Survivor Guilt

On the 21st of January 1985 George Lamson Jr and his father boarded Galaxy Airline flight 203. They were scheduled for a short flight, from Reno, Nevada to Minneapolis.

As soon as they found their seats they settled in. George was tired and tried to go to sleep as other passengers bustled by.

Two men promptly arrived and claimed George and his father were in their seats. Rather than argue they gave up their seats and moved. The seats they occupied were just behind the aircraft’s bulkhead.

Passengers were asked to do up their seat belts, the crew began their mandatory emergency procedures instruction, and the plane began readying for take-off.

The plane took off as it had done a thousand times before. It began climbing to cruising altitude. Before it could level out the aircraft hit some strong turbulence. George could see they were losing altitude even though the nose of the aeroplane was pointed up. The Captain ordered all crew and passengers into emergency positions, they were going down.

George felt his stomach shoot up through his chest as the plane started a shrieking dive. Five seconds … ten seconds … Wham!

The plane smashed into the ground three times, cartwheeling over a wing, disintegrating as it pounded and bounced along the ground. Still buckled into his seat, George was hurled clear of the aircraft. He landed more than 10 meters away from the plane wreckage, in a busy Reno street.

The plane had exploded in a fireball of aviation fuel and oil. What hadn’t been crushed from the impact of the landing was burning fiercely.

George looked for the man who took his seat – he was dead.

Galaxy Airline flight 203 had taken off with 6 crew and 65 passengers. There was only one other survivor, a poor man screaming from third degree burns to more than 80 per cent of his body. He was taken to hospital, but died a few days later.


George Lamson Jr and the wreckage of Galaxy 203. Image:

George Lamson Jr and the wreckage of Galaxy 203. Image:

To this day George finds it difficult to express just how sad and bewildering the experience of being a lone survivor is. Most people are in awe of his close brush with death. But George is overwhelmed by the question of why he, and he alone, survived.

When he was released from hospital he returned to high school. He enrolled in college, imagined he’d get a degree, and perhaps join the Air Force to become a pilot.

But the loss of his father in the disaster took its toll; on him and his mother and sister. The family struggled to find direction and George dropped out of college to become a casino dealer.

Everyday George was racked with survivor’s guilt. He would imagine the spirits of those killed in the disaster saying, “Look at this guy – he got a second chance at life. I lost my dear husband, I lost my dear son, I lost my dad. Why is this guy alive? He’s not even doing anything major with his life. I know my dad would have done something’ I know my brother would have done something.”

In July of 2010 George went to

Wreckage of Galaxy 203. Image:

Wreckage of Galaxy 203. Image:

visit the families of three passengers aboard the Galaxy 203 flight. He remembers feeling physically ill with worry as he drove to their homes. The first visit was to Sarah. She had lost her mother, father, and two grandparents on that flight’ she was six years old when it happened.

As soon as he walked in Sarah gave him a hug. They chatted around the subject until Sarah handed him a photograph of her father and mother.

For George everything changed right then.

To this day he truly believes he sensed the presence of Sarah’s family in that room. But rather than being envious of his good fortune, he felt they forgave him for not making his life as perfect as he felt he owed them.

George said he was looking at the picture of Sarah as a six year-old and seeing her in front of him as a thirty year-old and crying – just crying.


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