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The Miracle of Surviving a Plane Crash

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By: Patrick J. Kiger

Fatal airline accidents fortunately, are such rare events that if you took a plane ride every day, on average you would need to fly daily for 10,000 years before being involved in one. But when they do occur, the results can be horrific. A study of international accident data by USA Today in 2013 found that between 1970 and 2013, there were 1,268 accidents involving aircraft with 12 or more seats in which passengers and crew were killed, and those disasters claimed close to 47,000 lives. If you’re going to be involved in an accident, the safest scenario is to have one while the plane is landing, which accounts for only 9% of fatal accidents. In recent years, 67 percent of the people on board managed to survive landing mishaps. But for the majority of fatal crashes--which occur either on takeoff, during the initial climb, en route, or on the approach to the airport—the chances of surviving were a meager 15 percent during the first decade of the 21st century. Here are five examples of crashes in which at least some passengers managed to get out alive.

Air Florida Flight 90



On a snowy Jan, 13, 1982, a Boeing 737 took off from Washington DC’s National Airport on a flight to Fort Lauderdale. A federal investigation determined that snow and ice that had accumulated on the aircraft’s surfaces during a delay between the time that the plane was de-iced and the takeoff was not properly removed. That interfered with the assent, and caused the plane to slam into a bridge and plunge into the ice-covered Potomac River. Of the 79 people aboard, only five survived. Four of them managed to cling to pieces of the floating wreckage until they could be rescued, while the fifth, who was too seriously injured to hang on, was outfitted with a life vest by a flight attendant.

Northwest Airlines Flight 255



On Aug. 16, 1987, a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 took off from Detroit, bound for Phoenix, with 155 people on board. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed and exploded, which federal investigators later determined was caused by an electrical system failure, combined with the crew’s neglecting to follow certain safety procedures. The lone survivor was a four-year-old girl, who was spotted in the wreckage by a paramedic. She suffered burns over 30 percent of her body, in addition to a fractured skull, a broken leg and other injuries, but eventually managed to make a full recovery.

United Airlines Flight 232



On July 19, 1989, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 took off from Denver for Chicago with 296 passengers and crew aboard. A little more than an hour after takeoff, the plane’s number two engine on the tail failed, making it difficult to control. While attempting to make an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa, the plane crashed on the runway and caught fire. 111 people were killed and 47 suffered serious injuries. One surviving passenger recalled that he was seared by a fireball of burning fuel moving through the plane, and knocked unconscious by the impact of the crash. He awoke, hanging upside down by his seat belt. He managed to undo it and walk across the ceiling of the overturned passenger compartment to the exit.

American Airlines Flight 965



On December 20, 1995, a Boeing 757 took off from Miami on a flight to Cali, Colombia, with 164 people aboard. Due in part to an apparent misunderstanding between the pilot and ground controller, the plane made an error on the airport approach and crashed into the mountains. Four of the people on the plane managed to survive, as did a dog that was found virtually uninjured in a kennel in the cargo hold. They were rescued by a team of doctors and paramedics who hiked for more than a day nonstop to get to the remote crash site.

American Airlines Flight 1420



Just before midnight on June 1, 1999, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 en route from Dallas to Little Rock with 145 passengers and crew aboard overran the end of the runway, and slammed through a chain link fence to tumble down into a rock embankment, where it caught on fire. The captain and 10 passengers were killed, but the rest of the 134 occupants escaped, though 105 of them suffered injuries. Many of the survivors were able to evacuate through the aircraft’s emergency exits, while others were ejected by the crash. Rescue workers also cut through the wreckage to reach the flight’s first officer, who sustained a broken leg in the crash.