How Does One Boy Survive a Plane Crash?

Somehow there was one survivor of the fiery plane crash in Libya this morning. Just one: a 10-year-old Dutch boy. The other 103 people on the Airbus A330-200 died.

Amazing? Yes. Unheard of? Not quite.

This is actually the fifteenth time since 1970 that there has been a single survivor in an airliner crash.

Sole Survivors of Tragedy
Sole Survivors of Tragedy

But what's even more amazing is that of those 15 survivors, 12 have either been children or crew members.

"Once again it's a child or a crew member, and I have no idea why," said Todd Curtis, director of the Airsafe.com Foundation, which tracks aviation disasters.

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Generally, he said, "there's no rhyme or reason" as to why that one person survives.

VIDEO: Plane crashed as it approached the runway, killing all but one passenger.
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"You scratch your head and wonder why is that? Is it because children can best survive crash forces? Is it because you only have small survival spaces in an aircraft and the smaller you are, the more likely you are to survive?" Curtis said. "Those are plausible explanations … but no one has done any sort of analysis that I like to call vaguely scientific or mechanical."

Sometimes, it might just have to do with how close emergency personnel are to the crash site.

In 2006, Delta Connection flight 5191, operated by Comair, crashed about four miles west of Lexington, Kentucky shortly after takeoff. All 47 passengers on board died, as did two of the three crew members. First officer James Polehinke suffered major injuries but was pulled out of the wreckage by a local police officer and two airport safety officers.

Compare that to a Yemenia Airways flight that crashed last year in the Indian Ocean, 10 miles off the coast of Comoros. Out of the 142 passengers and 11 crew onboard, only a 12-year-old girl survived. Curtis said if that crash had occurred closer to rescuers, there likely would have been more survivors.

Surviving a Plane Crash

And sometimes, Curtis said, the size of the aircraft is a factor. There were only 104 passengers and crew on today's Libyan flight and just one survivor. In 1985, a Japan Air Lines 747 crashed into a mountain in Japan. It had nearly five times as many passengers and crew as the Libyan crash: 524. Out of that, four passengers survived.

But ultimately, Curtis said, the idea of a sole survivor compared to 10 or 15 survivors is just a "high-interest item among the general public." It won't have any impact on aircraft design or safety regulations.

"The one thing it does do, it puts a lot of media attention on it that would not be there otherwise," he said. "Frankly, an aircraft from a developing-world country crashing in another developing-world country is not usually an interest item in the media hierarchy in New York or London. But when you something like this, which is a human-interest story, suddenly all the interest gets turned on it."

That, he said, will hopefully lead to a more-through investigation into the whole accident.

David Ropeik, an instructor in risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health and author of "How Risky Is It, Really?" also says that statistics about sole survivors are meaningless to the greater understanding of aviation safety.

"It's just such an odd thing. It's like the guy who has been hit by lightning eight times," Ropeik said.

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