Sole Survivor, Incredible True Story!

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A Brief History

On June 30, 2009, one of those fantastic tales you think you would only see in the movies or in a fantasy novel really happened when an airliner crashed near the Indian Ocean island of Grande Comore, killing 152 of the 153 aboard the Airbus A310 jetliner.  The sole survivor on the flight from Yemen to the Comoros Islands was a girl of 14 years of age, found 13 hours after the crash bobbing in the ocean while clinging to floating wreckage.

Digging Deeper

Yemenia Flight 626 featured an Airbus twin engine jet airliner, model Airbus A310-324, introduced to the aviation world in 1982 and capable of carrying about 250 passengers for a range of over 5000 nautical miles.  Production of the A310 series of jetliners ended in 1998 with a production run of 255 planes, of which 12 have been completely destroyed in crashes, with a total loss of life of 825 people.   (For comparison of roughly similar airliners, the McDonnel-Douglas DC-10 had a production run of 386 planes of which 32 were complete wrecks with a loss of life of 1261 people.  The Boeing 767 had a production run of 1135 between 1981 and 2019, with a total loss of 17 airframes and 854 people killed.)  The “wide body” A310 has been replaced in the Airbus lineup by the A320, a “narrow body” airliner that can carry up to 236 people.  Although an aging platform, the A310 was still a highly serviceable airliner at the time of the crash.

7O-ADJ, the aircraft involved in the accident (2005).  Photograph by Patrick Mutzenberg.

The fateful flight originated in Paris, France, with a stop at Marseille Provence Airport in Marseille.  (Note: The author has been to Marseille.  It is a fascinating city.)  At Sana’a International Airport in Sana’a, Yemen, another stopover took place with a change in planes.  The 3 flight crew members of the now designated Flight 626 were all from Yemen.  The 9 cabin crewmembers came from 5 different nationalities.  The other 142 passengers of the doomed airliner were mostly Comoran or French nationals, although there were also representatives of Canada, Indonesia, Morocco, Israeli Arabs, the Philippines, Yemen and Ethiopia aboard.  The star of our story, the 14 year old Bahia Bakari, was a French national of Comorian descent.  Her parents had emigrated to France before her birth.  Bahia was traveling with her mother to the Comoros for summer vacation.

The ill-fated flight went wrong when the flight crew apparently either misunderstood or disregarded computerized warnings and failed to make the proper flight corrections as the jetliner made its descent into its final approach for landing.  About 1:50 AM the big jet hit the water hard, smashing into thousands of pieces and throwing Bahia from the broken apart airliner.  The teen found herself floating on the waves amid wreckage and clung to floating debris while waiting for rescue.  A poor swimmer and without a life jacket, Bahia clung tenaciously to the wreckage throughout the night.  Unable to see in the darkness, she later reported hearing voices during her ordeal, indicative of other people surviving the initial crash.  Alas, when the girl was finally rescued after a 13 hour ordeal in the ocean, no other survivors had been found.  The girl had survived an incredibly violent airliner crash and a harrowing 13 hours in the open ocean with no food or water or protection from the elements.  Private vessels, both commercial and personal, joined in the search of the wreckage site, and Bahia was picked up by a commercial vessel.  Too exhausted to reach the life preserver thrown to her, a crewman jumped into the rough water to retrieve the girl.  When the crew had thrown Bahia the life preserver, the girl had let go of her floating wreckage and was immediately buried by a wave, precipitating the heroic action of the crewman, Maturaffi Sélémane Libounah, to risk his life to save the teen.

Map showing the Comoros Islands; red dot shows approx. crash site.  Map by U.S. Federal Government – CIA.  Dot added by Crum375 at en.wikipedia.

Bahia did not escape unscathed from the deadly crash, suffering burns, bruises, and a fractured pelvis and collarbone.  She required surgery to recover from her injuries.  Comoran President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi honored the dead with the announcement of a month of national mourning, and also praised Libounah for his heroism in saving Bahia.

Bahia’s remarkable survivorship may have come from her not being belted in at the time of the crash.  In fact, in the confusion of the crash, she had at first thought she had somehow managed to accidentally fall out of the airplane by pressing her forehead too hard against the window!  She also reported being in the water covered by jet fuel, another highly dangerous situation.  She reported ingesting some of the jet fuel into her mouth, nose and eyes, and did not know she was the sole survivor of a an airplane crash until being told while at the hospital.  Filmmaker Steven Spielberg reportedly approached the lucky girl about making a movie of her incredible experience, but the teen refused, saying the reliving of the event would be too terrifying for her.

Bahia Bakari (centre, in black) at a one-year anniversary ceremony in Paris.  Photograph by Hegor.

Bahia’s lucky survival is the second deadliest incident of a sole survivor, with the other incident being a 1987 airliner crash (Northwest Airlines Flight 255) that killed 154 people aboard the flight (plus 2 on the ground), leaving only 1 survivor, this time a 4 year old girl!

Questions for Students (and others):  Have you flown on airliners?  Do you feel safe when flying?  What other incredible sole-survivor incidents can you think of?  Let us know in the comments section below this article.

Studio portrait of Vivian Bullwinkel, taken by Mendelssohn, F B & Company in May 1941.  Bullwinkel was the sole surviving nurse of the Bangka Island Massacre, when the Japanese killed 21 of her fellow nurses on Radji Beach, Bangka Island, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) on 16 February 1942.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bartlett, Christopher. Air Crashes and Miracle Landings: 85 CASES – How and Why.  OpenHatch Book, 2018.

Bradley, E Phillip. Sole survivor: The crash of Piedmont Flight 349 into Bucks Elbow Mountain as told by the sole survivor. Self Published, 1997.

Simpson, Paul. The Mammoth Book of Air Disasters and Near Misses. Running Press Adult, 2014.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Hegor of Bahia Bakari (centre, in black) at a one-year anniversary ceremony in Paris, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.