Unbreakable: Sole Survivors of Tragic Plane Crashes

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The horrifying crash of Air France flight 447 was still all too fresh in everyone's mind when Yemenia Airways flight 626 plunged into the Indian Ocean. The causes behind both crashes are still being investigated, but one major difference between the two is that one person managed to survive the Yemenia disaster. Bahia Bakari, through some quirk of fate, has joined a very select group "“ those who have survived major airplane crashes.

The Miracle of Bahia Bakari

Yemenia flight 626 was an Airbus A310. Most of the 153 passengers aboard had flown in from Paris and Marseilles before switching planes in Sana'a en route to Comoros. Sometime in the early hours of June 30, the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean as it approached Hahaya Airport. Thirteen hours later, despite the high winds and 16 foot waves, a rescue boat from Madagascar responding to the distress signal sent from one of the plane's black boxes spotted a girl clinging to a piece of debris in the water. A sailor jumped into the ocean and placed a flotation device around 12-year-old Bahia Bakari, who was then pulled aboard to safety. Bakari, who was suffering from hypothermia as well as a broken collar bone and facial contusions, thus far only has sketchy memories of the crash: instructions being given to the passengers, a jolt "like electricity," a big noise, and then being in the water.

Juliane Koepcke and her Father's Advice

Picture 11At about 11:00PM on December 24, 1971, a LANSA (Lineas Aereas Nacionales Airlines) Lockheed Electra L-188 departed from Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima en route to Pucallpa, Peru. Many of the 92 passengers aboard were university students returning home for the Christmas holiday. Approximately 30 minutes after takeoff, the plane encountered thunderstorms and heavy turbulence. Lightning struck one of the fuel tanks and tore the right wing off of the plane. Juliane Koepcke, a 17-year-old German national was aboard that flight along with her mother, a leading Peruvian ornithologist. The pair was bound for Pucallpa to spend Christmas with Koepcke's father, a zoologist working at a research station in the rainforest. Juliane remembers a bright flash, the plane starting to nosedive, Christmas presents flying about the cabin, and her mother saying "This is it!" Juliane believes that she lost consciousness for a few moments, because her next memory is of spinning in the air, seeing the forest below her. Her entire row of seats (with her still strapped into place) fell as one, spinning like a helicopter blade, which probably softened her two mile fall into the jungle canopy.  Koepcke sustained a broken collar bone and several large gashes on her limbs. Recalling her father's advice that a creek leads to a stream and a stream leads to a river, she wandered for 10 days along a stream she'd found. During that time her open wounds became infested with parasites. Luckily she stumbled upon a camp of Peruvian lumberjacks who transported her to the nearest town. Juliane currently works as a librarian at the Zoological Center in Munich, Germany.

Cecilia Cichan and Her Mother's Arms

Picture 12Northwest Flight 255 originated in Saginaw, Michigan, with its ultimate destination being Santa Ana, California. Along the way it had stops in Detroit and Phoenix. Flight 255 pushed back from the gate at Detroit Metropolitan Airport at 8:32PM on Sunday, August 16, 1987. It was cleared for takeoff at 8:44 and approximately 20 seconds later (according to witnesses) the wings rotated right and left about 35 degrees in each direction. The left wing hit a light pole and then the roof of an Avis Rent-A-Car building before slamming into the ground. The fiery wreckage spread out over nearby I-94 and killed two commuters on the freeway. News stories that followed after the crash reported the miraculous survival of four-year-old Cecilia Cichan, who'd been found alive, embraced in her deceased mother's arms. The wire services picked up the erroneous information and presented it as the one feel-good story amidst such an overwhelming tragedy, the ultimate act of motherly love "“ shielding your child's body with your own when disaster is imminent. In reality, Flight 255 went down too quickly for anyone to unbuckle and react, and when rescue personnel arrived on the scene, they found Cecilia alone, buckled into overturned seat number 8F. Cecilia suffered a broken leg and burns over 30% of her body. After being released from the University of Michigan hospital, she was raised by relatives in Alabama.

Vesna Vulovic and the Guinness Book Record

Picture 13JAT Yugoslav Flight 367 was 33,300 feet above Czechoslovakia on the afternoon of January 26, 1972, when it exploded. Vesna Vulovic, a 22-year-old flight attendant, plummeted to the ground inside a piece of the wreckage, pinned to a wall near the wing by a food service cart. Vulovic survived the fall but suffered a fractured skull, two broken legs and was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Shortly after the crash a Swedish newspaper received a phone call stating that a Croatian terrorist group known as Ustashe had planted a bomb in the forward cargo hold of the ill-fated DC-9. Vulovic, the sole survivor of the disaster, got her name in the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest fall survived without a parachute and became a celebrity in her native Yugoslavia. However, like many Cold War-era stories, it is possible that Vulovic's amazing tale suffers from a bit of Socialist spin-doctoring. Earlier this year two Czech journalists reviewed previously classified documents and found both official and eyewitness reports that state Flight 367 was actually much closer to the ground (about 2,600 feet) when it exploded. It is also suspected that it wasn't a bomb that downed the craft, but rather a Czechoslovakian missile which was fired at the plane when it accidentally strayed into military airspace.

Notes from an Airline Napkin

Picture 14Picture it: you're aboard a Boeing 747SR, a special short-range version of the famous jumbo jet, along with 508 other passengers anticipating a holiday weekend. Twelve minutes after takeoff, the air around you becomes white (due to the cold outside air entering the pressurized cabin) and your oxygen mask drops down. You feel the craft alternately falling and climbing, and the purser declares an emergency over the intercom. Do you A) whimper and lose control of your bladder, or B) jot down a final farewell to your loved ones on your cocktail napkin? Surprisingly, many of the passengers aboard Japan Air Lines Flight 123 chose "B" during the 32 minutes their pilot struggled to keep the plane aloft after the tail fin had fallen off. Despite the flight crew's heroic efforts, the 747 crashed into a pine-covered peak of Mount Takamagahara at 6:57PM on August 12, 1985. The weather and the harsh terrain delayed rescue efforts for nearly 14 hours, and when the first rescuers arrived on the scene they were astonished to find four survivors: Yumi Ochiai, an off-duty flight attendant wedged between two rows of seats, Hiroko Yoshizaki and her eight-year-old daughter, and 12-year-old Keiko Kawakami, who was stuck in the branches of a tree. All four women had been in the rear section of the plane when it crashed. Also found in the wreckage were notes that some passengers had hastily scribbled during the final moments of the flight: ""Machiko, take care of the kids," "Tetsuya, become respectable" and "I'm grateful for the truly happy life I have had until now."

Although experts tell us there are some ways in which you can increase your odds of surviving a plane crash (sit within five rows of an exit door, study the safety card, etc.), in many cases "“ like those noted above "“ it's simply an inexplicable luck of the draw. In instances of crashes where there was a sole survivor, 75% of those individuals were either a minor or a member of the flight crew. Yet according to the Airsafe.com Foundation, there is no logical explanation for that particular statistic. But speaking of statistics, even though 2.5 billion of us board a plane every year, we are still more likely to be involved in an automobile accident than a plane crash.

July 9, 2009 - 11:23am
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