Our world presents many dangers. Yet some individuals, through a combination of factors in their favor, have overcome incredibly strong odds that were not in favor of their survival… and lived. In this account, we profile 10 of the most incredible and shocking cases of human survival worldwide. Whether by luck or innovation, survival is sometimes possible when it seems least likely. Safety first, but in the case of unsafe conditions, the focus must remain on survival.
This list is dedicated to the memory of those who have lost their lives to error & negligence
10. Vesna Vulovic
The holder of the world record for farthest human fall survived without a parachute is Vesna Vulovic, a flight attendant from Serbia who is renowned for having survived a 33,330 foot fall (she couldn’t have fallen three more lousy feet to make it a Yahtzee?) into the mountains below, when what is thought to have been a briefcase bomb destroyed the aircraft on which she was working. The incident occurred on January 26, 1972 when the Douglas DC-9 jet flown by Yugoslav Airlines was blown into fragments in mid-air. Subsequently, Vulovic was inside just one piece of the aircraft as the remains of the plane fell toward the ground. This piece was a section of the aircraft’s rear that included the tail.
Trapped in the falling piece of debris as a result of being blocked in by a food cart, Vulovic was cushioned from the direct impact of her fall by trees and snow on the mountains below. Soon, a woodsman named Bruno Honke came to her aid, hearing screams among the fallen fragments of wreckage. Apart from the exceptionally lucky Vulovic, all others on the flight died in the disaster. Seriously injured with multiple broken bones, Vulovic was in a coma for 10 days and suffered temporary paralysis but made a good recovery. As a result of her survival feat, Vulovic gained celebrity status and political influence.
9. Harrison Okene
In May 2013 a Nigerian tugboat sank while pulling an oil tanker in the vicinity of an oil platform, after a massive wave in the Gulf of Guinea (off the coast of Nigeria) hit with an impact forceful enough to flip the smaller vessel upside down. The tugboat sank to the sea floor 100 feet below, resulting in the death of all of the 12 crew members except for the onboard cook, a certain Harrison Odjegba Okene. In a classic example of how supposed security measures can create danger, the deaths of many of the other crew members resulted from their being locked inside crew cabins in a bid to reduce the risk of harm by pirates.
In contrast, Okene was using the bathroom at the time of the disaster. While he did not escape to the surface, he made his way to the engineer’s office, which had an air pocket, entering just as the ship was finishing sinking to the bottom. In this cold location, Okene stayed down for three days. Able to breathe due to compression of the air present allowing a sufficient oxygen supply for such a long length of time, Okene was brought to the surface alive after his ordeal, being rescued by salvage divers who were searching for bodies and astounded to find a live single survivor.
8. Mauro Prosperi
Running a marathon in the Sahara sounds like a recipe for disaster, starting with massive heatstroke and the constant threat of fatal dehydration. Worse yet, subsequently getting lost while running through the shifting sands of the Sahara is a good way to invite certain death into one’s schedule. But for Italian police officer, athlete, and nature lover Mauro Prosperi, cheating death came in the form of getting lost during a marathon in the Sahara and then surviving for 10 days. While the choice to enter in the Marathon des Sables was one that involved high risk, Prosperi decided that he was up for the challenge.
With a fair-sized group of runners there might seem to be safety in numbers, but Prosperi found himself running alone in the desert due to differences in running speeds among participants. Eventually, a serious stand storm was brewed up by the fickle desert conditions, leaving Prosperi not only alone but utterly lost. His survival was aided not only by drinking urine, but by gaining nutrition from bats found in a desert shrine, drinking their blood. At one point, Prosperi gave up hope and attempted to end his life, but survived and eventually wandered into civilization, being rescued by Berbers and the police they notified. Having suffered severe health effects of desert exposure, it would be around two years before Prosperi recovered from his sandy ordeal.
