Former Wall Street trader Annette Herfkens survived the plane crash that killed her beloved fiance Willem van der Pas, who she called Pasje.
Former Wall Street trader Annette Herfkens survived the plane crash that killed her beloved fiance Willem van der Pas, who she called Pasje.

One decision saved plane crash survivor

It was meant to be a romantic getaway for an engaged couple finally reuniting after being kept apart by work.

It ended up a horror story only one of them would live to tell.

Dutch finance worker Annette Herfkens and her fiance Willem van der Pas were on a short flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang on Vietnam's southern coast when the plane crashed, killing everyone but Annette.

The pair hadn't seen each other for three months - the longest they'd been apart in their 13 years together. Willem had recently relocated to Vietnam for a job with ING Bank, and Annette, who was working in Madrid, took time off to visit him.

A five-day trip to Nha Trang in November 1992, a surprise organised by Willem, was their chance to reconnect in a tropical paradise. They didn't make it there.

 

In a new interview for Vice 's Extremes podcast, Annette described the moment she gripped Willem's hand as the plane went down on route to Nha Trang and the agonising 192 hours she spent stranded in the harsh jungle of Vietnam, the only survivor of the crash.

'EVERYTHING WENT BLACK'

Annette, then 31, had only just arrived in Ho Chi Minh City when 36-year-old Willem, who she called Pasje and described as the "love of my life", revealed some news.

"He said, 'tomorrow morning at 7 o'clock, we're gonna leave, I have a surprise for you'," Annette told Vice.

He'd booked them on Vietnam Airlines flight 474 to Nha Trang, a scenic coastal town in southern Vietnam on the South China Sea.

Their plane was a 16-year-old Soviet-made Yakovlev Yak-40 that seemed so old and small to Annette she was hesitant to fly. An eager Willem coaxed her on board.

Annette in 2006, on her return to the crash site in Vietnam.
Annette in 2006, on her return to the crash site in Vietnam.

The flight was only meant to take about an hour. Annette felt anxious and claustrophobic from the start.

After 50 minutes, as the plane cruised over the mountainous Vietnamese jungle, it dropped. This time it was a confident Willem who was nervous.

"There was the sound of accelerating motors," Annette told Vice.

"Then there was a gigantic drop and everyone started screaming. We looked at each other, he stretched out and grabbed for my hand, I grabbed his, and then everything went black."

The plane hit some trees on a ridge during the descent close to Nha Trang. It lost one of its wings and struck another mountain, flipping upside-down.

The horrific crash site.
The horrific crash site.

Annette said she wasn't wearing her seatbelt. That caused her to be tossed around the cabin "like a lonely piece in a (clothes) dryer" - but may have sealed her survival.

"In that plane, everyone else got mostly injured by that seatbelt, which made their ribs go into lungs," she said.

The last thing Annette heard was the roar of the plane's engines.

"Next thing, I wake up to this eerie jungle sound and this noisy silence, really," she said. "And then I felt something heavy on top of me. It was a chair on top of me with a dead body."

NO HELP IN SIGHT

The plane, carrying 24 passengers and six crew, had broken up on impact.

Annette told Vice she pushed off the chair with the body strapped in and turned to Willem, who was dead.

"He had a beautiful smile on his face but he was really white; white, like a dead person," she said.

A piece of the plane.
A piece of the plane.

"I looked around me and I said, this is unbelievable (but) this is your new reality. This is it.

"I found myself with my claustrophobia, unable to move, in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by dead people, and with no help in sight."

Some others had initially survived the crash: Annette heard their moans as she lowered herself out of the broken fuselage, off the mountain and onto the jungle floor. She had 12 fractures in her hip and two in her leg, a broken jaw - she could see bone through the wound in her chin - and a collapsed lung.

She befriended an injured Vietnamese businessman who soon died and eventually she realised all the other moans had stopped - everyone else was dead and she was alone in the jungle.

Annette in Singapore in 1992.
Annette in Singapore in 1992.

It would take rescue workers eight long days to find her. Annette would later discover with horror a search helicopter crashed in the jungle while trying to find the wrecked plane, killing all eight people on board.

In those eight days Annette used yoga breathing techniques to cope with her collapsed lung. She made bowls from insulation padding in the plane's wings to catch rainwater to drink. That was all she survived on.

She recalled looking at the dead businessman at one point and thinking of the famous story of crash survivors in the Andes who were forced to eat victims in 1972.

"I thought, there is no way - no way - I will eat you," she said.

Annette recovering in hospital in Singapore.
Annette recovering in hospital in Singapore.

 

'NOBODY COULD POSSIBLY HAVE LIVED'

Days ticked by and a badly injured Annette remained in the same spot near the fuselage. Her kidneys began to fail and gangrene set in. By day six she believed she was dying.

"I had this beautiful near-death experience and I was really happy to go," she said.

She meditated on the beauty of the jungle and worked hard to not think of Willem, in case she cried, which would make her weak. She gave herself a deadline for staying in the same spot - if no one came by then, she'd have to search for food.

Before she had to, on day eight, a local police officer came by.

"He first thought I was a ghost - he'd never seen a white woman before - he raised the alarm," she told The New York Post in 2016.

 

Annette at the crash site in 2006 with Mr Cao, the police officer who found her in the jungle.
Annette at the crash site in 2006 with Mr Cao, the police officer who found her in the jungle.

 

"The following day I was rescued by a team of Vietnamese workers. They showed me a passenger list from the flight and I pointed out my name. They had body bags with them, thinking that nobody could possibly have lived."

She was taken to hospital in Singapore where she began to recover from her physical injuries.

"Psychologically, however, it was hard," she told the Post.

"Pasje and I had been together for 13 years, so it felt like I was widowed. I attended his funeral on December 10, 1992, in Breda, Holland. Brought into the church on a stretcher, I felt surreal - like a bride taken down the aisle to meet her groom in his coffin."

 

Annette Herfkens’ wrote a book about her horrifying experience.
Annette Herfkens’ wrote a book about her horrifying experience.

 

Annette continued to work in finance and later married, sharing two children with her now ex-husband. In 2016 she wrote a book about the crash called Turbulence: A True Story of Survival.

She revisited the crash site in Vietnam in 2006.

"I struggled up the mountain, where I made my peace with Pasje and his memory," she told the Post.

"I left a small seal ornament because that was my nickname for him. It wasn't closure that I found back in that place, but an opening to my own future."

The cause of the crash has never been determined.


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