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Helping fellow plane crash survivors has changed my life

By George Lamson Jr., Special to CNN
updated 10:49 AM EST, Fri January 10, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The sole survivor of a large plane crash explains why he reaches out to survivors of other crashes
  • George Lamson Jr. is the only survivor of Galaxy Airlines Flight 203 in 1985
  • When asked about the crash, Lamson says people show awe, pity and awkwardness
  • Lamson and three other people are profiled in a CNN documentary "Sole Survivor"

Editor's note: George Lamson Jr. is the only survivor of Galaxy Airlines Flight 203. He shared his experiences surrounding the disaster as part of coverage of CNN Films' documentary "Sole Survivor."

(CNN) -- In 1985, when I was 17, I boarded a charter airliner in Reno, Nevada, that crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 70 people. I lost my father, whom I loved very dearly. Upon impact, I was thrown from the plane, and I walked away as one of the only survivors. Two weeks after the accident, I was left the only one alive.

Over the past 29 years, I've tried to contact everyone I can around the world who's been an only survivor of a large plane crash. There aren't that many; we've counted only 14.

Reaching out to other sole survivors has made a major difference in my life. It has helped me expand my understanding of what happened to me. It has also helped me be of some help to my fellow sole survivors.

Here's what I've learned along the way: Sole survivors -- including myself -- are more prone to keep their stories to themselves.

Co-pilot survived crash that killed 49
CNN Films 'Sole Survivor': Bahia's story
CNN Films: Sole Survivor
At 4, she survived crash that killed kin

That can create a battle between our desire to help others by sharing experiences and our fear of being misunderstood.

For me, on bad days, fear wins this battle. But when I'm able to help others, even in a small way, that's a good day.

In fact, I'm fighting that battle inside myself right now as I write this.

Let me try to explain as best I can.

A lot of strange things have happened to me, before the accident, at the scene of the accident and after the accident. I've come to interpret some of these things in ways that are highly spiritual. I've found that many people are not responsive to someone's spiritual experience. So I would keep it to myself.

When people ask me about who I am and my accident comes up, I automatically feel guarded.

Their first reaction is one of surprise and awe.

Then it turns to pity.

Then it leads to awkwardness.

This is a trait I see in the other survivors I have encountered.

One of the great things about meeting another sole survivor is that I don't feel like I'm someone who's different.

When I'm with a sole survivor, we connect without fear of pre-judgment. We can relate to each others' feelings of loss, confusion and sadness.

I found it difficult to seek out others for help, because I was so wrapped up in my perception of what happened to me.

I would look at the accident as my tragedy.

I later came to realize that there were hundreds of others who also had lost family and friends.

I wasn't really alone.

I was fearful to reach out to these people because I was afraid of their judgment of me. I didn't think I was worthy of the gift of being alive. I know it sounds weird, but that is what I felt.

Meeting with Bahia Bakari, who became the only survivor of a plane crash in the Indian Ocean by floating alone on wreckage for more than nine hours, and James Polehinke, who was piloting a regional jetliner that crashed on takeoff in Kentucky, helped me understand the similarities of our experiences.

Bahia, who lives in France, told me that she would face other kids who would look at her as if she were a subject of conversation rather than a person.

She did the best she could to surround herself with people who accepted her for who she is.

Jim has the burden of being the sole survivor of Comair Flight 5191, and he was one of the pilots. He has to live with the burden of being at the controls of the aircraft that killed 49 passengers and crew.

I've reached out to Cecelia Cichan, who lived through a crash in 1987 when she was 4. Although we've communicated by letter and e-mail, I believe the only reason we haven't met up yet is because of the distance between us. Eventually, I believe we will meet.

On top of the difficulties of surviving a disaster, there's also the effects of media attention. I went through all of that (but without the Internet).

I believe that being just a phone call away from each other can only be helpful for survivors like us. Bahia, Jim, Cecelia and I are still in touch.

I say "us" because I get something out of this, too.

I get to help someone find their own answers. That is always a good thing!

Bahia, Jim, Cecelia and I share a unique experience which very few others in this world have lived.

I never thought anyone else could understand, except these people.

What I discovered is, I was able to break through some mental barriers by opening up to fellow sole survivors.

I believe we mutually benefited from this. Now, because of it, I feel much more comfortable talking openly to others about my experience.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of George Lamson Jr.

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