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4 Insane Things Humans Have Survived

Airplane Wreck in Jungle
James Morley/Shutterstock

Life can seem pretty hard, even on an ordinary day. You might be contending with work stress, a dwindling bank account, or growing relationship problems. Getting through those challenges is difficult enough—but there’s usually no question that you’ll make it in the end.

Some people, however, have faced trials so mind-blowing that it’s incredible they made it out alive. From simple vacations gone wrong to poorly calculated risks, there are countless ways that people can find themselves in trouble. The best part of these stories, however, is learning how they survived through a combination of wits, luck, and skill.

We can’t promise that these wild stories of survival will make your own challenges feel easier—but they’ll definitely take your mind off things for a while.

The Man Who Cut off His Own Arm

While the dangers of hiking alone are pretty well-known, most experienced hikers think nothing of a solo hike from time to time. Outdoor enthusiast Aron Ralston certainly didn’t. And his Utah canyon hike might have ended uneventfully—except that a boulder fell on him as he climbed down into a canyon, landing solidly on his arm.

He was too far from any well-traveled path for anyone to hear his calls for help, so he stayed trapped there for more than five unimaginably painful days. However, Ralston soon realized he had two choices: free himself or die. And to free himself, there was only one option—remove the trapped arm.

With a knife in his multi-tool and unbelievable courage, he managed to perform the amputation on himself. He used the boulder for leverage to break the bone and turned the hose from his water pack into a tourniquet. It took more than an hour to complete the makeshift amputation.

Despite the pain, Ralston experienced a delirious sort of excitement during the process, as he realized that he was going to live after all. He even stopped to take a picture of the boulder and his hand trapped beneath it before leaving the canyon.

Getting out wasn’t exactly a breeze: he had to construct a sling for the rest his arm, and then rappel 60 feet down to the canyon’s floor. But he soon found a family of hikers and was back in the hands of civilization and modern medical care at last.

Ralston’s ordeal could have been easily avoided: had he told anyone where he was going hiking, and when he expected to return, he likely would have been saved long before he had to cut off his arm. However, as it was, his technical skills and outdoor experience were just enough to save his life.

His experience was later turned into a film. His name also popped up in the news again in 2013, in a less-uplifting story: he and his girlfriend were both arrested with domestic violence charges, which were later dropped.

The Woman Whose Car Crash Lasted a Week

Getting injured in a car crash is among many people’s worst nightmares. However, what if you were injured in a car crash—and then no one found you for a week?

Angela Hernandez' crashed car in Big Sur
California Highway Patrol

When Angela Hernandez swerved to avoid hitting a small animal on a California coastline drive, her car plunged over the side of a 250-foot cliff. The road had no shoulder, so there was nothing to stop her from going over the edge.

Incredibly, when she landed, she was still alive but knocked unconscious. When she came to, she was still in her car, which was starting to fill up with water. She used a multi-tool to break the window so she could get out. (Sidenote: we might never leave home without a multi-tool again!)

After escaping from the car, Hernandez passed out again on the shore. Later, she would discover that she had a brain hemorrhage, fractured ribs, broken collarbones, and a collapsed lung, as well as other minor medical issues.

When she woke up on shore, the situation finally sank in. She hurt all over and was trapped on the empty beach at the base of a cliff. She’d also lost her shoes. And although she had a gallon of water in her car, she couldn’t reach it in the partially submerged vehicle.

Hernandez then started wandering the beach, hoping to find someone. Dehydration set in over the next few days. Luckily, she was able to reach a radiator hose from her car, which she used to drink the fresh water trickling down the cliffs. She sought out high ground and shouted as much as she could, hoping that someone would hear her.

A full week went by. Then one day, she woke up and spied someone walking across the beach. Even though she thought she was still dreaming, Hernandez started screaming for help. The woman turned out to be real, and there was a man with her: they were surfers on a hike.

After the surfers got help, rescuers freed Hernandez from the beach by hoisting her up with ropes, then airlifted her to the hospital. After a nearly deadly week, the ordeal was finally over.

The Girl Who Survived a Plane Crash and a Jungle

rainforest in Manu National Park, Peru

While you might know on an objective level that flying is safer than driving, there’s something primally nerve-wracking about being in a plane thousands of feet above the ground. And for Juliane Koepcke, any fears she had were surely exceeded by what happened.

At only 17 years old, she boarded a flight in Lima, Peru, with her mother the day before Christmas. They were flying to a nearby city to see her father. It was only an hour-long flight.

About halfway through the fight, though, the plane met a massive thunderstorm. Amid the turbulence, Koepcke saw a bright flash of light over the right wing of the aircraft. Suddenly, the plane was falling out of the sky.

And then, just as suddenly, Koepcke found that she was spinning through the air outside of the plane. The bench seat she was strapped to had somehow come free from the rest of the airplane. Koepcke passed out, and when she came to, she was on the ground in the midst of the Peruvian jungle, alone.

Her body was wracked with injuries: her eyes were nearly swollen shut, her collarbone was broken, there was a gash in her leg, and she was too dizzy to stand at first. She crawled on the ground and shouted for her mother, but no one answered.

Fortunately, Koepcke had lived in the jungle before, so she knew her surroundings. She licked water from tree leaves to hydrate until she found a spring from which to drink. Nothing and no one from the plane crash seemed to be nearby. So, Koepcke started to follow the stream that emerged from the spring, hopeful that it would lead her to civilization.

Eventually, the stream reached a large river. The jungle beside it was too dense to walk through, so Koepcke started swimming. She sustained a second-degree sunburn while in the water, and had to go without food because so many jungle plants are poisonous. But she kept going, day after excruciating day.

After ten days of tedious travel, she woke up on the riverbank and saw a boat she hadn’t noticed before. She found a manmade path nearby and walked the hill to an empty shack, where she spent the night. Late the next day, forestry workers showed up and found her, still sheltered in the shack. Later, Koepcke found out that she was the only one who’d survived the crash.

The Man Who Lived Three Days on a Sunken Ship

Harrison Okene was a chef, and he wasn’t expected anything more than a typical day at work aboard the Jascon 4. Yet, when a heavy ocean swell overturned the tugboat, everything changed.

It was his good fortune that he was in the bathroom when the ship started sinking because if he hadn’t been in just the right place at the right time, he would have died along with everyone else on board. The other ten people on the ship were in their rooms behind locked doors, a safety measure in case of piracy—one that ultimately killed them by trapping them underwater.

Okene wasn’t trapped in a locked room, but the ship was sinking so fast that he couldn’t get to an emergency exit hatch. He found his way through the dark into a cabin instead. Luckily, that cabin had an air pocket.

To guard against the rising water, Okene turned the mattresses in the cabin into a makeshift raft he could sit on. This saved his life by protecting against hypothermia. As the hours stretched on, he heard large fish—maybe barracudas or sharks—fighting in the water nearby, battling over the chance to eat the lifeless bodies of his crewmates. Okene found a plank to defend himself against the sea creatures and waited.

Sixty hours passed before he was rescued—almost three days. Rescuers weren’t in much of a hurry to reach the ship, as they figured everyone on it had died. They recovered the other 10 bodies quickly. But when Okene finally heard the rescuers on their search, he took action so they wouldn’t miss him. He found a hammer and broke through his cabin’s wall so he could bang the hammer against the steel body of the ship.

When that didn’t work, he dove into the water himself and swam until he saw the lights of a (very shocked) diver. At last, Okene was able to begin his slow ascent to the surface, first spending some time in a decompression chamber for safety.

His survival alone was a miracle—spending so long at those depths would kill many people, even with air to breathe. But how did that air pocket last for 60 hours without running out of oxygen?

The high pressure at the bottom of the sea holds the answer. Because the ship was so far underwater, the air pocket was compressed, so it contained a lot more oxygen than it usually would have. Plus, the water all around also helped absorb the carbon dioxide Okene breathed out, so it never reached deadly levels. This good luck, combined with his quick thinking, saved Okene’s life.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »