IMAGE: PLANE DEBRIS ON FIRE
Reuters
The wreckage from the Peruvian jetliner that crashed August 23, 2005 was still on fire as rescue workers searched for survivors hours later.
By Victoria Corderi Correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/30/2005 8:29:30 PM ET 2005-10-01T00:29:30

It’s a scene repeated at airports everyday: Passengers, mostly strangers to one another, get ready to board a plane, say their goodbyes, and focus on their destinations, homecomings, business deals, or vacation adventures to come— not reflecting on how lives could change in an instant.

On August 23, 2005, there was a New York father of five and his wife on their first trip away from the kids; a young California woman embarking on her honeymoon; a new mother with her 13-month-old baby boy on her way to introduce him to his grandparents for the first time.

So many stories, so many lives that would intersect before the day was through.

The drama that would unfold on TANS Peru Airline’s flight 204 headed to the jungles of northern Peru would be described as a tragedy... and a miracle.

It’s a story filled with courage and compassion: one father doing all he could to save the life of another father’s baby, and a young flight attendant acting heroically in a desperate race against time.

All of them would have only 90 seconds to escape. For a time, a group of strangers would become a family— one intent on survival.

41-year-old Gabriel Vivas from Brooklyn, New York was among the people who lived to tell the harrowing story of flight 204. He was visiting South America so he could introduce his wife of 14 years to the Peruvian side of his family.

Gabriel Vivas: This was important for my wife to meet my father. I wanted her to know that she’s part of the family. this is going to be who you are too.

Gabriel, his wife, his brother Jose, and Jose’s three daughters were on their way to meet his father.

They joined the other passengers waiting to take their seats that Tuesday afternoon. Among them was another American having a different kind of celebration: 27 year-old Monica Glenn had moved to Peru three years before, intent on teaching English and soaking up a different culture. Glenn got much more than she bargained for.

Victoria Corderi, anchor: You came wanting to learn Spanish and you found love.

Monica Glenn: Yeah.  (Laughter)

Corderi: Big time.

Glenn: Big time.

She met William Zea when she joined a local chorus in Arequipa, the small town where she was teaching. They were very different: she, a well-traveled American with a degree in French and a free spirit, he a serious engineering student, paramedic and firefighter who didn’t speak English. They bonded, she says, over music.

Glenn:  I think that that was really kind of what connected us originally.  Yeah. He’s a tenor.

Corderi: The tenor and the soprano.

Glenn:  Yeah.  (Laughter)

Before long, she says, she just knew.

Glenn: I kind of really know what I’m looking for in a guy.  And, with William he just really fit the bill.

Corderi: You knew that.

Glenn: Yeah, yeah.  I knew pretty early on that, yeah —he’s the one. 

So just three days before the plane took off, they’d wed in a little Peruvian church.  Glenn’s relatives and friends flew in from California. The day, she says, was nothing short of perfection.

Glenn:  Oh, it was wonderful. Having my father walk me down the aisle was, you know, when you’re 5-years-old you think about those things.  And, now, you know, being an adult, to actually see it, to actually experience it, it’s just so wonderful.

The wedding included a tribute from William’s fellow firefighters. He’d been a firefighter for 12 years, and Glenn says she’d admired his dedication to the job.

Glenn: I think it’s something that he just really thrives on.  For him an emergency is a time when he can, you know, think, act, and move quickly.  And—

Corderi: Take charge.

Glenn: He really can just take charge and think very clearly, which for me, I’m impressed.                     

Corderi: Little did you know that that was gonna come into play.

Glenn: Yeah.

Corderi: Very soon.

Glenn: Right.

They were about to embark on their honeymoon in the lush Amazon rainforest, a popular tourist destination known for its exotic wildlife.  Flight 204 was headed first to Pucallpa, a river city in the  north, and then on to Iquitos, known as the gateway to the Amazon.

Glenn: We planned to do a lot of hiking. Go on a river boat as well. Do a lot of bird watching.   

By 1:30, passengers began to take their seats, including several children. 13-month-old Juan Carlos Valle was seated on his mother’s lap. He was going to meet his grandparents for the first time.  His mother Evelyn, who hadn’t been home in four years, was eager to show off her strapping baby. Juan Carlos was a cheerful and active baby— just on the verge of walking. He was still nursing and always at his mother’s side.

