PARIS – A reservation mix-up, an overbooking and a Brazilian cabbie's passion for soccer are all that saved some would-be passengers on Air France flight 447 from the fate of 228 others who lost their lives in the mid-Atlantic.
The survivors say their relief is overshadowed by the immense sense of loss they feel for those who didn't make it.
"It feels miraculous and sad at the same time," said Amina Benouargha-Jaffiol, who tried to get on the flight Sunday night, even enlisting a diplomat friend to try to pressure Air France to let her and her husband on.
"Of course, at some level we feel lucky, but we also feel an enormous sadness for all those who perished," she said.
For some it was a simple matter of arriving at Rio's airport late; for Andrej Aplinc, it was because he got there early.
The 39-year-old Slovenian sailor and father of two was spared because his cab driver was in a hurry to see a soccer match.
With time to spare at the airport, Aplinc, who was supposed to take Flight 447, learned there was no seat on the plane with enough legroom for him to stretch out his bum knee. But since he'd arrived early, he was able to board an earlier 4 p.m. Air France flight, which did have a roomy seat.
"It was such huge luck that I flew with that earlier plane," Aplinc said from his home in Radelj Ob Dravi in northeastern Slovenia.
Gustavo Ciriaco was scheduled to be on that 4 p.m. flight. But he arrived late at the check-in and was told airline agents could not find his seat and the gate was about to close.
The 39-year-old Brazilian choreographer and dancer was on his way to Europe for two weeks of rehearsals for his next ballet, and had a connecting flight to catch in Paris.
Ciriaco pleaded to be let him on the plane, and finally the airline discovered the seating error and relented.
If the reservation mix-up hadn't been resolved, "I would have tried to take the following flight because I would have arrived in Paris with enough time to catch my connection," Ciriaco said.
The next flight? Air France 447.
"Survivors" like these often need psychological counseling, said Guillaume Denoix de Saint-Marc, whose father was among the 170 people killed in 1989 when Libyan terrorists downed UTA Flight 772 with a suitcase bomb. He now heads an association that helps victims of airline disasters.
"They can have big psychological problems. We meet a lot of people like that," said Denoix de Saint-Marc, who was asked by French authorities to counsel relatives of the victims of Flight 447 at a crisis center at Paris' airport.
In the case of UTA flight 772, some of the pilots and cabin crew who had flown the French DC-10 jetliner before handing it over to the doomed crew "couldn't resume their careers," Denoix de Saint-Marc said.
"They lost their flying licenses because of big psychological problems or alcoholism," he said.
Such traumas have a name: "Survivors' syndrome," seen often in combat and other crisis situations in which those who make it feel as though they fled, deserted their buddies or were cowardly, said psychiatrist Ronan Orio.
But being saved by the ticket counter, traffic or other caprices of life should not be considered traumatic, said Orio, who has worked with victims of hostage situations, terror attacks and airline crashes.
Instead, near-miss situations should be viewed in a positive light, he said.
"People who take a plane and have a second chance win the lotto. They have the right to continue where the others died," he said.
Benouargha-Jaffiol and her husband Claude Jaffiol got a second chance last Sunday.
The couple, who live in Montpellier, France, had pulled strings to try to get on Flight 447, even drafting a family friend, a Dutch diplomat, to phone Air France and try to get them seats on the overcrowded plane.
"My husband demanded that Air France put us on that flight," Benouargha-Jaffiol said. "But nothing doing, the flight was totally full."
She and her husband finally left the airport, returning Monday after the disaster.
"This type of tragedy should give us all a lesson in humility and humanism," she said. "No one lives forever. We often forget that."