5 Survival Stories Too Miraculous to Be Real
Eventually, Death will claim every one of us (we intend to begin every article with this reminder from now on). But that doesn't mean we have to go down easily. That's why we here at Cracked like to take time every once in a while to salute those who looked Death in the eye and made it back down and apologize. These are the unkillable badasses who did things like ...
Flying a Damaged Fighter Plane While Standing on the Wing
World War I was a magical time when humans enjoyed their newfound miracle of flight by using it to try to clumsily murder each other. Dogfighting would never again be this insane -- planes were rickety things made of fabric and wood, and killing the enemy usually meant flying so close to his contraption that you could just as easily stab him with a sword. So you had to be a particular kind of crazy to even attempt that job, and Kiwi WWI fighter ace Keith Logan "Grid" Caldwell should probably be their patron saint, based on this one story alone.
"You know what you could use, Death? A nice back rub."
Caldwell was part of the famed No. 60 Squadron of the British Royal Flying Corps (which later became the Royal Air Force). He became such an expert pilot that he was promoted and given his own squadron, No. 74 Tiger Squadron. Even though he was a commander, he still insisted that he fly to the front lines, because he knew it was his destiny to soar through the air and brazenly dare Death to take him.
During one mission, Caldwell managed to crash his plane into another in mid-air (it was destined to happen, really). This damaged his aircraft's wing bad enough that it went into a death spiral, meaning Caldwell was doomed to a dizzy plummet into the ground followed by a very fiery death. But Caldwell, being insane, took a moment to determine that he just needed to change the center of gravity -- that is, add some weight to the side with the damaged wing, to balance things out. So, while the plane was still spinning, he somehow climbed out onto the motherfucking wing, reaching into the cockpit and piloting the aircraft from there. It looked something like this:
"Who am I kidding, I damaged the plane just so I could try this."
It worked, too. Sort of. It stabilized the aircraft long enough that he was able to guide the plane back over friendly territory. Landing the thing from the wing was out of the question (come on, that would be beyond crazy), so Caldwell tried to find a good spot in the battle-scarred landscape to try to not die a spectacular death.
He flew it down close to the ground and, according to witnesses, freaking jumped from the plane like some kind of Cirque du Soleil acrobat, doing a couple of somersaults while his plane cartwheeled end over end until it disintegrated in a fiery explosion nearby. At which point Caldwell stood up, dusted himself off, and asked the astonished infantry men where the phone was, and if they could spare some tea.
Being Left for Dead on Mt. Everest, and Walking Away
Honestly, climbing Mt. Everest doesn't seem to mean what it used to (let's put it this way: You have to wait in line for the summit). But make no mistake: There's a reason why the area near the top is strewn with 150 or so frozen, mummified dead bodies. Which brings us to Mr. Beck Weathers.
Raised to be a meteorologist but destined for adventure.
Weathers, a 49-year-old Texan pathologist armed with a midlife crisis, had a goal of climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents. In the spring of 1996, he was about to make the final push toward the peak of Everest, but at 28,000 feet, he started losing his vision. Why? Well, some time prior to the climb Weathers had surgery to correct his vision, and found out that came with an odd side effect: When exposed to the high altitude, his altered corneas rendered him half-blind (we assume the brochure they give you at the doctor's office has something in the fine print about not attempting to conquer Everest during the recovery period).
The guide decided to leave Weathers behind and continue the climb with the rest of their group, but promised to come back for him on the way down. So as the other climbers douchebaggedly waved passed him, Weather patiently waited hours for the guide to return, during which time other passing climbers offered to help him down, but he refused. Did we mention he was in the area called the "Death Zone"? So-named because it's that part littered with corpses of other, equally stubborn climbers?
Deceptively located between the Happy Trail and the Fun Zone.
That's when the blizzard started.
The wind picked up -- and note, these are conditions on Everest that routinely drop the wind chill to 90 degrees below zero. We'd ask you to imagine how cold that is, but it's physically impossible for you to imagine that. You have no context for that sensation whatsoever. This is when Weathers finally decided to climb down. But it was too late -- on the way back to camp, he got bogged down in the storm. By the time help arrived, they found Weathers was beyond salvation, standing against the wind with his right arm exposed and frozen solid. He was deranged with hypothermia and hypoxia (i.e., lack of oxygen). In other words, he was dead, and some parts of his body just hadn't gotten the news yet.
The other climbers decided that nothing could be done, and left Weathers behind with another casualty -- a Japanese woman named Yasuko Namba. The next day when doctors came back to examine them, both had slipped into hypothermic comas. They chipped the ice off of Weathers' face, examined him, and decided that he was to become just one more body for the Death Zone. They left him there, relayed the news to the families, and the mourning began.
