10 Harrowing Tales Of Survival Against All Odds
Some people call it “survival instinct.” Others call it “the human spirit.” It’s what forces us to press on in the face of adversity, that little nudge that tells you not to give up when it seems like the whole world has stacked its cards against you. It’s what carried these men and women forward when fate took them to the brink and made them stare into the void. They aren’t superheroes, but they all have one thing in common: They refused to lie down and die when death was the only option they were given.
On March 2, 2014, 52-year-old Otis Orth left his cabin to buy supplies in the nearby town of Trapper Creek, Alaska. He went the back way, riding his snowmobile along the icy wooded trails to save time. As always, he brought his golden retriever, Amber, along for the ride. She hunkered down on the seat while he stood on the side panels, keeping the dog safe between his legs.
Only a few minutes after leaving the cabin, disaster struck. Otis felt the snowmobile’s rear treads break through a patch of ice, causing him to fishtail. He lost control and went skidding across the ice while the vehicle careened into a nearby thicket, out of sight of the trail. Groggy but alive, Otis tried to stand, only to find that he couldn’t move. He’d dislocated his limbs and hurt his neck in the crash. Worse, his body heat was melting the snow beneath him, causing him to sink into the drift. It was all he could do to wiggle his fingers and toes to keep his circulation going, and when night began to fall, the temperature plummeted further. Practically within shouting distance of his cabin, Otis Orth felt himself dying.
But his dog, Amber, wouldn’t let that happen. Seeing her master shivering and immobile in the snow, she crawled on top of him to keep him warm. It was -13 degrees Celsius (9° F) outside that night, cold enough to kill, and Amber’s body heat made the difference between life and death. All night long, she whined and kept Otis safe. When his legs lost feeling around midnight, she snuggled closer. When morning came, she chased off ravens before they could peck out Otis’s eyeballs, each time returning to lie by his side.
Finally, after nearly 24 hours, the distant sound of a snowmobile made Amber prick up her ears. Otis feebly told her to go get help, so Amber followed the sound and barked at the men until they followed her back to where Otis lay helpless. By the time he was airlifted to the nearest hospital, he’d been in the snow for 26 hours. He credits Amber with saving his life.
9Danny Jay Balch
Danny Jay Balch wanted to go to the beach. His buddy Brian Thomas wanted to spend the weekend camping in the mountains. It wasn’t until Friday that Balch grudgingly relented, and the next day, the two friends set off for Green River, a pleasant, treelined campsite in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. It was May 17, 1980, the day before one of the worst natural disasters in US history.
At 8:32 AM the next day, after a quiet night by the campfire, Balch woke to the unnerving sight of Thomas staring at him in horror. But Thomas wasn’t looking at Balch. He was looking behind him, out the tent’s window. Balch turned and was instantly awake. Over the trees, he saw a massive red plume filling the sky. Mount St. Helens had just erupted. The two men ran out of the tent just as the shock wave hit. Thomas managed to dive under some fallen logs, but Balch was knocked off his feet as a tsunami of ash and heat blasted into the clearing.
The first blast brought a wave of ice and snow, freezing Balch to the core. But seconds later, he felt like he was baking alive. The heat was so intense that it began to peel the skin on his hands, so he crawled in the direction of the river to cool off and then went searching for Thomas. The serene clearing had become a war zone in the blink of an eye. Trees were toppled all around, some blasted to pieces with the force of the eruption. Ash was beginning to fall like snow, and it was quickly getting hard to see. Somehow, though, Balch found Thomas under a pile of tree limbs. Thomas had broken his hip and couldn’t walk. Balch didn’t have shoes, and the ground was covered in a carpet of embers. Minutes later, there was so much ash in the air that they could barely see each other.
For two hours, they sat on top of the pile of branches, breathing through their shirts and waiting for a rescue they knew would never come. They were on the north side of the volcano, directly in the path of the eruption. They couldn’t know it at the time, but the eruption had disintegrated the north face of Mount St. Helens, creating the largest landslide in recorded history. Stones large enough to total vehicles were falling to the Earth miles away from the mountain, and lava was turning trees to ash 8 kilometers (5 mi) away from the base of the mountain.
Finally, Balch saw a sight he’d never forget: Sue Ruff and Bruce Nelson, two of their friends who’d been camping nearby, were picking their way through the debris. They were able to build a quick shelter for Thomas, and then all three went off in search of help. Still barefoot, Balch walked nearly 18 kilometers (11 mi) through a wasteland of ash and fire before he stumbled across a family of hikers. Together, they got the word out: There were survivors. Ruff and Nelson were found first, but they wouldn’t get into the helicopter until someone picked up Thomas. Balch, Thomas, Ruff, and Nelson all survived. Two of their other friends weren’t so lucky—they’d died in their tent, holding each other close.
