Dear Edward true story: Who was Ruben Van Assouw, who inspired the Apple+ TV series with Taylor Schilling?

A remarkable story comes to life on television

Colin O’Brien as Edward and Taylor Schilling as Lacey in Dear Edward
(Image credit: Apple TV)

Apple+ TV dramatises events surrounding a real life plane crash, in touching series Dear Edward.

When a plane crashes and everyone on board is killed with the exception of one lone boy, what happens next? The child in question loses his entire family in an instant and is sent to live with an aunt - along with much press intrusion. Apple TV's Dear Edward is an adaptation of writer Ann Napolitano's 2020 book of the same name. Fascinated with the real crash of Flight 771 in 2010, she fictionalised what she perceived would be the fallout from the tragedy, into a novel. The book deals with difficult themes involving grief and healing, and Friday Night Lights showrunner Jason Katims has turned the novel into a 10-part ensemble drama, premiering on February 3. Read on to find out the real story behind the book and the TV show, and what really happened after the fateful crash of Flight 771.

For fans of real stories adapted for television, The Swimmers on Netflix tells the true story of Syrian refugee sisters forced to swim a large part of their escape journey when their dinghy starts to sink. For some lighter viewing, the Bank of Dave true story - also on Netflix - will truly warm your heart. Soon to be released on BBC One, The Gold TV series tells the real story of an infamous robbery. 

Dear Edward true story

Dear Edward takes inspiration from Flight 771, an Afriqiyah Airways flight from Johannesburg to Tripoli that crashed on May 12, 2010. 

The plane crashed on approach to Tripoli International Airport, killing 103 of the 104 passengers onboard. The aircraft departed South Africa on May 11 at 19:25, consisting of 11 crew members and 93 passengers. The flight was an uneventful until the approach to Tripoli airport, where air traffic control initially identified the aircraft and cleared it approach the runway - the pilot was instructed to continue the approach and report when the runway was in sight, an instruction the crew confirmed.

The flight then received information that fog patches were present, and still 200 feet below the recommended altitude, the captain informed air traffic control he would report when the runway was in sight. The plane continued to approach the runway, and still below the minimum altitude of 620 feet - the runway was still not visible. With plane signals suggested to the crew they were still at too low terrain, the captain instructed the co-pilot to circle around.

However, the aircraft climbed 450 feet above ground level before beginning to nosedive. The Captain took over the flight controls in an attempt to prevent the rapid descent, but the plane crashed to the ground at 260 knots ground speed with a vertical speed of 4400 feet per minute down. The investigation found the accident directly resulted from the plane descending below the minimum descent altitude with no runway in sight, and incorrect flight control use when circling around. It was concluded that lack of monitoring and controlling of the flight path was also to blame for the accident. There was just one survivor of the crash.

Connie Britton as Dee Dee in Dear Edward

(Image credit: Apple TV)

Who was Ruben Van Assouw?

Ruben Van Assouw was the sole survivor of flight 771. He was 9-years-old at the time, and survived because he was flung from the wreckage before it burst into flames.

At the time, Ruben was thought to be on of only 14 people to be the sole survivor of a serious plane crash. The Dutch native was travelling with his parents and brother when the plane went down. His 40-year-old father Patrick, 41-year-old mother Trudy, and 11-year-old brother Enzo, all perished in the crash. Ruben was unconscious when he was found by those searching the wreckage, and was still strapped to his chair. 

He was immediately rushed to a Tripoli hospital where he was found to have suffered multiple leg fractures requiring hours of surgery. There were initial fears he could be brain damaged, but Ruben went on to make a full recovery. With no immediate family left, Ruben was taken to his hometown of Tilburg in the Netherlands, to live with an aunt and uncle. In a statement at the time, his aunt said "Considering the circumstances, Ruben is doing well. 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."

Where is Ruben Van Assouw now?

The whereabouts of Ruben Van Assouw are currently unknown. It is presumed he and his family have chosen to keep his identity secret, due to the gravity of trauma he suffered.  

Ruben gave one telephone interview to Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf just following the accident. He reportedly said "I don’t know how I got here. I just want to get going. I want to get washed, dressed, and then go." Dear Edward author Ann Napolitano had a fascination with Ruben's story, and was inspired to write the story due to a need to know he was coping. 

She said to the Belfast Telegraph "How was he going to get out of that hospital bed without his mom and dad and brother, and possibly create his own life?" She continued "I needed to know that he was okay. But of course there was no way for me to know that, so for me to believe that somehow the boy was okay, I had to create a set of fictional circumstances." 

Colin O'Brien as Edward in Dear Edward

(Image credit: Apple TV)

What is the summary of Dear Edward?

In Ann Napolitano's book Dear Edward, Edward Adler and his family board Flight 2977 from Newark, New Jersey, to Los Angeles, when their plane crashes.

They are moving from New York for his mother’s writing career, but everyone on the plane dies apart from Edward. After recovering from his injuries, Edward goes to live with his aunt and uncle, Lacey and John - he is given the room the pair hoped to use as their own nursery, currently empty due to Lacey's multiple miscarriages.

Edward's new neighbours are Besa, and her daughter, Shay. Immediately drawn to Shay, Edward initially finds he can only fall asleep in her company, going on to sleep on her bedroom floor nightly. Edward becomes an inadvertent local celebrity, and his first day at his new school sees students and strangers trying to touch him and take photos of him. Edward begins to find some comfort in wearing his brother's old clothes, and speaking with relatives of the crash victims. 

Two years after the crash, Besa tells Edward that he can't sleep in Shay's bedroom any longer, which devastates him - he feels isolated from his only friend. Out walking alone one night, Edward enters John’s garage and finds folders with pictures of the plane crash victims along with two locked duffel bags. Edward and Shay decide to look at the contents of the bags, finding piles of letters from people who lost loved ones on Flight 2977. Most of them request that Edward pursue the hobbies and lifestyles of those who lost their lives. A man named Jax whose brother died on the flight, leaves Edward seven million dollars - he includes a cheque for the same amount, but Edward can't decide if he’ll keep the money.

Edward and Shay travel to New York City to meet Mahira, Edward's brother's secret girlfriend at the time of the crash. On their return, Edward acknowledges a romantic attraction to Shay. Finding the pair together in the garage, John admits to hiding the letters to protect Edward. Telling his aunt and uncle about the money left to him by Jax, Edward asks for their help in using the money to benefit the people who wrote the letters. In the novel’s epilogue, Edward and Shay drive to the crash memorial site, where seeing the healed landscape gives Edward some closure. Readers are then told that in the future, Edward and Shay start a family together. 

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Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.