My childhood was perfect. I was born and raised in New Jersey and lived in a lovely house with my family around me. For my sixth birthday my mom went all out with a Pocahontas theme – it was amazing. It’s the last beautiful memory I have of my family together. A month later, in December 1995, we were due to travel to Colombia as a family for the first time. I was so excited as it was going to be my first flight. We were travelling to meet family members I had never met before, for a big reunion.
We were rushing on the way to the airport and our car almost flipped over on the way because of the snow on the roads, so we were delayed. It was chaos once we got there – rush, rush, rush. We only just boarded on time, and the plane took off late.
After takeoff, I was fighting with my brother, because I wanted the window seat – I was so excited about looking out. My brother got mad and went to sit on the other side of the aisle with my cousin. After that, I don’t remember anything, except waking up the next morning. My dad remembers a little more: the plane severely shaking, the lights going off, people screaming. The plane had crashed into a mountain near Buga, in Colombia.
When I woke up, I was really thirsty. I was screaming for help in Spanish and my dad was trying to get me out of the wreckage, but I was in a lot of pain and couldn’t move. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was buried underground from my waist down and had been stuck, with my seatbelt on, for 13 hours. (I still have the seatbelt marks on my legs.) I guess when we crashed, my legs plunged into the ground. I think it was the warmth of being half-buried that kept me alive, because a lot of other passengers died from hypothermia.
When the rescue team and paramedics found us, they created a makeshift stretcher out of parts of the plane wreckage. They took me down the mountain by foot to a heliport, and I was transferred by air to hospital. When I got there, it was chaos. I just wanted my mom – I wanted her to be there holding my hand. I was so scared.
Nobody was talking to me about where my mom was. I kept asking my family, but they kept saying she was on a trip and would be back. Eventually they told me that my mom, my brother and my cousin were in heaven, and that my dad and I were two of only four survivors out of the 155 people on board. I didn’t go to their funeral because I was still recovering from my injuries. I carry a little bit of guilt that maybe if I hadn’t asked my brother to move, he’d still be with us. It’s always in the back of my mind.
After I left the hospital, I had some therapy while I stayed at my uncle’s house in Colombia. I was having nightmares, and slept in with my dad every night – I would wake up sweating and crying. I was in a wheelchair for a couple of years and couldn’t walk without braces. The doctors told my dad I would never walk again. The whole process of getting my nerves back in my legs was very painful. It’s definitely a miracle that I can walk again now.
When we moved back to New Jersey, I couldn’t focus at school; I would just cry. It was very hard. I’ve blocked out so many of those memories as a way of healing. God is the only reason I was able to overcome a lot of that trauma. They say the storm is what makes us.
We were told the plane crashed because the pilots were at fault, and I never really thought there was another reason until Tristan Loraine came into our lives. He’s an ex-pilot and a film-maker, and has made an investigative documentary called American 965 that looks at evidence of longstanding faults on the type of plane we flew on. I thank God for that, because if it wasn’t for Tristan, I don’t think I would ever have found closure.
The accident has shaped me into the person I am today. I don’t take anything for granted, and now that I have a daughter I want to give her the world – all the stuff that I missed out on. It’s made me feel as if I can overcome anything.