The great survivors

After the remarkable escape of a girl lost in the Panamanian jungle following a plane crash, David Randall investigates the most astonishing episodes of cheating death, and finds spine-tingling tales involving quick wits, bravery and even the supernatural

Sunday 30 December 2007 01:00

By every known law of physics, 12-year-old Francesca Lewis should be dead. Last Sunday, she and her friend Talia Klein, plus Talia's father Michael Klein, were on a sight-seeing flight to a volcano in Panama. At around noon, with no warning, the pilot of their light aircraft lost control and the plane crashed into a mountain amid the dense jungle of western Panama. Somehow, Francesca survived, alone and trapped in the wreckage. For two days she endured near-constant rains, and cold night temperatures, but held on till rescue came.

A miracle? Perhaps. But by no means the most extraordinary story of survival...

Jan Baalsrud: left for dead in the Arctic

This commando was part of a four-man mission to destroy a German air-control tower in his native Norway. In March 1943, they travelled to Norway from the Shetlands in a small fishing boat, and contacted what they thought was a member of the resistance. The man told the Germans, who ambushed the commandos' boat, forcing them to blow it up with the eight tons of explosives intended for their target. They made their escape in a smaller craft, but the Germans sank that, killed one commando and captured (and later tortured and shot) two others. Baalsrud escaped by jumping into the freezing waters and swimming to shore. He managed to kill the leader of the pursuing Germans and scramble out of sight. For two months he lived like a hunted animal in the sub-zero Arctic temperatures, sheltering from avalanches and severely handicapped by snow blindness and frostbite. He eventually made contact with Norwegians he could trust and they took him to a mountain hut he christened "Hotel Savoy". There, seeing that his feet were becoming gangrenous, he amputated nine of his toes to stop the infection spreading. Villagers risked their lives to climb the steep sides of the fjord to bring him food every night, and, at one point, he lay in a snow trench on a stretcher for 18 days, waiting to be carried over the border to Finland. A native tribe then bore him by reindeer sledge to Sweden and a waiting Red Cross seaplane that flew him to hospital for seven months of treatment. He survived to return to Scotland to train more commandos, and, after the war, was active in charity work. He died in 1987, but, every year, young Norwegians follow his escape route for nine days in remembrance of him.

Vesna Vulovic: most amazing air-crash survivor

JAT Yugoslav's Flight 364 from Copenhagen to Zagreb was flying over what is now the Czech Republic in January 1972 when an explosion ripped the plane apart in mid-air. Rescuers rushed to the wreckage and saw a pair of legs sticking out of the fuselage. They belonged to Vesna Vulovic, a flight attendant, and she was alive. She had fallen 33,330ft. Both her legs were broken, she was in a coma for three days, but she made a complete recovery, and is still revered in Serbia. No one has ever fallen from a greater height without a parachute and lived. Almost as remarkable was the escape last December of Channel Islander Michael Holmes, a skydiver with more than 7,000 jumps. Diving out at 15,000ft over Lake Taupo in New Zealand, he pulled the rip cord of his parachute and nothing happened. Instead, he spun round and round as he fell to earth at speeds touching 120mph. He tried the reserve chute, and again nothing. He faced certain death, and just had time to shout "Oh shit, I'm dead... Bye!" at the video camera strapped to his helmet before he hit the ground. He did so in the only place for many miles around that could possibly save him a six-foot high patch of brambles. His left ankle was shattered, his right lung punctured, but he survived.

Max Hoffman: interred alive until his mother's dream

This five-year-old boy was struck down by a cholera epidemic that hit his small town in Wisconsin in 1865. After three days, the doctor declared him dead, and Max was buried. That night, his mother dreamt that Max was not dead after all. Her husband dismissed her claims as the ravings of a distressed mother. But the next night, the dream returned. This time, she was so insistent that her husband agreed to go to the cemetery and dig up young Max. When they opened the coffin, Max was lying not on his back, as he'd been lain, but on his side. They took him home, and called the doctor. After an hour, Max's eyelids moved, and a week later he was out playing. He lived to his late eighties in Clinton, Iowa, and his most treasured possessions were the handles of the little coffin in which he had once been buried.

Stephen, Ellis and Norita Nona: the little castaways

In July 2004, these three children were sailing with their parents in a fishing boat the 30 miles from one island to another in the Torres Strait, between the northernmost part of Queensland and Papua New Guinea. Half way, the boat's engine cut in rolling seas, and it began to sink. Father, mother and a four-year-old nephew clung to a single lifebelt and urged the older children to swim to a rocky outcrop. Stephen, aged 12, swam with his sisters, Ellis, 15, and Norita, 10, a kilometre to the rock. As they did so, they looked back but could see no sign of their parents. They were alone.

The outcrop had no vegetation, and for four days they lived on oysters and by drinking small amounts of seawater. Stephen knew they could not carry on for much longer like that, and he could see, in the distance, a single palm tree proof that it stood on an island that supported life. He told his sisters they would have to swim the 4km through the shark and crocodile infested waters. Having waited for the tide to turn and help them, Stephen, a strong swimmer, led them into the sea and encouraged, pulled and even pushed them to the new island. The swim took them all day. There, they found coconuts, and lived on their milk, and oysters, for four more days until rescuers, led by their uncle, found them.

Nando Parrado: survived in the Andes by cannibalism

This young man was one of 41 players and supporters of a Uruguayan rugby team that took off for Chile in a plane on Friday the 13th of October 1972. As they flew over the Andes, storms forced the plane lower, it struck a ridge, and broke up. Only 15 of the 45 passengers and crew survived the crash, but they were stranded 11,000ft up on an Argentine mountainside. They could drink melted snow, but all they had to eat were a few meagre pickings from their luggage. Parrado lived for three days on one chocolate-covered peanut. But, as the days turned to weeks, they realised that the only thing that could keep them alive were the bodies of those killed in the crash. The pilot was first, and, using broken glass as knives, they began to eat the corpses. After two months of living off their dead friends, Parrado and Robert Canessa went to seek help. After 10 days they found it, and led rescuers to the 13 fast-fading survivors. Parrado returned to Montevideo, married, raised two daughters and works in television with his wife.

Eric Nerhus: swallowed head first by a great white shark

This 41-year-old Australian was collecting abalone in the waters of Cape Howe, 250 miles south of Sydney in January 2007 when he was attacked by a great white shark. Within a split second, Nerhus's head, shoulders and one arm were in the shark's mouth and he could feel the rows of deep, razor-sharp teeth beginning to cut into his flesh. A bigger bite came, but it met the resistance of Nerhus's lead belt. The diver took his one chance. "I felt down to the eye socket with my stiff fingers. I poked my fingers into the eye socket, which the shark reacted to in a way that it opened its mouth a bit, and I just tried to wriggle out." Nerhus's son came to the rescue, and the man half-swallowed by a great white was helped from the water to be treated for multiple lacerations and a broken nose.

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