When faced with a life-or-death situation, people will often do the unbelievable to survive. You’ve probably heard stories of people lifting cars off pinned children or fighting off large predators with their bare hands in the wilderness; these feats would be physically impossible for a person in a normal state. One science writer says these incredible powers are often a result of extreme fear: the brain’s chemical, non-rational response to danger. Here are five stories of superhuman survivors who pushed down their fear and managed to live through unreal disasters.
1. KEN JONES: PULLED HIMSELF OUT OF AN AVALANCHE.
College student Ken Jones was attempting to climb Romania’s highest mountain peak in 2003 when he was buried in not one, but two avalanches. Jones was climbing alone in freezing temperatures and had almost reached the 8000-foot summit when he was struck. The blows broke his leg and crushed his pelvis, yet he mustered the strength to dig himself out, crawl back down the mountain, and limp 10 miles to a nearby town. The ordeal took him four days. When he was transported to a hospital, doctors were able to repair his broken bones, but had to remove most of his stomach due to stress-induced ulcers. The one-time army paratrooper was not expected to walk again, but he fully recovered and started his own elite fitness company.
2. CHILEAN MINERS: SURVIVED UNDERGROUND FOR 69 DAYS.
In 2010 the world was watching Chile, where a collapsed gold and copper mine had trapped 33 miners underground. The men kept their cool waiting to be rescued, setting up their own water system and bathroom while rationing medicine and food. Every 48 hours, each ate two spoons of tuna, half a glass of milk, and half a cookie. Exhausted and dehydrated, they even helped clear material away for their escape tunnel. All were pulled to safety 69 days later.
3. JULIANE KOEPCKE: FELL OUT OF AN AIRPLANE AT 10,000 FEET AND SURVIVED.
At just 17 years old, Juliane Koepcke was the only survivor of a 1971 plane crash above the Peruvian rain forest. The commercial airliner was hit by lightning and broke into pieces two miles above the ground. Koepcke fell out, still strapped in her seat, and landed with relatively minor injuries. Being the only survivor, she followed a moving stream down-river to locate civilization. After nine days, she discovered a shelter and remained inside, treating her bug bites with gasoline, until the lumbermen who used the shelter arrived and could ferry her to safety. Koepcke grew up to be a biologist.
4. ARON RALSTON: AMPUTATED HIS OWN TRAPPED ARM.
Climber Aron Ralston did the unthinkable when he got pinned by an 800-lb. boulder in Utah: he amputated his own arm. This 2003 ordeal, chronicled in the 2010 movie 127 Hours, took days for the adventurer to complete. Trapped in a remote canyon with no more food, water, or anyone around to call for help, he tied his forearm off with a tourniquet and used a knife in his multi-tool to get through the skin, muscle, and bone. Free from the boulder, he then had to climb back through the canyon, rappel down a cliff, and walk six miles to find the first person who could radio for rescuers. “I’m not sure how I handled it,” said the former mechanical engineer at a press conference after his release from the hospital.
5. HARRISON OKENE: LIVED IN AN AIR POCKET TRAPPED UNDER WATER FOR THREE DAYS.
Trapped underwater in 2013, Nigerian sailor Harrison Okene survived in a 4-square-foot air bubble for three days—longer than someone using an oxygen tank could. When Okene’s tugboat overturned in rough water, he and an air bubble became trapped in a toilet chamber. He had no food or drinkable water and was submerged in chilling temperatures for days before South African divers stumbled upon the wreckage. They were shocked to find him alive. He had to spend two days in a decompression chamber when he returned to the surface. At the time, a diving instructor told a newspaper that a recreational diver would only be able to survive for 20 minutes at those depths. “To survive that long at that depth is phenomenal,” the diver said.