Essay On Surviving A Plane Crash

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Former Wall Street trader Annette Herfkens, 55, a Dutch native now living on New York’s Upper East Side, was the sole survivor of a horrifying 1992 plane crash in Vietnam. At the time, she was 31, living in Madrid, and engaged to her boyfriend of 13 years — who died in the accident, along with the 22 other passengers and six crew members. Herfkens’ extraordinary memoir, “Turbulence,” is out Tuesday. She tells The Post’s Jane Ridley her inspiring story of physical and psychological endurance.

My head is light. The plants around me are radiant. I do not feel the pain any longer. I am both out of my body and close to my body. I have left, but I am present.

Darkness is mixed with brightness, the day with the night. I feel as protected as I possibly can be. I have surrendered myself completely. To the trees, the leaves, the crickets, the ants, the centipedes, life. Or is it to death I have surrendered? I am within the moment. A timeless moment of ecstatic freedom. A moment that gives me peace, unity and joy.

That was my near-death experience on my penultimate day in the Vietnamese jungle — eight days after the plane I was on crashed into a remote mountain ridge. Although seriously injured, I was the only survivor. The other 29 passengers and crew, including my 36-year-old fiancé, Willem van der Pas, whom I called Pasje, all perished.

It was Saturday, Nov. 14, 1992, when Pasje and I boarded Vietnamese Airlines Flight VN474 from Ho Chi Minh City for a romantic five-day vacation in Nha Trang, a resort on the South China Sea.

The trip was a surprise for me — visiting from Madrid, where I was temporarily based with Santander Bank — and to provide much-needed respite for Pasje, who had moved to Vietnam six months earlier to set up two banking branches for his employer, ING.

We had been together for 13 years after meeting at Leiden University in our native Netherlands as students. We knew we were destined to get married from the fourth year of college. After school, we lived for a while in Amsterdam; later, because of our work as bankers, we lived together or apart in various financial capitals in South America and Europe.

When I arrived in Vietnam, it had been eight weeks since I’d seen Pasje. We were aching to be together. As usual, he met me at the airport, then took me on a whirlwind tour of the city before an intimate dinner at one of his favorite restaurants. We were blissfully happy. Neither of us could wait for the day when we could tie the knot and hopefully live somewhere like New York City and start a family.

I was excited for the surprise getaway. But I felt so claustrophobic, I shuddered as we boarded the cramped Vietnam Airlines plane. “Can’t we take a car instead?” I asked Pasje.

“The jungle is very dense, and the road is horrible,” he replied. “It would take days. By the time we get there, we would have to leave again.”

I sat down nervously. Fifty excruciating minutes later, we experienced a tremendous drop, and Pasje looked at me with fear. “Of course, a sh - - tty little toy plane drops like this!” I said, reaching for his hand. “It’s just an air pocket — don’t worry.”

But he was right to worry. We dropped again. Someone screamed. It went pitch-black. Seconds later, we made impact.

I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I guess I tumbled around in the cabin like a lonely piece of laundry in a clothes dryer, hitting my head and limbs against the ceiling and lockers. I may have been the only one not wearing a seat belt.

At some point I must have landed and slipped under a seat, legs first, and gotten stuck. This kept me in place for the second, bigger impact, which caused the plane to break up.

I awoke after four, maybe five hours. I saw Pasje across the aisle. He was lying in his seat, which had somehow flipped backward, and had a smile on his lips. A sweet little smile. But he was dead, his ribs crushed into his lungs by his seat belt.

Shock must have set in, because I don’t remember crawling out of the plane. Soon, I was sitting outside of the cabin, on a mountain slope, under the trees in dense undergrowth. Everything hurt and I couldn’t move. My wraparound skirt had been torn off and I could see four inches of bluish bone sticking out through layers of flesh on my shin.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my hips were fractured, I had a collapsed lung, and my jaw was hanging loose. As the days went on, gangrene set into my toes.

There was a weird, unreal reality. Everything was green. The more I listened to the jungle sounds, the louder they became. I could see dead bodies strewn below me and, although I didn’t see anyone, I could hear faint moans from people still inside the plane.

Beside me was a Vietnamese man, alive but badly hurt. “Don’t worry, they will come for us,” he said. To protect my modesty, he somehow managed to open his little square suitcase and give me a pair of trousers, which were part of a suit. I felt comforted by his words and his presence but, after a short conversation, we both retreated into our injuries.

A few hours later, I saw the man was becoming weaker. Before long, he had difficulty breathing. The life went out of him. He was gone. There were no longer any sounds from the plane. I was completely alone.