"He gave me things to eat, then poop. Then he picked up my poop. I loved him dearly."
But Weathers, having won some chess game with the Grim Reaper, woke up from his coma, finding himself buried in snow. He stood, and began to walk toward the high camp. Nearly blind, covered in snow, right hand frozen solid, his face pitch black with frostbite, he trudged on. He somehow reached the camp, presumably making the climbers think they were being assaulted by one of those ice zombies from Game of Thrones. A few days later, he was airlifted and taken to Kathmandu.
He lost his right arm from the elbow down and lost his nose as well, which were apparently the only parts of his body that weren't made of adamantium. He went on to become a motivational speaker, hopefully delivering 10-second speeches that consisted of nothing but "Don't fucking climb mountains, kids."
Swimming Out of a Burning, Submerged Submarine
We mentioned above how serving in a WWI-era fighter plane automatically meant you probably had a death wish. But everything that was true about early fighter pilots has to go double for anyone serving in a 1940s-era submarine. Primitive technology, in a cold, dark, hostile environment, with shit for safety features to save you ... well, let's put it this way: If you served on a German U-boat during WW2 you had a 70 percent chance of dying. No shit. Every time the hatch closed on one of those smelly death traps, you had to feel like you were never going to see the sun again.
A single fart could breach the hull five times over.
That brings us to John Capes, a stoker on the British sub HMS Perseus, which in December 1941 was on its way to Egypt. While contemplating just why he chose to serve in what was essentially a submerged metal coffin, Capes was thrown from his bed by a huge explosion. Water quickly started to flood the engine compartment.
Are you picturing it? It's dark. You're in a massive creaking metal tube under the ocean. You're half asleep, and now choking down water. How does your brain not just ... freeze up? Forever?
Frantic, Capes determined that he was the only one in his section that was A) conscious and B) not horribly mangled by the blast. As the icy water rose, he headed for the escape hatch, pulling, pushing, and manhandling the crew members he thought could make it to the surface. He fitted himself and his disabled comrades with escape gear and ran into his first problem: The escape hatch was bolted down ... from the outside. We really can't reiterate enough that back then, safety features were considered the devil's work.
Life jackets were made from lead.
Luckily for Capes, the blast from the underwater mine that had crippled the sub had also damaged the bolts, so with great effort he was able to force the hatch open. Pushing the other wounded, unconscious survivors out the hatch, he sucked in one last gasp of noxious air, took a shot of rum from his Blitz Bottle, and pushed his way out into the cold darkness of the ocean.
He was still 170 feet under water.
Frantically kicking in the direction he hoped was up, his lungs screaming for air, he swam until he finally burst through the surface. Capes wasn't safe yet, though. In the rough seas he found no one else had made it to the surface with him, but there was a dim island in the distance. He swam with what little energy he had to the island, where he was discovered by friendly Greeks passed out on the beach. And then everything was fine!
"Fuck you, sarcastic Internet article writer."
Oh, wait, no. Not at all. That was occupied territory, and so Capes was immediately a fugitive. At great risk to themselves, the Greeks hid Capes from the Axis occupiers for a freaking year and a half before a rescue operation could be mounted. Rescuers were finally able to get him back to Allied territory by hiding Capes on a fishing boat, then by trekking hundreds of miles through hostile Turkey.
His story was so incredible that the Navy -- and just about everyone else -- refused to believe him. A mistake in the Navy logs didn't show him as being assigned to the HMS Perseus, and literally no one had ever survived that kind of accident, at that depth. His story always had an asterisk next to it until the details were confirmed by divers to the site of the wreck in 1997 -- 12 years after his death. The scene matched Capes' description, right down to the bottle of rum that he had left near the open escape hatch.
Anyone know how to send an apology to the afterlife?
Becoming the Lone Survivor of a Plane Crash into the Ocean, as a Teenager
On June 30, 2009, Bahia Bakari, a French teenager, was flying to the Comoros Islands along with her mother on Yemenia Flight 626. It was around 2 a.m., so the passengers were sound asleep, and if you've been paying attention up to now, you know that things are about to go to shit.
A baby started bawling. And then things got even worse.
The lights went off, the plane started violently shaking, and Bakari pressed her head against the window to try to see what was going on. And then, suddenly, she was in the ocean, floating in the darkness, tossed around by rough seas. For a startled moment she actually thought she had fallen out of the plane and that it continued on without her. But then she realized that she was surrounded by debris, and the screams of some of the 152 other passengers. Flight 626 had just crashed into the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar. The girl had been tossed free of the plane when it flew apart.