Danny Balch still wishes he’d gone to the beach.
It was beginning to look like a normal Easter weekend for Ben Nyaumbe, a resident of Sabaki, Kenya, until he stepped on something squishy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an Easter egg—it was a 4-meter-long (13 ft) python, and it was pissed. The snake snagged Nyaumbe by the leg and dragged him kicking and screaming to the ground. Things only got worse from there. With a solid hold on Nyaumbe, the python pulled him into a tree, all the while wrapping itself farther and farther up his torso.
Up in the tree, Nyaumbe fought back any way he could. One of his arms was pressed against his side, so he used his other hand to wrap his shirt around the snake’s head to prevent it from biting him. But pythons are slow killers, and every passing minute allowed the snake to tighten its grip. Python attacks on humans are rare, but they do happen. In 2008, a 3-meter (10 ft) Burmese python crushed a zoo worker to death and was in the act of swallowing his head when another worker discovered them. In 1996, a python killed a man in New York and dragged his dead body into the apartment’s hallway.
Nyaumbe’s situation was dire, but he had one more trick up his sleeve. He bit the python on the tail.
The snake eased its grip enough for Nyaumbe to wrestle his cell phone out of his pocket, and he managed to call the police. When the officers arrived, both of Nyaumbe’s hands were locked at his side. They couldn’t shoot without hitting Nyaumbe, so with the help of some villagers, they tied a rope around both of them—Nyaumbe and the snake—and yanked them out of the tree. The rescue party then pried the python off Nyaumbe and captured it in a sack. After a three-hour battle with the python, Nyaumbe was badly shaken, but unharmed. The python later escaped and is still on the loose.
Nobody knows who Mary Downey is. That might not even be her real name. But on June 29, 2014, she made local New York history when she lived through an ordeal that would give most subway passengers nightmares: She fell off the platform in front of an oncoming train.
It was 6:00 AM on a Sunday, and by all accounts, 22-year-old Mary Downey was heading home to sleep off a bender. Staggering too close to the yellow line, Downey lost her balance and tumbled onto the tracks just as the N-train pulled into view down the tunnel. She tried to climb out, but she’d broken her shoulder in the fall and there wasn’t time. Seconds before the train crushed her, Downey rolled into the space between the tracks and the concrete platform and pressed herself flat as the train screamed over her.
With the danger past, Downey tried again to climb up just as an ominous rumble rolled out of the dark tunnel. Seconds later, another train barreled past the station, its cars whizzing past, inches from Downey’s nose. It wasn’t until a third train came that somebody spotted Mary Downey’s helpless figure on the tracks. The driver saw her waving and thought at first that it was a piece of trash reflecting the headlights. By the time he realized that it was a person, he didn’t have time to stop until the train was halfway on top of her.
Downey was pulled out and rushed to the hospital, but after her run-in with three trains, her only injury was the broken shoulder from her initial fall onto the tracks.
Even if the avalanche doesn’t kill you, the mountain will. Those words never felt truer for Ken Jones than in January 2003. Jones was ex–Special Forces and a burgeoning mountaineer, so he was stoked when he won a contest to take a climbing holiday in Romania. Romania’s Fagaras Mountains contain some of the highest peaks of the Southern Carpathians, which offered Jones the perfect opportunity to brush up on his mountaineering and see some breathtaking views in the process.
Early on a cold January Monday, Jones left his hotel to climb Mount Moldoveanu, Romania’s highest mountain. He went alone, didn’t tell anyone where he was going, and didn’t bring a phone. It was a mistake that nearly cost him his life. Midway through the climb, Jones was standing on an exposed rock when an avalanche came out of nowhere. The cascade of snow and ice swept him 25 meters (75 ft) off the rock and left him with a fractured skull, a shattered pelvis, and a broken leg. In the deafening stillness that followed the avalanche, Jones looked out over the barren, snow-covered landscape and realized that he was utterly alone.
What happened next was a force of sheer willpower. Bruised, bloody, and unable to walk, wearing only a T-shirt and jeans, Jones began to crawl. Using his hands and elbows, barely able to push with his legs, Jones crawled inch by excruciating inch down one of the most desolate mountains in the world. With every push, he could feel the shattered bones in his pelvis grinding against each other. At night, the temperature dropped to -15 degrees Celsius (5° F). He didn’t even have shoes—they’d fallen off in the avalanche.
