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

Cecelia Cichan was the lone survivor of the 1987 plane crash in Detroit.

May 16, 2013, 7:35 PM

May 16, 2013— -- At just 4 years old, Cecelia Crocker became known as America's orphan after being the only survivor in a 1987 plane crash, which, to this day, she doesn't remember.

In 1987, Northwest Airlines flight 255 crashed minutes after taking off from Detroit's Metro Airport, killing 154 people on board and two people on the ground, but leaving behind one tiny miracle.

Cecelia Cichan, whose married name is now Crocker, was the lone survivor of the crash. Her mother, father and 6-year-old brother, David, who were on the flight with her, were all killed.

Now, almost 26 years later, that little girl is all grown up, and she is speaking out for the first time about the tragedy that forever changed her life. It is believed that Crocker's mother, Paula Cichan, shielded her in the crash.

"I think about the accident every day," said Crocker, 30. "It's kind of hard not to think about it when I look in the mirror. I have visual scars, my arms and my legs and I have scars on my forehead."

At the time of the crash, Crocker's family lived in Tempe, Ariz., but her aunt and uncle raised her afterwards in Birmingham, Ala., and kept her out of the spotlight. Although she doesn't remember the crash, Crocker said she knows when she first understood what happened to her.

"When I realized I was the only person to survive that plane crash, I was maybe in middle school, high school maybe," Crocker said. "Being an adolescent and confused, so it was just extra stress for me. I remember feeling angry and survivor's guilt. Why didn't my brother survive? Why didn't anybody? Why me?"

Crocker is one of four people, all of whom are lone survivors of airline crashes, featured in a new documentary, "Sole Survivor," which will hit theaters this August.

Another person featured in the film is George Lamson, who, at age 17, was the only person found alive after Galaxy Airlines flight 203 went down in Reno in 1985. The documentary follows Lamson as he connects with the few people who know what it's like to go through what he went through.

Another one of those people is John Polehinke, the co-pilot on Com Air flight 5191, which went down seconds after takeoff in Lexington, Ky., in 2006. Even today, he said he still struggles with survivor's guilt.

"I've cried harder than any man has ever cried, or any man should be able to cry," Polehinke said. "My wife was there to support me to where I could just put my head on her shoulder and cry. It's that constant struggle where my inner voice wants to keep going forward and the good voice says, 'Yeah, come on,' you have the inner strength to do that , but the bad voice says, no stay here, have another shot of liquor."

Then there is Bahia Bakari, who was 14 when she survived after Yemenia flight 626 plummeted into the Indian Ocean in 2009, and spent nine hours clinging to plane wreckage before she was rescued.

Since 1970, there have been only 15 instances where a commercial plane crash left a single survivor. Amazingly, roughly 95 percent of people involved in plane crashes live to tell about it, according to National Transportation Safety Board statistics on accidents studied from 1983 to 2000.

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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