Nearby, another mother and son settled in. Steve Lotti, a peace corps volunteer in Bolivia, invited his 58-year-old mother Sherra Young, to explore the wilds of South America with him.

It was a international patchwork of passengers traveling to the jungle—a Colombian, a Spaniard, Italians, Americans, and Kirallee Thomas from Perth, Australia. She’d been in London during the deadly terrorist attacks last summer and wanted to get away.

Four flight attendants were helping passengers aboard, including an enthusiastic 21-year-old named Paola Chu.

Paola Chu: I have three years flying.  It’s not a lot, but I love my job.

Chu was in charge of the passengers in the rear section of the plane.

Chu: From the emergency windows to the back.

Corderi: So, the middle of the plane to the back.

Chu was in charge of rows 10 through 20, where Monica Glenn and her husband, and the Vivas family sat.

Chu: I start speaking Spanish to them and they answer in English.  And, I remember that they were sitting by the 17th row.

So at 2 p.m., the plane took off with 98 people. Soon, some of the 98 people aboard would be strangers no longer. And one of them, Gabriel Vivas, a father from Brooklyn, was about to find out how powerful his feelings about family and fatherhood were. He was about to see the role they would play in the life and death drama that was about to unfold.

The Boeing-737 in the skies heading towards the jungles of northern Peru that August day had 20 rows and four emergency exits. In row 12, two rows behind the exit doors in the midsection of the plane sat newlyweds Monica and William, enjoying the view.

Monica Glenn: Even though I had the window seat, he was looking over.  He wanted to see.  And I remember, he is pointing out, “Ah, you know, look.  Look how green it is.”

Monica says William was nervous. This was only his second time on an airplane.

Glenn: Partly it’s personality. But just also having experience in accidents and knowing a lot of people who have died. I think it makes him much more aware of the possibilities.

Meanwhile, four rows behind them in row 16 sat Gabriel Vivas in between his brother Jose and wife Diana. In row 17, Jose’s three daughters.

Gabriel Vivas: I was like, “Hey, you know it’s a quick flight.  Let’s sit together so we can you know be with each other the girls, they can giggle with each other.” 

During the first 40 minutes of the flight, it was business as usual. Passengers chatted and the flight attendants served a snack.

Gabriel talked to his wife, a jittery flyer, who was even more nervous because she’d never traveled away from their five kids before.

Gabriel Vivas: My wife’s looking out the window, and I’m showing her the mountains and you could see like these little towns in the road. 

It was an unremarkable flight routine. The flight attendants cleared away the trash and the captain made an announcement.

Gabriel Vivas: We were going to land in 10 minutes.  We had our seatbelts on and we put our trays away. 

Paola Chu and the other flight attendants buckled themselves in. Chu says where she was sitting, in the plane’s rear galley, there was no window. She couldn’t see what Diana Vivas saw — clouds, rain, and sudden darkness. Then, the ride became a bit bumpy. Chu says she was unfazed.

Chu: I stood up. I checked. There was a little turbulence, but it was normal. 

Then there was a bit more turbulence.

Chu: I was like, “Okay, maybe there's too much wind.”  I’ve felt that before.  I wasn’t scared because of that.

But Diana certainly was. It began raining harder and harder. She says she kept looking outside.

Diana Vivas: I saw the plane slide a little bit.  And then it looks out like— it went up, down, my stomach was...

Corderi: And it kind of lurched? 

Diana Vivas: Yeah. 

Gabriel tried to reassure her.  

Gabriel Vivas: "We’re going to probably fly right through this is and it’ll probably be sunny by the time we get on the other side, by the time we land."

Corderi: Did you believe that?

Gabriel: No, I didn’t. But I wasn’t gonna let her know that I was nervous.

The ride only got rockier. Chu says she sensed trouble because of the way the plane was moving, and because the engines suddenly began to rev up. It seemed to her the pilot was gunning them, trying to correct the plane’s path. And the weather was getting worse.

Chu: You could hear like little stones.

Corderi:  Hail.

Chu: Hail. They were really big, like stones. Hail, rain, wind —  and then a violent lurching—a plane clearly out of control.

