For a long time, people have been fascinated with heroes who've somehow survived great danger and brutal hardship. Back in 800 B.C.E., the Greek poet Homer composed "The Odyssey," one of the great adventure tales of all time, in which his protagonist Odysseus survives shipwrecks, encounters with myriad monsters and a wily sorcerer before finally returning to his family. While some of Odysseus' adventures were fanciful, it now turns out that he may well have been a real person. In 2010, archaeologists announced they had uncovered a palace in ancient Ithaca that fit Homer's description of the place where his hero lived [source: Squires].
But when it comes to more modern survivors of extreme adversity, there's no need to fictionalize. Stoic real-life heroes have endured mind-boggling traumas and hardships. They've lived in rafts for weeks and months at sea, gotten lost in brutally hot deserts and the subzero frozen North, been trapped underwater, withstood tortures by prison guards, and even managed to emerge from collapsed buildings. Here are the stories of 10 such people who've managed somehow to survive fates that might seem to mean certain doom.
In May 2000, orthopedic surgeon-in-training Dr. Anna Bagenholm, 29, was skiing on a familiar trail outside Narvik, Norway, when she lost her balance on a gully 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 keep breathing [sources: BBC News, CBS News].
After 40 minutes of struggling to free herself without success, the exhausted skier was in the throes of hypothermia, a potentially lethal condition in which the body loses heat faster than can be generated, which renders the heart, nervous system and other organs unable to work normally [sources: BBC News, Mayo Clinic].
It took another 40 minutes for Bagenholm's companions to cut the ice and drag her out of the cold water. By then, her body temperature had dropped to just 57 degrees Fahrenheit (13.7 Celsius), and her vital signs were so low that she was clinically dead. (Normal body temperature is 98.6 F or 37 C). But emergency doctors managed to revive her by pumping her blood through a special machine that warmed it. After several months of rehabilitation, she returned to normal health, except for a persistent tingling sensation in her hands [source: BBC News].
Bagenholm's case led to the development of therapeutic hypothermia as a protective procedure for some stroke and epileptic patients. In 2013, she was working as a senior radiology consultant at the same hospital where her life was saved [source: Cox].
A 22-year-old flight attendant went down in history for surviving the longest fall from a plane. On Jan. 26, 1972, Vesna Vulović took off from Copenhagen on a Yugoslav Airlines flight to Belgrade, on a work assignment caused by a scheduling mix-up. As the aircraft flew over what is now the Czech Republic, it suddenly exploded. Rescuers eventually found Vulović in the still-smoking fuselage, her legs poking out of the wreckage with the 3-inch (nearly 8-centimeter) stiletto heels torn off her shoes by the impact. She lost a massive amount of blood and spent the next three days in a coma with a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae and assorted other injuries, but somehow she managed to hang on. Vulović was the only one of the 28 people on board to survive [sources: Bilefsky, Connolly].
Officially, Vulović had fallen more than 33,000 feet (10 kilometers), and Guinness World Records eventually recognized her as the person who survived the longest fall without a parachute. In the late 2000s, two Czech investigative journalists claimed that, based on previously secret records from the Czech Civil Aviation Authority, the official story that Croatian nationalists had blown up the plane was false. In reality, the airliner had been shot down by a Czechoslovakian fighter pilot mistaking it for enemy aircraft. They said Vulović only fell about 2,500 feet (800 meters) [source: Connolly]. Even if that is so, she still survived a fall about 27 times the average height that kills victims of falling accidents [source: Lau et al.].
Helen Klaben, 21, wanted to travel from Fairbanks to Seattle, and decided to save some money by flying with an amateur pilot, 42-year-old Ralph Flores. It turned out to be a fateful choice, when Flores' plane crashed on Feb. 4, 1963, in a snowstorm in a remote part of the Canadian wilderness. The passenger and pilot suffered broken bones and other injuries, but they were alive.
Unfortunately, they had no survival equipment except for matches, and their food supply consisted of four cans of sardines, two cans of tuna, two cans of fruit cocktail and a bottle of vitamin pills. To deal with nighttime temperatures that dropped as low as 42 below zero (-41 Celsius), they fashioned a blanket from the plane's carpet, and stuffed clothes and spruce boughs into the cracks in the plane's cabin to insulate it. They used gasoline from the fuel tank to light a camp fire.
