Look up at the tiny plane streaking through the deep blue, cloudless sky above Robin Suerig Holleran’s back yard and it’s almost unfathomable that someone could survive if it plummeted to Earth. But sitting across the table, seemingly calmly sipping a sweating glass of lemonade, is someone who did.
“I’m very conscious of planes,” says Holleran, BA/SOC ’82, who regularly hears them fly over her Mendham, New Jersey, home on their way to or from Newark or New York. She always takes notice. “When we were about to hit, instead of thinking about my kids or my life . . .”
Her voice trails off as she pauses for another drink. Even now, nearly a decade after the crash, her heartbeat increases and her palms perspire whenever she recounts it.
“I’ve always been an agnostic. As we’re going down I remember thinking, ‘I guess I get to find out whether there really is a god.’ That’s when I became calm, almost detached, like an out-of-body experience. Watching the ground coming up, I wondered, will there be a flash of light or some other sign before I die?”
Thankfully, she’ll have to wait to find out. Every day, more than 2 million passengers fly in the United States, and whether they’ll admit it or not, most of them let out a little sigh of relief when the wheels of their plane hit the runway. Holleran, 54, is a member of a small fraternity of people—lucky or unlucky, depending on your disposition—whose flights ended not with a smooth landing, but with a terrifying thud, screech, burst, or bang.
In Bracing for Impact, she and coauthor Lindy Philip share their stories and those of 14 others who, whether through good fortune, fate, or divine intervention, endured a plane crash and lived to tell about it.
“It is interesting how people often comment that the accident was bad luck,” says Philip, also 54, who went down in a Cessna 172 in British Columbia in 1995. “I see it differently. I was incredibly lucky to have survived such an ordeal. It’s weird, but I have more faith in planes now and feel they are really safe. I realize when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. It was not my time.”
Two days after Christmas in 2005, Holleran drove her three children to visit her sister near Atlanta. Soon after they arrived, her brother-in-law, Al Van Lengen, offered to take the family up for a quick joyride in his four-seat Cessna Cardinal. Following a 20-minute flight with the three kids that came and went without incident, Holleran donned a headset and climbed into the copilot seat.
The daughter of a Dutch mother born in Indonesia and a father with deep German roots, she had flown frequently throughout her life. At one point in high school she even considered becoming a pilot, an idea her father, a former Navy flight surgeon, squashed quickly.
Around dusk the weather was clear and calm as the small plane took off and darted through the air. Her children waited near the hangar.
“We were about 2,000 feet up, and all of a sudden the propeller just went ‘clunk,’” she says. “It’s a very bizarre sensation. It wouldn’t have surprised me if every hair on my head had been standing up straight, like a cartoon character.”
The roar of the engine gave way to an eerie silence as the plane began to lose altitude. Holleran wasn’t crying or screaming—she was frozen with fear. Unbeknownst to the pilot and his passenger, a connecting rod in the engine had snapped, causing the pistons to malfunction. As she recalls the horror, Holleran switches liberally between the first and second person, almost as if she’s describing someone else’s nightmare.
“It was two or three minutes before the plane hit the ground, which doesn’t sound long, but it’s an eternity. You glide, but then when it loses speed and momentum it starts to go down pretty steeply. It was a terror I’ve never experienced in my entire life.”
Yet Van Lengen, a former firing battery commander in the army, never panicked, and when he spotted an open field he purposely maneuvered the plane into an even more severe dive so he wouldn’t overshoot the makeshift landing strip.
“When you’re going down, it’s not like you feel like you’re going into the earth, it’s a sensation like the earth is coming up at you. Almost like it’s on a movie screen,” Holleran says. “As we were getting closer to hitting, I kind of came to terms with the fact that I was going to die. I went from being terrorized to being totally calm.”
When the plane slammed into the red Georgia clay on its belly, it essentially went from traveling 100 miles per hour to a dead stop in less than 60 feet. A vertebra in Holleran’s back shattered; some of the bone chips missed her spine by just millimeters. When emergency medical technicians arrived, they had trouble starting an IV because her veins were beginning to collapse.
