I arrived at our daughter’s boyfriend, Lyndon’s home mid-day to find his mother, Lorelei Sobolik, seated before a breathtaking view of Semiahmoo Bay in White Rock, BC. Her blonde hair fell in perfect soft waves and her blue eyes matched the water below us. As we sat together to discuss her October 27th 2011, plane crash survival alongside her husband, Cameron, Lorelei’s eyes would alternately fill with tears or frame a warm, welcoming smile which lit up the room. Her story is unveiled below, but I will begin where it intersected with mine. – Jennifer Walter, Hockey Wife in the City & Contributing Editor, SITC
We had just arrived home from the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, where my husband, Ryan, had been honored at a Sports Celebrity Gala along with the Vancouver Canucks and select Special Olympians. We had suitcases in hand, having gone to the Gala directly upon landing at the airport from Calgary, and it was pretty late. I was more than a little annoyed that our 16 year-old daughter was not home – And it was a school night!
I picked up the phone to text her and saw this message: “Lyndon’s parents were in a plane crash but they’re okay.”
THUD went my heart! Why, oh why had I kept my phone on silent, in my purse, under the table all evening?!? Why had I not at least checked in with the kids? We could easily have stopped in at the hospital, helped, brought Emma home…something! Later, I eerily deduced that our plane had landed at the Vancouver airport minutes after the Sobolik’s had crashed just beyond the runway. Had we looked out our window, we likely would have spotted the smoke, unless of course our pilot had deliberately diverted his course.
Lyndon’s parents, Lorelei and Cameron Sobolik, met while working at Burger King when they were just sixteen and eighteen, respectively. They started married life living in a basement suite, but twenty-three years later they found themselves in professional circles with like-minded executive leaders and their spouses. They were on their way to a retreat with their professional peers when their plane crashed. The retreat was only in Kelowna, B.C., but they had specifically chosen to fly so they could be home in time to celebrate their daughter, Alina’s birthday.
Lyndon is our Emma’s noble beau of one year. She was with him when he received a call telling him the same surreal words that I had read in my daughter’s text. Emma, Lyndon and Lyndon’s Uncle rushed to Richmond Hospital in Richmond, B.C., where Lyndon’s father had been taken. Lyndon’s sisters Tasha and Alina went to their mother, who had been taken to Vancouver General Hospital. Lyndon’s older brother, Connor, was away at university in New Zealand, and in the heat of the moment, everyone forgot about the Sobolik’s youngest son, Luke, who was waiting to be picked up at a local ice arena. (Not to worry, Lyndon’s good friend retrieved Luke).
Cameron and Lorelei were the first of the 9 passengers to board the small plane that fateful afternoon. As they were walking across the tarmac at Vancouver International Airport, they both noticed what appeared to be oil on the ground beneath the aircraft. The pilot assured them it was nothing and they climbed on board. As Lorelei perused where to sit, she looked at the 2 single front seats located immediately behind the cockpit and thought to herself, “No, it’s too freaky.” Instead of sitting so close to the front, she opted to sit in the row behind. The Sobolik’s friend, Kelly Jablonski, came up just behind them and noticed one of the empty seats in the front row, “I’ll take it,” he had said to Lorelei. “I’d love to sit there!” Kelly promptly sat down in the single seat just in front of Lorelei.
They weren’t long into the flight when Cameron, who was looking out his window, observed the plane suddenly turning around in mid-air. The pilot came over the loudspeaker, calmly explaining that there was an oil pressure leak in the left engine and that they were returning to Vancouver. His words were calm, but the Sobolik’s could see from where they were seated that the pilot’s hand was shaking uncontrollably as he gripped the co-pilot’s seat. “I knew, as a mother, that he was terrified,” says Lorelei. She then saw the co-pilot of the plane take out a manual and from her seat could make out the title on the page he was reading: What to Do for Low Oil Pressure.
No one on the plane panicked but a sullen seriousness took over. While everyone was quietly taking in the events as they unfolded, there was one passenger who was oblivious to it all. This passenger was a man named Reuben. He was wearing noise-cancelling headphones in order to catch up on his sleep so he literally had no idea what was going on. Because Reuben was asleep, his body was limp and relaxed at the time of impact, and therefore adrenaline-free, he was the only passenger who sustained no injuries. (There’s a lesson here)!
Lorelei recounts the conversation on board, just as the plane was approaching Vancouver International Airport. “We were right over the runway. We were all saying to each other: ‘You guys, there are no emergency vehicles – they mustn’t be worried.’ I said to Kelly, ‘I just know I’m not going to die in a plane crash.’” But then, Lorelai notes, “The wheels came down, and suddenly the plane just dipped to one side. In a flash we were driving down the road.”
The plane did not crash into the runway. Instead, it crashed about 900 meters short of it onto the Richmond street, Russ Baker Way, which leads directly to the airport. Amazingly, someone had just pushed the traffic button to walk and this had stopped all of the traffic, so the plane only hit one car. Even more amazing, no one was seriously injured in the car that was hit.