After a week, their food ran out, forcing them to survive on melted snow —"water for breakfast, water for lunch, and water for supper," as Klaben later explained to Life magazine. Fortunately, both passenger and pilot were overweight, and could survive off their body fat for another 42 days, until an aircraft finally spotted them [source: Hamblin and Jarvis].
Remember the character in the first season of the TV show "The Walking Dead," who was handcuffed on a rooftop and had to cut off his own hand with a hacksaw to escape a horde of cannibalistic zombies? Well, that actually sort of happened in real life, though there weren't any undead involved.
In April 2003, 27-year-old Aron Ralston was climbing in Utah's Blue John Canyon when an 800-pound (363-kilogram) boulder fell on him, crushing his right hand and trapping him. After struggling unsuccessfully to chip away some of the boulder with his multi-tool knife, Ralston tried to rig a pulley with his climbing rope to tug the rock away from him. That didn't work either.
Finally, after being trapped for six days, Ralston realized that the only way out was to amputate his crushed arm. Even though the pressure of the rock had cut off some of the circulation and he no longer had any sensation in his hand, cutting through the nerves and breaking the bones with his knife was "a hundred times worse than any pain I've felt before," he later recalled to National Geographic News. Amazingly, he later resumed climbing thanks to a special prosthetic hand with a built-in climbing pick [sources: Benoist, Ralston].
Ralston's story was recounted in his book "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" and the movie "127 Hours."
Some people say that the Marathon de Sables — a six-day, 155-mile (249-kilometer) run through the Sahara Desert — is the toughest athletic event on Earth. That's because not only do you have to run as fast as possible while enduring brutal heat and the glare of the sun, 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 pentathlete named Mauro Prosperi discovered just how dangerous this race is. After he was forced by an eight-hour sandstorm to take shelter for the night, he awakened the next morning to discover that he was lost in the desert, and only had half a bottle of water left. He resorted to drinking his own urine.
Two days in, he stumbled into an abandoned Muslim shrine where he noticed some bats huddled together. Prosperi grabbed a handful of them, cut off their heads with a knife, and then sucked out their insides to drink their blood and quench his thirst. Eventually, he did his vampire act on 20 bats. When another three days 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, left the shrine and began walking across the desert. On day eight, he discovered an oasis and got to drink some water at last. The next morning, he saw some shepherds, who summoned rescuers [source: Prosperi].
In November 1942, a British merchant ship, the Benlomond, left Cape Town, South Africa, on a voyage across the Atlantic to pick up cargo at Paramibo in Dutch Guiana, now the nation of Suriname [source: McCunn]. But when the ship was 750 miles (1,207 kilometers) off the South American coast, it was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank.
The only survivor was a 24-year-old Chinese seaman named Poon Lim who'd jumped overboard. Struggling to the surface, Lim managed to find one of the ship's rafts. Even more miraculously, he located a tank of water and some cans of food in the floating wreckage. He improvised a fishing tackle to catch more food. Lim drifted for 133 days, until he was rescued by Brazilian fishermen 10 miles (16 kilometers) off the coast. This is one of the longest survivals at sea. A local newspaper reported that Poon was badly sunburned and had lost 30 pounds (14 kilograms), but otherwise was in good health, except for an upset stomach that doctors believed was the result of eating raw fish [sources: McCunn, Wise].
Poon emigrated to the U.S. after the end of World War II. He worked with United States Lines, retiring as chief steward in 1983. He died in 1991 [source: Wise].
Surviving one horrible ordeal is bad enough. But how about two? On May 27, 1943, a U.S. Army Air Corps B-24 on a rescue mission in the Pacific malfunctioned and crashed into the sea. Three members of the crew took refuge on a raft. Tail gunner Sgt. Francis McNamara died after 33 days, but the other two — 2nd Lt. Russell Phillips and Lt. Louis Zamperini, a distance runner who had competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, survived on fish and rainwater for 47 days. Then they were found by Japanese forces [source: Harris].
