For most people, it happens without warning. Nobody plans for the day they find themselves cast into a life or death situation. In every account I’ve read, the day starts out normal and as planned when suddenly the unexpected happens and things go from bad to worse very quickly.
While many of these scenarios would have been difficult to avoid without the benefit of hindsight, we can glean from these experiences so that if we ever find ourselves in a similar situation we will have a better chance of survival.
People Who Are Alive Today Because of Survival Skills
Trapped 3 Days In A Sunken Ship
In May of 2013, Harrison Okene was working as a cook on a tugboat off the coast of Nigeria. During his assignment, Okene just happened to be in the lavatory when a sudden ocean swell capsized the boat, trapping the crew under water. After being tossed about, Okene was able to make his way to the engineer’s office and was fortunate enough to find a pocket of air. As the ship sank 100 feet to the bottom of the ocean floor, Okene climbed up onto a mattress to keep himself out of the frigid water, avoiding hypothermia. He also discovered a bottle of Coca-Cola and a life vest with two flashlights on it. Because the oxygen he was breathing was under pressure, it lasted longer than it normally would have. He also was able to avoid CO2 poisoning by inadvertently splashing around in the water, which helped to absorb some of the excess CO2 he exhaled. After nearly three days under water, rescue divers were shocked to find Okene still alive. He was the only survivor.
Surviving A Jungle Plane Crash
It was Christmas Eve, 1971. 17 year old Juliane Koepcke and her mother were on a flight to an ecological station deep in the rainforest of Peru, where her father awaited them. About thirty minutes into their flight the plane was engulfed in dark, stormy clouds, lightening crashing all around. Suddenly a bright light flashed on the right side of the plane, and with a streak of lightening the engine was gone. The passengers screamed helplessly as they were plunged into a terrifying nosedive.
As the plane ripped apart midair, Koepcke found herself still strapped to her seat, spinning in a freefall toward the jungle canopy. Then everything went black. She awoke the next day, and quickly realized what had happened. Surprisingly, she was numb to the pain of her injuries: deep cuts in her legs and arm, a severe concussion, a swollen eye, and a broken collarbone. She called out for her mother, but all she could hear were the sounds of the jungle.
Completely alone, Koepcke suddenly had to rely on the skills her parents had taught her over the past year and a half as they homeschooled her from their rainforest research station 30 miles away.
With extremely dense foliage overhead, she knew the rescue planes would never be able to find her in the jungle, even though she could hear them flying overhead. The plane had broken into pieces about 2 miles above the ground, scattering the wreckage making it nearly impossible to locate from the air.
She found her way to a portion of the crash site, and discovered a bag of candies. She’d lost a shoe and her glasses during the fall, so she used the one foot which still had a sandal on to feel her way through the jungle floor, one step at a time, hoping not to step on a snake.
Four days after the crash, Koepcke came upon a small trickle of water. She knew that if she followed it it would lead to a bigger body of water. The small stream brought her to a larger creek, and from there she recognized the call of a familiar bird. She knew those birds congregated around large bodies of water, so immediately she changed directions and headed toward the noise. Her searching brought her to a knee-deep river. Relying on a survival skill her father had taught her, she journeyed downstream which she’d learned should eventually lead to human habitation. The stream also became her source of fresh drinking water.
The days were hot and rainy, but the nights were cold. She shivered through the darkness with only a short minidress for protection. Sleep eluded her as insects swarmed and infested her wounds. She propped herself up against a thick tree trunk or a bank, and covered herself with leaves for a little protection.
Koepcke wandered down that stream for days in the Peruvian wilderness before coming upon a boat in the water. From the boat a path led into the jungle where she found a hut with provisions. A wound in her upper arm was crawling with maggots. She recalled watching her father treat a dog with a similar wound with kerosene, so she siphoned gasoline out of a container and spit it into the wound to help kill the maggots. She describes the pain as being “intense” as the maggots tried to burrow deeper into her skin. She pulled over 30 maggots out of her arm before falling asleep in the hut.
The next day several lumbermen returned to their hut to discover the girl inside. In Spanish, she was able to introduce herself and explain what had happened. They treated her wounds, gave her some food and water, and took her back to civilization the next day- twelve days after the crash.
Juliane Koepcke later learned that her mother survived the initial crash, but died a couple days later. Koepcke was the sole survivor.
