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Sole survivors in airline crashes

by Josh 12. May 2010 17:15
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Today’s crash in Libya was at least the third of its sort in the past few years to weave a small miracle into its largely tragic story.

A 10-year-old boy from the Netherlands was in good condition Wednesday in a Libyan hospital, aside from a few broken bones, and despite 103 other people around him perishing.

Last July, 14-year-old Bahia Bakari survived a Yemenia Airways crash in the Indian Ocean that killed 152 others as the weak swimmer clutched to a piece of wreckage in the choppy waters.

First officer James M. Polehinke survived a Comair CRJ-100 that crashed on takeoff in Lexington, Ky., in August 2006, killing 49. He was the only one to live through it.

All three share an improbable connection:  They are a sole survivor of a commercial aircraft crash.

In the past 40 years, 14 airliner crashes resulted in a single person surviving. In an overwhelming number of cases (about 75 percent), just as the three above, a child or crewmember was that fortunate soul.

Some speculate that the training of a staff member or the not-fully-developed skeleton or lighter weight of a young person may slightly increase the odds of survival. In the larger scope, though, it’s like changing a baseball game by throwing a blade of grass onto the field. So much is left to be determined by forces we do not understand.

Juliane Köpck, 17 years old at the time, survived more than a week on her own in the Peruvian jungle after being the only person to survive a 1971 crash. She routinely defied every astronomical improbability thrown her way.

It is important to note that all three of these recent incidents occurred near take-off or landing, as do the bulk of aircraft crashes.

However, Popular Mechanics not too long ago published a story explaining what one would need to do to survive a 35,000-foot fall from a jetliner in mid-cruise. The article’s conclusion: protect your head, try to land in a soft swamp or snowdrift and hope you are lucky.

The article cites the Aircraft Crashes Record Office in Geneva to conclude that of the 118,934 people to die in 15,463 plane crashes between 1940 and 2008, only 42 survivors made it through the experience alive after falling from a height over 10,000 feet.

Like many things, crash survival stories are mysteries. The latest chapter makes one wonder whether such events are random happenings. A compilation of sole-survivor crashes from the AP shows the rarity.

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