September 13, 1848: 10 Incredible Tales of Survival (Squeamish Beware!)

tales of survival

A Brief History

On September 13, 1848, a railroad worker was skewered with an iron rod over an inch in diameter.  He lived, and what is amazing, is the rod went right through his brain!  We previously told the tale of Phineas Gage and his incredible survival, and today we list 10 such amazing stories of survival against incredible odds.  What tales of survival would you include?  (Note: These are tales of individual survival.  We’ll do group survival another time!)

Digging Deeper

1. Phineas Gage, 1848.

Phineas Gage was 25-years old at the time and had been using 13-pound iron rod to tamp explosives into holes that had been bored in rock in order to blast a path for a railway.  An unexpected explosion occurred, and the rod penetrated the left side of his face and exited out the top of his head, passing behind his left eye.  Although much of Gage’s frontal brain lobe was damaged in the accident, he miraculously managed to survive.  Still able to talk after the accident, Gage was plopped onto an oxcart and driven to a doctor.  On the way, he literally puked his brains out!  (When he vomited, some of his brains were ejected.)  Considering the extent of his injury, it is astounding that Gage recovered to lead nearly a normal life.  His left eye did not work right, his face was partially paralyzed, and his personality is said to have changed.  He briefly worked at  PT Barnum’s circus and later developed epilepsy.  He died 12 years after the horrific accident from a severe seizure.

2. Hugh Glass, 1823.

A trapper and frontiersman with a fur trapping party known as Ashley’s 100, Glass was in South Dakota with several other trappers when he was attacked by a Grizzly Bear and horribly mauled.  Glass suffered a broken leg, bites and claw injuries that included his ribs being laid bare.  His scalp, face, back, shoulder, arm  and hand had suffered terrible wounds.  His companions killed the bear, but Glass appeared to be doomed.  As the party had previously been attacked at least twice by Indians (Glass had been shot in the leg during a battle with Indians in 1822), the men decided it was best to leave the area.  Expecting Glass to die the first night, the men were amazed when Glass was still breathing.  For 5 days they dragged him along with them, but fearing hostile tribes, decided they must leave him behind.  Two trappers were left with Glass to bury him when he died, but these 2 chickened out and took off to protect themselves, taking Glass’s prized rifle and other belongings, including his knife, with them.  Heck, Glass was in his 40’s, quite old for a Mountain Man.  Incredibly, Glass did not die, and began a trek to salvation, only able to crawl because of the broken leg.  Glass survived on berries, roots, rattlesnake, and carrion from a wolf kill, setting his own leg  and eventually being able to stumble along on 2 feet.  Part of his incredible journey included rafting on a river, and after 6 weeks he shocked the outpost at Fort Kiowa by showing up alive.  On his journey, Glass allowed maggots to eat infected flesh in his wounds to prevent gangrene.  The story of Hugh Glass and his amazing tale of survival is shown in high definition in the 2015 major motion picture, The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass.  Hugh Glass died in 1833 during a battle with Arikara Indians, at the age of 50.

3. Tim Lancaster, 1990.

Lancaster was the Captain (pilot) of British Airways flight 5390 and was flying at 17,400 feet when the windscreen suddenly blew out of the BAC-1-11 jetliner, sucking Lancaster halfway out the front window!  Luckily, almost incredibly, Lancaster’s legs got caught in the flight controls and the unconscious pilot was slammed against the outside of the plane with only his legs inside the cockpit.  Crew members grabbed onto his belt, but could not pull him inside.  Crew members took turns holding Lancaster’s belt as they suffered frostbite in the freezing blast of wind.   For 20 minutes, the Captain flew unprotected in the 500 mph to 150 mph wind at below freezing temperatures while the co-pilot managed to make an emergency landing.   One flight attendant suffered a dislocated shoulder while holding on to the pilot, and he and others also suffered frostbite.  No other major injuries occurred during the incident.  Only 5 months later, a completely recovered Tim Lancaster was back in the cockpit, flying jetliners!

4. Vesna Vulovic, 1972.

While working as a flight attendant on JAT Flight 367, a DC-9 jetliner, Vesna became a Guinness Book of World Records record holder when she fell about 33,000 feet without a parachute and survived!  Her flight was the target of terrorism, with a briefcase bomb blowing up the plane, with Croatian Nationalists suspected of responsibility for the crime, but no arrests were made.  She was found screaming by a villager amid the wreckage field, horribly injured but alive, the only person of the 28 aboard the plane to live.  Her injuries included a fractured skull, broken pelvis, broken ribs, both legs broken, and 3 broken vertebrae.  In spite of her serious injuries and being paralyzed from the waist down (temporary), she made nearly a full recovery and the only trace of the incident was a limp in her walk.  Although willing to continue work as a flight attendant, Vesna was assigned ground duties only as a flight scheduler.  She died at age 66 in 2016, apparently of a heart ailment.  She had lived with survivor’s guilt since the crash, and was in seclusion during her final years.

