Mayday! One Man’s Story of Surviving a Plane Crash

Could you survive a plane crash for 18 hours treading water without a life vest? Michael Trapp did. Here's how.

By Derek Burnett from Reader's Digest | February 2012

Back in Gouverneur, distraught family and friends crowded into the house. Naturally reserved, Julie said little, just waited by the phone. She appreciated the show of support but wanted more than anything to be left alone. At last, the place cleared out, and she lay down, but her mind raced with possibilities she would rather not consider. When she finally drifted off to sleep, it was on Michael’s side of the bed.

Throughout the night, two helicopters, a C-130 airplane from North Carolina, a local sheriff’s department plane, and a Canadian Air Force plane scoured the search area. Trapp never saw them. What he did see was the green light of a channel buoy down the shore a ways. Back to plan A, then — cling to a buoy until rescued. But still the current thwarted him. For hours he kept it up, maddened by how tantalizingly close the buoy was, swimming until his limbs all went to jelly, then resting on his back in the starlight, only to find himself further away than when he’d started.

Nobody’s coming tonight, he realized. You need to just relax and wait for the sun to come up. And then in the morning somebody will see you and come get you. He lay back and floated, mesmerized by the stars, watching the satellites scrape across the sky, amazed at the number of meteors you could spot when you had nothing else to look at. The waves had subsided, and he swam only to keep within the warm spots in the water. When he caught himself shivering, he willed himself to stop, rubbing at his goose bumps until he could float calmly again.

He thought of his loved ones. So many people depended on him: Julie, their sons, his employees at the garage, his friends. He found he could take mini-vacations from his ordeal by visualizing himself at home with the people he cared about — laughing with his buddies, curled in bed beside Julie. Then a frigid wave would land in his face, and he would cough out the water and start over again.

He was on one of his mini-vacations when something bumped hard into his side. What the — ? He felt around for a log or debris. It was neither. It was a fish. An awfully big fish. His mind began racing, picturing the massive jaws hurtling up from the depths to make a meal of him. Whoa! You got to get that out of your mind. No time for that now.

He lay back and relaxed again. And a mosquito began drilling into his forehead. Are you kidding me? Two miles from shore? Have you no mercy? He swore and slapped around in the air, and the mosquito flew off.

Later in the night, he had rolled into his dog paddle position to get his bearings when a shadow fluttered between him and the lights of shore. He peered hard through the gloom and saw what it was — a seabird, a cormorant. It circled him several times, then lighted on the black water and began swimming toward him. Holy crap. This thing’s gonna peck my eyes out. “Get outta here!” he hollered, and the startled bird did just that.

As he waited for the sun to come up, he thought about his whole life. The stupid things he’d done. The pointless arguments with Julie. He began to pray. Let me hug my wife just one more time. Let me hug my kids just one more time. Please. Let something good come.

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