After that, I tried to move. Shifting even an inch was agony. But I tried not to dwell on my suffering and focused on what I could achieve, rather than what I could not.

Over the following days, even though I was grieving for Pasje, I concentrated on my survival. What alternative did I have? I painfully pulled myself around a small section of the wreckage, dragging my body by my elbows.

I stayed outside, because I couldn’t bear to see the corpses inside the plane. Once, I’d looked over at the man I’d been speaking to and a maggot crawled out of his eye. Those were terrifying images I didn’t want to see.

My main goal was drinking water to stay hydrated, something I did by collecting rainwater in small sponges. I fashioned the sponges from insulation I found near the shattered wing of the plane. Standing up to retrieve the insulation was torture, and putting one foot in front of the other impossible. I wrung the moisture from the sponges into my mouth. In a vain attempt to stay dry, I wore a blue plastic poncho I’d found in someone’s pack. But I didn’t take anything from anyone else. It didn’t seem appropriate.

As for emotions, I realized I couldn’t cry — because crying makes you weak. I knew that if I started, I would give up. Every time I thought of Pasje, I forced myself to stop. I would look at my engagement ring, but then I wouldn’t allow myself to think any further. It wouldn’t do any good.

Instead I stayed in the now. I listened to my heart and instinct, and not to my mind, because the mind makes up stories that can frighten you.

 

For example, I could have thought: “What if there are no rescue workers?,” or “What if that’s a tiger or that’s a snake?” But I knew I would deal with the snake or the tiger when they were in front of me. And if there was no rescue, I’d cross that bridge then.

Another saving grace was the sheer beauty of the mountain. I would look at the varying shades of green on the leaves. How the sun would reflect in a raindrop. Meditating on nature became my distraction. I wouldn’t allow myself to think there was a chance I was going to die.

My profession as a bond trader helped too. I divided everything into reasonable steps. Numberwise, I was instinctive. I gave myself a week to stay in this one spot. If nobody rescued me by Sunday, then I would need to go into the jungle in search of food. But, in reality, I was physically incapable of doing that. All I could do was shuffle on my elbows, dragging my useless hips.

I gave myself a week to stay in this one spot. If nobody rescued me by Sunday, then I would need to go into the jungle in search of food.

 - Annette Herfkens
Annette Herfkens revisited the crash site with rescuers.

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Annette Herfkens in Singapore in 1992

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A Buddha for Hamish and Sylvie in 2006

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The plane after the crash

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Plane Crash Essay

When I stepped into the large neatly organized white polished plane, I never though something would go wrong. I woke up and found myself on an extremely hot bright sunny desert island filled with shiny soft bright green palm trees containing rough bright yellow hard felt juicy apples. The simple strong plane I was in earlier shattered into little pieces of broken glass and metal when crashing onto the wet slimy coffee colored sand and burning with red orange colored flames. After my realization to this heart throbbing incident I began to run pressing my eight inch footsteps into the wet squishy slimy light brown sand looking in every direction with my wide open eyes filled with confusion in search of other survivors. After finding four other survivors we began moving our small petite weak legs fifty inches from the painful incident. Reaching our destination which was a tiny space filled with dark shade blocking the extreme heat coming from the bright blue sky, I felt my eyelids slowly moving down my light colored hazel eyes and found myself in a dream. I was awakened the next day from a grumbling noise coming from my empty stomach.
My pale, toned long shapely legs swiveled through the dry hard burning hot sand to a beautiful lime leaved tree. I saw bright fresh green apples, they were smooth and extremely moist. The juice dripped into my mouth forcing me to taste the mixture of sour and sweetness. As I looked down this long wide rocky path I saw thousands of shimmering apple trees. Stretching my hand I pulled a numerous amounts of fresh apples from the rough dark brown pokey tree branch. Acting as the leader, I grabbed each hand picked apple and placed it in the swollen sweaty palms of each survivor. As a source of water we would walk into the crystal blue cold damp ocean that swished back and fourth. Using our hands as a bowl, we grabbed the water and released it into our dry tasteless mouths feeling refreshment. As I slowly turned my small almond shaped eyes I saw greediness of some survivors and I knew rules needed to be given.
As the glowing bright mustard colored sun arose my bright pink chapped lips began to move. I began setting rules such as everybody needs to help each other, they need to be fair and not greedy with the food or resources, everybody needs to help on any project that we do to get rescued. You cannot go past the tenth apple tree until we run out of food and lastly if any of the rules are broken you will not be able to have any food for the day. As I slowly moved my head in a clockwise...

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