Plane crash survivors are hard enough to believe when we see them on TV or film. Occasionally, though, such events do happen in real life; and when there happens to be only a single survivor from a crashed flight, it becomes much more astonishing than anything a Hollywood screenwriter could pen. But for these people who have somehow miraculously survived a plane crash, this is their reality. They have to deal with the relentless stigma and trauma of being a “sole survivor” as they attempt to piece back their life together from among the wreckage of the aircraft. Many of them have lost loved ones in the plane; many suffer from overbearing post-traumatic stress and survivor guilt; many are hounded by the media and prevented from grieving in peace. Below are 7 of the most amazing survivor stories ever to have taken place and the brave people who have persevered and endured through them.
- Glen Kidston
The first recorded instance of a sole survivor, Glen Kidston is the epitome of the word. Being one of the Bentley Boys (a group of wealthy young British men who raced Bentleys across Europe in various Gran Prix events), Kidston survived numerous close shaves both onboard his motorcycle and his Bentley. In WWI he served as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy and was torpedoed three times, remarkably all in the same day! 15 years later, in 1929, Kidston was travelling from the UK to Holland in a German airliner when the plane crashed. Kidston was set alight but extinguished the flames by rolling in wet grass, before returning to the plane to drag a fellow traveller clear. Unfortunately his efforts were in vain as the other passenger died and the inferno prevented Kidston from attempting to save anyone else. He was hospitalised with extreme burns, and eventually died a year later – in another plane crash.
- Hannah Luce
From the first recorded instance of a sole survivor, to the most recent. In 2012 Hannah Luce was travelling on a private aircraft with 4 other passengers on her way to a Christian youth rally in Iowa. An hour and a half into the flight, the journey was brought to an abrupt end when the plane went down in Kansas, bursting into flames. Three of the passengers were killed on impact, though one other, Austin Anderson, a marine who had served two tours in Iraq, was still conscious. Anderson succeeded in pulling Luce from the wreckage and saving her life. Anderson himself, who had suffered burns on 90% of his body, later died from his injuries, but Luce was taken to the Kansas University Medical Centre, where she stated, “I have all these burns… but I’m here. I’m here.” Luce went on to found the Mirror Tree, an organisation which seeks to help victims of severe trauma, such as rape, genocide and civil war.
- Norman Ollestad
In 1979, 11-year-old Norman Ollestad was taking a private flight along with his father and father’s girlfriend to pick up a skiing trophy the youngster had won. Low-lying cloud made visibility for the flight very poor; but it was only when young Norman spotted tree branches brushing the plane’s windows that they realised how low-lying the clouds were. By then it was too late – the plane crashed, killing the pilot and Norman’s father. He and the girlfriend escaped, and attempted to make the 9-hour descent from the San Gabriel Mountains to safety, but, after slipping, she fell to her death as well. Norman managed to make it down, alone, by using the lessons he had learned skiing, and by implementing his father’s good advice: “never give up.” He has since written a book about his experiences, as well as a fiction novel entitled Driftwood.
- Julian Koepcke
In 1971, German teenager boarded a flight with her mother bound for Pucallpa, Peru, in the Amazon rainforest where her father was waiting at the zoological research station run by the two parents. They had misgivings about the carrier, LANSA, who had a blemished track record with crashes, but wished to make it to the outpost in time for Christmas. However, midway over the dense jungle the plane was hit by a bolt of lightning, destroying its right wing and sending it hurtling toward the canopy. Everyone on board was killed – except for the 17-year-old, who, despite falling 3000m through the branches, somehow survived with only minor injuries. However, she was still stranded in the middle of the Amazon rainforest with no food. She recalled the advice of her father if she ever found herself in such a situation and followed the first creek she encountered, ignoring crocodiles she passed by – in her own words, she knew “crocodiles don’t tend to attack humans”. After an unbelievable 10 days of abandonment in the jungle with only rainwater to sustain herself, she was finally rescued by Peruvian lumberjacks. Crash survival experts are still stumped as to how she survived the fall, let alone 10 days alone in one of the most unforgiving habitats on planet Earth. She now works as a librarian in the Munich Zoological Center.
- Vesna Vulovic
Working as an hour hostess aboard a Czechoslovakian flight in 1972, Vesna Vulovic became the sole survivor of a terrorist attack. A bomb exploded on board the aircraft, killing every other person on board and destroying the plane. Amazingly, Vulovic fell over 10000m and suffered a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae and two broken legs. Her injuries temporarily paralysed her from the waist down but she eventually recovered completely. She holds the Guinness World Record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute, an accolade she received from Sir Paul McCartney in 1997. She lost her memory of the accident and continued to work a desk job for the airline, until her dismissal in 1990 for criticising the political regime of Slobodan Milôsević. She continues to be politically active in Serbia.
- Cecilia Cichan
In 1987, Cecilia Cichan became the sole survivor of the largest recorded flight disaster – all 156 people on board the aircraft were killed, as well as 2 on the ground. The Northwest Flight 255 was scheduled to leave Detroit, though unfortunately it never fully got in the air. During the take-off, the left-wing struck a light pole, scraped the roof of a car rental building and crashed into vehicles on a nearby road before exploding into flames. Everyone on board perished, except for 4-year-old Cecilia, who had been thrust clear. Cichan refused to talk to the media about the incident up until this year, when, at the age of 30, she took part in a documentary called “Sole Survivor”. She now has a tattoo of an aeroplane on her wrist to ensure she never forgets where she came from.
- Bruce Mallibert
In 1973, naval officer Bruce Mallibert became the only person to have ever survived a mid-air collision between two planes. The anti-submarine patrol Mallibert was travelling in collided with a jet over a golf course, exploding both aircraft instantly and killed the 16 other people involved in the accident. Mallibert was covered with his parachute by a golfer, who mistakenly believed Mallibert was dead. However, the Petty Officer was still alive, although now the survivor was obscured from view and as a result was subsequently run over by a fire-truck. Luckily the wheels missed his body, and unbelievably, and against all the odds, Mallibert survived. Doctors who had given him little or no chance of living witnessed his rehabilitation and eventual return to walking. Years later, Mallibert toured schools to talk to young people about the dangers of drug abuse and the importance of staying in school.