real life

Annette Herfkens was the sole survivor of a plane crash. Her fiancé died beside her.

On November 14, 1992, Annette Herfkens’ fiancé talked her into getting on board a small, old plane in Vietnam.

Herfkens didn’t want to do it, but her fiancé, Willem “Pasje” van der Pas, was determined to fly her to the seaside town of Nha Trang for a five-day romantic getaway.

The couple, both successful Dutch bankers, had been together for 13 years, but had spent the last few months living in different countries.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to board that plane,’” Herfkens remembered in an interview with Beautiful Humans in 2017. “I’m very claustrophobic and he knew that. He told me it was only 20 minutes. I said, ‘Okay.’”

In fact, van der Pas, in his eagerness to get Herfkens on board, had lied to her about it being a 20-minute flight. It would turn out to be possibly the worst decision he ever made.

Fifty minutes into the flight, the Russian-manufactured plane, carrying 24 passengers and six crew, suddenly dropped as it was flying over mountainous jungle. Now it was van der Pas’s turn to feel nervous, but Herfkens reassured him by saying it was probably just an air pocket.

“There was another drop, another big bang and people were screaming,” Herfkens remembers. “I looked at him, I reached out for his hand, he reached out for my hand, we looked at each other and then everything went black.”

Annette Herfkens
"I looked at him, I reached out for his hand, he reached out for my hand, we looked at each other and then everything went black." Image: CNN.

The plane hit some trees and then a mountain, flipping upside down. Herfkens wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, and was thrown around as if she was "in a dryer". But she survived. She regained consciousness with a seat on top of her, a dead body strapped inside. Pushing the seat off, she found van der Pas.

"He had a beautiful smile on his face but he was really white; white, like a dead person," she told Vice’s Extremes podcast earlier this year.

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Herfkens wasn’t the only person to have survived the crash. She could hear moans coming from other people, who had been badly injured. She made friends with one of them, a Vietnamese businessman. As she told the New York Post in 2016, the businessman tried to comfort her, and even gave her some of his clothing, because her skirt had been torn off.

"To protect my modesty, he somehow managed to open his little square suitcase and give me a pair of trousers, which were part of a suit. I felt comforted by his words and his presence."

But before long the businessman died and all the other moans stopped. Herfkens was alone in the wreckage, surrounded by dead bodies. She was badly injured herself – a fractured hip and leg, a collapsed lung and a broken jaw, with the bone visible through the wound in her chin. But she stayed calm by meditating on the beauty of the jungle. She used yoga breathing techniques to help her cope with her collapsed lung.

"Leeches covered my hands," she later told Reader’s Digest. "My feet were swollen to twice their normal size, and my toes turned black.

"The body of the man next to me began to decompose, so I used my elbows to pull myself to another spot."

Herfkens thinks it’s lucky she wasn’t much of a crier, due to her job in banking.

"I was the only woman on the trading floor – there was no way I was going to cry ever," she told Beautiful Humans. "If I would have cried there [in the jungle], it would have made me very thirsty and weak."

Herfkens used insulation in the plane’s wings to catch rainwater, which she drank. She ate nothing, even though she found herself looking at the businessman and thinking about the 1972 Andes plane crash survivors who’d eaten dead passengers to survive.

"I thought, ‘There is no way – no way – I will eat you," she said.

As the days passed, Herfkens’ and her fiance’s families, back in the Netherlands, accepted that the couple must be dead. A death notice appeared in the newspaper. Her boss sent a letter of condolence.

But Herfkens’ friend and colleague, Jaime Lupa, refused to believe she was dead. He decided to fly to Vietnam to find her, taking not her dental records, but her hairbrush, because he thought she might need it. He tells his story in Herfkens’ 2016 book Turbulence: A True Story Of Survival.

"Annette’s father got angry when I promised him before I left: ‘I will bring your daughter back alive.’ ‘You are an idiot!’ he snapped. ‘Get real!’"

On her sixth day in the jungle, Herfkens felt she was dying. Her kidneys were failing. On the seventh day, she had a near-death experience, which she later described to The New York Post.

Annette Herfkens
Annette Herfkens today. Image: Facebook.
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"My head is light. The plants around me are radiant. I do not feel the pain any longer. I am both out of my body and close to my body. I have left, but I am present."

Herfkens said the near-death experience was "a timeless moment of ecstatic freedom", which left her feeling "happy to go". But on the eighth day, a Vietnamese police officer arrived at the crash site. He and a group of other men had brought body bags, not expecting to find any survivors. They carried Herfkens down the mountain on a piece of canvas between two sticks. She was taken to hospital and began the long recovery process.

In December, Herfkens attended van der Pas’s funeral in the Netherlands, carried into the church on a stretcher. By New Year’s Eve she was walking again, and in February 1993, she returned to her old job in banking. Missing her fiancé, she went through a period of anger.

"Bitter thoughts ran through my head day after day," she told Reader’s Digest. "I was angry – angry at death, angry at life, at all my unmet expectations."

A few years later, Herfkens married Lupa, her colleague who had flown to Vietnam in search of her. They had two children, Joosje and Max, and moved to New York, but ended up divorcing.

In her book Turbulence, Herfkens explains how she commemorates the anniversary of the crash every year, on November 14.

"First Pasje, of course. ‘Today, he would have been 38, 39, 40, 50.’ And so on.

"Then, for the next eight days I also count. How much I eat and drink. From 7 am on the first day, the second, the third, to pm on the eighth day. It is a lot. Two slices of brown bread with cheese and tea with milk every morning. Coffee with milk and another slice at 11am. Lunch, tea with cookies, a drink with salami and olives, dinner with wine, tea with chocolate. And water. Many glasses of water.

"No hang-ups. Just counting."

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