Incredible Stories of Survival

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There’s so much death in the news that we don’t really stop to appreciate the fact that humans are actually really hard to kill. Nature and man conspire to do it every day, and every day there are untold stories of people making it through via luck, training or just the power of will. Even when it seems utterly impossible.

Juliane Koepcke

On December 24, 1971, Juliane was with her mother and 91 other people on an airplane that got struck by lightning and exploded mid-air. The blast sent Juliane hurtling into the Peruvian jungle from 10,000 feet, while still strapped in to her seat.

She suffered a broken collarbone, a swollen eye and a nasty gash on her arm, but aside from these injuries and the trauma of surviving a plane explosion that liquefied everyone else, she was miraculously unhurt after her fall.


After surviving exclusively on holiday sweets she found in the wreckage, Juliane followed a stream toward civilization and survived using the skills her father had taught her.


Anyway, she waded downstream for nine days. And we should point out that she did all of this nearly blind, since she somehow managed to lose her glasses in the thousands of feet between mid-air explosion and jungle floor. Juliane eventually found a canoe and paddled it to the first sign of civilization she had seen since the crash: a lumber yard.

Betty Lou Oliver

On July 28, 1945, a plane crashed into the Empire State Building so hard and fast that it gave the then-tallest structure on earth an exit wound. One of the engines blew a hole clean through the other side of the building and crashed through the roof of a building down the block.

More than a dozen people were killed in the crash, but among the survivors was Betty Lou Oliver, elevator operator and immortal.

The impact threw Oliver from the elevator she was standing in, and the resulting fire gave her severe burns. But it was about to get much, much worse.

Rescue crews, needing to get her to the ground so she could get medical attention, put her right back in the elevator and punched the button for the ground floor. Now, anyone who’s familiar with the “Do Not Use in Case of Emergency” signs plastered on every elevator already knows this was a bad idea. Sure enough, the cables were so badly damaged by the accident that they snapped almost immediately.


Betty Lou was sent into a 75-story free fall. Ms. Oliver survived that 75-story fall — directly after getting hit by a plane — then returned to the job only five months later. And yes, she went right back to work in the same elevator that tried to kill her.

Marguerite de la Rocque

Way back in 1541, a French noblewoman named Marguerite de La Rocque accompanied one of her relatives on his expedition to explore the New World. During the trip, she was caught with one of the shipmates, which is apparently a serious offense on French ships. Jean-Francois de La Rocque punished Marguerite by marooning her on the Isle of Demons in Canada’s Gulf of Saint Lawrence.


In addition to Marguerite, her lover was abandoned on the island, as well as her completely innocent, maidservant. Without much to do on an island, Marguerite and her new boyfriend got pregnant. she, eventually, birthed a child by herself and survived. Sadly, no one else, including the baby, was as adaptable as Marguerite, and they all eventually died, leaving Marguerite on her own against the relatively unexplored Western Hemisphere.

Marguerite lived on the island for two solid years, hunting wild animals/monsters, before she was eventually rescued by fishermen. Once back home, her story made her an instant celebrity.

Juana Maria

Juana Maria missed the boat intended to save the last of her people from genocide in the mid 1800s. She was an islander on San Nicolas (off California) when the population was nearly wiped out by a group of roving Aleutian hunters from the north. The Aleutians killed nearly every man, woman and child on the island, and by 1835 there were less than 30 islanders left, total.


A boat full of missionaries came to rescue the remaining islanders from getting murdered, and they managed to get everyone on board safely. Everyone except for Juana Maria. The woman ended up completely alone on the hostile island of San Nicolas … for the next 18 years.

After several failed attempts to rescue her, Juana was eventually picked up in 1853 wearing what one newspaper described as “skins and feathers of wild ducks, which she sewed together with sinews of the seal.” The paper went on to add that “she cannot speak any known language, is good-looking and about middle age.” She had not only survived alone on the island, but thrived there, actually outliving everyone else she knew. Ironically, despite her amazing individual resilience for almost 20 years, Juana Maria did not last two months once she reached the mainland. Her story was the inspiration for Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins

Narcisse “Amglo” Pelletier

At the early age of 14, cabin boy Narcisse Pelletier was dealing with human trafficking, murder and complete abandonment. The ship on which Narcisse worked was carrying hundreds of Chinese laborers to Australia when it ran aground off of New Guinea in 1857, and several of his shipmates were promptly killed by natives. Narcisse was one of only about 12 men to escape by longboat, and together they paddled around the Coral Sea aimlessly for 12 days, subsisting on sea water.


They finally made land in Far North Queensland, Australia, and stopped for water before continuing on … one man short. No one is sure exactly why they left Narcisse in Far North Queensland. Regardless, this was where Narcisse’s story started looking a lot less like Cast Away and a lot more like Dances With Wolves. Narcisse bumped into three Aboriginal women, who brought him back to their tribe. Narcisse was immediately adopted by the tribe, and for the next 17 years, he learned their ways and language, eventually growing into manhood and raising at least two kids of his own. Then in 1875, Narcisse was picked up by a passing ship.

He was celebrated throughout France for his heroic story of survival among the savages of Australia, but in reality he never wanted to leave, even insisting that he was kidnapped by the boat that “rescued” him and forced away from his true people. And his options for occupations back in France were less than spectacular — a traveling show wanted to hire him as an Anglo-Australian freak. He opted to run a lighthouse instead, and died while still bitter about being taken from his tribe.

Emile Leray


Emile had left the city of Tan Tan, in Morocco, and was driving his Citroen 2CV across the Sahara. Upon reaching a military outpost, he is informed by the Royal Gendermerie that he cannot continue further, due to new developments in the conflict between Morocco and Western Sahara, in the area beyond Tilemsem. Left with the option to go back to Tan Tan and asked to take a passenger back with him, the Frenchman refuses invoking an insurance problem that doesn’t allow him to take any passengers. He turns his car around driving at high speed, to make sure he isn’t followed by the military, and decides to by-bass their post by circling around and returning on the original trail later. After venturing off road, on rocky and bumpy terrain, it doesn’t take too long for his car to break down, after brutally hitting a rock. Emile is now stranded in the middle of nowhere.


The Citroen’s swing arm and wheel axle were broken, and Leray knew he wasn’t going to be driving it anywhere, anytime soon. He had food and water to last him about ten days, but the nearest human settlement was tens of kilometers away, too far for him to reach on foot. The French adventurer decided his only chance of survival was to construct a working vehicle from the parts of his broken-down Citroen 2CV.

After carefully considering all the mechanical barriers he would have to surmount, Emile starts work on his DIY motorcycle, the next morning. He starts dismantling his Citroen, by removing the body, which he then uses as shelter against the sandstorms. Working under the scorching sun in a shirt with short sleeves, he makes his own sleeves out of a pair of socks, and keeps tinkering on his Mad Max-style creation. It seems almost impossible for someone to build a motorcycle in the middle of the desert, with just a few basic tools, and no drills, blowtorches or welding equipment. But Emile Leray created his two-wheeler only by screwing the parts together. To make the needed holes, he bent the pieces of metal to a 90 degree angle and weakened the thinner areas using a hacksaw or a round file, puncturing them with the hammer and punch.


The adventurer began work on his unique project thinking he would complete it in three days time, but he only succeeded after twelve days of hard work. With only 1/2 liter of water left, he managed to ride his motorcycle (called Desert Camel) out of the desert. On his way to civilization.