“I live with it every day. It’s never going to go away.”
Australian journalist Cynthia Banham is talking about the plane crash she survived in Indonesia on March 7, 2007.
“I always think about the people who were around me who didn’t survive, people on either side of me who didn’t survive. I think about it every day, it’s never going to change.”
Before the crash life was good for Banham. She loved her job working as foreign affairs and defence correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. And she’d just moved in with her boyfriend, fellow journalist and marathon runner, Michael Harvey.
“I believed if I was always grateful for the wonderful life I had, the fact I could run marathons, I had my health, I worked hard and had this fulfilling career, I was always conscious and grateful.
“I thought everything’s just going to continue that way, and I guess going through the crash and the aftermath, I realised that’s not how life works, necessarily.”
It’s taken more than a decade for her to write about what was a life-changing event in her book A Certain Light.
“Although I resisted and was unable to for so long, I think I had to write the book because I want to be a writer, and I don’t think I would have been able to, with this story sort of stuck in me, an unwritten story,” she said.
‘I was incredibly fortunate to be loved by Michael’
In March 2007 Banham was onboard Garuda Indonesia Flight 200. It came in to land at Yogyakarta airport too steep and too fast, over-ran the runway and burst into flames. Twenty-one people died, among them five Australians.
Banham survived with shocking injuries. She was medivaced to Perth and would eventually come under the care of renowned burns surgeon Dr Fiona Wood.
“I suffered more than 60 per cent burns to my body and picked up infections in the water in the rice paddy field that I landed in,” she told 7.30.
“I broke my back as well.”
In the days that followed, her boyfriend and her family were warned to prepare for the worst.
“Cynthia was in an induced coma,” Harvey said.
“Fiona Wood had had to do serious amputations of Cynthia’s limbs and if it didn’t deal with the infection spread, there was not much other alternative.”
In the hospital, Harvey proposed to Banham.
“I whispered in her ear, ‘I’ve got something I would like to ask and perhaps you need to answer me a bit later because you are in a coma.’
“Perhaps by coincidence, I like to think not, a big tear welled in her eye and slowly came down her cheek, and so I had my answer and I was pretty happy.”
Banham didn’t find out about this proposal until years later, when she began to work on the book and Mr Harvey transcribed the shorthand notes he kept during her hospitalisation.
“I had to wait one more year and he proposed to me when I was conscious,” she said.
“I guess I was incredibly unlucky to have what happened to me happen to me, but at the same time I was incredibly fortunate to be loved by Michael.”
The couple have since married and now have a son.
‘You can rebuild and have a wonderful life’
It was only after immersing herself in the contents of two boxes that Banham found a way to write about her experiences.
One box contained documents belonging to her Italian grandfather who was a forced labourer in Germany during World War II.
The other was the box of letters and cards sent to her after the crash by strangers, friends and colleagues.
“I actually could feel the love and warmth and the positive spirit that was coming out of those letters,” she said.
Banham could see connections between how her experience had affected her, and the experience of her grandfather.
“There was obviously trauma there that he couldn’t talk about. I felt incredibly isolated for a long time by what happened to me, and I imagine that my grandfather did too. Nobody else had been through anything like that,” she said.
“And so by reading these two sets of documents alongside each other, I started to see the book that I wanted to write.”
While it deals with tragic events, the book is also a love story.
“A large part of why I loved my life was Michael. He decided very early on, as I wrote in the book, that he wanted to make it his purpose to get our lives back to that normalness that I talked about that I loved so much.”
“Cynthia is a very strong person, a determined person, and I was in no doubt she was going to build a strong, valuable life for herself,” Harvey said.
“Cynthia has always looked for the good, challenging and exciting things in life and we’ve found them. They’re just a bit different from what they used to be,” he said.
“We don’t run marathons any more but we discovered kayaking, where once we are on the water we are both 100 per cent equal and we are happy and exerting physically and we are out in nature, and so that part of life we loved — it still exists.”
Banham said she can honestly say she is now “really happy”.
“Horrible things happened to me [but] I love my life.
“I’m so grateful to have survived. You can go through really horrific things and you can rebuild and have a wonderful life.”