Lorelei counts it a blessing that they did not crash onto the runway but instead, onto that busy road. She explains that because no emergency vehicles had been requested by the pilot, they would have been isolated on the runway, with no one available to come to their aid in time. Many of the people traveling on Russ Baker Way at this busy time of day didn’t wait around for emergency vehicles; they sprung to the aid of the passengers in the small aircraft. They raced over, helped open the door, and started pulling people out. Indeed, by the time emergency vehicles arrived to help, the plane was already engulfed in flames. Lorelei believes that had they crashed onto the runway, no one would have survived.
Only 2 passengers were conscious after the plane hit the ground: Cameron and Reuben (the sleeper). Cameron’s back and sternum were broken. Lorelei only knows her husband’s memory of the moments immediately following the crash because she was unconscious at the time. Cameron told her that as soon as soon as they crashed he started yelling, “Wake up!” and undoing seatbelts. Lorelei calls her husband, “a very strong leader.” He slipped instantly into leadership mode. Frustrated because he had been helpless up to this point, even though he had pointed out what he thought was an oil leak before their trip began, now that he was finally able to do something, he did so with a vengeance. As he sprang into action, he was both furious at what had happened and relieved to finally be in control.
Kelly, who had been seated in the seat in front of Lorelei, was now lying on top of her. Both were unconscious. Both had their seat belts on. Cam slapped Kelly’s face, and undid his seat belt, but couldn’t wake him up. He reached under Kelly and then, on his knees, in the aisle, he laid Lorelei across his lap and started screaming, “Help me save my wife!”
The first rescuer to make it to the plane had heard pounding from the inside and pulled the emergency exit door open. Because Reuben had been sleeping, he had no adrenaline coursing through his veins and he was relatively unscathed. He had the physical ability and good sense to get to the emergency exit and pound on it as hard as he could. Had Reuben been unable to pound on that stuck door, there is no telling whether the heroic passersby would have pressed on, despite the danger of a burning plane. As soon as Reuben was pulled out of the plane, while people were trying to help him, he yelled, “Leave me! Go get that guy’s wife!” because Cameron, continuing to exercise his leadership capabilities, was doing so very vocally. He was determined to save the love of his life.
Lorelei finally woke. She came to consciousness as her husband was cradling and miraculously moving her towards the exit, despite his broken back and sternum. She remembers hearing a man screaming outside, “It’s going to blow! Leave them!” The she heard someone else say to Cameron, “Come on out. We’ll get her.”
Cameron became enraged with fury and shouted in a ferocious voice that Lorelei had never heard in their 23 years together, “I’m not leaving without my wife. Get in here and help me get her out.” Lorelei’s foot was stuck and because they kept yanking her by her arms, her ankle became fractured. As they pulled her backwards towards the exit, she could see the flames right there, by her feet, but she did not suffer a single burn.
Cameron was wracked with guilt that he couldn’t go back in the plane to rescue Kelly. Later in the hospital when Cameron cried with remorse to Kelly, “I tried to wake you!” Kelly assured him, “You did. I heard your voice. You took my seat belt off. You slapped me. I just couldn’t wake up yet.” Kelly did regain consciousness and crawled out with his feet on fire (no one was going back in at this point). He and Lorelei were the last people to be rescued.
“When I was lying there on the road,” says Lorelei, “my back was in pain and my legs felt like they were on fire. Still, I remember thinking, ‘Even if I’m in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, I want to live.’” A man named Haim Peri stayed with Lorelei at the scene. He spent his time encouraging and supporting her. His name, Haim, means “life” in Hebrew. His daughter, Leigh, with a name strikingly similar to Lorelei, is suffering from lymphoma. Haim believes that someone will help her stay alive, as he was able to help Lorelei cope and stay stable. “Haim inspired me,” says Lorelei. “When he laid me on the road, he said, ‘You are one lucky lady. You just survived a plane crash, and your husband is fine.’” Lorelei has stayed in touch with Haim, and his family in Israel, and they continue to pray for one another.
After gaining some distance from the terrifying event, Lorelei reflects, “We have been overwhelmed by the number of people who care for us.” From the brave heroes who raced to and into the burning plane, to her children, siblings and mother who stayed by her bedside, to the compassionate souls they will never meet who prayed non-stop for them, Lorelei is ever mindful that, “There are so many good people in the world, but we should be especially proud and loyal to the spirit of Canada.”
Because Cameron continued to give orders, the rescue workers thought he was much less injured than he actually was. Lorelei remembers hearing him say: “You. What’s your name? Go check on my wife!” In fact, he wanted so much to be in control that he had to be duct-taped to his stretcher. Cameron was about to be sent to Richmond Hospital, while Lorelei, because they thought she was more seriously injured, would be transported to Vancouver General Hospital. Cameron made it abundantly clear that he was not at all happy that they were being separated, but because he was now duct-taped to his stretcher, there was nothing he could do about it.