Diana Vivas: Like a roller coaster.  It was like a roller coaster ride. 

By now, nothing was routine.

Glenn: I looked quickly at William and I remember turning to him when the turbulence got very strong and the whole plane is rocking much more.  And it’s like a big earthquake.

The flight attendants became just as confused as the passengers about what was happening.

Chu: I felt the plane going down, down, down and more down and too fast.

They’d had no word from the pilot.  Was this a rocky landing or were they crashing?  Soon they’d learn the answer.

Chu: I thought, “Oh my god,” when I started hear—like sound of the trees on the window.  I couldn't see anything from my seat.

The plane was convulsing as it tore through a thicket of jungle brush.  

Diana Vivas: I just closed my eyes.  And when I opened them I saw, you know, the seats were going up, the smoke was coming, and I was just screaming, “Oh my God, oh my God.”  Holding on.

Holding on, as the plane cut a swath through the trees and swamp… then jerked to a stop and exploded in flames. 

Diana Vivas: When we crashed, I was like “Oh God, oh God, I’m never gonna see my kids again,” we’re dead.

Within moments a hellish scene took shape inside the plane.

Gabriel Vivas: This like huge fireball just came at us, it just like whoosh.  And you felt the heat on your face. I saw a roaring fire after that. 

Flames engulfed the front of the plane, which by now had split in two. Some of the passengers rushed to escape through the gap created when the plane broke apart. 

But the Vivas family was closer to the rear of the plane so they joined the rush of people scrambling there in darkness.

Jose Vivas: I said, “Hey, we just got to get out of here.  Let’s go.  We 're okay and not hurt.  So, let’s get out of here.”

William Zea, because of his firefighter experience, knew exactly what was about to happen and why he and his wife had only moments to get out.

Zea (translated from Spanish): It was get out or die. There wasn’t time to think of anything else. I know that the majority of people die in an airplane not from burns but from inhaling toxic gases.

Instinctively, Glenn headed for the nearest emergency exit, just two rows ahead of her, but her husband stopped her because she was moving closer to the fire. He pushed her in the direction of the back exit, keeping his eyes on the fire even though the heat began burning his skin. He’d been trained as a firefighter never to turn his back on a blaze and he wanted to protect Monica if the flames surged. They couldn’t see each other.

Glenn: I basically was able to follow William because of his voice. We kept on communicating, "William, where are you? " "I’m here.  Okay, follow me."

In the distance, Paola Chu, the flight attendant, acted quickly, remembering all the evacuation steps and procedures she’d learned in training, even though she had smashed her head upon impact and was bleeding.

Chu: I felt a really strong headache ‘cause like, it just almost ripped my head.  And then, I didn’t feel anything because of the adrenaline and of the moment.  I saw smoke coming in the plane.  

She struggled to find a door in the rear of the battered plane that would open. The first one she tried was jammed. She raced to the other exit door, but that wouldn’t budge either.

Chu: I was doing it with all my strength and I couldn’t.  So I yelled to a guy. “Help me open the door right now.” So, we both pulled really hard, and I kicked the door desperately because I knew—the timing of the evacuation in our training is maximum in land, a minute and a half.  90 seconds.  That’s the maximum—

Corderi: Because?

Chu: The plane is going to explode.  We know that.  Always.  No matter what.  It’s a minute and a half.  Even though if you don’t see smoke.

With help, Chu finally was able to get the door open giving panic-stricken passengers fleeing the fire another way out and a shot at survival.  Some were injured, and screaming. Gabriel heard a young woman cry for help.

Gabriel Vivas: So I took a step back and you know pushed my wife, “Just keep going.”  And I just went into her seat and grabbed the seatbelt off real quick, and by the arms and [told her to] just, “Move, move, move.”

The rear door was now open, but the emergency slide that was supposed to be there to help passengers evacuate had somehow broken off outside the storm had blackened the sky. Even though it was only 3 p.m., it might as well have been nighttime.  Passengers who were able to grope their way to the door in the smoky cabin had to plunge 10 feet into the muck below. 

Gabriel Vivas: It was up to your thighs.  I jumped down, and I sunk right in. You’re just trying to trudge through it.

