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Bizarre and Mysterious Tales of Survival

The human body is a weird and wonderful thing. Sometimes we seem soft and malleable compared to all the other creatures in the world. We’re not well designed for life in the wild, and our young can’t take care of themselves for years, compared to some animals which can be up and running around within hours of being born. Despite our apparent fragility, every once in a while comes a human who can survive against amazing odds…

10. The Drunken Baker on the Titanic

titanic3

Charles Joughin was the Chief Baker aboard the Titanic. As the ship sank and around 1,500 people drowned, Joughin joined them in the water and simply swam around until the morning when he was pulled out alive and well. This prompted many people to wonder how he survived in the exact same conditions which cause so many others to perish.

As it happens, the secret to Joughin’s survival was that he was fully expecting to not survive. So, in honor of his impending demise, he drank like a fish. Not sea water, mind you, but alcohol.

It was a baffling mix of circumstances that kept the man alive. Normally, alcohol would make you more susceptible to hypothermia. However, in life-threatening situations alcohol has another unique effect on the human body. It basically makes you ignore the physical danger you’re in. 

Evidence has shown that victims of serious trauma, things like stab wounds and gunshots, are more likely to survive the drunker they are. Likewise, if you go to a hospital in the freezing cold, you’re better suited to handle the effects on your body if you’re smashed.

So, as the Titanic was going down, Joughin sent his staff out to stock the lifeboats with food to keep people alive. He then forced people onto the lifeboats who were hesitant about going, neglecting his own safety to ensure that he saved as many people as possible.

As those left on the boat began to panic the closer they got to submerging, Joughin kept a cool head and continued to drink. When water rushed around his feet, he started throwing deckchairs overboard so at least people would have temporary flotation devices. And then he went back to his cabin and got another drink. 

Word is he was on the stern of the boat when it actually broke in half. He apparently made his way to the stern rail and just rode the sinking ship down into the ocean. 

Once in the ocean it was cold shock that killed many of the initial victims, reacting to the intense shift in temperature and either drowning in a panic or causing a quick loss of body temperature. Joughin just swam around a little and mostly decided to tread water. The alcohol in his system didn’t make it warmer, but it did make him face it more calmly, and that likely kept him alive.

9. 9/11 Survivor

world trade center

No one needs to be told what a catastrophic tragedy the events of September 11, 2001 were. And while we all know the tragic loss of life that occurred that day, what few people have heard of are the stories of those who survived against all odds in those incredible circumstances.

One such survivor was Pasquale Buzzelli, a 34-year-old structural engineer. He had an office on the 64th floor of the North Tower where he was working at 10 a.m. on September 11. He tried to evacuate along with the others but only reached the 22nd floor of the building when it began to shake and the stairs moved underneath him. He could hear things crashing to the ground above his head and ducked into a corner hoping for the best.

The walls literally fell on top of him and he experienced the sensation of falling. Remember, he’s on the 22nd floor of the North Tower at this point. The next thing he remembered, it was two hours later and he was on a giant slab of concrete, 180 feet lower than where he started. 

There was smoke, dust, and fire all around, but he was alive. His leg hurt, alerting him to the fact that somehow he was not dead yet. He used his shirt as a mask and started calling for help. A nearby firefighter heard him. 

Rescuers pulled him from the fire and debris and incredibly he only suffered a fractured foot. The emotional damage was worse; it took longer to deal with, but his amazing story of survival was rare indeed, as he was one of only 42 people we know of who survived the collapse. 

8. Louis Zamperini

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If you don’t know the name of Louis Zamperini, you should. He’s one of the closest things we have to a real life superhero. The man’s life story is so unbelievable that if someone like Tom Hardy played him in a biopic, you’d assume the whole thing was made up. (His life was, in fact, turned into a movie but he was played by an actor named Jack O’Connell. The movie was called Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie.)

Known for being a bit of a troublemaker in his youth and apparently the leader of a children’s criminal empire in his early years, he straightened himself out by the time he was in high school to become one of California’s best student-athletes. He was the youngest distance runner to ever make the Olympic team.