5. Aron Lee Ralston, 2003.

Perhaps you have seen the movie, 127 Hours starring James Franco as Ralston (2010) that chronicles the tale of survival endured by this American outdoorsman and mountain climber.  While canyoneering in Blue John Canyon in Utah, he became stuck in the rocks when a boulder became loose, crushing his left hand and trapping his right hand while the unfortunate climber was climbing down the canyon.  Having told no one of his whereabouts, Aron knew he was not likely to be found, but could not free his hand.  After 5 days of praying for salvation, Aron knew he would die soon if not freed from the crushing rock.  Having only a few sips of water and a few bites of  food (2 burritos), he started to become delirious with pain and dehydration.  Aron made the terrible decision to amputate his own right hand, and began thinking out a plan to do so without killing himself.  Drinking his own urine (mad with thirst) and videotaping his “goodbyes” to his family and friends, Aron broke both his ulna and radius of his right arm by twisting his body to break the bones he assumed he would not be able to cut through.  Using his cheap multi-tool with a dull 2 inch blade, he proceeded to cut his hand off by amputating his arm at the forearm after 127 hours of imprisonment by the boulder.  With a tourniquet on his right forearm, Aron still had to descend 65 feet of sheer rock face and began the 8 mile hike to his car.  Before he reached his car, Aron was found by a Dutch family and rescued.  Of course, such an incredible tale of courage and survival made Aron a celebrity, and when his severed hand and forearm were recovered by Park personnel, Aron had the arm cremated and scattered the ashes around Canyonlands National Park (where the incident took place) on film for the Dateline television show.  Aron, born in Marion, Ohio, was 27 years old at the time of his ordeal, and continues to climb and enjoy the outdoors, while also enjoying his celebrity and appearing on various television shows.  He also makes motivational speeches and wrote an autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

6. Alexander Selkirk, 1704-1709.

A Scots privateer, Selkirk was marooned on a desert isle by his ship’s captain after the 2 men had a falling out.  Selkirk would spend the next 5 years alone on this uninhabited island in the South Pacific, later becoming the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s title character, Robinson Crusoe.  Selkirk had complained about the seaworthiness of their ship, and stated he would rather stay on the uninhabited island where the crew was gathering water than sail on the leaky ship.  The captain was glad to oust the quarrelsome Selkirk, and giving him a knife, an axe, a musket, a pot, a Bible, and a little bedding and clothes, left Selkirk to what would become a long, solitary ordeal.  Selkirk had tried to express a change of mind prior to his ship sailing off without him, but the captain refused to reconsider.  Selkirk’s former ship, the Cinque Ports, did indeed founder some time later, though some of the crew was rescued and taken captive by the Spanish.  During his time alone, Selkirk quickly ran out of powder and shot, and was reduced to chasing feral goats on foot to survive.  He built a pair of huts, and read his Bible daily.  Twice during his time as King and only occupant of the island, Spanish ships landed to gather water and other materials, but Selkirk hid from them to avoid capture.  He was finally rescued when British privateers Duke and Duchess landed on the island to re-provision.  Selkirk was virtually incoherent with joy at being rescued, and returned to Britain to a normal life.  Joining the Royal Navy, getting married, and dying of Yellow Fever while on a voyage off the West coast of Africa all ensued, as did several literary accounts of his travails, ultimately including the fictional Robinson Crusoe (1719).

7. Nicholas Alkemade, 1944.

A flight sergeant on a British Lancaster bomber during World War II, Nick was a tail gunner in a plane shot down by a German Ju-88 night fighter.  As his plane burned and spun out of control, Nick made the sad choice of leaping from the stricken bomber without his parachute, which was being consumed in the fire.  Fear of burning has caused many aviators to jump out of planes to a death they see as preferable to fire, but in this case Nick survived the 18,000 foot fall without a parachute suffering only a sprained leg!  His fall had been softened by falling through pine branches and landing in deep snow.  Captured by the Germans, Alkemade was interrogated by the Gestapo who were skeptical of his story.  A little research into his tale revealed it to be true, and Nick became somewhat of a celebrity POW.  He died in 1987, having cheated Death for 43 years.  (Alkemade is one of a few World War II aviators to have survived falls without a parachute that defy belief.)