It was at this point that Lyndon, who was with our Emma, received a call on his cell phone from a social worker at Richmond Hospital. Cameron had specifically given his son’s cell phone number to a nurse. Lorelei was able to provide only 3 cell phone numbers to her nurse: her sister’s, her mother’s and her daughter, Tasha’s. Emma, Lyndon, and his Uncle went to Richmond Hospital; Tasha and Alina went to Vancouver General. Alina updated her Facebook page: “My parents were in a plane crash but they’re okay.” Lorelei’s sister turned on the TV, only to hear a newscaster say about the crash that there were, “Likely no survivors.” God knew differently. Cameron and Lorelei experienced first-hand how powerfully He had provided them with the will and means to live.
Cameron and Lorelei were not to be separated for long. Lyndon gave his cell phone to his father, who promptly called Lorelei on Tasha’s cell phone. My daughter, Emma vividly remembers Cameron’s end of the conversation: “We did it…we’re alive…nothing can ever bring us down…I love you!” Cameron gave his wedding ring to Lyndon, with instructions to place it on his mother’s finger until they could be together again.
It was to happen quickly. Once they understood how very seriously injured he actually was, Cameron was moved to Vancouver General. His bravery and bravado in rescuing his wife and taking charge at the scene of the crash belied the extent of his broken sternum, seriously broken back, and partial, and by God’s grace, partially temporary, paralysis. After surgery, he was moved next door to his wife where they talked through open doors until she was finally wheeled to his side for a very short time on day 3. They lay flat on their backs, stretcher beside stretcher, and held hands.
Lorelei suffered 1 broken vertebrae (fused with 6 screws on each side but miraculously not leading to any spinal cord damage), a broken sternum, 6 broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a fractured ankle and 1 broken gel nail. “As the bigger things heal, you become aware of other pain,” says Lorelei. “I couldn’t understand why my shoulders were so sore, but then I had the memory of them yanking me by the arms to get me out. It wasn’t only my ankle that was stuck. My finger was stuck on something also, and as they pulled, it ripped one of my gel nails off. This was the first time I had gotten my nails done since my wedding day! As we rode in the ambulance to the hospital, the fireman was trying to take my nail polish off so he could take my vitals. I told him they were gel, not polish, and wouldn’t come off, but he kept saying, ‘Sorry, mam, it has to come off.’ Finally a female attendant explained to him that there was no polish to come off, and in the end they were able to take my vitals from the (black and blue) broken nail.”
Cameron and Lorelei were hospitalized for 12 days. “The very first morning,” recounts Lorelei, “I didn’t know where I was. I thought I was in a mental hospital. So my daughter, Alina, made me a poster, covered it in hearts, and put it where I would see it first thing. It read: ‘Good Morning Mom. You are in the hospital. Everyone here loves you and you are going to get better!’”
Lorelei’s sister assured her, “You are not going to be alone.” She set up a schedule and someone slept on a cot in Lorelei’s room every night. Lorelei says she is always close to tears now when she thinks about how much her family and friends did for her during this time. “You just realize how important you are to others,” she says. For Lorelei and Cameron, everything is now measured by before or after the accident.
When the nurse was trying to get Lorelei up after her back surgery, Lorelei complained, “The pain is worse than childbirth. I can’t do this. It’s too much. At least at the end of labor and delivery I had a baby to hold.” The very wise nurse answered, “When you get through this you’re going to be able to hold your [future] grand babies.”
Cameron too has been profoundly affected by their ordeal and says he will never be the same again. They already had a tight bond before their frightening ordeal, based partly on hard work and giving back. Together they had facilitated at Engaged Encounter weekends to help newly engaged couples prepare for strong marriages. Lorelei had regularly counseled for a Crisis Pregnancy Centre and spoken to schools. They had raised 5 magnificent children, who rode the bus to Langley Christian School with our children every morning. This family of 7 was already close but after this life-threatening ordeal, they are closer than ever. This couple, 23 years married, were already close. Now they are close beyond measure. “People think it’s not exciting to be married for 23 years and so they quit,” says Lorelei, “but they are missing a whole section that is the best part of marriage.”
I heard Lorelei on CNN, 5 days after the crash. It was the only interview she gave and it was by telephone. She wanted to do one interview so she could tell the whole world what a hero her husband was and is. She continues to be “so proud of him.” And now she has issued a new standard for her daughters to measure their future life-partner: “Would he pull you from a burning plane?”
Jennifer is an accomplished writer and editor. She is a columnist and contributing editor for the online magazine, Sanctity in the City. Jennifer and her husband Ryan share partnership in Heads-Up Communications Corp, speaking, writing, and training together and individually on a variety of topics from leadership to relationship to partnership to worship. Ryan’s newest book, Hungry! Fuelling Your Best Game is about to enter its second printing. Go to www.hungryfuellingyourbestgame.com to check out it’s stellar reviews and a unique offer for minor sport fundraising. Ryan and/or Jenn can be booked for speaking at www.ryanwalter.com and Ryan’s unique video training is available at www.inspiringyourbestgame.com.
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