Project Sole Survivor Preview
I can’t remember exactly when I first learned about the project called Sole Survivor, most likely sometime in mid-2012, but the project has certainly captivated me since. Expected to be released sometime in 2013, Sole Survivor is a documentary film by independent filmmaker Ky Dickens that takes a look at the individuals who have been the lone survivor of a large commercial plane crash. In the history of aviation, this has only happened 14 times, where everyone on board has perished, except for one survivor.
The immediate reaction to these statistics is that these people certainly must be among the luckiest individuals on the planet. But that isn't necessarily the case. The psychological scars and guilt of being the only person to survive a horrific plane crash weighs heavily on these individuals. To this day only four of the lone survivors have been able to come forward to talk about their struggles in understanding why they were spared and what it all means. The film takes a look at the lives of these four individuals.
For some the guilt lingers, and the search for answers remains. Was I spared for some higher purpose? If so what is it? Why me and not someone else? They all share the same grief and feeling that although they were lucky to survive the accident, how do they now live their lives with this distinction? This dramatic documentary will take an in depth look at the lives of four individuals, and gives them a platform to be heard for the first time. For the remaining ten, the choice to remain silent only further proves that the emotional and psychological scars of such a life-changing event are difficult to come to terms with.
While they all understand that there is a certain amount of interest and fascination with their lives, some have been reluctant to talk about their lives out of respect for the families that lost loved ones. Many feel guilty talking openly about surviving when so many others perished. The four individuals who agreed to take part in the project are highlighted here.
George Lamson Jr.
Galaxy Airlines flight 203 was scheduled to fly from Reno, Nevada to Minneapolis, Minnesota on January 21, 1985. Shortly after takeoff the plane experienced extreme vibration and the pilots requested permission to turn the plane around and return to the airport. Not realizing the source of the problem, the pilots reduced the power to all four of the plane’s engines to see if they were causing the vibration. This reduced the planes speed and caused the plane to stall and crash before reaching the runway.
George Lamson Jr. was just seventeen at the time. Upon impact he was thrown clear of the airplane while still buckled to his seat. He was attended to by paramedics but was able to pretty much walk away from the crash. Two other passengers survived the initial crash but died shortly after from their injuries. In all, the crash killed 75 people including the entire crew. The only survivor was George Lamson Jr. who lost his father on the flight. George Lamson Sr. was one of the two other initial survivors who died days after the accident.
Today George Lamson ironically lives only a few blocks from the site of the accident in Reno, Nevada. He is one of the few members of the group of 14 who has sought to connect with the other survivors in an attempt to make sense of it all and to heal.
Northwest Airlines Flight 255 was taking off from Detroit’s Metropolitan Wayne County Airport on August 16, 1987, in route to Phoenix, Arizona and then on to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. The flight crashed shortly after takeoff and killed 156 people, including two on the ground. The only survivor of the accident was a four-year old girl, Cecelia Cichan. Her mother, father, and six-year old brother were among the fatalities.
After recovering from her injuries, which were severe, she was raised by relatives in Birmingham, Alabama. She remained silent for years out of respect for the families that lost loved ones but decided to speak out for the first time in the documentary because the project was more about the group than just the individual.
Today, Cecelia is happily married and hopes to return to her private life after the documentary is released. She has kept in touch with the families of some of the victims and also with Lt. John Thiede, the firefighter who pulled her from the crash. Lt. Thiede met Cecelia for the first time since the crash on her wedding day.
When Yemenia Flight 626 left Sana’s International Airport in Yemen for the Indian Ocean island of Comoros on June 30, 2009, 14 year-old Bahia Bakari knew only that she was headed for a summer vacation with her mother. Having departed from Paris with stops in Marseille and Yemen, Bahia and her mother were just minutes from landing in Comoros when the Airbus A310 plunged into the ocean nine miles from the coast of Grande Comore Island. The crash killed 152 of the 153 people on board the flight with Bahia Bakari being the sole-survivor.
Having little swimming experience and with no life jacket, Bakari clutched a piece of wreckage and hung on for dear life through the long cold night, alone in the Indian Ocean. It wasn't until over nine hours later that she was rescued from the floating wreckage of the airplane. Flown back to Paris for treatment of her injuries, Bakari was immediately labeled the miracle girl by the press. She recovered from her injuries and in 2010 released a French memoir detailing her account of the ordeal. She has since turned down an offer from Steven Spielberg to turn her book into a movie.
Bahia has the dubious distinction of being the survivor of the deadliest sole-survivor ocean airplane crash, and the second deadliest sole-survivor accident ever. In the summer of 2011, Bahia met another sole-survivor, George Lamson, who made the journey to France to meet with her.
Of all 14 sole-survivors, the most compelling story certainly must be that of pilot Jim Polehinke. That’s right, Pilot Jim Polehinke. You see Jim was the co-pilot of Comair Flight 5191 that crashed in Lexington, Kentucky on August 27, 2006. Pulled from the wreckage with life threatening injuries, Jim was rushed to the hospital where he remained in a coma following surgery to amputate his left leg. Jim suffered brain damage in the crash and has no memory of the events leading up to the crash.
When Jim awoke from his coma he was greeted with the crushing news of his leg. But even more devastating to Jim was the news that everyone else on the airplane; all 49 passengers and crew were killed in the crash. Living with this news for most people would be difficult at best. But when the National Transportation Safety Board released their findings that the crash was due to pilot error, and Jim was actually flying the plane at the time, one can certainly understand Jim’s emotional struggle to come to grips with his surviving this accident.
There are many other elements that led up to the tragic crash of Comair Flight 5191, and although the NTSB issued their findings concerning cockpit error, there were other findings in their report that could have prevented this crash. Key among these was the fact that Comair Flight 5191 was on the wrong runway, one that was too short for the airplane to takeoff. Why and how this went unnoticed are certainly valid questions and this ultimately was the reason for the accident.
I have to admit that since reading about project Sole-Survivor I've had a hard time not thinking about this every time I step aboard an airplane. Aircraft fly so fast and so high that it is hard to envision anyone surviving a serious crash, which all of these were. No one but the fourteen individuals who have been the sole-survivor of a crash could possibly know how it feels to live with this distinction.
If you have a further interest in project Sole-Survivor you can visit their web site which is listed here. The film was completed in September, 2012 and should be released sometime in 2013. I am anxiously awaiting its release. The documentary was selected as the Indiewire’s project of the Month for September 2012, and filmmaker Ky Dickens was interviewed on the Today show in August 2012, where she discussed the project with NBC’s Janet Shamlian.
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© 2013 Bill De Giulio