Dear Edward (2023)

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

Is Dear Edward based on a true story?

The Apple TV+ miniseries is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Ann Napolitano that was published in early 2020. The book was very loosely inspired by the 2010 crash of Libyan-operated Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771 (an Airbus A330-202) and its sole survivor, a nine-year-old Dutch boy named Ruben van Assouw. In determining how accurate is Dear Edward, we discovered that aside from the fact that in both real life and the series, a plane crashes and a young boy is the only survivor, almost everything else was dramatized, including the characters and their storylines.

The Airbus A330-202 that was involved in the 2010 crash is pictured here in the months prior as it is about to land at London's Gatwick Airport.

How closely is the plane crash in Dear Edward based on the crash of Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771?

The author of the book, Ann Napolitano, said that while a young boy being the sole survivor was drawn from the crash of Flight 771, which involved an Airbus A330, she "largely" based the mechanics of what happens to the fictional flight in her book on the crash of Air France Flight 447 on June 1, 2009. In that crash, inconsistent airspeed indications, likely caused by ice crystals obstructing the Airbus A330's pitot tubes, resulted in the pilots responding incorrectly, which sent the aircraft into an aerodynamic stall from which it did not recover. All 228 passengers and crew on board Flight 447 were killed when the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

To further understand what happens in a plane crash, Napolitano studied NTSB reports, read real black box transcripts, and spoke to a retired pilot. She found the work that journalist Jeff Wise did on the crash of Flight 447 to be "vital" and even incorporated his reporting into her novel.

Are any of the main characters in Dear Edward based on real people?

No. In researching the Dear Edward true story, we found no evidence that any of the characters in the book or the subsequent miniseries were based on real people. This includes the 12-year-old boy who survives the plane crash in the series, Edward Adler (Colin O'Brien). Author Ann Napolitano said that Edward is "fictional." He was not based on the 9-year-old Flight 771 survivor from the Netherlands, other than the fact that both the character and the Dutch child were boys and the sole survivors of plane crashes. Napolitano said that she had trouble finding much information on Ruben van Assouw today, including his whereabouts and life since the tragedy.

The story of plane crash survivor Ruben van Assouw (left) inspired author Ann Napolitano to write the book that was adapted into the Apple TV+ miniseries starring Colin O'Brien (right) about a fictional boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash. Photos: Yore Elementary School Memorial Display Photo / Christine O'Brien

Was the real flight traveling from Newark to Los Angeles when it crashed?

No. The book and subsequent Apple TV+ Dear Edward miniseries feature the fictional Trinity Air Flight 2977 that is traveling from Newark to Los Angeles when it crashes halfway across the country, killing 191 passengers and crew and sparing the life of one person, a 12-year-old boy named Edward Adler, portrayed by Colin O'Brien.

The flight that the real-life boy was on, whose survival inspired the series, was Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771 that was traveling from Johannesburg, South Africa to Tripoli, Libya when it crashed on May 12, 2010 on approach to Tripoli International Airport, killing 103 people, including 11 crew and 92 passengers, sparing only one person, a 9-year-old Dutch boy named Ruben van Assouw. His family had been on a South African safari vacation to celebrate the parents' 12 1/2-year wedding anniversary, a Dutch tradition known as a "copper anniversary."

This photo of Ruben and older brother Enzo van Assouw was posted to the family's travel blog during their vacation to South Africa, a trip that ended in tragedy.

The change in the starting point and destination in the series was done to set its fictional story in America as opposed to overseas. The book's author, Ann Napolitano, lives in Brooklyn.

How did Flight 771 crash?

The Libyan Civil Aviation Authority launched an investigation into the crash of the Airbus A330-202. Dutch, French, and South African investigators provided assistance. The manufacturer of the plane, Airbus, also investigated the tragedy. A factor the investigation committee believes contributed to the accident is the fact that the weather report available to the crew did not reflect the actual weather during the approach at Tripoli International Airport.

Ultimately, the Libyan investigation determined that the cause of the crash was pilot error. The crew did not have the proper training to handle a landing in such poor visibility when the cloud layers were low. As a result, they began their descent too early. They demonstrated insufficient resource management, were possibly confused by sensory illusions, and the first officer's inputs to the side stick tilted the nose downward and sent the plane into the ground. Fatigue could have also played a part in the crash.

The tail of the Airbus A330-202 is visible amongst the Flight 771 wreckage in 2010.