Editor’s Note: Anyone who is able to walk away from a plane crash typically does so by means outside of themselves. However, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of surviving a plane crash. Statistics suggest that sitting in an aisle seat within 7 rows of an emergency exit, insisting on being seated together if you’re with a group (so that you aren’t searching for loved ones before exiting the plane), and assuming the brace position all help aid in getting you out of the crash more quickly and with less injuries.
Continued survival depends mainly upon the choices made from then on out. Koepcke kept calm and methodical, relying upon skills her parents had taught her in the jungle. Had she stayed where she was or started wandering aimlessly into the dense forest, she likely would have never been found alive.
A family of four who were the sole survivors of an Alaskan Cessna crash in 2011 also tell of their harrowing 15-hour struggle for survival.
76 Days Adrift
January, 1982. 29 year old Steven Callahan was on a return trip from his first solo expedition across the Atlantic, when a large whale or shark rammed his sailboat breaking a hole in the hull. Awakened by water flooding over his bunk, Callahan immediately jumped into action. All of the essentials he would need for survival were in the bottom of the quickly sinking ship. Diving into the cold water again and again, he was able to retrieve bottled water, some food, flares, a spear, a sleeping bag, and a few other things. Packing all of his supplies into an inflatable rubber life raft, Callahan climbed exhausted out of the water.
Over the coming days Callahan would struggle for survival. He bailed water from his raft with a tin can. He made small amounts of fresh water using an emergency inflatable solar still. He fished with a spear, and kept a log in his journal to pass the time.
On one occasion Callahan spotted a ship and sent out a signal flare, only to go unnoticed. He was losing hope.
40 days into his struggle, his raft became ripped. For the next 10 days he’d tirelessly pump the raft just to stay afloat. He almost gave up, but the thought of death urged his determination and with a little ingenuity he was able to mend the tear with a fork and a patch.
By the 76th day, Callahan’s solar still had stopped working and he only had 3 tin cans of water remaining. He laid in his raft, reserved to his fate. Miraculously, some fishermen off Guadeloupe noticed seagulls swarming around his little raft out at sea, eating the fish guts he’d thrown back into the water, and soon he was rescued.
Callahan had lost a third of his body weight, and required six weeks of rest and rehabilitation before he could walk again. He was grateful for the experience though, and happy for a second chance at life.
Editor’s Note: Callahan was lucky to have a spear and solar distiller in his bail kit for food and fresh water. Other survivors who did not have these luxuries used dirty laundry to attract fish, ate birds and sea turtles (raw, of course), used buckets to collect rain water, and even drank their own urine.
23 yr. old Lauren Weinberg survived on candy and melted snow for 10 days.
Snowbound Two Weeks In Car
November 2006. 37 year old Daryl Blake Jane was on his way home from attending a “spiritual gathering” in Trout Lake, WA, when his vehicle became snowbound on a remote U.S. Forest Service Road.
For the next two weeks, he would ration the little bit of water and food he had, which consisted of rice cakes and banana chips. He worked to keep the snow from piling up and covering his car, and he ran his engine for seven minutes each day, long enough to keep it defrosted. A sleeping bag helped to keep him warm through frigid temperatures. When he finally ran out of water, he drank from puddles. He was rescued by searchers and found to be in good condition.
Editor’s Note: I always find it interesting to see what people have done to survive long periods of being snowbound in their vehicle. Some have taken the lining from the ceiling and wrapped themselves in it to stay warm. You can also use floor mats and seat stuffing for insulation. If you’re going to run the engine at all, make sure the tailpipe is clear of the snow. A clogged tailpipe exposes the occupants to lethal carbon monoxide and is a silent killer. Remember, unless it is dangerous to stay with your vehicle it is best to remain where you are until rescuers arrive. The story of the Kim family is a tragic example of what can happen if you wander away from your car. Most importantly, always keep an emergency car kit in your vehicle, with provisions to last for several days.
Escaping A Sinking Vehicle
21 year old Jeffrey Stanhope was able to escape his submerged vehicle by staying calm while he freed himself from his seatbelt and pushed the car’s door open, even though he was in complete darkness. An estimated four hundred people every year aren’t so lucky, and do not escape their sinking vehicles alive.
A window punch tool is credited for saving one Saskatchewan family who was able to escape their sinking vehicle by staying calm and using the device. The mother, father, and two year old son made it out alive before rescuers were able to get to the scene.
