Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Thursday, 13 May 2010 17:03 UK

How do 'lone survivors' of air disasters cope?

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

Ten-year-old Dutch boy Ruben van Ashout will always be known as the "lone survivor" or "miracle boy" of the Afriqiyah Airways tragedy. But how do such survivors cope with life after all others have perished?

Wreckage of the Afriqiyah plane
Officials have offered no immediate explanation for Ruben's survival

Ruben van Ashout was the only passenger to survive when the Airbus 330 broke up during a landing manoeuvre in the Libyan capital.

Ruben, who is believed to have been travelling with his parents, is recovering in a hospital in Tripoli.

Already his experience is being hailed as a miracle, recalling that of 13-year-old Parisian schoolgirl Baya Bakari.

In June, 2009, she was the sole survivor of a Yemenia Airways flight that crashed into the Indian Ocean near Comoros, killing 152 people.

Baya's survival is widely referred to as one of the most amazing escapes in aviation history.

Previously, there had only been 12 cases of sole survival from a commercial air crash since 1970, according to Two-thirds of them were either flight crew members or children.

Rebuilding life

In a detailed account after the tragedy, she recalled clinging to a piece of metal gasping for breath in the waves.

Relative hold tribute to those who perished in the Yemenia crash
Relatives of the crash off the coast of Comoros held a tribute to 152 victims

She said it was not until she was in hospital, after being plucked out of the water by rescuers, that she realised that she had been in an air crash.

At first Baya thought she had fallen out of the plane because she had been pressing too hard against the window with her forehead. She feared that her mother would be worried about her.

But then she learned that her mother, too, had died.

"I began to understand the atrocious reality: I was not the only one to fall from the plane," she wrote later.

"All of the passengers, the pilot, the crew had fallen from the plane. Mummy, she fell from the plane, too, like me, perhaps right next to me."

Today, Baya lives with her father in a suburb of Paris. Her memoir - Moi Bahia, La Miraculee - was published in January and she is now reported to be focusing on trying to rebuild a normal life as a schoolgirl.

Still strapped in

Juliane Kopcke, who as a 17-year-old schoolgirl was the sole survivor out of 93 passengers and crew, knows what it is like to constantly relive such an a event.

It's very painful - you feel guilty - even if what happened isn't your fault
Juliane Kopcke

It is almost 40 years since she fell more than 3kms (two miles) after the plane in which she was travelling broke up in mid-air above the Peruvian rainforest.

She landed still strapped into her seat, suffering a broken collarbone and other injuries. For nine days, she trekked through the forest to find help.

Speaking to the BBC's Ray Furlong last year, she explained how the experience changed her life.

"I live life much more consciously than before," she said. "Because I realised that you can't take it for granted that you're alive... That's what really affected me."

She says that she was left with a feeling that she had to do something with her life, "to live in the moment and realise that it is not a given that you're healthy - any day something could happen to you."

The latest tragedy will undoubtedly bring back memories.

Survivors' guilt

"I still I think about it a lot, particularly, of course, when there is an air crash," she said. "But at other times as well. That experience follows me where ever I go."

Survivor of Tripoli plane crash
Libyan TV showed the child who survived being treated in hospital

Many who survive such disasters - particularly sole survivors - suffer from what is known as "survivors' guilt".

One aspect of this is feeling somewhat unworthy of survival. Then there is the feeling of isolation, as there is no survivors' network in which experiences can be shared and bonds formed.

Juliane - who is now known as Dr Juliane Diller and whose experience has been the subject of two films - described the guilt and emotional pain she went through as a lone survivor.

"It was less of a problem that I couldn't talk to anyone, but that I was the only survivor and everyone else had to die," she said. "I can't get that out of my head.

"Why, why me? It's very painful - you feel guilty - even if what happened isn't your fault. It's a real problem."

Psychologist Trisha McCaffery recognises such emotions among survivors but explains that not everyone will necessarily suffer survivors' guilt.

"Everyone is individual and have different coping strategies," she told the BBC.

"[Ruben] will have flashbacks and remember his fear as he grows up. But he won't necessarily feel guilty.

"He's going to feel sad, and it depends on how that's framed for him - if he helped to understand that he has nothing to do with it, and no responsibility."

The 10-year-old will not only have to deal with the trauma of the accident, but with the loss of significant carers, said Ms McCaffery.

"Usually you get an intensive adrenalin rush, and you need to talk at the beginning," she said.

"Not everybody is the same, but often shortly after the event they want to get the event straight in their head and talk about it."


Cecelia Cichan, the only survivor of a tragic crash almost 23 years ago, has never spoken publicly about the event.

The plane the youngster was travelling in with her parents and brother crashed shortly after leaving Detroit Metropolitan airport in 1987, killing 155 passengers and crew, as well as two people on the ground.

Her story captured the attention not only the US but the rest of the world, and she received thousands of cards and presents from well-wishers.

According to a report in the First Coast News Celia was raised by an aunt and uncle who steadfastly protected her from publicity.

Psychologist Ms McCaffery believes this is crucial in such cases involving young children.

The media, she said, "can be very intrusive" and "from a child's perspective strangers trying to get close and asking questions can be quite frightening."

Ruben van Ashout's story has also captured the attention of the world. He is expected to make a full recovery, but few can guess what psychological scars he may carry with him.

Child survives Tripoli air crash
12 May 10 |  Africa
'Miracle' of Comoros crash girl
01 Jul 09 |  Africa
In pictures: Libya crash
12 May 10 |  In Pictures
Air disasters timeline
24 May 10 |  Special Reports

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