Dutch boy who is sole survivor of Libyan crash leaves for home on medical evacuation flight

By Tarek El-tablawy, AP
Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dutch survivor of Libyan jet crash leaves for home

TRIPOLI, Libya — The 9-year-old Dutch boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash in Libya left for home Saturday on a medical evacuation flight, just hours after being told that his parents and older brother perished in the disaster.

Ruben van Assouw’s survival of a crash that shattered the plane into pieces has stunned doctors and provided at least one bittersweet story of hope in a tragedy whose cause has yet to be determined. The Afriqiyah Airways flight from South Africa hit the ground short of the runway while landing early Wednesday in Tripoli, killing 103 people, including the boy’s parents and 11-year-old brother.

The boy was recovering well enough to make the journey home and most likely would not have to be sedated during the trip, said Sadig Bendala, one of the doctors who treated the boy at a Tripoli hospital.

“He’s OK, he’s fine today,” Bendala said.

Accompanying the boy on the Libyan air ambulance was an aunt and an uncle who had rushed to the North African nation to be at his bedside.

Forensics teams, meanwhile, including more than 20 experts from the Netherlands, were to begin the process of identifying bodies on Saturday. Most of those on board the Airbus 330-200 flight from Johannesburg were Dutch tourists, and the government has requested DNA and other information from the victims’ relatives to aid in the process.

Bendala was traveling with the boy on the return flight and said he was emotionally touched by his story and that he hoped to keep in close contact with him.

“He’s a special patient. He’s a miracle,” Bendala said before boarding the plane. “For sure I will have a good relationship with him for the rest of my life.”

A group of four Libyan boy scouts waved from the tarmac as the plane taxied on the runway.

Hospital staff and Dutch Embassy officials have sought to protect the boy’s privacy, and as he was brought out of the hospital on a stretcher his face was covered with a sheet to shield him from the view of a throng of clamoring journalists.

Dutch Foreign Ministry officials, who had flown into Libya to deal with the crash, would not say precisely where in the Netherlands the boy’s flight was headed.

Ed Kronenburg, the Dutch Foreign Ministry’s permanent undersecretary, said it was difficult for hospital staff in Tripoli to see the boy go and that he had formed a close attachment to the Libyan staff, especially his doctor.

“For all the sorrow we have about the victims, this is really a fantastic moment,” he said of the boy’s return home. “I hope he will slowly … recover and pick up his life again, although it will never be normal again.”

Dutch and French investigators have been mapping the crash site and were to begin looking for clues Saturday about the cause, Kronenburg said. Investigators from the United States and South Africa are also helping Libya with the probe.

The Dutch boy had gone with his family to South Africa to enjoy the nature and wildlife of places like Kruger National Park game reserve. His parents were celebrating their 12 1/2-year wedding anniversary, a tradition known as the copper anniversary in the Netherlands.

On Friday, the boy’s aunt and uncle broke the news to him that his parents, Trudy and Patrick van Assouw, and his brother, Enzo, did not survive the crash.

“Under the circumstances, Ruben is doing well. He sleeps a lot. Now and then he is awake and then he is alert,” the aunt and uncle said in the statement Friday.

“We told Ruben this morning exactly what happened. He knows his parents and brother are dead. The whole family is going to bear the responsibility for Ruben’s future,” they said.

“We have two kinds of sorrow to deal with, because Ruben is in a terrible situation, but we have also lost family members,” they said, adding an appeal for news media to respect for their privacy. “The coming time will be a difficult period for us.”

Rescuers responding to the crash found Ruben still strapped in his seat and breathing in an area of desert sand strewn with the plane’s shredded wreckage. His legs were broken, but he had no serious injuries to his neck, head and face.

The boy underwent 4 1/2 hours of surgery to repair multiple fractures to his legs and doctors said he has been recovering well.

Bendala said many factors could have played a role in his stunning survival, including where he was seated in the plane.

“It’s something from God, that he wanted him to live longer,” Bendala told The Associated Press.

Officials have declined so far to comment on what may have caused the crash. The plane may have been attempting a go-around in poor visibility caused by sunlit haze, safety officials and pilots familiar with the airport said Thursday.

Associated Press writer Toby Sterling contributed to this report from Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

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