It took Jones four days and three nights to crawl 16 kilometers (10 mi) to the nearest town. At one point, he spent three hours in icy water crossing a stream. After he was finally rescued, the doctors didn’t think he’d live through the night. When he did, they told him he’d never walk again. Today, he not only walks, he’s a competitive cyclist.
On April 24, 2013, Bangladeshi workers in Dhaka’s Rana Plaza heard the eerie sounds of metal beams groaning. There were five full-scale garment factories in the building, each one humming with heavy equipment that wasn’t supposed to be there. Nearly 3,000 men and women worked the machinery, including Reshma Begum, a 19-year-old woman who pulled £30 a month sewing clothes that were shipped overseas. Around 9:00 AM that day, the building gave way and collapsed on top of everyone inside.
The collapse was over in seconds, but for Begum, the horror was just beginning. She’d hit her head in the initial collapse, and when she woke up, she was surrounded by darkness. Trapped beneath the rubble, she crawled around feverishly, cutting herself on sharp metal and broken concrete slabs, but she couldn’t find an exit anywhere. Elsewhere in the collapsed building, fires had broken out, but all Begum knew was the impenetrable darkness and the dead bodies lying with her in her tomb.
As the days passed, the situation grew bleaker. Immediately after the collapse, there had been a man trapped somewhere close to her, but he didn’t last long. “Another person, a man, was near me. He asked for water. I could not help him. He died. He screamed, ‘Save me,’ but he died,” she later told The Independent.
Begum survived for 17 days in the rubble with only four packs of cookies and a little bit of water. Enough air for her to breathe trickled through the labyrinthine cracks and spaces in the rubble, but nowhere was there a space large enough to crawl through, let alone see daylight. She shouted, banged on the rubble with sticks, but nobody came to rescue her. Outside, the workers had found only dead bodies—over 1,000 of them—and every day, they were uncovering more.
Then, one of the rescue workers saw something move out of the corner of his eye. Someone was wiggling a stick through a tiny crack on the second floor. When he ran over and shouted through the hole, he heard a weak, female voice cry, “Save me!” After 1,127 dead bodies, they’d found a single living one. It took an hour for them to cut a hole big enough for Begum to squeeze through. She was the last person to come out of the building alive.
In 2006, Robert Evans was ice fishing in Nederland, Colorado, when the two six-packs beside him exploded from the cold and covered his pants in beer. By the time he decided to get up, his pants had frozen to the ice, and firemen had to pour hot water over him to get him loose. He’s been convicted of driving drunk five times and spent 13 years living on the streets. Around Boulder, he’s known as the “Ice Man” (from the beer charade), and in 2008, he became both the luckiest and unluckiest man in the world on the same night.
It started when he was hit by a car. He was crossing the street on his bike when a woman rammed into him and knocked him into the air. “I bounced off the car twice. I was scuffed up. Nothing serious,” he told the Denver Post. After the lady drove off without stopping, Evans hopped back on his bike, rode over to the hospital, and then swung by a liquor store for a bottle of whiskey.
On his way home that night, Evans decided to take a shortcut by going down a railroad track. He was walking his bike across a narrow bridge when he saw the lights of an approaching train in front of him. Already in the middle of the bridge, he decided to chance it and started running toward the train, hoping to hop off the tracks before the train got there. He didn’t make it. The train sideswiped him and threw him off the bridge into the creek below. For the second time that night, Evans found himself at Boulder Community Hospital.
When police realized that Evans had survived his second collision in only seven hours with nothing but a few bruises, they went ahead and issued him a ticket for trespassing on the tracks. When asked about the night, Evans just said that it “wasn’t his worst.”
3Jose Salvador Alvarenga
On January 30, 2014, two women watched a naked man with a scraggly beard run toward them across the beach. They lived on the Ebon Atoll, a small island at the southern tip of the nation known as the Marshall Islands, smack-dab in the middle of the northern Pacific and hundreds of miles away from any other landmass. It wasn’t a place where you usually saw strangers and certainly none as strange as this. The entire island has one phone line, and it would take two days for a boat to come pick up the wild, naked man. The story he recounted next was incredible.
He said that his name was Jose Salvador Alvarenga, and he was a fisherman who’d cast off from Costa Azul, Mexico, on December 21, 2012. He and his companion, a young man named Ezequiel Cordova, were supposed to head back that night, but their engine had stopped working and a storm had blown them too far off the coast. That had been the start of a grueling 13-month trip that sent him nearly 10,000 kilometers (6,000 mi) across the Pacific. After a few months adrift, Cordova died, leaving Alvarenga to fend for himself in the tiny boat. He caught turtles, fish, and small sharks for food, drank rainwater and turtle blood for hydration, and somehow managed to stay alive for over a year.
