Nothing captures our imaginations quite like a survival story, and as someone who, just last week screamed "I welcome death with open arms!" because the bagel place by my house ran out of my favorite cream cheese, I am fascinated by tales of people who stared their own mortality in the face, and somehow persevered against all odds.
We've all imagined how we would fare in a disaster situation. Would you be the hero, the one who pulls others to safety, and whose top unbuttons in a rugged, yet sexy way? Or would you be the coward, the one who tries to save their own ass and then ends up dying anyway? We wonder whether we know enough — we studied rope-typing in Girl Scouts and can kind of make a fire with sticks, and we've watched that Jake Gyllenhaal episode of Man Vs. Wild, but can you tell which berries are safe and which will kill you instantly? I once ate a ping pong ball-sized thing of wasabi because I wasn't paying attention, so I'd make it approximately 30 seconds in the Great Outdoors.
As these stories reveal though, the real factors for survival are more numerous and more abstract than being able to fashion a compass with sticks and some gum. You need perseverance, luck, and above all, the willingness to eat weird things.
Here are some amazing tales of people who shouldn't have survived, but did.
Margaret Gwyer, who was shot out of a smokestack.
Margaret Gwyer, from Saskatchewan, Canada, was 26 years old when she boarded the RMS Lusitania in New York on May 1, 1915, bound for Liverpool. Six days later, the grand ocean liner was torpedoed by a German submarine, and 1,198 people died. In the chaos, Margaret was separated from her new husband, the Reverend Herbert Gwyer. At one point, while treading water, Margaret was sucked into a whirlpool, and pulled into the hole of one of the smokestacks of the rapidly sinking ship. This should have been the end, for Margaret, but by some strange stroke of luck, there was an explosion in the boiler room below the smokestack, which blew her out of the funnel and back to the surface.
Eventually she was picked up by a lifeboat where she found her husband sobbing about the loss of his wife. She comforted him, but he didn't immediately recognize her because she was so covered in soot.
"Never mind," she told him, "we've lost those awful wedding presents."
Juliane Koepcke, who survived a plane crash in the rainforest.
On Christmas Eve, 1971, LANSA flight 508 crashed in the Peruvian rainforest. Of the 92 people onboard, Juliane Koepcke, 17, was the only survivor. She fell thousands of feet, still strapped into her seat, and suffered a fractured collarbone, a gash to her right arm, and loss of vision in one eye. Though the recent high school graduate did not have much wilderness experience herself, she remembered that her father, a biologist, had once told her to find water, that water leads to civilization. She found a small stream that she followed for nine days. On the tenth day, she came upon a small hut with a palm roof, a outboard motor, and some gasoline, the latter of which she used to clean out the maggots that had infected her arm. The next day, local farmers found her and brought her to her father.
In 2000, Koepcke, who went on to be a biologist in her native Germany, worked with Werner Herzog on "Wings of Hope", a documentary about her ordeal. Herzog was inspired to make it because he had been scheduled to fly on LANSA flight 508, but had a last minute change of plans.
Fabrice Muamba, who was dead for over an hour.
In 2012, during an FA Cup game (English men's soccer), 23-year-old Fabrice Muamba of the Bolton Wanderers collapsed on the field 43 minutes into their game against the Tottenham Hotspur. Muamba had gone into cardiac arrest, which meant his blood had suddenly stopped pumping properly. He was, in effect, dead for 78 minutes. He was administered CPR, received 15 defibrillation shots, and was rushed to the London Chest Hospital, where, after over an hour of trying to resuscitate him, his heart miraculously started beating again.
Muamba went on to write a book about his experience called "I'm Still Standing".
Beck Weathers, who was left for dead on Mt. Everest.
Beck Weathers, a pathologist from Texas, was 49 when he attempted to climb Mt. Everest. On May 10th, 1996, the day he and his team (which included journalist Jon Krakauer, who detailed the days horrific events in his book "Into Thin Air") were to summit the mountain, he began to lose his vision. He had recently undergone a corneal operation, and the high altitude and ultraviolet radiation rendered him nearly blind. He was already 28,000 feet above sea level, and though the guide urged him to descend to camp, Weathers refused, hoping his vision would return. So, the group left him to summit, but while they were gone, a blizzard rolled in, and temperatures dropped to 90 degrees below zero. By the time the group found him, Weathers was in a hypothermic coma. They left him with another casualty of the climb, and descended.
Somehow, Weathers woke up from his coma, and began walking back to camp, blind, covered in snow, and severely frostbitten. He lost his nose, and his right arm from the elbow down, but not his life.
The Robertson family, who survived at sea after a pod of orcas attacked their boat.
In 1970, retired Navy officer Dougal Robertson decided to cash in his life savings, and take his wife and four children on an adventure to see the world. On January 21st, 1971, the family set off from Falmouth, England, and sailed across the Atlantic on a 22-ft wooden schooner called the Lucette.
They hopped around the Caribbean, where his wife, Lyn, disembarked (I get it) and they picked up a crew member named Robin Williams. Seventeen months into their trip, a pod of killer whales rammed and sank the ship off the Galapagos Islands. The five Robertsons and Williams piled into a small inflatable life raft, where they lived for the next 38 days.
"Turtle meat was the mainstay of our diet," Dougal's son, Douglas Robertson explained. "We drank its blood when we had no water, we dried its meat and rationed it, and stored it up. We rendered the fat down in the sun to make oil which we rubbed on our skin and drank to keep us warm."
Finally, on July 23rd, 1972, a Japanese finishing trawler spotted their distress flare and saved them.
This freakin' chicken.
An article in the October 22nd, 1945 issue of LIFE magazine began as follows:
"Ever since Sept. 10, a rangy Wyandotte rooster named Mike has been living a normal chicken's life though he has no head."
According to the article, Mike "lost his head in the usual rooster way" when Mr. L.A. Olson's wife, of Fruita, CO, decided to have chicken for dinner. After she chopped off his head, Mike apparently got up and continued on with his day.
"What Mrs. Olson's ax had done," the LIFE article explained, "was to clip off most of the skull, but leave intact one ear, the jugular vein and the base of the brain, which controls motor function."
Mike went on to live for 18 more months, his owners feeding his with a small eye dropper, until one day, he choked on a grain of corn.