No. 10: Ruben van Assouw

Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771 from Johannesburg, South Africa, crashed on approach to the airport in Tripoli, Libya, on May 12. It was a clear day, without strong winds; investigators’ preliminary findings indicated pilot error, possibly low visibility because of mist and sand. The plane was smashed into bits, the pieces scattered across a large field. Out of 104 people aboard, one survived: Nine-year-old Dutch boy Ruben van Assouw was found still strapped into his seat; he sustained only broken legs and some scrapes and bruises on his face.

Although his survival was hailed as a miracle, Ruben had suffered horrible losses: His mother, father, and brother all died in the crash. They had been on a safari in South Africa to celebrate the parents’ 12-and-a-half year anniversary, which the Dutch mark as the copper anniversary. Ruben’s father, Patrick, had set up a travel blog where he posted updates about their dream family vacation. The last entry was dated May 10.

Ruben’s aunt and uncle came from the Netherlands to be with him in the hospital in Tripoli. They broke the news to him that his family was gone, and they flew him back to the Netherlands, to his hometown of Tilburg, where many of his kin — including his grandparents — live. He was on a stretcher but reportedly unafraid to travel by plane. Relatives thanked the public for the messages of support (many condolences were left at the travel blog) and asked that their privacy be respected. After a few days in the media spotlight, a veil was drawn around Ruben so that he could grieve in peace.

Ruben’s incredible story was reminiscent of the 2009 crash of a Yemeni airliner. In that disaster, the only survivor was a 14-year-old girl. As ABC noted, “Since 1970, 15 people, mostly children, have been plane crash sole survivors.” Did the statistic imply that a child had a better chance of surviving a plane crash than an adult? Safety experts have theorized about body mass, but the rarity of sole survivors of plane crashes makes any conclusions impossible. There is, however, plenty of data about which plane seats are the safest: A Popular Mechanics analysis showed that regardless of your age, the safest seat on a plane in the event of a crash is at the back.

–Cicely Wedgeworth

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