It happens more often than you’d think. In the blink of an eye you lose control of your car and it plunges over a bridge into murky waters below. It happened to one family whose BMW hit a brick causing the vehicle to careen off the bridge and into the Bridgewater Canal in Greater Manchester, England. It happened to a young mother driving with her 2-year old daughter, when the woman fell asleep at the wheel, crashed into the cement barrier on the bridge, bounced over the guardrail and plummeted into the icy river below. Another woman’s car ramped over a guardrail when the vehicle slid up and over a snowbank, plunging her into the river below. Flash floods have also taken lives as people have suddenly found their cars surrounded by rushing water, quickly becoming submerged or flipped upside down. Oftentimes, it happens through no fault of the driver. Keeping your cool like Stanhope did, and knowing how to escape a sinking vehicle within the first 30-60 seconds is absolutely critical to survival.
Editor’s Note: Having a window punch tool and seat belt cutter could mean the difference between life and death, especially if you have power windows. Keep these tools secured within arm’s reach of your seat so that they can be easily located after impact.
If you have children (or adults) in the car who cannot swim, some sort of flotation device could be necessary to get everybody safely to shore. A pool noodle is an inexpensive flotation option to keep under car seats or on the floorboard, just in case.
7 Weeks In The Wilderness
Rita and Albert Chretien were driving a scenic route from Canada to Nevada when their GPS system sent them down an off-season path and their van got stuck in mud in the Humboldt National Forest. They tried calling 9-1-1, but their cell phone kept losing service, even from the top of a hill they’d climbed. They tried digging themselves out of the mud, only to become stuck again even worse.
The couple set out for help the next day, but Rita’s swollen knee made them turn back to their vehicle. After three days of being stranded in remote wilderness, Albert became desperate to find help. The couple cried deeply as they said their goodbyes. With the GPS system and a map in hand, he set off on foot into the countryside.
Rita stayed at the van, rationing the little bit of food she had and drinking water from melted snow and puddles. She tried making a fire, but everything was too wet. For 49 days Rita lived off of a tablespoon of trail mix and one piece of candy per day, and then fish oil tablets when the other food ran out. Her days were passed by reading her Bible and other books, praying, and keeping a journal.
After being stranded for seven weeks in the wilderness, Rita was finally rescued by two hunters on four-wheelers. Her decision to stay with the vehicle until help arrived, her ability to remain calm, and her foresight to ration her food and find sources of water kept her alive through the ordeal. Sadly, Albert’s body was found almost a year later nearly 6 1/2 miles from where their car had been.
Editor’s Note: Stories like this happen over and over again. Nobody plans on getting stuck in a remote area, or running out of gas, or losing cell phone service. It’s always a good idea to tell somebody where you are going and when to expect you back home, as well as providing a map of the route you’ll be taking. Again, having an emergency car kit in your vehicle with plenty of provisions to last for at least three days, a survival manual, and basic survival tools would be extremely helpful. Staying close to your vehicle will increase your chances of being found once search parties have been deployed. It’s always risky to wander off in search of help.
9 year old Grayson Wynne was hiking with his family in a Utah forest when he got separated from them and found himself lost. Recalling tips from one of his favorite shows, “Man vs. Wild”, little Grayson tore up his yellow jacket to leave a trail of clues to help rescuers find him and so that he could retrace his steps if he needed to. To protect himself from the elements overnight, Grayson took shelter under a fallen tree. The next day, he followed a small creek hoping that it would lead to a nearby lake where help might be available. When he heard a helicopter overhead, Grayson ran toward the sound and began waiving the little bit of yellow jacket he had remaining. Ranchers on horseback spotted him first, and after 15 hours of being lost he was returned to relieved family members.
Editor’s Note: As I’ve read through dozens of survival stories recounting how children made it out of the wilderness alive, Grayson’s story was the best example I could find of what to do in a situation where you’re lost in the woods. Other children have gone for several days before being found weak and dehydrated, but this was more due to a lack of survival skills than anything. Some children even prolong their rescue by hiding from search parties afraid of being nabbed by a stranger. Grayson stayed calm, sought shelter in the night, and left a clear trail for rescuers to follow. It’s important that we teach our children the basics of wilderness survival: shelter, water, food/forage, so that they know how to stay alive until help arrives.
Do you know of another inspiring story of somebody who survived because of their knowledge and skills (and not so much by dumb luck)?