Cecelia Crocker, Other Plane Crash 'Sole Survivors' Share Tales of Guilt, Pain and Triumph


In 1996, 50 people out of 175 on-board survived the Ethiopian Airways flight that crashed off the coast of Africa. Then there is the most remarkable plane crash survivor story of recent memory, when U.S. Airways Captain Chesley "Sulley" Sullenberger safely landed in Hudson River shortly after take-off. All 150 passengers and five crew members survived the so-called "miracle on the Hudson."

To find the secrets to surviving a plane crash, Ed Galea, a professor of mathematical modeling and engineering at the University of Greenwich in London, interviewed 2,000 survivors of 105 plane crashes.

"There is no magic seat on board an aircraft," Galea said. "There is no one seat that is the safest seat on the aircraft."

Discovery Channel's "Curiosity: Plane Crash" investigation compiled a team of experts who rigged a 727 jet with cameras, sensors and test dummies and then crashed it, on purpose, in the Mexican desert to see whether there are ways to help passengers survive when tragedy unfolds.

Their conclusion: Bracing for impact can indeed be a lifesaver.

"You're limiting the opportunity for movement of the upper torso, and hence, you're limiting the impact speed of your head against an obstacle," Galea said. "So the brace position is designed to reduce your chances of being knocked unconscious during a heavy impact, and you must be conscious, obviously, to evacuate."

For those who survive plane crashes, it is a life-long struggle to understand why they made it out alive when others perished. An exclusive screening of "Sole Survivor" was held Wednesday night in Royal Oaks, Mich., near the 1987 Northwest Airlines flight 255 plane crash site.

The film's director, Ky Dickens, said being a sole survivor is both a blessing and a burden.

"The most important thing that people can take away [from the film] is that survivors are really victims too," Dickens said. "There is this misperception that if you survive something, you are lucky... But their life is altered forever, and it's not easy for them to pick up and go on and there's very little of it that feels lucky to them."

In the audience were family members of victims who were killed in the 1987 crash, the one in which Crocker was the only survivor.

"When you see the footage of the wreckage, it's just a complete miracle and blessing that somebody walked away from that," said Jeff Krappitz, who lost his grandfather in the crash.

Also in the audience was John Thiede, the firefighter who first spotted Crocker in the wreckage.

"When we found it and found her, it was just elation," Thiede said. "A moment you couldn't describe: 'Hey, we found somebody.'"

Crocker is now happily married, studies art therapy and flies regularly. She even got a tattoo of an airplane on her wrist.

"So many things, scars were put on my body against my will, and I decided to put this on my body for myself," Crocker said. "I am happy. I'm just, I've never been happier."

She is a sole survivor who took control, and turned tragedy into a life of triumph.

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