That's when things got even worse, particularly for Zamperini. The Olympian endured savage torture at the hands of a sadistic camp sergeant named Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe. Among his many abuses, Watanabe ordered other prisoners to line up and take turns punching Zamperini in the face for two hours. Watanabe also once forced him to hold a heavy beam overhead for 37 minutes before knocking him to the ground. Nevertheless, Zamperini survived the war, and was liberated in 1945. In later years, he had a religious conversion and tried to meet with Watanabe in Japan to let him know he forgave him but "The Bird" refused to meet with him. Zamperini lived long enough to see his story become a bestselling book, Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 "Unbroken," which was also made into a Hollywood movie released just before his death in 2014 [sources: Berkow, Harris].
Phillips also survived, but revealed little about what he endured. He died in 1998 [source: South Bend Tribune].
On Oct. 13, 1972, a Uruguayan air force plane, in route from Montevideo to Santiago, Chile, crashed in a pass in the Andes mountains. On board was the Old Christians Club, a rugby team, and family members who were headed to a match against a Chilean team. Of the 45 people on board, 25 survived, but eight of them were killed two weeks later when an avalanche hit the crash site.
Trapped in the snow at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), the survivors eventually resorted to one of the most grisly acts of self-preservation imaginable — eating the flesh of dead friends and family members who were preserved in the cold. After more than two months 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 a desperate search for help.
After 10 days, they encountered a livestock herder, and the next day, a search team in helicopters reached the survivors. Their story was told in the book and the movie, both called "Alive."
Slavomir Rawicz, a young Polish cavalry officer, was called up to defend his country against the Nazi and Soviet invasions that started World War II. He was captured by Soviet forces, and sent to Moscow in 1939. There, he was convicted on a trumped-up charge of espionage, and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor. He survived a brutal trip to Siberia, in which he had to ride in the back of an open cattle truck in sub-zero temperatures and then march hundreds of miles in chains.
In April 1941, in the midst of a blizzard, Rawicz and six other prisoners escaped, with the help of the warden's sympathetic wife. They trekked 4,000 miles (6,437-kilometers) to the south, crossing the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, and enduring harsh cold, blazing heat, thirst and starvation. Three of the seven died along the way, and by the time they had reached India, where they were rescued by a Gurkha patrol, Rawicz weighed just 70 pounds (31 kilograms). Though he never fully recovered from his ordeal, Rawicz lived to the age of 88, and his story eventually became both a book ("The Long Walk") and a film ("The Way Back") [source: Adams].
Over the years some skeptics have questioned parts of Rawicz's story, but were unable to conclusively disprove it. A British intelligence officer actually interviewed three emaciated men in India in 1942 who claimed to have made such a journey, though he could not recall their names [source: Levinson].
On the morning of Sept. 11, 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 struck by American Airlines Flight 11 [sources: CNN, Otis]. As Guzman-McMillan later recalled in a newspaper interview, at first there wasn't any smoke or fire. The company she worked for told her to stay put and wait for help but after an hour she decided to head to the stairwell.
When she descended to the 13th floor, Guzman-McMillan bent over to take off her shoe, and then suddenly, a wall collapsed on her. Her feet were pinned, with her head trapped between two pieces of concrete. The only thing she could move was her left hand. She opened her eyes, but everything around her was black. Time seemed to stand still, and she remembers praying for a respite from the pain. After 27 hours, she heard a voice of a man named Paul telling her to remain calm, that rescuers were on the way [source: Otis]. Guzman-McMillan had been spotted by one of the 300 search-and-rescue dogs deployed after the disaster. She was the final living person rescued from the wreckage [source: Marcus].
Guzman-McMillan tried to find "Paul" afterward to thank him, but no one knew who he was.
Some people think artificial intelligence will overtake humanity. Find out what other future disasters could cause dramatic change at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 People Who Survived the Impossible
I've long been fascinated with the adventures of people who survived extreme hardships and escaped from difficult situations, ever since I saw the movie "The Great Escape" as a child. In high school, I remember reading "Papillion," the supposedly true tale of Henry Charrière, a wrongly-convicted Frenchman who escaped from Devil's Island, and found it utterly compelling — even though the author was later accused of having fabricated his saga.
More Great Links
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