On January 26, 1972, a Yugoslavian passenger plane flying 33,000 feet above then-Czechoslovakia exploded, ripped apart, and plummeted into the ground, killing 27 of the 28 passengers and crew. Vesna Vulovic, a flight attendant, was the only one to survive the crash. Vulovic holds the Guinness World Record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute, a feat that is still essentially unexplained. Perhaps the plane crumpled in just the right way to absorb enough shock to keep Vulovic alive. Perhaps the food cart that pinned her down acted as a safety belt. Or perhaps, as some suggest, Vulovic didn’t in fact fall from 33,000 feet. A recent investigation suggested that the plane was accidentally shot down by the Czechoslovakian air force while it was flying far lower. Regardless of how it happened, or how far she fell, Vulovic was still the only one to live.
Since 1970 there have been 14 sole survivor crashes of commercial aircraft. In about a third of them, the lone survivor is a child or a crewmember. In 2003, the only survivor of a Sudan Airways crash was a 3-year-old boy. The rest of the 117 passengers and crew headed for Khartoum died when the plane crashed into a nearby hill just after takeoff. In 1992, when a Vietnam Airlines flight crashed just 12 miles from its destination, it took rescue teams eight days to find the only survivor, Annette Herfkens. Herfkens wasn’t the only one to survive the crash, but she was the only one who survived in the mountains long enough to be rescued. In the aftermath, some families were sent the wrong bodies.
These stories are horrible, certainly, but the chances that they might happen to any one person are incredibly small. Every day, 2 million passengers board 30,000 flights. An American’s annual risk for dying in a plane crash is 1 in 11 million. The chance of being the only one not to die is even tinier. And it is perhaps these events’ unlikeliness that makes them so difficult to live with.
In the 1960s psychologists began talking about “survivor’s guilt”—guilt that someone feels when they live while others in similar situations die. Holocaust survivors are some of the most common sufferers of this condition. Over 70 percent of soldiers who attempt suicide report survivor guilt. In 1987, a British ferry setting off from Belgium capsized and killed 193 people. In the aftermath, psychologist Stephen Joseph found that many survivors expressed guilt for having made it out alive.
But these were all tragedies shared by many people; for those who are the single survivors, guilt can become an incredible burden. “I can’t get that out of my head. Why, why me?” asked Juliane Kopcke, who at 18 was the only survivor out of 93 passengers an crew on a 1971 flight to Pucallpa, Peru. “It’s very painful—you feel guilty—even if what happened isn’t your fault.” Not only do they face survivor guilt, but they face it alone.
When Cecelia Crocker was 4 years old, she got on a plane with her family at Detroit’s Metro Airport. Just as it took off, the plane struck a light pole, rolled left, hit the roof of a nearby Avis rental car building, and eventually broke into pieces and exploded into flames. Crocker was the only survivor—something she didn’t find out until middle school. She is one of four sole survivors featured in a recent documentary about people like herself—those who were unlucky to be in terrible tragedies, lucky in one sense to survive, and deeply troubled about why it all happened to them.
Rose Eveleth is Nautilus’ special media manager.