Mental Health

7-Year-Old Sailor Gutzler Lone Survivor Of Small Plane Crash: A Psychological Snapshot

small plane
There are many long-term psychological effects that come with being a lone survivor. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

On Friday, Dec. 3 a small twin-engine plane on its way from Florida to Illinois crashed in a Kentucky forest. Of the five passengers aboard, only one, 7-year-old Sailor Gutzler, escaped with her life. As the survivor of a horrific plane crash, Sailor will without a doubt experience emotional trauma, but as the lone survivor, she’s likely to experience additional psychological side effects, both good and bad.

When the small plane crashed in Kentucky Friday night, Sailor awoke and called out to her family. She, along with her 9-year-old sister Piper, 14-year-old cousin Sierra Wilder, and parents Marty and Kimberly Gutzler had spent the holidays in sunny Key West, Fla. When Sailor finally found her family, they were silent and motionless.

"She believed that her family was deceased, but she hoped they were just sleeping," Kentucky State Police Lieutenant Brent White said at the news conference, Reuters reported.

Alone in the forest at night with only one shoe and a broken collarbone, Sailor walked off to find help. She came to the door of Larry Wilkins, who, at the sight of the bloodied and obviously upset young girl, immediately called police. Sailor was treated and released from the hospital on Saturday, and is reportedly now in her family's custody.

Surviving a plane crash is remarkable enough, but being the lone survivor of a plane crash is even rarer. Remarkably, though, Sailor is not the first person to have done this.

A little over five years ago, a 12-year-old French girl, Baya Bakari, became the only survivor of a Yemenia air crash. The plane, travelling from the Comoro Islands to Yemen, crashed in the Indian Sea. The girl was found clinging to floating debris two hours after the flight, the BBC reported.

Both Sailor and Baya were left with no long-term injuries from their ordeals, but the psychological effects from the crashes are likely to remain.

Guilt

As University of Nottingham Professor Dr. Stephen Joseph noted in Psychology Today, survivor’s guilt doesn’t only occur in cases of lone survivors. After a tragedy, he says, the survivors report a significant amount of clinical distress. According to The Telegraph, Joseph explained survivor’s guilt in three stages: guilt of being alive, guilt of what they failed to do, and guilt of what they did do.

Unfortunately, this guilt can often manifest as mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Russell Jones, a psychologist at Virginia Tech who helped counsel victims at the school after a shooting rampage in 2007, told CNN that the extent of the guilt will differ according to the individual.

Cecelia Crocker was the only individual to survive a commercial plane crash in 1987. Although only 4 years old at the time, she explained in the CNN documentary "Sole Survivor" that even so she experienced guilt for still being alive, The Huffington Post reported.

"When I realized I was the only person to survive that plane crash, I was maybe in middle school, high school, maybe, being an adolescent and confused," Crocker said. "So it was just extra stress for me. I remember feeling angry and survivor's guilt. 'Why didn't my brother survive? Why didn't anybody? Why me?'"

Bravery

Having lived through such a horrific accident may cause some to experience increased bravery. Take Vesna Vulovi, who at 22 years old was the only survivor of a 1972 Yugoslav Airlines plane crash. Vulovi fell 33,000 feet and landed on a snow-covered mountain. In an interview with The Telegraph years later, Vulovi explained that the experience helped her to become less fearful.

"Do I now fear death? Well, I don't want to die, put it like that. But I think I became braver," Vulovi said. "I was attacked by a neighbor not long ago. He was mentally ill, and I stood up to him and fought him. Later, it took two big, strong medical orderlies to control him. I think mentally and physically I have become a fighter. I just don't feel afraid anymore."  

The "lightning doesn’t strike twice" mentality is also common among survivors. For example, Heather Reidt, a nurse in Michigan, told NBC News that surviving a traumatic car accident banished her anxiety of getting into a car.

Crocker shares this invincible feeling. "Flying doesn't scare me. I have this mentality where if something bad happened to me once on a plane, it's not going to happen again," she says in the film. "The odds are just astronomical."

Change For The Better

While some survivors experience guilt for remaining alive, others view their accident as a second chance to change their lives for the better. The Telegraph reported that sometimes lone survivors will become more compassionate, less materialistic, and may no longer worry about death. Take Juliane Köpck, who at 17 years old found herself alone in the Peruvian rainforest after being the lone survivor of a plane crash.

"The accident changed me completely," Köpck explained. "I have learned that life is precious — that it can be taken from you at any moment. I came so close to death then that every day stress no longer affects me. Trivial things don't worry me anymore."

Köpck went on to become a biology professor based in Germany not letting her brush with death interfere with her second chance at life.

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