Back inside the plane, Chu kept trying to keep order but urge the survivors along, knowing the clock was ticking. The plane could explode at any minute.

Chu: I didn’t even think of myself.

Corderi: That never occurred to you, "I gotta get out of here?"

Chu: No.

Corderi: Isn’t there a part of you that just wanted to jump out of the plane too?

Chu: No. Because that’s our job.

At the tender age of 21, Chu was being faced with an extraordinary task—evacuating those around her, knowing she couldn’t reach passengers in the raging fire in the front of the plane, though she heard their cries.

Chu: The smoke in the plane was dark black, black, completely black.  So I couldn’t see anything.  I just heard voices.

I started to hear people screaming and I thought about my friend, my colleagues, and about old people. And why were they screaming?  Because they were burning.  And they were in flames.

She had to make a heartbreaking decision: Her training procedures said to save as many lives as possible, but not sacrifice her own. Despite the desperate cries of passengers still on the plane, she says she was gasping  and knew it was time to get out. 

Chu: I  couldn’t breathe anymore.

Corderi: You knew there were still people on the plane.

Chu: I felt really bad.  I said, “I’m sorry, Lord, please forgive me, but I can’t, I can’t, I can’t more.  I’m gonna die here, if I stay here.  I’m gonna die.”  Everything was dark and the smoke was like a hand doing this.  All I saw was some light at the door and I just threw myself out.

Chu tore the ligaments in her foot when she landed. Her head and ankle were in pain, she says, but somehow she was able to stay focused.

She limped through the mud to find Glenn and her husband, the Vivas family, and a group of 17 other survivors she had guided out of the plane. They were trying to find sanctuary on higher ground before the plane blew up— some of them were now shoeless. The thick thorns in the brush tore at their skin as they fled a desperate chaotic scene. At that moment, they were all unable to hear a tiny cry in the dark.

A freak storm had caused chaos in the air and on the ground. The passengers who escaped flight 204 tried to regroup and  find a way to survive the impending danger of a plane about to explode.  

Even natives of the area had never seen hail before. Outside it was dark and cold. 

Newlywed William Zea thought they might have crashed away, far from the jungle.

Zea: We didn’t know where we were because of the hail. Many of us thought we were in the mountains. Others were saying how could it be cold, it’s hailing, raining and storming in the jungle?

Diana Vivas: I thought we was in the middle of nowhere, that nobody was going to find us.

What the survivors didn’t know is that they were less than 5 miles from the airport.  They were disoriented but moved as quickly as they could away from the plane wreck.

Jacqueline Vivas, 12 years old: I just saw smoke and people running and then people were saying, “Calm down, calm down” but they were still running like crazy.

Jose Vivas: It was like two lines.  One line to, and another line going to another way.

Corderi: Going where?

Gabriel Vivas: Anywhere. Up.

Corderi: Up?

Gabriel Vivas: Far, far, far away from the plane.

Those who dared to look back saw a vision of hell.

Glenn: I remember seeing the wreckage.  I remember seeing bodies. One I think, was a woman.  I saw long hair. There was a little girl kind of sitting on top of this rubble, this wreckage, crying for her mom.  I don’t know how that girl got there and was still alive. I mean everywhere it was just you know luggage, trees cut down, wreckage and there was a little girl there.  Like how is that possible?

Monica’s husband William, the firefighter desperately wanted to rescue the girl— this is what he was trained to do. But his hands were burnt so badly the skin was peeling off.

Glenn: He would’ve been the first one to go and get the little girl.

Instead she says another passenger stepped forward.

Glenn: This man helped the little girl and we just kept on walking and that was the last time that I really looked at the plane.

Now looking only ahead, Glenn says Paola Chu, the flight attendant, took control on the ground as she had in the airplane.

Glenn: She was the one that said, “Okay, let’s keep moving. Everybody remain calm and now—“  And she herself had somehow twisted her ankle.  And her left eye—there was a lot of blood.

Chu: I was behind and saying, “Don’t stop.  Please don’t stop.  Go, go, go.”

Chu — who had smashed her head in the crash was bleeding profusely and thought she’d lost her eye. Now Monica was helping Paola, trying to calm her down.

