For centuries, people have been fascinated with heroes who have managed to survive great dangers and hardship. For example, way back in 800 B.C.E, the Greek poet Homer wrote The Odyssey, one of the greatest adventure tales of all time. In this story, his protagonist Odysseus survives shipwrecks, encounters with monsters and a powerful sorcerer before returning to his family. While some of Odysseus’ adventures were clearly fiction, he may well have been a real person. In 2010, archaeologists announced that they had uncovered a palace in ancient Ithaca that fits Homer’s description of where his hero lives.
However, when it comes down to modern survivors of extreme adversity, there’s definitely no need to fictionalize. Below you’ll find six stories in which the protagonists managed to survive fates that should almost spell certain doom:
In May 2000, Dr. Anna Bagenholm, 29, was skiing on a familiar trail outside Narvik, Norway, when she lost control and fell headfirst into an icy river. Her head and body became stuck under thick ice, but she managed to find an air pocket so that she could continue to breathe.
After 40 minutes of trying to free herself, the exhausted woman was in the throes of hypothermia. Her companions found her, but it took them another 40 minutes to break the ice and drag her out of the freezing water. By this time, her body temperature had dropped to just 57 degrees Fahrenheit, and her vital signs were so low that she was clinically dead.
Thankfully, emergency doctors managed to revive her by pumping her blood through a special machine that warmed it. After several months of rehabilitation, she was back to her normal health, except for a persistent tingling sensation in her hands.
This case led to the development of therapeutic hypothermia as a protective procedure for some epileptic and stroke patients.
2. Fell Out of an Exploding Plane
On January 26th, 1972, Vesna Vulovic, a 22-year-old flight attendant, went down in history for surviving the highest fall from a plane.
As the aircraft was flying over what is now known as the Czech Republic, it suddenly exploded. Rescuers eventually found Vulovic in the still-smoking fuselage, her legs poking out of the wreckage. She had lost a lot of blood, and she spent the next three days in a coma with a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae, and an array of other injuries, but she somehow managed to hang on. She was the only one out of the twenty-eight people on board who survived.
Vulovic had fallen more than 10 kilometers, and the Guinness World Records eventually recognized her as the person who has survived the longest fall without a parachute.
In the late 2000s, two Czech investigators claimed that, based on previously secret records from the Czech Civil Aviation Authority, the official story that the place was blown up by Croatian nationalists was false. In fact, the airliner had been shot down by a Czechoslovakian fighter pilot who mistook it for enemy aircraft. They claimed that Vulovic only fell about 800 meters. Even if this was the case, she still survived a fall that was 27 times more than the average height that kills most victims of falling accidents.
On October 13th, 1972, an Uruguayan plane traveling from Montevideo to Santiago, Chile, crashed in the Andes mountains. On board were the Old Christians Club, a rugby team, and family members who were going to a match against a Chilean team. Of the 45 people on board, 25 survived, but 8 of them died two weeks later when an avalanche hit the crash site.
Trapped in the snow at an altitude of more than 4,000 meters, the survivors eventually resorted to one of the grisliest acts of self-preservation imaginable – they were forced to eat the flesh of dead friends and family members who had been preserved in the cold.
After more than 8 weeks without rescue, two of the athletes, 21-year-old Fernando Parrado and 19-year-old Roberto Canessa decided to hike off into the wilderness in an attempt to find help. After 10 days, they came across a livestock herder, and the next day, a search team in helicopters reached the survivors. Their story was made into a book and a movie, both called “Alive.”
4. 42 Days without Food
Helen Klaben, 21 wanted to travel from Fairbanks to Seattle and decided to try and save some money by flying with an amateur pilot, 42-year-old Ralph Flores. This turned out to be a costly decision, when Flores’ plane crashed in the Canadian wilderness on February 4th, 1963. They both suffered broken bones, but they were alive.
Unfortunately, they had no survival equipment apart from some matches, four cans of sardines, two cans of tuna, two cans of fruit cocktail, and a bottle of vitamin pills. In an attempt to deal with the night time temperatures that dropped as low as 42 below zero, they made a blanket from the plane’s carpet and stuffed clothes and leaves into the cracks in the plane’s cabin to insulate it. They used gasoline from the fuel tank to light a fire.
After a week, their meager rations ran out, forcing them to live off the melted snow. Fortunately, both passenger and pilot were overweight and could survive off their body fat for another 42 days, until they were rescued by a passing aircraft.
The Marathon de Sables – a six-day 249-kilometer run through the Sahara Desert – is one of the toughest athletic events on Earth. That’s because not only do you have to run as fast as you can in brutal heat, but there’s also the danger of getting lost in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.
In 1994, a 39-year-old Italian named Mauro Prosperi discovered just how dangerous this race can be. After he was forced to take shelter during a sandstorm, he awoke the next morning only to discover that he was completely lost, with only half a bottle of water left. He had to resort to drinking his own urine.
Two days later, he stumbled into an abandoned Muslim shrine where he noticed some bats huddled together. Prosperi grabbed a few of them, cut off their heads with a knife, and sucked out their insides to quench his thirst. He eventually sucked the blood out of twenty bats.
After three more days had passed with no sign of rescue, he slit his wrists and waited to die. But his blood had thickened due to dehydration, so it wouldn’t drain out.
Prosperi took this as a sign that he should keep living, so he left the shrine and began to walk across the desert. On day 8, he found an oasis and got to drink some water at last. The next morning, he came across some shepherds, who summoned rescuers.
6. Buried Under World Trade Center Rubble
On September 11th, 2001, Genelle Guzman-McMillan was at work in her office on the 64th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, when the building was hit by a plane.
As she later revealed in a newspaper interview, at first there wasn’t any smoke or fire. The company she worked for had told her to stay put and wait for help, but after an hour she decided to head to the stairwell.
When she had reached the 13th floor, she bent over to take off her shoe, and then suddenly, a wall fell on her. Her feet were pinned, and her head was trapped between two pieces of concrete. The only thing she was able to move was her left hand.
After being stuck for 27 hours, she heard a man’s voice telling her to remain calm as rescuers were on their way. She was the final living person pulled from the wreckage.