7. Matt Suter
Extreme wind storms often simply blow over fences and buildings, but the unique airflow dynamics of a tornado concentrates extraordinary wind forces in a tiny focal point of destruction. Tornado activity often causes objects to be sucked up in a manner reminiscent of a vacuum cleaner, instead of just knocking them down or blowing structures away. And in certain cases, the unintended victims of a rampaging tornado can be any humans in the vicinity. American Tornado survivor Matt Suter was 19-years-old when a tornado struck him as he spent time in a mobile home in Missouri.
The mobile home was smashed by the force of the hungry tornado, while Suter himself was “swallowed” and carried by the sucking power of the storm. Carried through the air, Suter lost consciousness in the incident and found himself awake 1,307 feet from where the tornado first picked him up. Fortunately not seriously injured, Suter now stands out in history as a most remarkable survivor of real life unplanned human flight, all 100% tornado powered. As a result of his experience, Matt Suter became the holder of the Guinness World Record for “farthest distance survived in a Tornado.”
6. Steve Callahan
American survivor extraordinaire Steve Callahan, a Naval Architect, was left with no option but to live on a small raft when his sailboat sank without much warning in the North Atlantic after puncture by an unknown object in the midst of a ferocious windstorm. Through his ingenuity, Callahan survived, hunting and fishing from the raft and collecting rainwater and using a basic solar still. An expert sailor, Callahan was participating in a trans-Atlantic sailing race when the boat he designed himself, the Napoleon Solo, encountered significant problems when storms hit just after he had completed repairs in Spain.
En route to the Canary Islands, Callahan was forced to abandon the vessel, which soon sank. Fortunately, Callahan was quick thinking in the increasingly desperate situation, first getting his small life raft into operational condition. Then, as the main ship sank, Callahan dove into the partially submerged vessel at great danger and gathered essential supplies that would later play a key role in his survival. Once the damaged sailboat sank, Callahan would spend a shocking 76 days adrift on the tiny raft that was barely large enough to lie down upon. Callahan fished, gathered water using a still, and kept warm until he was rescued by a passing boat.
5. Poon Lim
Poon Lim’s story is as incredible as it is complicated. A Chinese sailor, Poon Lim was working on a British Merchant vessel during World War II when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship, swiftly sinking it. The attack happened when the boat was offshore about 700 miles from the coast of the Amazon rainforest during a voyage between Cape Town, South Africa and the small country of Suriname in northern South America. In a tragic but awe-inspiring example of a sole survivor situation, all who were on board the vessel died except for Poon Lim.
When the torpedoes exploded, the ship began to sink and within a mere two minutes went down. In the 122 days (more than 1/3 of a year!) that followed, Lim eked a living from the waves while taking just enough shelter from the elements on a meager wooden raft, measuring 8-feet square and covered with a precarious tarp draped across vertical boards. With little room to go anywhere, Lim engaged in exceptional innovation, turning a nail into a fishhook and gathering water with canvas from a life jacket cover. With his hook, Lim captured a sizable shark, prevailed in the ensuing struggle, and drank the shark’s liver blood. Eventually, Lim was saved by fishermen from Brazil. Lim received a British Empire Medal from King George VI upon his rescue and return to England. Later, he was given US citizenship via an exemption in his favor despite American policies that restricted immigration by Chinese citizens at the time.
4. Juliane Koepcke
Exploring natural regions presents not only the dangers of fieldwork but also the risks of transportation through sometimes challenging environments. When a plane disintegrates in mid-air, nothing – not even being strapped into a seat – would seem to offer much comfort if there is no parachute involved. For 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke, the presence of a forest canopy below and the cushioning effect of the seat remarkably allowed her to survive a 1971 crash in the rainforest of Peru. Koepcke, a young German-Peruvian biologist who had been studying in Peru together with her scientist parents, was riding in a Lockheed Electra when it disintegrated after a lightning strike ignited a fuel tank in the worst lightning disaster in human history.
Tragically, 91 people died, with Koepke being the only survivor of the doomed flight. Most died from the initial crash, while several people survived for several days but then died, unfortunately including Koepcke’s mother. Koepcke herself would seem to be the least likely candidate for survival, considering the circumstances of how the crash affected her, making the story all the more incredible. When the aircraft exploded, Koepke fell 10,000 feet, strapped into her seat that was separated from the bulk of the aircraft. After miraculously living through the fall, she then proceeded to survive in the wilderness for 11 days, in part thanks to finding a moored boat in a waterway and pouring some of the boat’s gasoline on her wounds to remove more than 30 maggots. She remained at the boat, refusing to steal it, before being rescued by loggers a few hours later.
3. George Hopkins
When hiking, the advantage to climbing your way onto any natural structure is that the fact you got their on foot means that you presumably have a fair shot of getting back down in that same way. Unless you arrive at that spot via parachute, of course. And given that the Earth’s physical geography includes a bizarre natural chimney-like structure, surrounded by impossibly smooth vertical drop offs with a tiny flat plateau at the top, the fact that elevators and, in this case, stairs don’t exist in nature must be considered.
In 1941, professional parachutist George Hopkins put too little thought into a $50 bet when he parachuted onto the flat top of the bizarre and sheer-walled Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. The structure rises above the nearby river valley to a height of 1,267 feet, tapering from the base and adorned by dramatic natural striations in the rock (you may remember it from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind). And while the daring Mr. Hopkins found getting onto the flat top by maneuvering his parachute was fairly easy, getting down was a nightmare. Hopkins spent six tense and trying days stranded on this bizarre tabletop in the sky before he could eventually be rescued. Attempts to drop supplies to allow him to get down on his own failed before he was rescued by exceptionally skilled and brave climbers.
2. Michael Benson
While some like it hot and some like it cold, Michael Benson survived a helicopter crash and subsequent stranding for two nights in the crater of an active volcano. Having to cope with steam, noxious fumes, and the sound of pools of lava bubbling nearby would have made for one terrifying night, let alone multiple. While his two companions were able to get out after one night, Benson had difficulty in being rescued and spent a second night in the crater before escaping via a helicopter rescue net.
The terrifying survival situation unfolded at the site of the active Kilauea Volcano in the Hawaiian Islands in late November, 1992 when a helicopter lost power and crashed into the sweltering crater with perilously close and volatile volcanic activity. A bid was being made to obtain close footage of the Pu’u ‘O’o volcanic vent when the disaster occurred. Amidst the chaotic conditions, Chris Duddy was able to crawl out of the volcano the next day, but the less fortunate Michael Benson had to watch molten lava washing against the crater walls a little longer. Eventually, conditions became suitable for rescue, and Benson would later compare the sounds of the lava to the action of surf on the ocean shores.
1. Howard and Sonny Ulrich
The largest tsunami wave ever recorded in Earth’s history was triggered by an 8.0 Richter scale earthquake in Alaska’s panhandle on July 9, 1958. Among the tremendous damage caused by the landscape-changing earthquake, the resulting mega-wave rose 1,720 feet above sea level. The disaster started when the earthquake dislodged a whopping 40 million cubic yards of rocky rubble, which then plunged over a cliff, falling 3,000 feet into the waters of Gilbert Inlet far below.
The wave then blasted across the mountainous coastal terrain at the inlet where it covered treetops on hills as it attained its unprecedented and, to this day, unsurpassed elevation as the greatest tsunami ever. While the wave caused immense damage, even more shocking is the fact that it was ridden by incredibly fortunate survivors who managed to stay atop the wave instead of being crushed. Howard Ulrich and his son, Sonny, were boating in Lituya Bay right in the disaster area when the tsunami struck. The force of the monster wave carried them above the trees in a massive surge of water, but despite the enormous risk of death, both survived the tsunami that put treetops below the temporary new boundaries of the ocean.