Behind the swelling, bruises, and swaddling of head bandages, George Lamson, Jr. grinned widely. “I feel…just great,” he told reporters who swarmed his hospital bedside, press conferences, and talk show appearances. It was 1985, and Lamson, just 17 at the time, had survived a flight from Reno to Minneapolis that killed all 70 other passengers, including his father. When the pilot announced the plane was going down, he drew his legs up in front of his face, kicked through the wall as it hit the ground, and was thrown across the fiery ruins into the highway. He thought, he said later, that he had died and gone to heaven.
Today, he is one of only 14 people who are the lone survivors of the commercial plane crashes they endured. It’s an unimaginable—and almost statistically impossible—prospect: that you, singularly, survived a horrific accident by some miraculous means, while everyone else was killed. In these one-in-a-million cases, the survivors tend to be young and nimble, but mostly it’s just pure chance. In a new documentary called Sole Survivor, which aired at the DOC NYC festival on Friday, four of those miraculous stories are told by director Ky Dickens. The stories made international headlines at the time of the crashes, but have since faded from the spotlight. In addition to Lamson, there’s 14-year-old Bahia Bakari who, in 2009, clung to floating debris in the Indian Ocean for nine hours before being saved; Cecelia Cichan, who was just four years old in 1987 when she survived a crash that killed her mother, father, and brother en route to Arizona; and Jim Polehinke, first officer of a bungled take-off in 2006 that left him paralyzed and wracked with survivor’s guilt. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” he says.
Now a father himself, Lamson is a wiser, more somber version of that 17-year-old, living not far from the crash site in Reno and working as a dealer at a casino. He’s on a mission to reach out and connect with the other 13 like him—to form a community for those who only have a handful of people in the world who can relate to their traumatizing experiences. He’s curious, he says, to find out how the others have healed, and wants to offer an understanding hand. So he began writing letters and emails. “I’m reaching out to say I am here for you,” he writes to young Bakari, who lives in Paris.
Thousands of miles away, Kassim, her father, wipes tears from his eyes reading the letter. He distinctly remembers the call that told him his daughter had lived but 152 others, including his wife, had not. “Hello, what is your daughter’s name?” a voice asked.
“Her name is Bahia.”
“Kassim, only your daughter was saved.”
Bakari, who had been en route to visit family in the Comoros Islands, was airlifted back to France with bruises and a broken collarbone. It wasn’t until later that she found out all others on the Yemenia airlines Airbus A310 had perished—she initially thought all had survived, while she had fallen from the plane. Bakari was quickly gifted a moniker others in her situation have shared: “Miracle Girl.” Despite the improbability of her survival, her father shies from the word “miracle” in his daughter’s case. “I prefer to say this is her destiny.”
Being the recipient of a miracle, as the media has dubbed many of these stories, causes not only a haunting dose of survivor’s guilt, but also sparks expectations that those lucky few were saved for a reason. It’s a heavy burden to shoulder, on top of all the other traumas. Lamson, who travelled to France to meet Bakari and her father, senses this acutely. “You feel guilty that you’re not using your life to do something better,” he says.
Bakari can relate to the pressure. “When you’re only 14, you do not think to do great things at that age.”
The guilt is especially apparent in Jim Polehinke, who feels it was his responsibility to care for the people aboard the plane he was co-piloting. “He would have rather died,” his wife says. “No doubt about it. He would have given anything to have gone with them rather than be sitting here doing this.”
Polehinke’s story is especially emotional, as the documentary weaves together testimony from the families of those who were killed in the crash, and the subsequent National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, which assigned full blame to him and the deceased captain. The decision shocked investigators, who had concluded negligence on the part of the airport for providing incorrect runway maps and insufficient control tower employees.
Even fellow survivors’ stories can increase the guilt. For Cecelia Cichan, who doesn’t remember her crash, tales of endurance like Bakari’s are hard to hear. “She had to work to survive, and I just woke up in the hospital,” says Cichan, who bears a tattoo of an airplane on her wrist. Raised by protective aunts and uncles, she didn’t find out that no one else had survived the crash until she was a teenager. Now 30, Cichan is married and a student living in New York. The firefighter who found her strapped into her airplane seat danced with her at her wedding. But Cichan still hasn’t been able to face the annual memorial ceremony at the crash site, and the filming of Sole Survivor was the first time she has spoken publicly about the ordeal.
Even years later, meeting family members of the other passengers who didn’t make it is a difficult prospect for those who emerged virtually unscathed from the wreckage. Twenty-five years after his fateful trip back from Reno, Lamson finally gathered the courage to return to Minnesota and visit the families of those who lost loved ones that day. His fear of disappointing or angering the community turns out to be unfounded. “You were a bright light in a bad time,” an elderly woman who lost her husband tells him.
And as proof that life goes on, or maybe, even, that there’s something to be said for the script of destiny, Lamson just started dating a girl he met on that trip back home. Her parents were both victims of the crash.