Interestingly, the same crew in the same aircraft had a similar issue while approaching Runway 09 at Tripoli International Airport the month prior. They began their descent too early and had to abort the approach. The incident wasn't reported by the airline or the crew. -TheFlightChannel YouTube

What were Ruben van Assouw's injuries?

9-year-old Flight 771 survivor Ruben van Assouw was found roughly a half-mile away from a large piece of the tail section. He was unconscious but breathing and still buckled into his seat, which was amongst other debris in an area of Libyan desert sand. He suffered multiple leg fractures, a skull fracture, a punctured lung, and blood loss. He endured four-and-a-half hours of surgery to repair his fractures. All 103 other people on the plane, including his brother and parents, are believed to have been killed instantly when the plane made contact with the ground at a speed of 302 miles per hour less than a mile from Runway 09, the destination runway in Tripoli. -ABC News

Ruben van Assouw recovers in Tripoli's El Khadra hospital after undergoing several hours of surgery to repair his fractured legs.

While recovering in Tripoli's El Khadra hospital, his aunt and uncle, Ingrid van Assouw and Jeroen van der Sande, flew in from the Netherlands to be by his side. Together, they released a statement, "Considering the circumstances, Ruben is doing well. He sleeps a lot. Now and then he is awake and ... is clear. ... We have two kinds of sorrow to deal with, because Ruben is in a very bad situation but we have also lost family members. The next period will be a rough period for us." Doctors said that his survival was possibly due to many factors, including his seat location. He was sitting up front when the fuselage was ripped to pieces during touchdown, propelling him a half mile from the decimation. Orthopedic specialist Sadig Bendala told the Associated Press, "It's something from God, that He wanted him to live longer."

Where is Ruben van Assouw now?

While conducting our Dear Edward fact-check, we learned that Ruben and his family have stayed almost entirely out of the public eye since the tragic accident that claimed the lives of his parents, Patrick and Trudy van Assouw, and 11-year-old brother Enzo. Prior to learning the full truth about what had happened, he spoke to the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf via telephone from the hospital in Libya, stating that he wanted to go home. "I don't know how I got here. …," Ruben said. "I just want to get going. I want to get washed, dressed, and then go [back home]." -ABC News

In a statement released by his aunt and uncle from the hospital on the day they told him what had happened to his parents and brother, they emphasized their commitment to caring for him. "This morning, we told Ruben exactly what has happened. He knows both his parents and brother are deceased. Now with the whole family, we will take care of Ruben's future."

Ruben van Assouw recovers in Tripoli's El Khadra hospital after becoming the sole survivor of the Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771 crash.

When he was stable enough to leave the hospital and return to his hometown of Tilburg, Netherlands, Ruben's relatives requested from the government that he be shielded from the media and the public. He left the hospital completely covered in blankets and was flown to a Dutch military base instead of a commercial airport. He was adopted by his aunt and uncle and was raised with the help of other relatives as well, including his grandparents.

There is very little information on where Ruben van Assouw is today. It's been almost 13 years since the crash of Flight 771. Ruben is in his early 20s. No known photos of him exist online from the years following the crash or as an adult. Other than speculation, there's also no up-to-date information about him. The only thing we could find was a travel blog that his parents kept prior to the crash, which they created to chronicle their trip to South Africa. The blog's first post was made by Ruben's father, Patrick. It reads, "The boys are already counting down the days and minutes and can't wait. Only 3 more nights of sleep guys!!" After the crash, the blog became a sort of memorial to the family, with hundreds of comments posted by people expressing their sympathy.

Why did author Ann Napolitano write the book Dear Edward, which was adapted into the series?

While exploring the Dear Edward true story, we discovered that like many other people around the world, Brooklyn-based author Ann Napolitano had followed the story of the Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771 crash and its sole survivor, a 9-year-old Dutch boy named Ruben van Assouw. She became obsessed with the crash, following it in the news and on social media. Of recalling a photo of Assouw recovering in the hospital, Napolitano wrote in The Irish Times, "I had two little boys at the time – they were one and three – and I wondered how this child could possibly climb out of that hospital bed, and leave that hospital, without his mom and dad and brother? The photograph haunted me, and that question did, too.

I experienced the crash in 2010 as a young mother, and a writer. I needed the Dutch boy to be okay, because I wanted to believe that if something this terrible happened to one of my boys, they could not only survive, but find a way to live. I created a set of fictional circumstances in Dear Edward that plotted a path in which that could believably happen." One reason Napolitano had to turn to fiction is because of how little is known about Ruben van Assouw today, including how he managed to carry on with his life after losing his parents and brother.

Link-to-Learn More:

Dear Edward
by Ann Napolitano