Annette Herfkens did not even want to get onto the plane. She was already wary of flying, and scared of small places—and this was a small, little aircraft.
But her fiance, Willem van der Pas, whom she called Pasje, took her hand in his. It would only be a 20 minute flight, he assured her. That wasn’t true, it was a 55 minute flight.
“Can’t we take a car instead?” she asked.
“The jungle is very dense, and the road is horrible,” he replied. “It would take days. By the time we get there, we would have to leave again.”
So she agreed, and sat down in the small plane nervously, though she was excited for this surprise getaway. Herfkens was working in finance in Madrid at the time, and her fiance had been working in South America.
The two had not seen each other in eight weeks and were “aching to be together” again during their Vietnam trip. They had already taken a whirlwind tour of a city and had an intimate dinner at one of Pasje’s favorite restaurants. “We were blissfully happy,” Herfkens later wrote, and the prospect of having to brave a tiny aircraft for less than an hour did not truly dampen that.
But 50 minutes into the flight, she felt a tremendous drop.
“People were screaming, but I didn’t think much of it because of course a little plane like that would feel such a drop,” Herfkens said. It must have been an air pocket.
They kept on flying, and then there was another giant drop.
“He grabbed for my hand, I grabbed for his, and then everything went black.”
Herfkens had been sitting in an aisle seat in the third row, in front of the wing. It is said to be one of the least safe places in an airplane cabin. She wasn’t even wearing her seatbelt.
That all turned out to be irrelevant, because she was one of the few that survived.
As it happened, during that first drop, the plane lost a wing. Then it kept on flying, and barreled into the side of a mountain. Herfkens lost consciousness.
When she came to, the plane had been broken in half, and she could see the jungle foliage up above her, as she was surrounded by dead bodies. There was an airplane seat on top of her that she pushed away, only later learning there was a dead man still strapped into it.
Then she turned her head to the side and saw that Pasje, still strapped in his seat, was dead. Then she went into shock.
“I don’t remember how, [but] my next memory is I’m out on the jungle floor,” Herfkens said. At this point she could still hear moans of people trapped under debris around her, and another Vietnamese man had survived. He spoke English to her, and they wondered when the rescuers were come.
The next day, he died.
“Then I realized how alone I was—I had never been so alone,” Herfkens said.
“I stayed by him at first and marked hours on his watch, and then I moved away from him, and I made a plan.”
Herfkens had multiple fractures on her hips, she had a collapsed lung, there were wounds on her legs, and had a broken jaw. She must have dropped herself from the plane to lower ground.
She made the decision to not look back—her fiance was dead behind her, and any thought of him would only break her heart and cause her to cry. She knew she couldn’t cry because it would only dehydrate herself.
Herfkens resolved to focus on the here and now, and survive.
“I behaved like a survivor in a way where I accepted it right away, I didn’t fight it—I observed, I accepted reality, and I surrendered to the situation,” Herfkens said.
She made a plan to collect rainwater to sustain herself, and focused in on the beauty of the jungle, instead of the death around her.
“I made a plan, I kept my sense of humor and all of that, but most importantly I shifted my focus more and more to the jungle.”
“And the more I focused on that beauty the more beautiful it became,” Herfkens said. She focused on the leaves, on the sunlight filtering through, the dewdrops on the flowers, and even the insects that would crawl over her.
“And I just felt more and more a part of the jungle, and I felt I was getting energy from the jungle—and that kept me going. ”
Due to her wounds, Herfkens couldn’t even crawl, she had to pull herself across the ground in order to gather materials that could collect rainwater and hold out the next week for rescue.
Then at some point, she saw a man right in front of her. Stunned for a moment, she gathered herself and shouted at him. He was right there, staring at her, but did not respond. She yelled again, more urgent now, still to no response.
She started to realize that she must have been inventing him—this was a hallucination. But the sight of another living person dragged her back into reality. She was no longer in her “jungle” state of mind—pain rushed back into her body and it was a struggle to hold on. But it was a necessary reminder of where she was and what was at stake.
It was getting harder and harder to hold out.
But then on the eighth day, rescue had come.
Not clear of mind, Herfkens initially told them that no, she couldn’t leave, Pasje was still here and she couldn’t just leave his body here. She was so injured she could not walk, so they had to put her in a makeshift hammock and cart her out of the jungle in a long, grueling trip.
She was hospitalized and got skin grafts, surgery for her fractures and wounds, and full physical recovery took over the course of a year—though she was back to work in two months.
“That was what I had left,” Herfkens said. She had lost Pasje, and this event would forever divide her life in two—before and after the crash. After three weeks she was back in the Netherlands, and then after two months she was back to work.
“People might think it strange, but … I loved my work and wanted to at least try to piece my life back together.”
“I didn’t focus on all of the dramas, I just missed him,” she said. “I was widowed.”
To go back to life took strength, Herfkens says. “People ask me if I felt guilty for surviving—going back to life, surviving, was the hard part.”
As she made it home, she learned the extent of how bereaved her family was. Her father was planning her funeral. They had no way of knowing whether she was dead or alive. In short, “it was torture,” she said.
“They were hearing one day we were lost at sea, one day it was the mountains, it was awful,” she said. “In a way it was worse for my family and for my loved ones than it was for me because I knew where I was, they didn’t.”
Herfkens felt her jungle survival could not have been as agonizing as what her family had gone through, and that was why she always felt hesitant to talk about it. But years later, she realized that letting her family talk about the experience would be cathartic.
Over two decades after the crash, Herfkens wrote a book about the experience, giving her family the majority of the input.
“I showed it from their perspective,” Herfkens said.
Since then, she has also returned to Vietnam twice. The second time, she flew over the crash site, together with her daughter.
Her story of survival has given other families whose loved ones have gone missing in plane crashes, Herfkens learned.
She learned later that there were other plane crashes in the same region.
“For many years, I was the only one,” Herfkens said. But returning to Ho Chin Min City, she connected with other widows who had experienced similar events.
“I felt overwhelmed,” Herfkens said. “I’m really happy that we had the opportunity to get together.”