Why Do Survivors Of Disasters Feel Guilt About Surviving ?

Survivors’ Guilt

Since 1970, two-thirds of lone survivors of airline crashes have been either children or flight crew.

Why Do So Many Survivors Of Tragedies Feel Guilt?


Many who survive large scale disasters go on to suffer from what is labeled in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as, "survivors’ guilt".

Dr Stephen Joseph, a psychologist at the University of Warwick, has studied the survivors of the capsizing of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise ferry, which led to the deaths of 193 of the 459 passengers.

His studies showed that 60% of survivors suffered from guilt.

Three Kinds Of Guilt

Referring to the ferry’s survivors, Dr. Stephen Joseph went on to say:

"There were three types of guilt.

First, there was guilt about staying alive while others died.

Second, there was a guilt about the things they failed to do, and these people often suffered post-traumatic ‘intrusions’ as they relived the event again and again.

Third, there were feelings of guilt about what they did do, such as scrambling over others to escape.

These people usually wanted to avoid thinking about the catastrophe and they didn’t want to be reminded of what really happened".

More Difficult For Lone Survivors

Lone survivors often have a much more difficult time dealing with ‘survivors’ guilt’ because unlike survivors of disasters who escaped with their companions, lone survivors have no one to whom they can relate, nor support groups, nor survivors’ organizations.

Plane Crashes

Due to the large number of people involved in an airline flight, being a lone survivor of a crash is statistically highly improbable and lone survivors are often left with physical and psychological injuries.

The youngest sole survivor is Paul Ashton Vick who on January 28, 1947, survived a China National Aviation Corporation crash when he was just 18 months old.

His father survived long enough to write down directions for returning the child to his grandparents before succumbing to his injuries.

Another sole survivor is a former Serbian flight attendant, Vesna Vulovic, who according to the Guinness Book of Records, holds the record for surviving the longest fall without a parachute: 10,160 meters (33,330 ft).

A Plane-Jacker Survived

One of the more controversial lone survivors was Wong Yu who attempted to plane-jack the Cathay Pacific aircraft Miss Macao in 1948 but ended up crashing the plane and killing the other twenty five people on board.

The Earliest Plane Crash Survivor

The earliest plane crash survivor was Linda McDonald, who on September 5, 1936, was the only one who got out of the Skyways sightseeing plane crash that killed ten other people, including her boyfriend.

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One Response to Why Do Survivors Of Disasters Feel Guilt About Surviving ?

  1. Donald D says:

    In war, standing here rather than there can save your life but cost a buddy his. It’s flukish luck, but you feel responsible.

    The guilt begins an endless loop of counter-factuals ‑— thoughts that you could have or should done otherwise, though in fact you did nothing wrong.

    The feelings are, of course, not restricted to the battlefield, but given the magnitude of loss in war, they hang heavy there and are pervasive.

    And they raise the question of just how irrational those feelings are, and if they aren’t, of what is the basis of their reasonableness.

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