Bakari, by the way, barely knew how to swim. In the darkness, she managed to make it to a piece of floating debris and cling to it. She then tried to paddle toward where she thought she heard other survivors, but never found them. One by one, they all went silent. All but Bakari.
Even the baby.
And so the girl floated out there, in the darkness, alone, getting tossed around by the waves. An hour passed. Then two. Then four. When the sun finally rose, there was still no rescue. Bakari saw land in the distance, but here is where real life diverges from the movies: Instead of washing up there and going to work on a makeshift raft with her volleyball friend, she watched helplessly as the currents carried her steadily away from the shore. And so she just floated there, for hour after hour, watching the trees shrink into the distance.
Finally, someone at the airport said, "Hey, wasn't a plane supposed to land here a while back?" and a massive search operation was launched. But it was a local fisherman named Libouna Matrafi who just happened to pass by and spot Bakari bobbing among the wreckage, having clung to that piece of debris for at least nine goddamned hours (by some accounts it was up to 13 hours before she was rescued).
Luckily, it had been too dark for her too see all the sharks.
She tried to swim toward the rescuers, but was too exhausted, and was swamped by the waves. The fisherman jumped into the waters and swam toward her. Once on board it took them several hours to get back to the port due to the rough seas.
After a few days in a local hospital, she was shipped to a hospital in Paris. She was reunited with her father, and one of her first visitors at the hospital was then-president Nicolas Sarkozy. Bahia would find out she was, in fact, the only survivor of the crash (her own mother had been on the plane, remember -- so now she had that to deal with). She was later approached about the film rights to her story, but she said no. What, you mean you don't want to relive the horror of that night every time you see an ad for the movie?
Surviving a Brutal Murder Attempt, Then Surviving the Mountain
Americans tend to romanticize the Old West, what with the gunslinging and horses and all the fun shit we did in Red Dead Redemption. So it's easy to forget how much life in that time and place just absolutely sucked. Just ask Larcena Pennington Page, who had moved to Tucson, Arizona, with her husband in 1860. One morning, when her husband was out hunting for lunch, five Apaches attacked their camp, kidnapping Page and a 10-year-old Mexican girl improbably named Mercedes.
In retrospect, they shouldn't have camped at Comegetmeapaches Canyon.
Their nightmare began with a 15-mile trek through the mountainous terrain, which isn't great under ideal conditions, but Page was also recuperating from Malaria at the time. She was unable to keep up, so they decided to get rid of her by making her remove most of her clothes, then beating her until she tumbled down the side of a hill, unconscious. After a few more rounds of stabbing with lances and pummeling her with rocks, they declared her dead enough and dragged the body behind a tree. And there she lay, for three goddamned days.
When Page finally regained consciousness, she started her journey back toward the camp, which, if you've been paying attention, is a 15-mile mountain hike away. Shoeless, barely clothed, her body battered with wounds that should have killed her several times over, she would crawl on her hands and knees during the day and rest at night. This was around the Catalina Mountains, which means she was crawling over this terrain:
Where vultures go to die.
She survived by eating seeds and vegetation and drinking snow. Oh, yeah, did we forget to mention it was cold as hell?
She made slow progress back toward where she remembered the camp being (not realizing it wasn't there any more), and when we say slow, we don't mean hours. We mean it took almost two weeks of crawling through the woods. Then, after 12 days of hellish struggle, she made it back to the campsite from where she had been taken hostage, only to find it was abandoned -- even the food was gone, from where the Apaches had ransacked it. She ate what she could find among the remnants that had been spilled on the ground, and decided to press on.
The next day she headed toward another campsite, finally encountering civilization. When she arrived, she was unrecognizable -- nearly naked, with clotted hair, covered in gaping wounds, emaciated, and badly sunburned. She was at first mistaken for an unfortunate outcast squaw, and the men ran for their guns. If they had shot her, we have no doubt that she would have survived that as well.
"Boys, I am in no mood for your shit."
Finally, she was recognized and reunited with her husband ... whom the Apaches would kill the very next year (we told you, the Old West was a goddamned shitshow). But Page not only survived, she lived on to the age of 76. Oh, and did you forget about Mercedes, the little Mexican girl who also got kidnapped? The Apaches handed her back later, unharmed, in a prisoner exchange. We're sure your story was exciting too, Mercedes, but we're sorry. Page kind of upstaged you there.
Yosomono writes about his own miraculous survival in the nuclear wastelands of Japan. Josh wants to be your BFF on Facebook. Follow Jacopo on Twitter and check out the slick website for his upcoming book The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy.
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Related Reading: Survival stories get miraculous-er, like this guy who was trapped underwater for three days. And on the other side of the unbelievable spectrum, there's this marathon runner who got lost in the Sahara. People are tougher than you'd expect. One man even survived an industrial drill to the head.