It’s his service in the war that makes him stand out as a bit of an action star. Serving as a B-24 bombardier during the Second World War, his plane nearly ran out of fuel on one run and just barely made it back to the Midway Atoll. Later his B-24 was shot up by Japanese Zeros, which killed most of the crew but the rest, including Zamperini, made it back to base alive despite the 600 bullet and shrapnel holes in the plane.

In 1943, Zamperini’s luck ran out as his plane went down over the Pacific. Three of the 11 crew members survived; Zamperini, along with the pilot and the tail gunner. He was lost at sea for 47 days but still managed to survive, even after being strafed by Zero pilots who saw the men afloat.

After drifting for an absolutely mind-boggling 2,000 miles, the Japanese Navy found the castaways and he became a POW. He was held for two years and suffered numerous tortures before being released. Later in life he even wrote a letter forgiving his former torturers for what they did. 

7. Brian Udell Survived a Supersonic Ejection

If you’ve never heard of Brian Udell then you’re missing one of the most incredible survival stories ever. Udell is the only person in the world to ever survive a supersonic ejection from a jet. That means he was traveling faster than the speed of sound when he ejected from the craft. 

Udell was traveling at nearly 800 miles per hour when a computer malfunction rendered the plane’s avionics useless. They were in a 60 degree right turn at the time things went wrong, and the jet was headed straight for the ocean at supersonic speeds.

At 10,000 feet, Udell gave the order to eject. The handle was pulled at 6,000 feet. Co-pilot  Dennis White ejected at 3,000 feet. Udell ejected at 1,500 feet. The force was so intense it pulled his helmet and mask right off of his head. His parachute deployed at 500 feet.

White died immediately upon ejection, but Udell survived – albeit with incredible injuries. Doctors told him he’d likely never even walk again. He did prove them wrong, and within six months he was up on his feet. In 10 months he was flying missions again.

6. The First Man on the Beaches of Normandy

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When US soldiers stormed the beach at Normandy it must have been an utterly chaotic scene. Many filmmakers have tried to recreate that moment in the years since, notably the incredibly violent and dramatic opening scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan. But to have been there in real life would have been absolutely terrifying for each and every one of those soldiers who still pushed on.

One thing that many people probably don’t think about all that much is how, in the midst of all that chaos, one man had to be the first. One soldier had to be the first to set foot on that beach. His name was Leonard Schroeder. On D-Day 1944, Captain Schroeder was the first American soldier to set foot on the beaches of Normandy.

Leading his company onto Utah Beach, Schroeder was shot twice. Despite his injuries, he took his men inland several miles and then passed out from blood loss.

Schroeder never planned to be the first on the beach, and he didn’t really revel in the attention that he got for it later in life. But the fact is he did have a later in life to speak of. He survived the war, returned home, and lived all the way to age 90.

5. Adrian Carton de Wiart

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Any time they call a person unkillable you know there has to be a good story behind it. That was the case with Adrian Carton de Wiart. With only one eye and one hand, de Wiart was in the Boer War, the First World War, and the Second World War. For his troubles he was shot in the face, through the skull, in the hip, in the leg, in the ankle, and in the ear. He survived it all.

In the First World War alone, de Wiart was severely wounded eight times. This was after his stint in the Boer War, when he was shot in the stomach and the groin. When he only had one good hand to use, he held grenades in it and used his teeth to pull the pins out. An artillery barrage had ruined the appendage and the doctor refused to amputate his fingers, so he tore them off himself.

In the Second World War he was shot down over the Mediterranean. He swam to shore and was captured by the Italians. He was in his 60s at this time and escaped his POW camp on numerous occasions despite being elderly, one-handed, and having only one eye. After the war, he served as Winston Churchill’s personal representative in China, and eventually died peacefully at age 83.

4. Alexander Selkirk

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The story of Robinson Crusoe is a fantastic tale of a castaway, full of adventure. Few people know it was actually based, at least in some part, around the true story of Alexander Selkirk. The Scottish sailor was known to be a bit of a loudmouth and have problems with authority, so it might not have been too much of a surprise when he got into a fight with his captain in the year 1704, telling the younger man to just leave him on a nearby island.

