircraft, sending it plunging into an RV sales lot near downtown Reno.

After my father and I found our seats, I settled in and tried to sleep. Pretty soon, two men came up to us and said, “Hey, you’re in our seats.” That wasn’t true, but my dad said OK, and we switched seats with them. Our new seats were in the first row right behind a bulkhead.

After takeoff, everything seemed smooth at first. Then we hit turbulence, and the plane started to bank to the right. It didn’t seem serious, but as I was looking out the window, I could see we were losing altitude pretty quickly. Over the loudspeaker, the pilot said that we were going down. It must have been five to ten seconds before we hit the ground. We hit three times, and the third time the plane hit an RV lot and broke apart. It was going about 140 miles an hour. I was thrown more than 40 feet onto a street near downtown Reno.

The wreckage was on fire, and I searched through it trying to find anybody alive. One memory I can’t shake is of finding the man who took my seat. He was lying out in the field, facing the fire, and I could see his eyes were open. I went to him trying to help, but I realized he was dead. If I hadn’t switched seats, that would have been me.

After the ambulances arrived, they took me to the hospital with another survivor. He had third-degree burns all over his body. His skin was black from the fire. I said to him, “I can’t believe I couldn’t find anybody. Here we are, still alive and talking.” And his answer was, “There’s nobody.” I didn’t think he was that hurt, but once we were getting treated, I remember him yelling in pain from all his burns. He died a few days later.

I have a hard time explaining to people how overwhelmingly sad and dark this whole thing was. When they first meet you, people will look at you and think that you’re special. They’ll say, “Wow, you’re amazing; you were able to live through this.”

Unless you’ve gone through an experience like this, it’s not possible to truly understand. You’ve seen a massive loss of life, and you’re standing in the midst of it wondering, Why the hell am I here? Why are all these people mangled? Why are all these people dead?

After I got out of the hospital, I went home. I finished high school and started college. I had a future. I’d always imagined that I’d get a degree, maybe join the Air Force and become a pilot. When the holidays hit after my first semester of college, it sunk in that things weren’t going to be the same again, because I didn’t have my father anymore. My mom and my sister were having a very hard time dealing with the loss. I made it through the holidays as best as I could, and then I went back to school. But then the Challenger disaster happened, and it triggered me into a depressed state. I dropped out of college and later moved to Reno. Today I work in a casino as a dealer.

Compared with the plans I’d had when I was younger, my life feels like it has come up short. I imagined that the family members of the people who died would say, “Look at this guy—he got a second chance at life. I lost my dear husband, I lost my dear son, I lost my dad. Why is this guy alive? He’s not even doing anything major with his life. I know my dad would have done something; I know my brother would have done something.” I suppressed a lot of this, and it would come back and bite me with depression or fits of anger. It was very hard to cope with.

In July 2010, I made a trip to Minnesota to meet with the families of three of the passengers aboard my flight. I was really dreading the meetings. I felt physically ill as I drove to the first family member’s house in Minneapolis. Sarah had lost her mother, her father, and two grandparents on that flight. She was six years old when it happened. I thought about how traumatic that must have been for her.

When I got to her house, I walked in, I gave her a hug, and we made some small talk. Then we sat down at her kitchen table, and she handed me a photo of her father and mother. That was the moment everything changed. This sounds weird, but I sensed the presence of her family in the room. I felt like they were standing right by her and smiling. It felt like I was forgiven for not letting my life be as perfect as it should have been. She was happy to see me, and I was happy to see her. I was looking at a picture of her when she was six years old, and I was seeing her in front of me, in her 30s, and I was in tears. I felt like I was with the family. It was a wonderful, authentic feeling of relief and love. It felt really good.

After moving to Reno in the ’90s, Lamson married and had a daughter, now 18 years old. Lamson and his daughter still live in Reno.

passport and vintage photo
Gregory Reid for Reader’s Digest

SURVIVOR: Annette Herfkens
•  Date: 11/14/1992  •  Flight: Vietnam Airlines 474  •  From: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam  •  To: Cam Ranh, Vietnam  •  On board: 31  •  Crew deaths: 6  •  Passenger deaths: 24  •  After flying into a tropical storm, pilots lost control of the three-engine airliner, and it struck the ridge of a mountain.

We were 49 minutes into a 55-minute flight when the plane made a tremendous lurch. I told my fiancé, Pasje, “Don’t worry. It’s just an air pocket.” Then we dropped again, and people started screaming. I reached for Pasje’s hand. That’s the last thing I remember.

I later learned that the plane had hit a ridge at 300 mph. One wing ripped off, and the rest of the plane crashed into the side of the next mountain. When I woke up, I was still inside the plane, pinned under a dead body. Pasje’s seat had flipped backward, and he was lying on it with a sweet little smile on his lips, dead. I could see jungle greenery through a hole in the cabin where the cockpit used to be. I had gaping wounds all over my body. Four inches of bluish bone were sticking out of my shin. When I tried to move, I felt an excruciating pain in my hips.

Somehow I managed to get out of the plane. Dead bodies were scattered all around me, and people were moaning in pain. A very kind Vietnamese man assured me that help would arrive soon. “I am a very important man,” he said. “They will come for me.” Over the next few hours, his breathing grew weaker. I saw the life go out of him. He closed his eyes and was gone. There was no more sound or movement from anyone. I have never been so alone.

For eight days, I lay on the jungle floor, waiting. Leeches covered my hands. My feet were swollen to twice their normal size, and my toes turned black. I had nothing to drink, but when it rained, I was able to squeeze some water from my wet T-shirt and pieces of aircraft insulation into my mouth. The body of the man next to me began to decompose, so I used my elbows to pull myself to another spot. The crash had made a clearing, and I could see a mountain rising in the distance. I felt like I was one with the beauty and the process of decay around me.

Finally, on the eighth day, a group of Vietnamese men arrived and carried me down the mountain on a piece of canvas slung beneath a stick. The journey took so long that we had to spend another night camped in the jungle. Then we reached a village, and I was driven to a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. The next day, I was flown to a hospital in Singapore. Two weeks later, I was flown back to my native Holland, where doctors took skin grafts from my thigh to cover the wound on my shin and checked four pins that had been inserted into my broken jaw. I was in constant pain.

Two and a half months after the crash, I returned to my job as an international bond trader and my home in Madrid. Being alone again in my apartment, I was hit by Pasje’s absence in a way I hadn’t been before. My Pasje—my compass, my alter ego—was gone. Bitter thoughts ran through my head day after day. I was angry—angry at death, angry at life, at all my unmet expectations.

After the accident, I spent most of my energy on appearing the same as my old self, the same as my peers. Perhaps I did this to comfort others, perhaps to comfort myself. I kept the jungle to myself and tried hard to blend in and make the world forget the survivor part of my identity.

In 2006, I went back to Vietnam. I traveled to the village where I’d been taken after the crash and met some of the men who had carried me all those years before. The next morning, a group of us got up before dawn and started to hike. After wading across six rivers, we started to climb. It took us more than five hours to arrive at the crash site.

I sat down on the leaves. And twigs. I looked down the mountain through the trees. It was so much more claustrophobic than I remembered. And not as green. Not as pretty.

I looked behind me and tried to imagine the fuselage. With Pasje in it. Here was where his life ended. I didn’t feel his presence there—not stronger than usual, at least.

I worked my way farther up the mountain and stopped at a rock. I searched in my backpack for the small wooden dolphin and the little white seal I had brought. I placed them on the rock. “Bye, Pasje,” I said.

Herfkens, her husband, Jaime Lupa, and their children, Maxi and Joosje, live in New York City.

pilot badge
Gregory Reid for Reader’s Digest

SURVIVOR: Jim Polehinke, copilot
• Date: 8/27/2006 • Flight: Comair 5191  •  From: Lexington, Kentucky • To: Atlanta  •  On board: 50  •  Crew deaths: 2  •  Passenger deaths: 47 • The pilots steered the airplane down a runway that was too short. The plane continued past the runway end, knocked down a metal fence, and continued onto a field, where it struck several trees and burst into flames.

As the pilot in command taxied the plane from the terminal to the runway, I was going through the preflight checklist of equipment settings, so I didn’t look out the window to check the runway number like I would before most flights. Even if I had, I might not have noticed that the markers along the taxiway didn’t match the runway we’d been assigned, because so many of the lights at the airport were broken.

We waited to be cleared for takeoff, and then the captain said, “OK, let’s go.” He taxied out onto the runway, turned, and straightened us out. He said to me, “OK, your brakes, your controls.” I said, “My brakes, my controls,” and away we went.

I don’t remember anything after that. On the cockpit voice recorder, you can hear me say, “That’s weird, no lights.” A few seconds later, we ran off the runway and hit an embankment. The plane rose into the air for a short distance, then clipped the airport fence, hit some trees, and broke into pieces.

When the rescue crews arrived, they heard me coughing and cut me out of the wreckage. Instead of waiting for an ambulance, they put me into their vehicle and took me to the hospital.

I was in an induced coma for four days. My body was like a broken rag doll. My left tibia and femur were both fractured. My right heel bone came out of my foot. I had broken ribs and fingers and a pelvic fracture. My right lung had collapsed, and I’d suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Once they got me out of the coma, they waited for my head to clear up. My wife was there. I thought, OK, I’m in the hospital, and I’m really messed up here. So what happened? That’s when my wife explained that I’d been in a plane crash. My response was a question: “Was everybody else OK?” And she said, “No. You’re the only survivor.” When I heard that, I pretty much lay there and cried.

pilot's bag
Gregory Reid for Reader’s Digest

For the first week, the doctors kept cleaning out the left leg to try to save it. Finally the doctor came to me and said, “Listen, we can do one of two things. We can see if this is going to work, and there’s a possibility that you could die from an infection, or we can amputate.” Once they took my left leg, the rest of my body recovered very quickly.

Emotionally and psychologically, I was very black the first couple of years after the crash. I was angry that all the blame was put on the captain and me. And I felt sad for the family members of those who had died. Sometimes I’d say to myself, “I’m alive!” And a split second later, I’d think about the 49 families who had lost loved ones. And I’d wonder, Should I be happy to be alive, when all those people are gone?

I’m grateful that my wife, Ida, is as strong as she is. She was my rock. She supported me, took care of me. I’m grateful that I have the wife that I do.

My advice to somebody else in my situation would be “Keep looking forward.” Keep looking for that light at the end of the tunnel. You can’t change the past, so just always keep moving forward.

I’m basically paralyzed from my right knee down. If somebody took me out of my wheelchair and said, “Stand up on one leg,” I’d drop. But I love to ski, and I get out whenever I can on a monoski. When I’m at the top of the mountain, I don’t think about the crash. I look out over the world stretched below me and say, “Maybe I don’t have a reason to complain. Thank you, God, for allowing me to be alive and able to do this.”

After the accident, Polehinke and his wife moved from Florida to southwestern Colorado, where he is president of Colorado Discover Ability, an organization that promotes outdoor activities for disabled people.

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