The only ones: Escaping near death

What does it feel like to be the only person to survive a plane crash, a boat wreck or an ambush? Sole survivors tell their stories

Posted by The Guardian, Saturday 4 September 2010

George Burk
Photograph: Courtesy George Burk

Captain George Burk was the sole survivor of a military plane crash in 1970. The 13 other crew members were killed. He had 65% burns and spent 18 months in hospital. He has dedicated his life since to motivating others.

It was like sticking a needle in a balloon. Shortly into the flight, the window glazing cracked, there was a boom and the plane decompressed. We pitched nose down, the windows blew out. The noise was deafening. Papers, clothing, everything was being sucked out of the windows.

There were 14 of us on board. Our crew chief was trying to hold the door on and my boss was flying the aircraft, but the left side of the cockpit was split open. Next to him was Daryl Robinson, or Robbie. His head was off his shoulders.

I sat back down, buckled my seat belt and assumed the survival position. My life didn't flash in front of me, but the last thought I remember having was, 'I hope my insurance policies are intact.' My children were six, four and two. I knew I was going to die, but the mind has this numbing mechanism. I was aware of everything, but I felt it wasn't really happening.

I remember the impact. The bending, breaking and shearing of metal. I was thrown violently back against the seat, then forward, breaking my nose on the seat in front. I had no sensation of blood, though; my adrenaline was pumping.

The next sensation was as though someone had dumped a large bucket of scalding hot water on me. Everything went black. I opened my eyes. I was face down outside the plane, my hands were charred and black, and the skin on my left hand was hanging off. I remember looking at my feet and finding it rather unique that my right shoelace was tied and my left one was gone.

I looked around me. I could see our crew chief, he was badly burned and dead. Near me was another body – Bob Ward, I knew him quite well. I remember thinking, if I sit here I'm going to die. I felt a terrible pain in my back, but I managed to walk. I was just praying to God to not let me die in this field alone, without a chance to say goodbye to my family. All the things that I thought were important – about my career and whether or not people liked me – was nothing; it didn't mean anything.

I started to go into shock and lay down under a tree. I knew I was dying. I felt like I was being stung by millions of bees. The bad cop in my head told me to close my eyes and go to sleep, the good cop was saying, if you close your eyes, you're going to die. I don't want to die. Focus, focus, focus. I held pictures of my children, their mother, my parents in my head. I could have closed my eyes so easily.

I heard voices coming towards me. I forced myself to my feet, waving my arms, then fell back down in a heap. A firefighter leaned over me. I heard his voice crack as he said, 'Oh my God.'

When I got to hospital, my total body surface was 65% burned, with a little more than 50% third-degree burns; the fingers on my left hand had burned down to the bone. I have no recollection of digging my way out of the plane through a crack in the fuselage, but apparently that's how I got out. I had a broken nose, a skull fracture, two fused bones in my neck, four cracked ribs, a fracture in my spine and my left shoulder is still separated. I was in hospital for months – it was a miracle I got out of intensive care.

Much later I found there had been problems with the pressure system on that aircraft before. It had been polished for inspection so often that perhaps the buffing had compromised the rivets.

There were no support groups in those days, and I didn't know about post-traumatic stress disorder or survivor's guilt. I didn't have anyone to talk to. Everyone on the flight and most of the guys I knew in the burns unit had died. I asked my doctor, 'What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life? Why me?' And he told me I had experienced the will to survive – he said I had to find my purpose.

It's been tough, and I still have my moments. I haven't been physically pain-free for 40 years, but it's the pain inside your head that will kill you; the guilt. I've tried to live my life in a way that honours the men who died, my family and the doctors and nurses who didn't give up on me or let me quit. I've realised that we're here for a reason – to make a difference – and that's what I've tried to do. To turn a negative into a positive.

• Bahia Bakari's story is extracted from Moi Bahia, la miraculee by Bahia Bakari and Omar Guendouz, published by Jean-Claude Gaweswitch. Edited and translated by Jon Henley.