Chu: She was like this: “Can you see me?  Can you see me?”  And I was like, “Yes, yes I can see you.”  So I was like, “Oh my God.  Yeah.  I feel better.”

And that’s how it happened: Spontaneously, one act at a time, the injured cared for each other, guided each other and tried to calm each other’s fears along their nightmarish trek—away from the fiery wreckage that threatened to explode.

Glenn: At that point it doesn’t matter, you know, what seat you were sitting in, where you’re from.  It’s like we’re all people, and we’re just gonna work together.  There was definitely a sense of unity amongst all of us.

A unity among strangers. 

Still, Chu was anxious, looking for her colleagues on the flight crew. Finally, she spotted her friend Romi, another flight attendant who, she says, seemed to be in shock.

Chu: So I grab her, grab her arm desperately, “Where’s Carl?  Where’s Diana?  Where—Where are they?” And she was like nervous.  She was like, “Everything’s in flames!  Everything’s in flames!”   Romi then joined the group and they all kept moving, losing shoes and clothing in the thick mud.

Driving rain and marble size hail pelted the survivors as they made their way from the crash site to this clearing on higher ground.  But one member of the Vivas family was missing.  Gabriel had turned back.

He’d made a split-second decision to turn in the direction of a familiar sound...a sound the father of five couldn’t ignore.

Gabriel Vivas: I start hearing—like a baby cry. There was some baby crying behind me. It was like a a wail.  Not the baby crying that wants food or anything.  It was more like a wail... like you know…

Corderi: Of hurt?

Gabriel Vivas:  Yes, exactly.  Over and over again.

The wail of a child.  A sign of life amid all of the death he’d just fled. His wife pleaded with him not to go.

Diana Vivas: He’s saying, “Just keep going, I’ll be right there— I’ll be okay, I’m going.” And then I was like “No, I can’t.”

But he went anyway. He faced certain danger, a father compelled by the pained cries of someone else's baby.

Going back inside the plane for a crying baby
Gabriel Vivas made a difficult choice. He’d suddenly decided to turn around, go back through the mud and the enveloping darkness and smoke—to the crash site. He risked his life to try to save the most helpless of survivors.  

Corderi: You followed the cry of the baby?

Gabriel Vivas: Right. The baby was like maybe like 20 feet behind the plane.  The fire was coming out of the plane.

Corderi: Were you thinking that the plane would explode?

Gabriel Vivas: I don’t know, I just felt that this baby needed help.

There was death all around him, but Gabriel says he tried to ignore it.

Gabriel Vivas: I just focused on the fact that the baby was crying.

Corderi: It was a sign of life?

Gabriel Vivas: Yes, exactly.

He says he found another brave passenger standing over the baby boy preparing to rescue him.

Gabriel Vivas: He said, “We have to take the baby.”

And he picked up the baby, and you know we were still in the mud, and we started trudging. 

But soon the passenger holding the baby sank so deeply into the mud that he got stuck and couldn’t move.

By now, Gabriel’s wife Diana says she was getting hysterical waiting for her husband to return, fearing he would not.

Diana Vivas: It felt like forever.

Corderi: Do you remember what you were thinking? 

Diana Vivas: Well, I just wanted to go home. It was like a dream—a nightmare.

Back near the crash site, Gabriel says he took the baby from his fellow passenger, who was stuck in the mud. And then he helped the man out of the swamp. And together, they moved as quickly as they could back to the clearing.

Diana finally saw Gabriel emerge from the jungle thicket and in his arms, a limp baby.

Diana Vivas: He was in real shock.  And he was just holding that baby and—you know—the look on his face just holding that baby.

Corderi: What was that look? 

Diana Vivas: It was a real frightening, scary look.

The baby seemed barely alive.

Diana Vivas: I started just praying for the baby. I was like, “Please don’t tell me that baby didn’t make it.”

It turns out, he was the 13-month-old baby boy who only minutes before had been sitting happily on his mother’s lap— little Juan Carlos— who was on a trip to meet his grandparents for the first time.

Gabriel placed him gently on the ground. His face and arms were burned, his head gashed and badly swollen. He was barely conscious.

Gabriel Vivas: I kept kneeling over the baby. I put my knee down in the mud.  And I just used my back like to shield him from the ice that was coming down.

