Annette Herfkens is the only survivor of a plane crash in Vietnam. Heavily injured, she survived for eight days in the jungle, between 30 dead, among whom her own fiancé. Afterwards she wrote the book Turbulence and can now be booked as a speaker. She tells about how she survived the crash and what you can learn from it.
Hi Annette, welcome to our studio.
Hi, thank you for having me.
Let's go back to 1992. What happened then?
I was visiting my fiancé in Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City. He was putting up two branches for ING Bank. I was working for Banco Santander at the time. A Spanish bank. We were college sweethearts, 13 years together. We had planned a romantic vacation in Nha Trang. We left early; 7 o' clock in the morning. 20 minutes into the flight, there was a gigantic drop. We flew into a mountain.
So the plane crashed into the jungle?
Then the next memory: I wake up. One moment there were these roaring engines, next there's this strange sound of the jungle. And next to me is my fiancé, still strapped in his chair, dead. I was... On top of me there turned out to be a chair with a dead body. I pushed it away from me. I must've gone into shock, because in the next memory I was out on the jungle floor, about two meters away from the plane.
But then you realized that you were the only survivor and that you were in the middle of the jungle.
Yes, first there was somebody alive. I tried to make contact with him. He actually gave me some clothes, because I'd lost my skirt. We communicated for one day, but then by the end of the day he was dead, and then I was completely alone. Everyone was dead.
And you stayed there for over eight days. How did you manage to survive?
Well, at first I just had to observe and take stock. And take the reality for what it was. Accepting that that was my reality: this is real, this is true. And I stayed in that observing mind: this is it, this is what's happening, and you had better accept it. Then I shifted my focus from the dead to the jungle. To the beauty of the jungle, as much as I could. Then I realized that I needed water and then I made a plan to get water, which was painful and difficult because I could hardly walk, and then I figured out that the insulation material of the plane was... It could function as a sponge and could soak up the water. So I made a plan and I made it in little achievable steps. And I congratulated myself when I achieved a step.
Is that something you learned at your job? Because you had an important job at a bank.
Or was it more an instinct that was talking? Well, I think I was always good at listening to my instincts. And that's why I had that job. I was always good at staying quiet, and listening to, I would say, my bigger mind. My subconscious or that little voice inside of you. I did that as a trader, I did that in dire circumstances. And so that's what I did now too. I observed, I don't immediately let my mind run off in 'what if' scenarios. I stayed with what's real in the moment. And then I accept the situation too. I guess that's what I was used to as a trader in Wall Street as well.
Is that for your the most important lesson you learned from your experience?
As a lesson I always would think: listen to your instincts, stay quiet, observe and make a plan. But I also had a spiritual and almost mystic experience. I looked death in the eyes and death was beautiful. And then I learned that there's nothing to fear if all fear is rooted in the fear of death. Because death looked beautiful to me.
After eight days you were rescued. How did that happen?
A group of men appeared out of nowhere, and showed me the passengers list. I pointed out my name and they gave me my first sip of water. And then they carried me between them on a stick down the mountain.
Several years later you wrote a book about your experience. You're now working as a public speaker. How is it to go back to that experience, and talk about it in front of audiences?
Well again, in the end it was a beautiful experience. And I thought it was important to share it. So I really think I have something to share in that experience. And actually I'm learning as I go. I have done a lot where I had not put words to until I started writing the books. And people still help me in finding the words. So it's a process and I like sharing what I've learned.
Thank you Annette. Thank you for sharing this story with us.
Thank you for having me.
And you at home: thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.