The captain obliged and Selkirk was given the old heave-ho. On the island he had access to plenty of food in the form of feral goats, as well as wild turnips and other plants. Armies of rats would attack him at night and apparently he managed to domesticate a number of feral cats to keep himself safe from them.

Adapting to life as a castaway, he forged a knife out of barrel hoops and built two huts for himself, one for cooking and one for sleeping. At one point while chasing a goat for food he fell off a cliff and would have died if not for the fact he actually landed on the goat.

Selkirk was nearly captured twice by Spanish sailors who surely would have killed him since he was a Scottish privateer. He managed to hide in a tree while his pursuers actually peed on it, not noticing he was in it. It wasn’t until the year 1709, over four years after he had been left on the island, that he was rescued.

3. The Robertson Family

Usually when it comes to surviving at sea you’ll hear the tale of one incredible person who perseveres when it seems like all hope would be lost. And then there’s the story of the Robertson family, all of whom survived for 38 days in a 9-foot dinghy before being rescued.

In 1971, the Robertson family – which consisted of Dougal and Lyn, plus their children Douglas, Sandy and Neil, along with a friend named Robin – planned to sail around the world. Things went bad 200 miles from the Galapagos Islands when a pod of killer whales capsized the boat.

The family took refuge in a life raft that deflated after 17 days before getting into the small dinghy. They had enough food for 10 days which consisted of a bag of onions, a tin of biscuits, 10 oranges, six lemons, and a half a pound of candy. And the water was full of sharks.

The family survived for 38 days at sea in part because of the incredibly industrious thinking of Lyn Robertson. A nurse by trade, Lyn knew that drinking sea water was a death sentence for everyone. The family had also been trying to stay alive by drinking the blood from captured sea turtles. But it wasn’t enough. So, Lyn came up with a novel, if incredible, solution.

Using repurposed rungs from a ladder, Lyn created makeshift enema tubes. The water from the bottom of the dinghy, which was a mix of rain water, blood, and turtle guts would likely have killed anyone trying to drink it. But if you took it as an enema you could still absorb the water without digesting any of the dangerous elements. So that’s what they did.

By the time a Japanese fishing boat rescued them, no one had urinated for 20 days and their tongues were so swollen that they couldn’t even speak.

2. The Tree of Life

tree of life

Amazing survival is not just limited to humans. Every so often, nature pulls an amazing trick out from its hat, such as the case of the Tree of Life in Bahrain. This tree is thought to have been planted in 1582 and it sits atop a sandy hill at Bahrain’s highest point. All around the green and healthy looking tree is an arid desert. There is no water supply anywhere within sight, and there doesn’t seem to be any water supply underground, either.

Obviously, the tree is getting water from somewhere, and it’s believed that the tree has incredibly deep roots which extend a great distance into the Earth to a depth of about fifty meters. Of course, some people say that the tree was planted at the site of the Garden of Eden, and that’s why it’s still alive. 

1. Ernest Hemingway

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Most people associate Ernest Hemingway with the image of a man’s man. He was a writer, sure, but he was also a larger-than-life character as well. And throughout the course of his real life, he faced enough near-death experiences to pad out any fictitious tale beyond belief.

In the First World War he was an ambulance driver with the Red Cross. An Austrian mortar nearly killed him, ultimately leaving him with an aluminum kneecap and 237 pieces of shrapnel, by his account.

Later, he nearly killed himself by shooting the calves of both legs while attempting to wrestle a shark off of Key West. But arguably his most famous brushes with death came from not one, but two separate plane crashes that he managed to walk away from. And they happened in the span of two days.

While on Safari in Africa 1954, the pilot of Hemingway’s Cessna crashed after trying to avoid a flock of birds. He, his wife, and the pilot spent the night in the jungle and then the next day got on another plane, which promptly crashed and caught fire.

Hemingway was initially reported as having died in the crash, but then sometime later walked out of the jungle with a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin.

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