The children who survive plane crashes
On Tuesday, a 12-year-old Parisian schoolgirl defied not only the laws of probability, but also, it seems, the laws of biological possibility. Her name is Baya Bakari and she was the "miracle survivor" of the Yemenia Airways flight that crashed into the Indian Ocean. Having been thrown clear when the Airbus A310 hit the sea, she clung to debris for 13 hours in choppy waters before being rescued. She suffered cuts and bruises, a broken collarbone and burns to her knees, but that is all. The other passengers, all 152 of them, died.
I became intrigued by this phenomenon back in 2003 when Mohammed el-Fateh Osman, a three-year-old, was the sole survivor of a crash over Sudan that killed 116. A nomad came across him lying on a fallen tree, relatively uninjured. I did some research and found other examples. In 1997, a Thai boy became the lone survivor of a Vietnam Airlines crash that killed 65. Two years before that Erika Delgado, nine, became the only survivor of an Intercontinental Airlines plane that exploded in mid?air near Bogotá, Colombia. Delgado was thrown from the aircraft and landed on a mound of seaweed near a swamp. This broke her fall. She was the only survivor out of 52 people on board. All she suffered was a broken arm.
Last week's "miracle survivor" brings the total number of such cases to nine, by my reckoning. Nine lives. Do they have anything in common? And is there a psychological price to be paid for being a sole survival?
Well, in some respects, it helps your survival prospects if you are a child. This may be because children are more flexible, their bones less brittle. A smaller body mass may also mean that it is possible for a tree, or indeed a mound of seaweed, to break their fall. Also, they tend to be cocooned within their seat – a solid, rigid environment – and are therefore less likely to receive injuries than adults who have their heads and legs exposed. In 2007, for instance, three-year-old Kate Williams survived a Cessna crash in British Columbia because she was strapped into a child's car seat.
But it also seems to be down to luck. After all, it is not always children who are the sole survivors. In 2006 a Slovak aircraft with 43 people on board crashed in forested terrain near the Hungarian village of Hejce. Martin Farka?s was found barely injured in the aircraft's lavatory, which received little damage. He had been saved by the call of nature.
The most miraculous story occurred in 1972 when Vesna Vulovi´c, a 22-year-old flight attendant on a Yugoslav Airlines flight, survived a fall from 33,000ft, a record. The DC-10 she was flying in was blown up mid-air by a bomb planted in a suitcase by Croatian separatists. Vulovi´c was serving food at the time, and the next thing she knew she was waking up on a snow-covered mountain. Of the 28 people on board, she was the only one to survive. Not only had she escaped incineration in the explosion but also crushing from the depressurisation inside the plane, asphyxiation caused by the speed of her fall – 200mph – and death on impact when hitting the ground. The snow had cushioned her fall.
When I ring Vulovi´c in Belgrade, she tells me how the incident has left her with a passion for snow. "It saved me," she says. "I had a brain injury and didn't remember anything for a month. When I was told what had happened I almost died of shock. My backbone was broken in two places. I was paralysed for several months, but after that I was OK." Oddly, she says she did not fear flying afterwards. "Do I now fear death? Well, I don't want to die, put it like that. But I think I became braver."
In fact she became like Max Klein, the character played by Jeff Bridges in Peter Weir's 1993 film Fearless. Having survived a plane crash from which he led the survivors to safety, Klein believes himself to be an invincible pawn of fate and becomes addicted to taking risks with his life. "I was attacked by a neighbour not long ago," Vulovi´c recalls. "He was mentally ill and I stood up to him and fought him. Later, it took two big, strong medical orderlies to control him. I think mentally and physically I have become a fighter. I just don't feel afraid any more."
Another example of luck came in 1985 when George Lamson, 17, survived after he was catapulted out of an exploding Lockheed aircraft, somehow landing upright in the middle of the runway at Reno, Nevada, still strapped to his seat. Of the 71 people on board, he was the only one to survive.
While luck may be one explanation for survival, a ruthless instinct for self-preservation seems to be another. This, I should perhaps explain, is the central theme of The Blasphemer, a novel of mine being published in January, hence my interest in the subject. When a light aircraft crashes into the sea, a zoologist saves himself by climbing over the woman he loves. They both survive, but his act of betrayal causes fissures in their relationship that lead to…
Well, the point is, while writing the book I came across examples of similar things happening. In one case, a mother escaped a plane and then realised she had left her children on board. She had seen a gap and gone for it. Studies of passenger behaviour in crash situations have found that eight per cent of people are "life survivors" who, given the slightest opportunity, will find a way out. By contrast, 12 per cent of people won't escape under almost any circumstances; their "behavioural inaction" is based on a feeling that in an emergency they will die, so they remain seated, paralysed by shock.
Of those who do escape, many suffer from survivors' guilt. This can stem from feelings of being unworthy of survival, or from feeling pleased that they escaped when others didn't. Dr Stephen Joseph, a psychologist at the University of Warwick, has studied this phenomenon in connection with the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987. "In the three years after the disaster, it was found that 60 per cent of survivors suffered from guilt," he says. "There were three types: first, there was guilt about staying alive while others died; second, there was a guilt about the things they failed to do – these people often suffered post-traumatic 'intrusions' as they relived the event again and again; third, there were feelings of guilt about what they did do, such as scrambling over others to escape. These people usually wanted to avoid thinking about the catastrophe. They didn't want to be reminded of what really happened."
Psychologists also talk of "survivor syndrome", a pattern of reactions including chronic anxiety, recurring dreams of the event, a general numbness and withdrawal from the pleasures of life. Survivors find themselves in a "meaning vacuum" where they question the point of life.
But in other cases, surviving can have positive benefits. People re?evaluate their lives and find new meaning and depth. This is what is known as "adversarial growth". The survivors become, if you like, better people: more compassionate, less materialistic. They determine to live their lives to the full and in the moment. Significantly, many no longer worry about death.
Juliane Köpcke is one of these. She is a professor of biology now, based in Germany. In 1971 she was a 17-year-old schoolgirl flying with her mother to Lima. Lightning struck the plane. There was an explosion and the next thing she knew she was in the air, strapped to her seat at 10,000 feet. Her final thought before she passed out was that the rainforest below her looked like broccoli. When she came round it was morning and she was on her own in the Peruvian jungle, still strapped into her seat. Her arms and legs were gashed and she had broken her collarbone, but otherwise, miraculously, she was unharmed. She was the only survivor out of 92 on board.
"I was too shocked to feel frightened," she says. "I realised there was no way a search party would find the plane – it was too deeply hidden – so my only chance was to reach help. When I heard the sounds of running water I knew I had to follow it, because a river would lead to a human settlement."
Her survival instinct took over. She scooped maggots from her wounds, drank muddy water and walked for 10 days in the jungle before being found by tribesmen. "The accident changed me completely," she says. "I have learnt that life is precious – that it can be taken from you at any moment. I came so close to death then that everyday stress no longer affects me. Trivial things don't worry me any more."
Let us hope that 12-year-old Baya Bakari, who also lost her mother, will one day come to feel the same.
Published in July, 2010