UCalgary alumna Leya Russell, BA’08, BFA’11, made international headlines earlier this year when she survived a harrowing plane crash in southeast Asia. The crash left her having to learn how to walk again — but it wasn’t her first brush with death.
The first was when she was only 21, backpacking solo across the northern tip of India on a journey of self-discovery.
Waiting on the platform for the overnight train to Calcutta, she saw an emaciated man lying on the ground. Thinking he was probably starving, she bent down to offer him some cookies from her backpack, but realized he was dead.
“His eyes were wide open and flies were crawling on them. I was hysterical, but the other people on the platform were unconcerned — they were just ushering me away,” recalls the Calgary-based photographer.
“I was a wreck. It was one thing to see death. It was quite another to see someone’s life end and have that not seem to matter. That bothered me much, much more.”
The now-35-year-old UCalgary grad whose degrees are in religious studies and fine arts, has since become an award-winning visual artist who has travelled the world, having had her photos published in National Geographic.
It was while taking a break after a three-week assignment in Bangladesh for Photographers Without Borders this past May that Russell had her second brush with death, surviving a plane crash that left her with a broken back and a concussion so severe, she had to learn how to walk, dress and feed herself all over again.
In Bangladesh, Russell had been documenting the stories of individuals who had received support from the Centre for Disability in Development. What was supposed to be a three-day vacation in Myanmar afterwards, before heading home to Calgary, turned into one of the most terrifying experiences of her life.
Her flight from Dhaka to Yangon on Biman Bangladesh Airlines was supposed to be only one hour long, but it turned into three as the plane repeatedly tried to land before finally missing the runway and crashing in a nearby field.
Russell was knocked unconscious, only coming to because of the cries of her 35 fellow passengers who were covered in blood, including a flight attendant whose spinal cord had been severed.
With two fractured vertebrae and a serious concussion, she had to walk one kilometre across a field in lashing rain to get to a bus that brought the injured passengers to the arrivals gate. There they lay on the airport floor, waiting for help for 40 minutes.