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Luckiest People Who Cheated Death

Intro

Today we’re going to take a look at a few of the world’s luckiest people who, despite all odds, escaped what should have been certain death.

No Parachute? No Problem.

Our first story comes from one of the most dangerous times to be alive in human history – World War 2. For the first half of the conflict, the United States was trying its best to stay neutral, only sending weapons and supplies to its allies in Europe, but when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1942, war was officially declared on the Axis Powers, and thousands of young men rushed to enlist in the various branches of the American military. One of these young men was Alan Eugene Magee, and, after joining the United States Air Force, he was assigned to the mighty B-17 bomber.

B-17 Bombers were high priority targets for German fighters, and as such, had an incredibly high death rate. It’s estimated that at best, a B-17 crew had a 50/50 chance of survival throughout the war, and a good chance of becoming a prisoner of war if they happened to crash land. The cabin of a B-17 wasn’t pressurized either, so the crew had to endure unbelievably low temperatures and wear oxygen masks as well. So, the odds already looked a bit bleak for the young Alan, but it gets worse. He wasn’t a pilot, so he had been assigned to man the ball turret.

The ball turret was one of the worst places to be. Jutting out from the bottom of the aircraft, and with no way to be retracted, the ball turret was essentially a metal and glass sphere with a machine gun poking out of it. This gave the gunner a wide field of view to help defend the bomber from enemy fighter planes, but the turret itself was pretty exposed and was always an easy target.

During Alan’s seventh mission, a daytime bombing run over France in January 1943, German flak struck his turret, rendering it useless. After climbing out of the ball and back into the main cabin, Alan was relieved at first to see that the flak hadn’t seriously wounded him, but he then noticed that it had completely shredded up his parachute. While moving to the plane’s radio room, the bomber was struck again, this time tearing off a chunk of the right wing and sending the airplane into a spiral.

During this spiral Alan blacked out, probably as a result of his oxygen supply getting ruptured. And somehow, while the plane was tumbling out of the sky, Alan’s unconscious body was thrown clear out of it and sent rocketing towards the ground. With nothing to slow his fall, Alan fell a mind-boggling 22,000 feet or 6,700 meters at terminal velocity and smashed through the glass roof of the St Nazaire railroad station.

Alan miraculously survived the fall, possibly because smashing through the glass roof had slowed his fall just before hitting the ground. He had several broken bones, a smashed nose, lung damage, his right arm was nearly torn off during the crash landing, and shrapnel and glass wounds covered his body, but he was in stable condition. He was immediately taken prisoner by the Germans, who treated his wounds, and was eventually released at the end of the war. Alan received the Purple Heart, the Air Medal, and, in 1993, a statue dedicated to his crew in St. Nazaire. You might think he would never want to set foot on a flying machine ever again, but Alan actually earned his pilot’s license after the war and worked in the airline industry until he died at the age of 84.

One crucial part of Alan’s survival is the fact that he received medical care so quickly after his fall, but our next person wasn’t quite so lucky.

Juliane Koepcke was born in Peru in 1954. Her parents were published German biologists, who were in Peru for research in their field, and Juliane grew up and attended a German international school in Lima. On Christmas Eve, 1971, Juliane, accompanied by her mother, booked a flight from Lima to Pucallpa visit her father, who was working at a biological conservation center across the country. Her mother wanted to fly a few days earlier, but Juliane didn’t want to miss her high school graduation ceremony, so they had agreed on Christmas eve. Because of the busy Christmas season though, every flight was sold out, except for two seats on Líneas Aéreas Nacionales, also known as LANSA. Juliane’s father tried to persuade his wife and daughter to wait until after Christmas so they could book a different flight because LANSA apparently had a terrible reputation as an airline, but Juliane and her mother didn’t want to miss Christmas with him and boarded the plane anyway.

As it was reaching its cruising altitude halfway to the destination, the plane was shaking with extreme turbulence as it flew through a storm. Suddenly, lightning struck the side of the plane. Most passenger jets are designed to withstand a lightning strike, but this one had hit one of the plane’s engines, which was now on fire, causing the pilot to lose control. Juliane later told BBC:

“”The plane jumped down and went into a nose-dive. It was pitch black and people were screaming, then the deep roaring of the engines filled my head completely,”

But suddenly the noise stopped. While the plane was plummeting, the fuselage was being torn apart, and Juliane’s row of 3 seats was sucked out into the sky. She was now free falling, strapped to her window seat as her mother and a stranger on her left were thrown from theirs. The seats began spinning wildly as they fell, and Juliane lost consciousness.