Gabriel called for the others to join him to form a human shield over the baby, protecting the smallest survivor from the driving hail and rain.

Glenn: A group of people just kind of shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle around the baby.

Glenn translated Zea's suggestion to turn the baby on his side so he wouldn’t choke. One of Jose’s daughters took off her jacket and draped it over him.  And Chu, no longer able to walk, lay on the ground cradling him.

Chu: He was bleeding.  He was burned.  So I was like, “This is gonna hurt him even more.”  So I saw him cry so I started do, “sh-h-h.”

Then Gabriel asked his fellow survivors to pray the Lord’s prayer. 

Glenn: I remember I was saying it in English, and William was saying it in Spanish.

They were praying for little Juan Carlos, for survival. But then suddenly what they had all feared the most happened.

Glenn: There was an explosion, that was kind of, I think, the end of the plane. You know, at that point you just think, “Oh my god, I’m so happy I’m off that plane.”

But for Chu, the young flight attendant, the explosion was the breaking point. The 21-year-old finally lost her steely resolve becoming just an anxious survivor who’d thought she’d lost her friends in the flight crew.

Chu: I started crying for them.  I couldn’t stop. Then it was like “Okay, I have to be strong. I have to be strong. It could happen. Maybe they’re alive.”

Help finally arrived. Their ordeal had lasted less than an hour, but they say it felt much longer. Trucks took survivors to three different hospitals—but it wasn’t just rescuers arriving on the scene.

Jose and Gabriel saw their father, who had rushed to the crash site to look for his sons.

Baby's grandfather: I lifted my head and I see my children, Jose and Gabriel. I  hugged them both. It was very special

Other relatives were searching for loved ones too.

The baby Juan Carlos’ grandfather had been waiting, heartsick, at the airport. Finally, some good news: He learned his grandson had made it. He’d been helicoptered to a children’s hospital in Lima, and was in critical condition.

But there was no word of his daughter—the baby’s mother.

Grandfather: We don’t know if she’s alive or dead.  The baby is alive but in bad condition.

The body count was grim: 40 people died, including four of Chu’s friends in the flight crew—something she learned in the hospital hours later.

Chu: There came a nurse who gave me a paper with all the names of the survivors, and I was looking for the people, and I didn’t see them. And then there was a guy who came to hold my hand and he told me, “They’re all dead.”

But miraculously, 58 survived— some seriously injured, but alive.

In the days ahead, there would be many emotional ups and downs as relatives learned the fate of their loved ones— who had survived and who hadn’t. Reunions would either be joyful... or filled with sorrow.

Reunions and funerals
The days that followed the crash of flight 204 were a flurry of emotional reunions, frantic searches for loved ones, and heartbreaking funerals.

The two pilots and two flight attendants had been killed. The Australian woman who was trying to get away from the violence in London died. The Peace Corp volunteer and his mother, a retired school teacher from Atlanta, Georgia— who had been on a once in a lifetime adventure were also both dead.

And the mother of Juan Carlos’s grief-stricken husband took her body home to be buried.

Amidst the heartache and the mourning, questions began to surface about who was at fault.

TANS Peru, a state-owned airlines, only flies within the country, often taking tourists to jungle outposts. But aviation experts say the airline has a troubling safety record 6 crashes in 13 years. 105 people have died.

The Peruvian government began an investigation, but it was hampered by looters who descended immediately upon the crash site, even as the survivors were making their way to safety.

Glenn: Some people just walked past us and they were walking to the crash site. I found out later on that they were looters, that they took thing from the crash site, that they sold them.

It was a free-for-all after the crash. Villagers even sold drinks and food to the looters who raided the site, even as soldiers stood by. For days the crash site remained unsecured. Locals here sifted through rubble, looking for valuable and metal.

One man told "Dateline" he heard there was a reward for the black box. In fact, he was too late: Investigators had already paid the equivalent of $500 to a villager they’d tracked down who had taken it from the site. 

Some men were taking apart one of the plane’s engines, taking it to their homes, and some are taking to sell. One looter told "Dateline" he would get the equivalent of a dollar for two pounds of scrap metal. People waded into the fetid mix of gasoline, mud and deteriorating human remains.