Van Lengen emerged from the crumbled plane with just bumps and bruises, but Holleran was rushed to the hospital. Oddly, she was anything but despondent.
“I was so elated for having survived, that even when the EMTs were taking care of me at the scene, to one of them—and I’m sure he thought that I had hurt my head—I said, ‘Somebody needs to buy me a lottery ticket. This is the luckiest day of my life.’”
Broken and battered, but not beaten, Holleran embarked on a long journey back to health. She wore a hip-to-neck body brace for six months, underwent surgery on one of her discs, and ultimately lost a half inch of height.
“It was probably about two years until I felt like myself,” she says. “My back feels better now than it ever has, but it doesn’t bend very well. I feel like I’m superglued back together.”
Emotionally, the accident had a profound effect. When she saw her kids, whose vantage point fortunately shielded them from the crash, it was as if she were laying eyes on them for the first time. Even though no one died in her incident, she felt a tinge of survivor’s guilt. The week before her plane went down, a neighbor’s teenage daughter was killed in a car accident coming home from cheerleading practice.
“It was like I dodged a bullet, and it hit her,” Holleran says.
During her recovery period, she stumbled onto a Facebook group of plane crash survivors that Philip started after her own accident. The women felt a kinship, and eventually developed a plan to write a book about some of the members’ experiences. The dozens of interviews they conducted often were emotionally taxing.
“There was one woman whose crash killed her uncle and her cousin,” Holleran says. “I had to put [the recording] aside three times, because what she went through—I was breaking out in full-body sweats. It was that hard.
“They didn’t necessarily remind me of mine, but they definitely triggered a physiological response. It’s like if someone is telling a story about a place you’ve never been—it’s hard to imagine it. But if you’ve been there, you know what they’re talking about, so you feel it at the same time.”
Bracing for Impact, which came out in October, is a fascinating but sometimes unsettling read. The tales of survival include pilots and passengers in private aircraft and commercial jets, gliders and prop planes.
Lisa Rowe survived a 1999 American Airlines crash in Little Rock, Arkansas, that left 10 people dead. Her story is enough to make any air traveler pop a Xanax before takeoff.
“The plane broke open like an egg,” reads a passage from the book. “In terrible pain, Lisa could barely move. Her seatmate helped her struggle through the hole in the roof to move away from the flames that were consuming the remains of the plane. She had to step over the lifeless body of a woman pinned down by metal.”
These traumas had varying impacts on those who experienced them. Some, like Philip, now have an extra drink or two before or during a flight. (Her favorite is a Caesar, a Canadian equivalent of a Bloody Mary.) Others fell into the throes of drug and alcohol addiction. Some conquered their fears and now routinely fly. Others never set foot on an airplane again.
An avid traveler, Holleran now views flying as a necessary evil—a means to an end. She’s visited six continents, and this Christmas—two days before the anniversary of her crash—plans to fly to Cuba.
“I’m not comfortable on planes anymore, commercial or otherwise,” she says. “I’m compulsive about looking at the weather. I’m very conscious of where the exits are. Yeah, I’m scared, but so what? I don’t believe in letting things hold you back.”
Statistically, flying is among the safest modes of transportation. In 2012, 440 people died in the United States as a result of general aviation accidents, compared to 33,782 on highways, according to the US Department of Transportation. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the National Transportation Safety Board reports that over the past two decades, about 95 percent of people involved in a commercial plane crash survived.
“If you take one flight a day, you would on average need to fly every day for 55,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash,” MIT statistics professor Arnold Barnett told ABC News last year.
Remarkably, Holleran isn’t the only one in her family to have been involved in a plane catastrophe. Her stepgrandfather died when his Pan Am flight crashed into the jungles of northern Brazil in 1952, and her father and brother each walked away from separate accidents.
“So what if the chances are 1 in 100 million?” she says, as another airplane rumbles overhead. “If you’re that one, that’s all that really matters.”
Photo by Amanda Stevenson Lupke