The great survivors

A British man and his girlfriend were pulled to safety after almost 24 hours in shark-infested waters off the coast of Australia at the weekend. Their extraordinary escape is in the finest tradition of those who are plucky (or lucky) enough to pull through when the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them. Mark Hughes looks back at some truly amazing escapes

Surviving open water

As they emerged from the water after a day spent scuba diving off Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Englishman Richard Neely and his American girlfriend Allyson Dalton found themselves in a situation that will send shivers down the spine of anyone vaguely familiar with the film Open Water.

The holidaymakers surfaced on Saturday afternoon to find themselves 200m from their boat and being swept further away by powerful currents. After helplessly watching the boat sail into the distance, the pair spent the next 19 hours huddled together in cold waters, which are home to tiger sharks and great whites.

They were discovered by rescue helicopters some eight miles from where they had first disembarked. After being winched to safety, Mr Neely, from Norfolk, said: "I truly thought we were going to die. We just had to stay positive and calm to help each other through the ordeal and not think about being eaten alive."

Upturned but alive

Bristol-born sailor Tony Bullimore was assumed dead in January 1997 when his boat capsized in the ocean near the Antarctic. But, with just "a little chocolate, water and sheer determination" the 55-year-old survived for five days by crouching in an air pocket in the darkness in the upturned hull of his boat, the Exide Challenger.

Mr Bullimore was taking part in the Vendee Globe single-handed non-stop round-the-world race when his boat capsized. A search and rescue mission was launched, but it would be five days before his boat was spotted by the Australian navy.

Rescuers banged on the side of Mr Bullimore's boat and were amazed when he responded by knocking back. Mr Bullimore, who had ran out of water two days previously, was suffering from mild hypothermia and dehydration but was otherwise fine. But afterwards experts revealed that he would have probably exhausted his oxygen supply had he spent just one more day trapped in the boat.

Saved by pain

When, in 1999, he fell more than 2,000 feet off Mount McKinley, America's highest mountain, the Cumbrian climber Steve Ball didn't, by all accounts, have much hope of survival. The plunge left him with a catalogue of injuries, including two broken legs.

With no way of moving, he was forced to build a wall of snow around himself and wait for an unlikely rescue. Knowing that falling asleep would almost certainly mean death, Mr Ball resorted to punching his left leg repeatedly, which was broken in 12 places and would eventually have to be amputated. The pain, he said, was the only thing that kept him from drifting into unconsciousness.

It would be another 30 hours before he was chanced upon by climbers. He was eventually flown off the mountainside but, as well as the left leg amputation, he lost the fingers and thumb of his right hand and part of his left hand, right foot and nose to severe frostbite.

Forced to eat their mates

When Uruguayan Air Force flight 571 crash-landed in The Andes in October 1972, it was assumed that the chances of survival for any of the 45 passengers on board were non-existent. This assumption was underlined by the fact that the search for survivors was cancelled after just eight days.

In the events that would transpire, 16 people were eventually rescued after more than two months on the mountain range, during which they were forced to survive by eating the flesh from the bodies of the dead.

The flight had been carrying the Stella Maris College's "Old Christians" rugby union team from Montevideo, Uruguay, to play a match in Santiago, Chile, when it crashed after clipping the tops of the mountains in bad weather.

A group of three of the 16 survivors went for help and were found by men on horseback. They remaining survivors were rescued on 23 December 1972.

Lost in space

Perhaps the most famous space exploration mission of all time, for all the wrong reasons, is Apollo 13.

Setting out in April 1970, the mission was to be the third moon landing, but an oxygen tank explosion just two days into the journey left the shuttle with no electricity and the three crew members, James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise with little chance of survival. The group was forced to use the lunar module as a lifeboat. But it was only equipped to sustain two people for two days and would now have to sustain three people for four days. Incredibly, after some adjustments by the crew, it did.

The only option to return safely was to alter the trajectory of the lunar module to make it orbit the moon and use the moon's gravity to slingshot the ship back to Earth. It worked and all three men returned safely.

Stalked by crocodiles

Australian farmer David George was forced to take drastic action when he accidentally strayed into a crocodile-infested swamp in August last year: he climbed a nearby tree and stayed there for a week.

Mr George's problems began when he fell off his horse in the Australian outback. Dazed and bleeding he climbed back on to his horse in the hope that it would lead him home. Instead it wandered deep into the water.

Worried that he would become crocodile-feed if he tried to escape, Mr George, 53, climbed the nearest tree and decided to wait for help. It would be a long-time coming.

He survived for eight days on two meat sandwiches. Each night he was stalked by two crocodiles at the bottom of the tree. On the third day his food ran out. On the fifth his horse left. Mr George said he saw rescue helicopters every day, but they couldn't see him because of the dense bush. Eventually, on the eighth day, he was spotted and winched to safety.

Trapped by a boulder

After being trapped for five days in the Utah desert, Aron Ralston was forced to make the kind of agonising decision that has probably been the subject of countless bar-room "what would you rather do..." debates: continue to wait for help that was unlikely to arrive, or cut off his own arm.

Mr Ralston, then 27, chose the latter. He used the boulder as a lever upon which to break his lower right arm then used a Swiss Army-type tool to cut the flesh, using the tool's small pliers to snap the tougher tendons. The decision to cut off one of his own limbs in May 2003 came after five days trapped under the boulder, which had fallen on him during a solo hike.

After running out of water and being forced to start drinking his own urine, he resorted to the "operation", which took him "about an hour".

Mr Ralston hiked a further five miles in the baking sun before being rescued.

Touching the void

While attempting to scale the Siula Grande mountain in the Andes, Simon Yates had lowered his climbing partner, Joe Simpson, down a sheer drop after a fall had left Simpson with a broken leg. But eventually Yates was left with two choices. He could continue, with the likely scenario being that both men would fall to their deaths, or cut the rope and allow his friend to fall to his probable death, while saving himself.

After agonising for an hour, Yates chose to cut the rope and Simpson dropped. Unexpectedly, however, he landed on a snow bridge below. Assuming he was dead, Yates continued down the mountain and was about to leave the base camp when he was joined, again, by Simpson.

It transpired that, despite his significant injuries, Simpson had walked, crawled and slid down the mountain without food and water for three and a half days. The ordeal was re-told by Simpson in his book, Touching the Void.

Stuck under a truck

When Ken Hildebrand found himself stuck out in the Canadian wilderness, the good news was that he had everything with him which would ensure his survival. The bad news was that it was all beyond his reach.

Mr Hildebrand was forced to spend the next three nights trapped under his all-terrain vehicle as temperatures dropped and a hungry pack of wolves circled nearby. "I had everything I needed, but I just couldn't get to it," said the 55-year-old, whose ordeal happened in January as he was collecting animal traps from the woods, south of Calgary.

His truck had rolled over, pinning him underneath. He survived by eating rotten animal meat and dirt, and kept warm by using the corpses of the dead animals he had been collecting. He managed to scare off the hyenas and wolves by blowing on a whistle, and was eventually found by hikers.

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