Glenn: Honestly I’m not quite what disturbs me more.  The fact that a plane crashed, or the fact that people went to pick up remains from the plane?

Glenn says there will be time later on to consider questions of fault and airline safety. For now she and many others are trying to make sense of their near-death experience and commend the acts of heroism that helped them make it through—like the selflessness of a young flight attendant who shepherded so many to safety.

Paola Chu had been in the hospital for weeks. Her eye is not permanently damaged, though she suffers from headaches, torn ligaments and nightmares.  But she remains upbeat and plans to resume flying.

Chu: My point of view of life has changed completely.  I take life more like a blessing every single day I wake up. 

Corderi: Every person has said that you are a hero.  That there was not one moment that you were not acting heroically.  Everybody remembers you.

Chu: Thank you.  And again I tell it was God. It wasn’t me.  It wasn’t me.  It was God.  ‘Cause it was unconscious.   You just do what you have to do.  That’s it.

Newlyweds Monica Glenn and William Zea also have been hospitalized for weeks, Zea with severe burns on one hand that may require long-term treatment. His facial burns are healing. Glenn, who suffered less severe burns on one hand, credits William for her survival.

Glenn: I’ve always appreciate William, but you know, I appreciate him 10,000 times more now.

Corderi: You learned a lot about him.

Glenn: Yeah.  Definitely. I think maybe I knew some of that before, theoretically.  But this kind of proved it.

Corderi: Do you have a sense that you cheated death?

Glenn: Yeah, there have been moments where I’ve thought like I almost looked death in the face and turned my back on it, in a way. Like what if I had been sitting in a different seat, or if I had been in the plane longer?

They are getting better, they say.  Even in the hospital they are back to singing a song— their song— one that says that together, they are so much more than two.

As for the Vivas family, they had a big birthday bash for Jose’s oldest daughter. It began with a prayer for the victims and became a celebration of survival.

Corderi: Do you think this has made you a little bit different?  Changed you in any way?  Made you guys closer or—

Jarleen Vivas: Just a little.  Just a little.  Closer to God.

Jaqueline Vivas: Yeah.

Corderi: Closer to God?  Why do you think?

Jarleen Vivas: Because he saved us in a way.

Before they left Peru, Gabriel and Diana made what was for them an important trip — to see the baby whose survival so many of them had fought to ensure. Little Juan Carlos—whose cry had made a father of five, a stranger, turn around, risk his life and return to a plane about to explode.  

The baby was in a children’s hospital in Lima recovering from burns and what turned out to be a fractured skull.

Corderi: You really wanted to see that baby.

Gabriel Vivas: I did. I wanted to see just to know that he was okay.

Standing out there in the jungle praying for and protecting the baby, he says, was the only time he felt frightened.

Gabriel Vivas: Holding, carrying, watching, not knowing, that scared me.  That scared me.

Gabriel still wonders how Juan Carlos survived the crash. That remains a mystery: He and his mother had been assigned to seat 4F, four rows from the cockpit— right where the fire had been raging. Yet somehow, Gabriel found him behind the plane’s tail.  Rescuers speculated that the baby’s mother had somehow used her body to save her son. No one really knows.

About 10 days after the crash we witnessed one more poignant scene: Juan Carlos’ father was heartbroken, holding and hugging his baby boy.  He had just come back from burying his wife. He whispered to us that he was grateful to Gabriel Vivas for saving the most precious thing—the only thing he has left in the world.

Diana and Gabriel were anxious to go home.  After a long emotional goodbye from his Peruvian father and extended family, they boarded another plane  — this one to New York, where a happy reception awaited them. 

The story of how he’d saved the baby had made Gabriel a local hero back in Brooklyn, but it’s a label he rejects. He says he was just swept up by events like everyone else, that there were many acts of heroism, small and large.

It was a group of ragtag survivors who shared an experience and forged an intense bond they’ll never forget. 

Chu: I'd like to have a one day meet with all of them and give them a big hug.  ‘Cause we are a blessing of God. I mean we’re like a family.  We all survived.  And we’re connected somehow. 

The exact cause of the crash of flight 204 is still under investigation. The flight data recorders were sent to Washington to be analyzed since the plane was made by Boeing, an American company. Officials say they're hoping to get information from the recorders in the next few months.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

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