Willem van der Pas and Anette Herfkens were an engaged couple who were attempting to fly from Ho Chi Minh City to the Vietnamese coast in 1992 for a romantic getaway. Their flight was to be executed by a small, 25-passenger plane and the flight was supposed to be a short one. Herfkens, who was claustrophobic, was apprehensive about getting onto such a small plane. Van der Pas finally convinced her to get on the plane, which would turn out was a mistake after all.
The plane never made it to its destination. About fifty minutes into the flight, the plane began to abruptly lose altitude. Herfkens said after the plane began to careen downwards, people began to scream, she took Willem’s hand, they looked at each other, and then everything went black. The aircraft had crashed into the middle of the Vietnamese jungle.
Anette woke up to her fiancé dead next to her, the corpse of another passenger slumped across her, twelve broken bones throughout her body, dislocated joints, and unimaginable levels of bodily pain and mental anguish. As she crawled from the wreckage of the plane, she realized that she was not the only one who had survived the initial impact. But by the end of the day, she was the only one left living. Anette ended up surviving for eight brutal days in that jungle before the rescue team found her.
How did she survive? According to Herfkens, having the presence of mind to refrain from panicking and simply live moment to moment are what allowed her to think clearly. Cale spent a segment of The Cale Clarke Show exploring Herfkens’s story and analyzing how mental strength can often be more valuable than physical strength.
“If you accept what’s not there, then you can see what is there,” said Herfkens of her mental strength while in the jungle. Looking around herself in that jungle alone, she came to accept the fact that her fiancé was gone. He was dead. And with him went all of their plans for the future and all of their hopes and dreams of being together. The staff of the aircraft were dead. The other passengers were dead. She had no supplies, no food, and no fresh water. She had no protection from the elements or the creatures that roamed the surrounding wilderness. She accepted what was not there.
So, what was there? Out there, beyond Vietnam, was her home in the Netherlands. Her parents were there, her work, her place on the trading floor. Even here, in this place that was the setting of so much tragedy, she recognized the beauty and peace of the jungle. She had no idea if the rescue team was on their way to her, but she had to believe that they were.
Even through all the pain, suffering, and desperation, she said that the imminence of her death never crossed her mind. She didn’t think about the possibility of a tiger stalking her for food. She would deal with that situation if it arose. She didn’t think about the venomous creatures in the trees, or the insects on the ground, or the idea of starvation. She would deal with that situation if it arose. She stayed in the moment, taking each one as they came.
As any good survival guide would explain, your number one priority in the wilderness is finding and maintaining a source of clean water. Without ever having received this instruction, Anette’s first instinct was correct: get water. With a broken knee, broken hip, dislocated jaw, and collapsed lung, she crawled to the broken wing of the plane, tore the insulation into eight portions, and waited for it to rain. The insulation would absorb the rainwater, and now Herfken had eight “containers” of water that she would sip from every two hours.
Every time she accomplished some small victory in that jungle, Herfken would congratulate herself. She remained positive and optimistic, a mental tactic that kept her body from giving up on her. On November 22nd, her plan paid off. A rescue team had finally arrived at the site of the crash, and Anette was saved.
Years later, Herfkens wrote a book about her story called Turbulence: A True Story of Survival. After bringing it to producers in Hollywood in an attempt to tell her story through a movie, she expressed her desire to make the film about the other people who had helped her in life, the other victims on the plane, and her autistic son.
“Hollywood basically said, ‘No, no, that’s not a good story.’ ‘Well, why not?’ And the Hollywood executive said, ‘Well it has to be about you. It has to be all about you.’ And she said, ‘But it’s not all about me. It’s not all about me.’ In fact, the only reason she said that she survived is because it wasn’t about her. ‘I got over myself. You get over your little self, then you get your instinct to work. Then, you get to connect with other people, and then, you can achieve stuff.’”
While Anette did not explicitly mention a divine encounter with God in that jungle, she did talk about how her experience was not one of brutalist determination and perseverance. Rather, her attitude – one she believes she got from her childhood as the youngest in her family – was one of beautiful surrender. She had always been trusting and hopeful, and when she lay helpless in that jungle, she truly believed that someone, even God, was on the way. Even on the sixth day, when she was prepared to welcome death, she did not experience fear or terror. She experienced beauty, peace, and a dismissal of all of her pain and anguish.
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