Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 2, Page 5
Winter 1994
A survival story

     When Pamala Lewis, Delaware '81, teaches dance to older folks, she
creates steps that help them tell stories from their own lives. She
reenacts how Rose sewed buttons for 3 cents a day when she was a girl or
how Madilla's beloved cat, Fluffy, lost all its hair.
     "I call it expression or gesture dancing," Lewis says. "I love hearing
people's stories. It's much more interesting to me than just saying,
'5-6-7-8 and lift and stretch!'" Her classes, full of laughter,
storytelling, singing and mime, do as much for her as they do for her
students. "When I go into a convalescent home, I touch them, I dance with
them and they look in my eyes and say, 'This is great! I love to move!' I
really need that human contact."
     Lewis may be fascinated by her students' vignettes, but she herself
has a story to tell. A little over a year ago, she not only survived a
plane crash that killed 59 of the 340 passengers on board, but she walked
away from the wreckage with only a bruise over her left eye. And her dog,
Sika, survived as well.
     In the early morning of Dec. 21, 1992, Lewis and Sika boarded a Dutch
jumbo jet. Along with three other teachers from a Dutch center for personal
growth, Lewis was bringing 33 students to a seaside resort town in Portugal
for a holiday tour. Ordinarily, Lewis would have put the dog-a Labrador,
spaniel and Newfoundland mix-in a box to ride in the plane's cargo area.
But this time, she decided to put her 50-pound dog in a knapsack and bring
her inside the cabin. It was a decision she says saved her life.
     The flight attendant allowed Lewis to sit in the front row where there
was more room for Sika to sit at her feet, rather than the middle section.
"During the flight, Sika seemed to feel really unprotected and kept trying
to get under my seat. The man behind me would shoo her away, because that
was where his feet were supposed to be," Lewis recalls.
     It was no wonder Sika was afraid. "The plane sounded terrible. I kept
joking around with the people next to me, saying, 'I can't believe this
thing is in the air. This is like a toy airplane.'"
     Hurricane-like weather met the jet as it approached its destination
and 10 minutes before landing, Lewis huddled forward to hold Sika. "Even
though we weren't in any immediate danger, my body sensed something wrong
and told me to protect myself and my dog."
     Lewis says she believes the pilot tried to land twice before crash
landing on the third attempt. "We went down, then up, and then it happened
again." Confused, Lewis released Sika and sat up to look out the window.
     When the plane hit the ground, "It was like a big fly swatter came out
of the sky and swatted us down," she says. "We bounced three times down the
runway. Then, because the landing gear had been destroyed, the belly of the
plane just scraped and slid toward the ocean," breaking into three sections
along the way.
     "The whole thing probably took about 25 seconds. Some people say that
when things like this happen, they happen to you excruciatingly slowly, but
to me, it didn't feel like an eternity. It just felt like 25 seconds."
     Lewis was completely aware of herself, but she lost track of Sika and
the rest of the plane. "When you go into shock, I think your vision
changes," she says. "I saw only what was in front of me." She also recalls
hearing the sounds of metal scraping and being ripped apart. "Survivors
from the middle of the plane heard people screaming in pain from fire that
was tearing through the section between the wings. But, I heard none of
that. Only the violent, wrenching metal sounds."
     When the plane eventually did stop, Lewis says, "I seemed to fall
through a trap door. Then, there was total blackness and I felt a crushing
sensation. I found myself hanging upside-down, strapped in my seat over the
grass, which I could smell. I undid my seat belt, crawled out on my hands
and knees in the sand, pushed some stuff off my back and stood up amid the
smoking debris."
     Lewis began helping other passengers from the plane, rescuing an
infant, all the while calling for Sika. "People were bloody, and some had
broken bones. All I could do for many of them was to put my hands on them
and tell them, 'It's OK. You're alive, and someone is coming to help you.'"
She stayed with the victims on the runway until Portuguese emergency
workers rescued everyone. In shock, exhausted and heartbroken about her
missing dog, Lewis was forced by the authorities to go to the hospital,
where she was treated for her minor injury.
     There, she announced she was looking for her dog, although she was
"embarrassed to do so because people had lost their families." A man in the
hospital said he had seen Sika run away from the scene. Heartened by the
news, Lewis returned to the scene of the crash and found her dog with a
police officer, wet, muddy and with a slight limp, but okay.
     "It has been a little more than a year, so I don't really know what's
up, what's down, what's in and what's out yet" Lewis says. Although most of
the deaths occurred in the center section of the plane, two people were
killed near her. Five people died from her school. "There really was no
rational design. One person dies; the person next to him lives....maybe it
was an accident that I lived. That was a big thing: Maybe my number was up
but I accidentally got out of it."
     In the months following the crash, Lewis went through a period of what
is called "survivor's guilt," a deep depression characterized by
self-distrust and self-sabotage. She made little mistakes, such as leaving
the iron on and almost setting fire to her apartment. "I don't understand
why, but all the survivors got into car accidents after the crash," she
explains. "I got into a bad one that totaled my car." But, again, she
walked away uninjured.
     Lewis says her dance and body relaxation background has helped her
deal with the trauma of the crash, giving her the means to release some of
her fear and tension. "If I didn't get this fear out of my body, I was
going to create some horrible situation, like another car accident or
     Recently, she also had a cathartic experience. During a walk in the
forest, she saw a downed 300-year-old poplar tree. Its rotted insides,
gnarled branches and huge girth resembled the twisted, broken airplane she
witnessed on the runway. She found herself re-visiting the tree and
re-enacting the terror of the disaster.
     "Here I was in the middle of this forest," she says, "and I relived
every image, all the death that I saw, the baby that I saved, the people
who were begging me to help them. That tree took all the fear and death out
of me. I began to feel happy that I was alive and that it was a gift."
     With her new perspective, Lewis was ready to get on a plane to come to
America after four years in Europe, though she admits to being surprised
when the plane landed safely.
     Lewis came to stay with her sister in Wilmington, Del., and to attend
the annual meeting in Washington, D.C., of the International Aviation
Disaster Group, an organization for airplane crash survivors. The group's
main goal is to promote improvements in airline safety, and it networks
with a watchdog group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader that lobbies
for stricter laws, such as requiring airlines to provide special seats for
     "The baby I saved was in such a seat, and I believe that is why she
survived," says Lewis. "Making changes in air safety is a really
frustrating and drawn-out process because of the politics involved, and
because airline officials don't seem to believe that we survivors have
valid input."
                                      -Laurie LoSasso-Casey, Delaware '93M