How Plane Crash Survivor Annette Herfkens Survived 192 Hours Alone In The Vietnamese Jungle

Published November 8, 2023
Updated November 9, 2023

In November 1992, Annette Herfkens was flying from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang with her fiancé when their plane went down in the jungle, leaving Herfkens the sole survivor.

Annette Herfkens

Annette HerfkensAnnette Herfkens miraculously survived a plane crash in 1992 that killed everyone else onboard.

When their plane first dropped over the Vietnamese jungle, Annette Herfkens took her fiancé’s hand and made a grim joke. “Of course, a shitty little toy plane drops like this!” she told him. “It’s just an air pocket — don’t worry.” Then the aircraft plummeted down, and Herfkens’ world became nothing but darkness and the screams of her fellow passengers.

When she came to, she was in the jungle, surrounded by the dead and dying. And Herfkens was faced with a choice: She could give in to the panic and despair — or she could survive.

Over the next 192 hours, Annette Herfkens made small, conscious decisions that kept her heart beating even as her fellow survivors slowly perished around her. She focused on her surroundings, she controlled her breathing, and she forced herself not to cry. She trusted that rescue was coming — and it did.

This is the remarkable story of how plane crash survivor Annette Herfkens endured in the Vietnamese jungle for eight days.

Annette Herfkens’ Path To Vietnam

Before the fateful day that her plane went down in the Vietnamese jungle, Annette Herfkens lived an extraordinary life. According to her website, she was born in Venezuela to Dutch parents and grew up in the Netherlands. There, Herfkens attended law school and started working as a banker.

Her job took her all around the world, and Herfkens broke barriers as the first female executive ever sent abroad by a Dutch bank. Along the way, she also fell in love with a man named Willem van der Pas, whom Herfkens had met at university.

Annette Herfkens And Willem Van Der Pas

Annette HerfkensAnnette Herfkens and Willem Van Der Pas were together for 13 years before their plane went down in Vietnam.

“We knew we were destined to get married from the fourth year of college,” Herfkens recounted to the New York Post. “After school, we lived for a while in Amsterdam; later, because of our work as bankers, we lived together or apart in various financial capitals in South America and Europe.”

Herfkens was a trader; van der Pas, whom she called Pasje, was a banker. The nature of their jobs sometimes made seeing each other complicated, and by 1992 Pasje was working in Vietnam, while Herfkens was based in Madrid. So that November, they arranged a meet-up in Vietnam.

As Herfkens recounted, she hadn’t seen Pasje for eight weeks when they reconnected in Ho Chi Minh City. After their joyful reunion, Pasje announced that he had a surprise for her — a five-day getaway to Nha Trang. Nha Trang was a beautiful coastal city, but they’d need to take a plane to get there.

That plane ride would forever change Annette Herfkens’ life.

The Fatal Crash Of Flight 474

As Herfkens later recalled, she was excited for the getaway to Nha Trang — until she saw the plane they’d be taking to get there. The New Zealand Herald reports that the aircraft was a 16-year-old Soviet-made Yakovlev Yak-40, and its small size and age gave Herfkens a bad feeling.

Yakovlev Yak 40

YouTubeA Yakovlev Yak-40, similar to the one that crashed in Vietnam in November 1992.

In fact, Herfkens felt so claustrophobic that she initially refused to board. But Pasje convinced her by promising that the flight was only 20 minutes (it was actually about an hour). So Herfkens got on the plane and settled into her seat alongside the other 23 passengers and six crew members.

About 50 minutes into the flight, the plane suddenly plummeted.

“There was the sound of accelerating motors,” Herfkens recalled to Vice. “Then there was a gigantic drop and everyone started screaming. We looked at each other, he stretched out and grabbed for my hand, I grabbed his, and then everything went black.”

Surviving 192 Hours In The Vietnamese Jungle

Annette Herfkens awoke into a nightmare. A stranger was dead on top of her. Nearby, Pasje was also dead.

“He had a beautiful smile on his face but he was really white; white, like a dead person,” Herfkens later told Vice.

Somehow, Herfkens made it out of the plane and into the jungle. She had survived the crash, but not without serious injury. Herfkens had 12 broken bones in her hip and knee, her jaw was hanging loose, and one of her lungs had collapsed.

Not everyone on the plane had died, however. Herfkens initially had a Vietnamese businessman as company who promised her that rescue was coming and even gave her a pair of pants since her skirt had ripped. But the businessman grew weaker. He, and the other survivors, died one by one.

Then, Annette Herfkens was alone in the jungle.

Plane Crash Site

XThe site of the 1992 plane crash that killed Annette Herfkens’ fiancé, Pasje.

“Over the following days, even though I was grieving for Pasje, I concentrated on my survival,” she later recalled. “What alternative did I have?”

To survive, Herfkens made the agonizing journey to the plane’s wing to pull out insulation material, which she used to collect drinking water. She forced herself not to cry, because she knew once she started she wouldn’t be able to stop. And she focused on her surroundings, the twinkling green light of the jungle, instead of the frantic whirring of her mind.

“I stayed in the moment,” Herfkens explained. “I trusted that they were going to find me… I did not think: ‘What if a tiger comes?’ I thought: ‘I’ll deal with it when the tiger comes.’ I did not think: ‘What if I die?’ I thought: ‘I will see about it when I die.'”

Eight excruciating days later, a Vietnamese policeman stumbled upon the scene. Initially, he fled.

“He first thought I was a ghost — he’d never seen a white woman before,” Herfkens explained. But the man notified the other local authorities and returned. After 192 hours, Herfkens was finally rescued.

Annette Herfkens’ Long Road To Recovery

Annette Herfkens Returning To Crash Site

Annette HerfkensAnnette Herfkens returned to Vietnam in 2006 to revisit the crash site, and met up with Mr. Cao, the police officer who first found her.

Annette Herfkens had survived the impossible. But she had a long road to recovery. In addition to her physical injuries, Herfkens was also mourning the loss of Pasje, her partner of 13 years.

“[I]t felt like I was widowed,” she recalled. “I attended his funeral [the next month]… Brought into the church on a stretcher, I felt surreal — like a bride taken down the aisle to meet her groom in his coffin.”

Still, Annette Herfkens’ life went on. In search of normality, she returned to her job in Madrid, and later married a colleague with whom she had two children. They settled in New York City, where Herfkens focused on raising her family and tending to her son who was diagnosed with autism.

Decades later, she decided to return to the story of the plane crash and write Turbulence: A True Story of Survival, which came out in 2014.

As Annette Herfkens told the New Zealand Herald, she later learned that not wearing a seatbelt likely saved her life, as other passengers’ seatbelts had crushed their ribs and lungs. She also learned that she had done “all the right things” to survive a dangerous situation. She made a plan, she stayed hydrated, she celebrated small victories, and she practiced mindfulness.

“I listened to my heart and instinct, and not to my mind,” she noted, “because the mind makes up stories that can frighten you.”

After reading about Annette Herfkens’ remarkable tale of survival in the Vietnamese jungle, see how teenager Juliane Koepcke fell 10,000 feet out of an airplane over the Peruvian jungle — and lived to tell the tale. Or, go inside the grisly story of the survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, who were forced to turn to cannibalism after their plane crashed in the Andes.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.