Air-crash survivor describes pressure to accomplish something big with his life

'Sole Survivor'
Film image courtesy of studio

A Minnesota native who was the lone survivor of a plane crash in 1985 says one of the burdens of people in his situation is the pressure to accomplish something big.

George Lamson Jr. was a senior at Cretin-Durham Hall on Jan. 21, 1985, when he and his father boarded a plane in Reno to come home after a weekend getaway. Their plane crashed shortly after takeoff. Lamson was thrown from the fuselage and survived. Everyone else on board was killed.

"'You must be spared for a reason. Maybe you'll have the cure for cancer.' I've heard that quote before," Lamson said. "People would say, 'Great things are due for you.' And that made me feel uneasy, because that's a huge thing to carry."

Lamson is one of the subjects of the film, "Sole Survivor," which is having its second screening tonight at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. The film's director, Ky Dickens, said she contacted 10 of the world's 14 sole survivors and featured four in the movie. She discovered during the making of the film that people unwittingly add to the burdens of survivor guilt.

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George Lamson Jr.
George Lamson, Jr., was the sole surivor of a plane crash in Reno in 1985, and part of a documentary on the phenomenon.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"Often, survivors are treated like, 'Oh, you're lucky, you survived, you're a miracle, what are you going to do with your life?'" she said. "And I think those messages can be very difficult and actually make the road to healing a lot more challenging.

"Survivors are victims too. They lost something. They're not the same person who went on a plane or got into a car or whatever, as the person who leaves the scene of a tragedy like that. There's a lot of grief, yet often they're not responded to as victims. They need the same resources and love and support systems or therapy or whatever to heal."

There were times when Lamson felt far from lucky.

"The first year after the accident I tried to suppress everything that happened to me, and tried not to think about it," he recalled. "And then after a period of time I realized that I needed to not suppress it. And then when I did that it got very, very heavy, and I just had troubles for a long time."

"I suffered from [survivor's guilt] for many, many, many years. I can't say I'm 100 percent cured of it, but I'm coming to terms with it."

Here's the trailer for "Sole Survivor":