A lot of people have questioned the story, but many of the pieces do add up. In December 2012, officials in Costa Azul did do a multiday search for a boat matching the description of the one in which Alvarenga washed up in the Marshall Islands. Fishermen in the town also remember seeing Alvarenga on the docks periodically before he left on that fateful day.
Even at the age of eight, Austin Hatch knew his life would never be normal. That summer, he was coming back from a family vacation with his parents, his little brother, and his big sister when tragedy struck. They were flying in a small plane piloted by Austin’s father when the engine malfunctioned. The plane hit the ground hard just outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the fuel tank detonated, filling the cabin with flames. Austin’s father threw the young boy out of the burning plane and barely managed to get out himself. Nobody else made it.
Eight years later, in 2011, life was finally beginning to be livable again. Austin had lost his mother and siblings in the crash, but he still had his father, the one who showed up at every basketball game and practice session, the one who played with him in the driveway at home and helped him with his homework every night. In high school now, Austin was a star basketball player with his sights set on playing for the University of Michigan. His father had remarried after meeting a nice woman named Kimberly Neal, who treated Austin like her own son. When the news came that Austin had been accepted at the University of Michigan, the newly patched family wanted to celebrate. They decided to fly to Walloon Lake for the weekend.
That’s when fate reared its ugly head and struck a second blow to Austin Hatch. As it had eight years earlier, something went wrong with the plane. It went down near Charlevoix, Michigan. Austin was the only survivor.
Austin suffered brain damage so severe that doctors thought he wouldn’t make it. He spent two months in a coma and another two years recuperating, but he never stopped pushing. It’s what his dad would have wanted, and there was no way Austin was going to disappoint him. So what about his dream of playing basketball for Michigan? As of February 2015, Austin Hatch is on the roster for the Michigan Wolverines. And as Austin sees it, that’s only the beginning.
New York firefighter Jay Jonas doesn’t believe in accidents. On September 11, 2001, he didn’t find himself trapped between the grindstone and the crushing hand of fate—he shot Atropos the finger and ran headfirst into the maelstrom. He did it because it was his job, and backing down from that job meant giving up on the lives of the men and women who were trapped in the burning towers.
The morning he got the call that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, Jonas was at the station in Chinatown eating breakfast. In the brief seconds it took for disbelief to metamorphose into shock, he was already on his feet, shouldering his gear and rallying the men of Ladder Company 6 to the engine. Minutes later, they arrived at a scene of chaos at the north tower. Smoke filled the air. People were burned, screaming, crying. Smoldering debris and hunks of metal were raining around them like the flames of Armageddon. On the way through the lobby, they passed two people who’d been trapped in an elevator shaft filled with flammable vapor from the jet’s fuel tanks. Something had sparked, and now they barely looked like people.
But Jonas wasn’t stopping in the lobby. He was going up to the 80th floor. That was where people were really in trouble, and in Jonas’s eyes, that’s where the firefighters were needed most. With 45 kilograms (100 lb) of gear on their backs, fighting through a stream of fleeing, terrified people the whole way, Ladder Company 6 went up flight after flight of stairs. Every 10 floors, they stopped to catch their breath. Some people cheered them on as they ran past. Others began breaking the glass fronts of vending machines to give the troop bottles of water. They couldn’t sweat properly in their suits, and after 20 floors, some of Jonas’s men were in danger of overheating. But they pressed on to the 27th floor, and that’s when the south tower collapsed.
Through a window, they watched the south tower fall, a million tons of rubble streaming past their faces so close they could almost reach out and touch it, and Jonas finally realized the real trouble they were in. With his men’s safety to think about, he gave the order for them to head back down. They helped whomever they could, even carrying one woman all the way from the 20th floor. It was a race against time by that point, and Jonas knew it. They made it to the fourth floor and could nearly feel the fresh air on their faces when they heard the first muffled bang. Then another and another. The building was collapsing over their heads.
Miraculously, Jay Jonas survived. As 110 floors of building collapsed around them, they had the sheer luck to be in a stairwell that held up to the force. After three hours choking on dust and smoke, Jonas and his crew—and the woman they’d carried down from the 20th floor—all made it out alive. They were among the last survivors anybody ever found.
Eli Nixon is the author of Son of Tesla, a saga of madmen and heroes. Buy it at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon.