13 People Who Survived Things That Sound Pretty Freaking Unsurvivable To Me

1.Vesna Vulovic, a flight attendant and the sole survivor of the 1972 crash of JAT Flight 367, holds the Guinness world record for surviving the longest fall (33,000 feet) without a parachute.

Vesna receiving her Guiness world record award

When explosives detonated in the plane's luggage compartment, the plane broke apart midair above Czechoslovakia. The other passengers were most likely sucked outside, but Vulovic stayed in the fuselage, "wedged in by a food cart," as it fell onto the ground. The trees and snow probably helped cushion its fall, and against all odds, Vulovic survived, the only one of the 28 passengers and crew to do so. Her injuries included broken legs and vertebrae, a fractured skull, and temporary paralysis. She was also comatose for part of her recovery.

Vulovic was able to walk again less than a year after the crash. She had no memory of the flight after boarding, though; her first memory was seeing her parents in the hospital. Remarkably, she continued flying, and even tried to get her old gig as a flight attendant back, though the airline declined on the basis of her health. Vulovic speculated they just didn't want "so much publicity about the accident." She also disagreed when people referred to her as lucky, pointing out that if that were true, she "never would have had this accident." Vulovic died in 2016 at the age of 66.

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2.Dr. Juliane Diller was only 17 when she fell almost two miles into the rainforest following the break-up of the airplane she was traveling in with her mother on Christmas Eve. She was the sole survivor.

Dr. Diller accepts an award for ecological conservation

(Pictured is Dr. Diller accepting Germany's Federal Order of Merit for Environmental Work in 2021.)

A 2021 New York Times profile told her extraordinary story. It was 1971, and Juliane and her mother, Maria Koepcke, were traveling from Lima, the capital city of Peru, to Panguana, "a biological research station in the belly of the Amazon," where Juliane occasionally lived with her zoologist parents who established the facility. But after their plane was struck on its wing by lightning, Diller recalled that her mother calmly remarked, "Now it's all over."

Diller plummeted to the ground, still strapped into her seat, and she regained consciousness on Christmas morning with "a broken collarbone, a sprained knee, and gashes on her right shoulder and left calf, one eye swollen shut and her field of vision in the other narrowed to a slit." For 11 days, she walked through the Amazon. She was ultimately discovered by forest workers, who fed her and "poured gasoline into her open wounds to flush out the maggots."

After an Italian dramatization of the story called Miracles Still Happen portrayed her as a "hysterical dingbat," Diller shied from publicly speaking about her experience until she was contacted by Werner Herzog, who had almost boarded the same plane as her and her mother. The resultant documentary, Wings of Hope, was released in 1998.

During her ordeal, Diller promised herself she would dedicate herself to something meaningful. Her life's work became the preservation of Panguana, which she has protected and expanded throughout the years. Today, Diller continues her ecological preservation work and still goes on expeditions to Panguana.

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3.Salvador Alvarenga, a 36-year-old fisherman, survived 14 months lost at sea and washed ashore nearly 7,000 miles from where he had originally set sail.

Salvador soon after being rescued

In 2012, Alvarenga and his 22-year-old companion, Ezequiel Córdoba, got caught in a severe storm while attempting to head back to the coast of Mexico after a fishing trip. Their boat was 25 feet long and "virtually invisible at sea." Alvarenga's last words to shore before going missing were, "Come now, I am really getting fucked out here." The engine had just failed, and the waves were pushing them further and further into the open water.

The pair caught fish and seabirds by hand, sometimes drying the meat and sometimes consuming it raw, and they worked out a system to collect rainwater. However, two months into their ordeal, Córdoba sunk into a depression, stopped accepting food and water, and died soon afterward. Alvarenga was devastated to lose his only company, and he spoke to Córdoba's corpse as if he were still alive for six days before burying him at sea.

Alvarenga staved off despair with his vivid imagination, and after 438 days at sea, he spotted land and landed on the Ebon Atoll, where Emi Libokmeto and Russel Laikidrik discovered him staring at their vacation house. They struggled to communicate, with Alvarenga trying to draw his situation using stick figures, but help was summoned, and after 11 days of hospitalization, he was cleared to return home to El Salvador.

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4.When Aron Ralston's arm was crushed by a boulder while he was climbing alone in Utah in 2003, he went to extraordinary lengths to free himself.

Aron Ralston at the premiere of 127 Hours

This is the 127 Hours one. When the boulder crushed Ralston's right arm and trapped him, he had only "one liter of water, two burritos, and a few chunks of chocolate," along with headphones and a video camera. There was no hope of anyone finding him, since he told no one where he was going. It was such a bleak situation that 27-year-old Ralston used the camera to record his "last will and testament." He's since shown the footage to his parents but has said he will never release it to the public.

After failing to move or chip away at the boulder, Ralston was forced to amputate his own arm with a blunt knife from his "cheap multitool kit." On the sixth day, he completed his gruesome plan, made an improvised tourniquet, and rappelled 65 feet down to escape. He was found by Dutch tourists and later picked up by a search-and-rescue helicopter.

Ralston continued to be an avid outdoorsmen, and in 2010, his then-wife gave birth to a baby boy, fulfilling a vision Ralston had while trapped of his young son asking him to play. And he really liked 127 Hours, by the way. He called it "the best film ever made."

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5.After a plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the frigid and remote Andes mountains, the survivors were forced to make terrible decisions in order to return home.

Nando Parrado (left) and Roberto Canessa in 1974

(Pictured are Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa in 1974.)

In October 1972, members of the Old Christians amateur rugby team, along with their friends and families, were en route to Chile for a match when the pilot made a catastrophic error and started to descend while still in the Andes. The plane struck a mountain, shearing off both its wings before crashing in a remote area forebodingly nicknamed "The Valley of Tears."

Twelve people were killed in the initial crash, leaving 33 survivors. The official search was called off after eight days, both because conditions in the mountains were considered near-unsurvivable and the white fuselage of the aircraft was practically invisible in the snow. There was barely any food, and the group eventually made the wrenching decision to eat the bodies of the deceased. Survivor Roberto Canessa clarified that while "cannibalism is when you kill someone" for the express purpose of consuming them, what he and the others did is known as anthropophagy.

Six others died over the coming weeks, and eight more perished during an avalanche on Oct. 29. In December, Canessa and Nando Parrado set out to find help, and miraculously, they encountered three Chileans four days later (a third man, Antonio Vizintin, returned to camp midway through their search). By Dec. 23, all 16 survivors were rescued after being stranded for more than two months.

The public was scandalized by the anthropophagy, but the survivors successfully defended themselves by pointing to both their desperate need and their devout Christian faith, "in which Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine that he stated were his body and his blood." Several of them went on to write memoirs of their ordeal, including Canessa, who was a 19-year-old medical student at the time. He is now one of "Uruguay’s best-known pediatric cardiologists."

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6.Bahia Bakari is another lone survivor of an airplane crash. She was traveling with her mother to visit family when their plane — Yemenia Flight 626 — crash landed in the Indian Ocean, killing everyone on board but her.

Bakari poses with her memoir

Bakari was 13 years old at the time of the 2009 accident. She held onto debris from the wreck for over nine hours, unable to see and facing "choppy water doing its best to tear her away." When she was discovered by a rescue party, she was too exhausted to swim to their boat, so a sailor named Libouna Selemani Matrafi swam out to meet her.

She was treated in a French hospital for a broken collarbone, hypothermia, and bruising. In 2010, Bakari released a memoir entitled Moi Bahia, la miraculee. In it, she wrote that at first, she thought she'd fallen through the plane's window after pressing her forehead against it to look outside.

Steven Spielberg reportedly wanted to adapt the book, but Bakari turned him down, because "it would be too terrifying. ... Nobody could act out the pain I felt in those moments."

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7.When Anatoli Bugorski stuck his head inside the Soviet Union's largest particle accelerator and got struck by a proton beam, his doctors prepared to "observe his death." But he didn't die.

The Large Hadron Collidor at CERN

(Pictured is CERN's Large Hadron Collider, the world's biggest particle accelerator.)

The 36-year-old Bugorski was a researcher at the Institute for High Energy Physics, and he put his head in between a proton beam and its intended destination while attempting to fix a piece of faulty equipment. When the beam passed through his skull, he didn't feel pain, but he did witness "a flash brighter than a thousand suns."

While proton therapy used to treat cancer patients utilizes beams with "250 million electron volts" of energy, the beam that hit Bugorski had "more than 300 times" that. So, everyone figured he was a goner. But somehow, despite the severe swelling and eventual paralysis of the left side of his face, Bugorski survived.

The main side effect of his brush with death was epilepsy, which can probably be blamed on "brain-tissue scarring." As of 1997, he had suffered six grand mal seizures and "occasional" petit mal ones. The paralyzed side of his face hasn't aged, but he has suffered from neither cancer nor radiation sickness, as far as anyone can tell.

After his accident, Bugorski continued his career in science, and he is still alive today. True to form, Bugorski saw his accident as an opportunity for scientific discovery, explaining, "This is, in effect, an unintended test of proton warfare. I am being tested. The human capacity for survival is being tested."

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8.Dick Williams was a 21-year-old tennis star with a promising athletic career in front of him when he decided to move to the United States from Switzerland in order to attend Harvard. So...he booked a ticket on the Titanic.

Williams with three other tennis players

(Williams is on the far right in this photo, which was taken during the Davis Cup in 1926.)

Williams was traveling with his father, Charles, and they remained onboard the sinking ship until near the very end, "helping passengers into lifeboats." Tragically, as they went to board a lifeboat themselves, Charles was killed by a falling funnel. Williams ended up in the freezing sea and managed to climb into a "collapsible lifeboat which had not been assembled." He was submerged in water up to his waist, and when the rescue ship Carpathia arrived, only 11 out of the around 30 passengers aboard the half-sunken lifeboat were still alive.

Naturally, Williams was suffering from severe frostbite on his legs, but when the doctor on board the Carpathia told him they needed to be amputated, Williams replied, "I refuse to give you permission. I'm going to need these legs." He then walked up and down the deck of the rescue ship to restore circulation, presumably while that doctor watched menacingly. Twelve weeks later, Williams was competing again. He went on to graduate from Harvard, serve in the US Army during World War I (for which he received the Croix de Guerre), and claim victory at Wimbledon, the 1924 Olympics, and multiple US Nationals.

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9.In 2014, Peter Siebold somehow survived the disintegration of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo and a subsequent fall of more than 50,000 feet. His copilot, Michael Alsbury, perished in the accident.

The broken up remains of the spacecraft

For comparison, a commercial flight's cruising altitude is usually somewhere in the ballpark of 35,000 feet.

Siebold described hearing a loud noise and then "paper fluttering in the wind" as the cabin fell apart around him. Then he started falling, and he faded in and out of consciousness as he plummeted toward the desert below. His recollection of most of the fall is spotty, but he does remember attempting to fix his oxygen supply and preparing his parachute, which deployed at some point between 10,000 and 20,000 feet. The subsequent slower rate of descent gave Siebold more time to get a grasp on his surroundings, and he was conscious and aware he was injured by the time he landed in a bush.

Siebold's injuries included a broken arm and fractured collarbone, scratched corneas, and multiple bruises and scratches, and his survival was considered miraculous. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the break-up of the spacecraft was caused by a combination of pilot error and the pair being pressured to "carry out commands in a matter of seconds while rocketing into space."

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10.Short of death itself, if it was something bad that could happen to a World War II soldier, it happened to Louis Zamperini. His plane crashed into the Pacific, he survived on nearly nothing for 47 grueling days in a life raft, and he was taken as a prisoner of war immediately afterward.

An elderly Louis Zamperini poses with a picture of himself

You may be familiar with Zamperini's story from Laura Hillenbrand's biography Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, or its 2014 movie adaptation. Here's the abbreviated version of why "unbroken" is probably the best possible word you could use to describe this guy.

Before he was a soldier, Zamperini was an Olympian who represented the US in track during the 1936 Games. In 1940, after graduating from the University of Southern California, he enlisted, and three years later, his plane crashed into the sea. Zamperini, along with fellow crash survivors Russell Phillips and Francis McNamara, "fought off hunger, thirst, heat, storms, and sharks while trying to avoid being shot by Japanese planes." McNamara perished after 33 days, but Zamperini and Phillips survived and got captured by Japanese forces two weeks later.

Zamperini remained a prisoner until the end of the war, and after the fact reflected that while "the beatings and the physical punishment" were bearable to him, in part due to his athletic training, it was much more difficult to withstand "the attempt to destroy your dignity." After returning home, Zamperini struggled with alcoholism but "straightened out" after hearing Billy Graham preach. He later returned to Japan multiple times and helped to carry the Olympic torch for the 1998 Nagano Games. Zamperini died in 2014 at the age of 97.

Bob Riha Jr / Getty Images

11.Ludger Sylbaris was one of the few survivors of the apocalyptic eruption of Mt. Pelée, a volcano just north of Saint-Pierre in Martinique, because he happened to be in solitary confinement for drunk and disorderly conduct at the time.

Ludger Sylbaris showing the burns on his back

When Pelée erupted on May 8, 1902, the "cloud of superheated gas and dust" it sent toward Saint-Pierre totaled nearly every building and incinerated everyone in its path, killing almost all 30,000 residents of the city. Sylbaris witnessed the eruption as ash pouring in through the tiny slot in his cell door, and trying to spare himself from more burns and the overwhelming heat, he urinated on his clothing and stuffed them in the opening. Four days later, he was discovered.

Sylbaris went on to tour with Barnum & Bailey’s circus as "the only living object that survived in the 'Silent City of Death.'" There was some speculation that he had actually been imprisoned for a crime more severe than a drunken fight, but since all the witnesses were dead and all the records were ash, no one pursued it. Saint-Pierre, which had been known as the "Paris of the West Indies," never recovered from the catastrophe, and today is home to only a few thousand people.

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12.Harrison Okene, a 29-year-old tugboat cook, survived underwater in a tiny air pocket for almost three days in 2013 after his ship capsized and sank, killing the other 11 crew members.

A diving bell

(Pictured is a diving bell designed to rescue stranded submariners.)

When the boat sunk, a rush of water forced Okene into the toilet that would be his refuge for the next 60 or so hours. He was trapped almost 100 feet beneath the surface, wearing only his underwear in the freezing darkness. Eventually, South African rescue divers, who were there to recover bodies, heard his desperate banging on the wall.

Getting Okene back to shore was a perilous task, since his heart had absorbed "potentially fatal amounts of nitrogen" while he was trapped. His rescuers brought him to the surface in a diving bell, after which Okene spent two days in a decompression chamber. One professional diver remarked that Okene's survival was "phenomenal," since recreational divers would spend "no more than 20 minutes at those depths."

Yuri Smityuk / TASS via Getty Images

13.And finally: Alexander Selkirk, the marooned privateer and inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, spent four years and four months alone on a deserted island after he tried and failed to lead a mutiny against a ship's captain he disliked.

Selkirk following his rescue

In 1704, the short-tempered Selkirk told the 21-year-old captain of the Cinque Ports, Thomas Stradling, that he would rather be left to fend for himself on an uninhabited island than risk another long journey in the worm-eaten, disease-ridden ship. Stradling didn't argue, and Selkirk was left behind with "bedding, a musket, pistol, gunpowder, hatchet, knife, his navigation tools, a pot for boiling food, two pounds of tobacco, some cheese and jam, a flask of rum and his Bible." Apparently, he immediately realized the gravity of his decision when no one joined him, and he waded back toward the ship to beg for forgiveness. But Stradling wanted to make an example of him, so he left him behind.

Selkirk passed the time by domesticating cats to keep the island's rat population at bay, singing prayers and hymns, and hiding from the occasional Spanish ship, since the nation was infamous for its brutality toward prisoners. After spending years watching the horizon for the sight of a friendly ship, Selkirk was finally rescued in 1709; at first, it was difficult for the sailors to understand his story, since he'd had so little cause to speak over the past few years. But they got the gist, and Selkirk came aboard and spent two years working as a privateer before returning to London in 1711.

Daniel Defoe heard Selkirk's story and published Robinson Crusoe when the ex-castaway was 43. Selkirk himself struggled with life after rescue and died a year later on a ship from what was likely either yellow fever or typhoid. Also, for the record, the Cinque Ports totally did sink. Like, right after it abandoned Selkirk. That must rank as a top five "I told you so" of all time.

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