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The miracle of Flight 771

In a Libyan hospital bed, a little Dutch boy is said by doctors to be "recovering well" after surgery for multiple fractures to his legs.

Considering that nine-year-old Ruben van Assouw was on an Airbus that hit the ground with such force that smouldering shards of metal were thrown half-a-mile from the point of impact, he is -- to use a well-worn phrase -- lucky to be alive.

Or perhaps "lucky" is the wrong word here.

The boy is in pain, in a hospital in a strange country more from than 1,000 miles from home, tended by medical staff who do not speak a word of his language, nor he of theirs.


The only way he could give them a clue to his identity was by repeating: "Holland, Holland!" Even if the arrival of an aunt and uncle at his bedside after two lonely days cheered him up, no one will be smiling as the visitors break the news that his parents are dead.

We love stories of survival and astounding good fortune. The tale of someone who was on the Titanic and lived to tell the tale is so much more cheering and engrossing than the grief of the loved ones of the thousands who drowned.

It is cheering that a child can survive an impact like that of Flight 771 outside Tripoli airport early on Wednesday, which destroyed the Airbus A330, killing all the other 103 people on board, including Irish author Bree O'Mara (42). When the boy leaves hospital, hopefully with no lasting external injuries, they will want to celebrate to welcome him back to his home town of Tilburg.

But at this stage nobody knows what the long-term psychological effects will be on a child who has been through so terrifying an experience and suffered so traumatic a loss.

It is likely that Ruben will be living with the aftermath of Wednesday's catastrophe well into his adult life.

He joins a list of more than a dozen known examples of sole survivors from air disasters.


Sometimes, for freak reasons that defy satisfactory explanation, one person emerges from the wreckage of a crashed aircraft when everyone else on board is dead. Often, that person is a child.

Bahia Bakari, a 12-year-old girl from Paris, had world fame thrust upon her after a Yemeni airbus crashed into the Indian Ocean on 30 June, 2009, killing all the other 152 passengers. Thrown into the sea without a life jacket, and barely able to swim, with a broken collarbone and burns to her knees, she was adrift for 13 hours, most of it in pitch darkness, clinging to the wreckage, until a rescue ship arrived. Her mother died.

Another extraordinary story of survival is that of 12-year-old Francesca Lewis, from Santa Barbara, California, who was in a light aircraft with her best friend from school, her friend's father, and the pilot, when it crashed into a volcano in Panama, in freezing fog. Weather conditions were so bad that it took rescuers two days just to find the wreck. They found three people dead, but Francesca was strapped in her seat, upside down, dressed only in shorts and a T-shirt, hungry but unhurt. Luggage tumbling around her had protected her from the cold.

In 1987, a plane crashed soon after take off in Detroit, killing 158 people, including all the passengers except a four-year-old girl, who suffered serious burns but survived. In 1997, a Russian plane used by a Vietnamese airline crashed in neighbouring Cambodia, all but one of those on board. The survivor was a one-year-old boy. In 2003, a two-year-old was pulled alive from the wreckage of a Sudanese airbus in which 115 passengers were killed.

These cases suggest that children have a higher chance of survival because of their size. Their heads and legs are not protruding from their chairs, vulnerable to flying wreckage.

Or if they fall to the ground, their relative lightness gives children a better chance of having their fall broken by trees or vegetation.


There have also been examples of adults emerging alive from plane crashes -- only to find that when the physical injuries have healed, the emotional scars remain.

Survivors' guilt is a well-known phenomenon.

One famous sufferer was Waylon Jennings, the guitarist in Buddy Holly's backing band, who gave up his seat to another musician on the plane in which Holly was killed. He is reputed to have suffered guilty feelings for years.