8. Juliane Koepcke, 1971. 

Another tale of a lone survivor of an airplane crash, Juliane was only 17 when LANSA Flight 508 went down, a Lockheed L-1881 Electra turbo-prop airliner carrying a total of 92 people over Peru in 1971.  Flying in terrible weather when they should not have, the right engine of the plane was hit by lightning, causing a major fire that resulted in the plane falling apart in the sky.  Strapped to her seat, Juliane fell 2 miles to the Earth, chunks of airplane falling around her.  Landing in the Amazonian Rainforest, Juliane found herself with a broken collarbone, a torn ACL, a concussion, an injured eye,  and a gashed arm. The intrepid teen did not just sit and wait for rescue, but got up only able to stand after several hours, searching for her mother for a day before hiking for 10 days through the jungle, until she found an unoccupied hut, where she waited for the owners to return.  The owners of the hut, local loggers, took Juliane to civilization and salvation.  Juliane later found out that perhaps 14 other passengers of the airplane had survived the fall, but all had died waiting in vain for rescue.  Juliane’s courage to walk out of the jungle saved her life.  Her walk out of the jungle was as perilous as her fall, having lost her glasses and her wounds becoming infected.  Following a river, she found a boat and then the nearby hut where she awaited rescue.  During her harrowing walk to safety, she encountered dead bodies of passengers from her doomed flight strewn around the jungle.

9. Truman Duncan, 2006.

A Texas railyard worker, Duncan was caught by a moving train and pulled under the relentless steel wheels, dragging him 75 feet and tangling his body between the wheels.  When the train stopped, Tuman was basically cut in half near his waist, with one leg dangling by a piece of muscle. Defying belief, Truman was composed enough to fight for his life and get his cell phone, calling 911 for rescue!  While he waited, he also made a call to his family.  For 62 minutes Duncan lay pinned under the train, rescuers incredulous that he had not died, while working feverishly to lift the rail car with air bags.  Finally, after losing over half the blood  in his body, Duncan was freed and flown by helicopter to the hospital.  With a lower abdominal injury that left his innards “a single cell layer” from being exposed, 23 surgeries later Truman was finally as healed as he was going to get, having lost both legs, some of his pelvis, and a kidney.  He now gets around in a wheelchair, but the husband father of 3 is still alive, in defiance of all expectations.

10. Roy Benavidez, 1968.

There are many tales of people surviving multiple gunshot wounds, and others of people surviving being stabbed, and still others of soldiers surviving seemingly fatal shrapnel wounds, but this US Army Special Forces sergeant makes the Engergizer Bunny seem like a slacker!   In 1965 while serving in Vietnam, Roy stepped on a landmine and was told he was too disabled to stay on active duty.  Sickened by flag burners and War protesters, Roy went on a personal rehab regimen, willing himself to walk, and eventually achieving that goal and more.  In the hospital for year, Roy eventually returned to active duty and in 1968 returned to Vietnam.  One night Roy hopped on a helicopter that was going to the aid of a Special Forces patrol of 12 Americans and 9 Montagnards that was  surrounded by 1000 North Vietnamese soldiers.  Armed only with a knife and a medical kit, Roy jumped from the chopper to aid his comrades.  Attacked by an NVA soldier, Roy was bayoneted, but he pulled his knife and killed his attacker.  Minus his knife, Roy pulled out the bayonet and continued tending to soldiers injured in the fight.  When the fight was over, the horribly wounded Benavidez was thought to be dead, and so was placed in a body bag and laid out with the other “dead” Americans.  A soldier noticed Roy was still alive, summoned help, and Roy’s life was somehow saved by medical personnel.  He had suffered 7 major (and some minor) gunshot wounds, 23 shrapnel wounds, bayonet wounds on both arms, and had been clubbed in the head and face with a rifle butt!  His right lung was demolished by an AK-47 bullet that passed through his back and out just under his heart.  Another year in the hospital ensued, and Roy finally recovered enough to resume active duty, retiring from the Army in 1976 after a 24 year career.  Initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, his medal was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 1981 when more detailed accounts of his valor surfaced years later.  The award of the Medal of Honor was made possible by the testimony of the only living witness to Roy’s heroics, a former soldier who was living in Fiji when he saw a newspaper story about the attempt to get his old comrade the Medal of Honor.

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Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.