I was the sole survivor: 4 stories of plane crash survival

updated 6:00 PM EST, Wed January 8, 2014

How would you feel if you were the only survivor of an airplane accident?

Four people tell their amazing stories in "Sole Survivor."

(CNN) — It's a terrifying, life-changing experience that few of us can fully understand: survival of a large plane crash.

Only a handful of people have come through major plane crashes alive and alone. CNN Films' "Sole Survivors" examines four of those stories: The toddler, the "Miracle Girl," the co-pilot and the seeker. They survived when no one else did.

But they still cope with confusion, guilt and the complicated emotional aftermath of what it means to be a sole survivor.

La Miraculée ("The Miracle Girl")

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Bahia was hospitalized after rescuers found her floating on plane wreckage without a life vest. She’d been clinging to it for over nine hours.

After her airliner crashed into the Indian Ocean off the island nation of Comoros in 2009, Bahia Bakari clung to a piece of plane wreckage for more than nine hours without a life vest. She was only 13. Among the dead were her mother and 151 others. The news media dubbed her La Miraculée, or the Miracle Girl. Now an adult, Bakari sometimes closes herself off, her father says. He thinks it would help her to spend time with others who've suffered the same trauma.

Details

  • Flight: Yemenia Flight 626
  • Route: Sanaa, Yemen, to Moroni, Comoros
  • Aircraft: Airbus A310
  • Investigation: "The accident was caused by inappropriate actions of the crew on the flight controls" after the plane stalled, according to investigators.
  • Read the investigation report (PDF)
  • Read more about the crash

The toddler

Cecelia Cichan was just 4 when she alone survived a 1987 airliner crash in Detroit that killed 154 passengers and crew. The disaster claimed the lives of her entire immediate family, including both parents and her brother. Rescuers found her alive under a seat not far from their bodies. Now an adult, she has a tattoo of an airliner on her left wrist, signifying a fiery ordeal that she has no memory of. Cichan remains protective of her privacy and unsure how much she wants to share her experience with others. She says she feels "almost inferior" because others "had to work to survive, and I just woke up in the hospital."

Details

  • Flight: Northwest Airlines Flight 255
  • Route: Detroit to Phoenix
  • Aircraft: McDonnell Douglas MD-82
  • Investigation: The flight crew failed to set the plane's flaps and slats correctly for takeoff, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. A warning system failed to alert them of the problem, which probably caused the crash, said an NTSB report.
  • Read the investigation report (PDF)

The co-pilot

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Somehow co-pilot Jim Polehinke survived inside the plane's mangled cockpit. "It was as if an angel had wrapped his arms around him and held him," his wife said.

An airline co-pilot, Jim Polehinke was at the controls in 2006 when his jetliner crashed during takeoff from Lexington, Kentucky, killing all 49 others on board. Polehinke lost his left leg as a result of the incident. He has spent years fighting accusations by investigators that he and his pilot were to blame. Recently, his emotional journey has led him out of darkness and anger. He's turned a corner onto a more enriching and hopeful path.

Details

  • Flight: Comair Flight 5191
  • Route: Lexington, Kentucky, to Atlanta
  • Aircraft: Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet 100ER
  • Investigation: The flight crew failed "to use available cues and aids to identify the airplane's location on the airport surface during taxi," the NTSB said. The crew also failed "to cross-check and verify that the airplane was on the correct runway before takeoff."
  • Read the investigation report (PDF)

The seeker

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Firefighters douse wreckage of a Lockheed Electra which crashed January 21, 1985, killing all 71 on board, except George Lamson Jr.

George Lamson Jr. is on a quest. The only survivor of a 1985 airline crash that killed his father and 69 others in Reno, Nevada, Lamson has been seeking out sole survivors like himself, to learn from them but also to help them. Moments before the doomed takeoff, Lamson and his father changed seats. Lamson will never know whether that decision saved his life. As the plane was about to crash, Lamson made a pact with God that if he survived, he would work to do good and help others. He desperately wishes to honor that promise.

Details

  • Flight: Galaxy Airlines Flight 203
  • Route: Reno, Nevada, to Minneapolis
  • Aircraft: Lockheed Electra L-188
  • Investigation: The crash was probably caused by the failure of the captain and copilot to control and monitor the plane's flight path and airspeed after an "unexpected vibration shortly after takeoff," according to the NTSB. Ground handlers "failed to properly close an air start access door, which led to the vibration," the NTSB said.
  • Read the investigation report (PDF)