How Does One Boy Survive a Plane Crash?

Sole survivors of plane crashes are rare but not unheard of.

May 12, 2010— -- 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.

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 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.

"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.

The circumstances of plane crashes are so unique, he said, with so many factors from plane size to type of landing or country of origin, that looking just at these anomalies won't add anything.

Plane Crash in Tripoli Kills All But One Passenger

There were 103 deaths in the Libyan crash.

"Way more than that will die of all sorts of things today," Ropeik said. "Heart disease will kill 1,000 Americans today, but not all in one place at one time."

In fact, the chance of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 2 million, compared to 1 in 7,700 for motor vehicles.

"Singular big bad events scare us more than greater risks which are spread out in location and time," Ropeik said. "There's something about the nature of a risk that expresses itself in a catastrophic event that particularly grabs innate human fears."

Then the media just amplifies that fear, said Ropeik, who is a former reporter.

That creates an "extraordinarily disproportionate public fear of events like this, compared with chronic risks that are much bigger."

Still, there are some things that can be learned from crashes.

A few years ago, Popular Mechanics took a look at the safest place to sit on a plane.

Their findings: passengers near the tail of a plane are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those up in first class.

"You're odds are marginally better in the back," Popular Mechanics associate editor Joe Pappalardo told ABC News. "You have to wait later to get on and off but it's better than not getting off the plane at all."

The magazine reviewed data for every commercial jet crash in the United States since 1971 and found that 49 percent of the passengers seated in the first or business class seats survived a crash. Compare that to 56 percent for the middle, or over the wing, and 69 percent for those behind the wing.

Still, that doesn't mean that sitting in the back will ensure safety.

"It's really just a function of luck," Pappalardo said. "There's not much more than you can do that buckle up and hope that you have a decent pilot."