After slipping in and out of consciousness for over a day, she finally sat up. She was still too dizzy to walk, and had a fractured shin, a broken collarbone, and a torn ACL. She was the only survivor. She had survived the crash, probably thanks to the large row of seats somewhat slowing her fall, as well as plunging through several meters of tree branches and leaves before hitting the ground, but now she faced her next problem: Unlike Alan, who fell into a train station, Juliane was now alone in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon.

But, strangely enough, at just age 17 Juliane already had the knowledge to handle this unique situation. She had spent a year and a half on the biological conservation with her parents and was familiar with the wildlife of the jungle. Her father had given her advice if she ever got lost in the jungle, which was to find and follow a river. She found a bag of candy in the crash site, which would be her only food for another 9 days and set off to look for help.

When moving through the jungle, any step could be your last. The Amazon is home to lethal snakes, caiman, poison frogs, and an endless number of pesky insects, so she had to be extra careful, which was difficult because she had lost her glasses in the crash. Moving slowly along the edges of a creek, she would throw her sandal on the ground to scare away any snakes, but eventually began walking in the water.

Walking in the shallow edge of the river was quicker than on land, especially because the water felt much better on her feet than the branches and rocks. But the water brought its own dangers, and Juliane remarked that she shared the river with caiman on several occasions, but she paid them no mind, as she was aware that they rarely attack humans unless provoked.

While she was making her way along the river, she would hear planes buzzing in the sky overhead, likely looking for the downed passenger jet, but Juliane knew she had no hope of getting their attention from where she was, and the situation was getting worse. She hadn’t eaten in several days now, and a fly had laid its eggs in a cut in her arm, which now was starting to swell with maggots. Eventually, she collapsed from exhaustion on the side of the river.

When she woke up, something immediately grabbed her attention: a boat. The first man-made object she had seen in over a week, and it meant the possibility of help nearby. She crawled to the boat, and then noticed an empty hut near it. Next to the hut was a barrel of gasoline, and Juliane cleverly siphoned some of it out and poured it on her infected arm, which brought the maggots to the surface so she could pick them out. It was incredibly painful, but she knew it was either this or lose her arm. After trying and failing to catch some frogs, she fell asleep in the hut, now almost 10 days without food. But Fortunately, this was her last night before rescue.

In the morning, 3 lumber workers returned to their hut to find Juliane, who they initially mistook to be a water spirit. After feeding her and treating her wounds, they took her in their boat to the nearest city, where she gave law enforcement directions to the crash site and made it to her father. Juliane went on to follow in her parent’s footsteps and get a doctorate degree, as well as marry another doctor.

Overall, Juliane’s story is not only one of extreme luck, but also one of determination and quick thinking.

Lucky Number Seven

Our next story takes us to Croatia, where a man named Frano Selak was born in 1929. There’s been some intense exaggeration of Selak’s life on the internet, and, of course, there are skeptics that doubt the authenticity of his stories, but we’re going to go over what is generally accepted as the seven separate times that he cheated death.

Frano selak, source: https://pontianak.tribunnews.com/

Everything started in 1962 when Selak was riding a train that derailed and fell into an icy river. 17 of the passengers on the train drowned, but Selak was pulled to safety and only suffered a broken arm and hypothermia. In 1963, on his first ever plane ride, a malfunctioning door broke open next to him during an emergency landing, and he fell from the plane onto a haystack which broke his fall. Three years later, in 1966, Selak was riding on a bus when the driver, who had a few drinks before getting behind the wheel, lost control and the bus skidded into a river, which Selak managed to escape with only minor cuts and bruises. At this point you’d expect him to stop taking public transport, but he ran into his own problem even after buying his own car.

In 1973, Selak was driving when a malfunctioning fuel pump spewed hot oil over his engine, which ignited and started spitting flames through the air vents, but he was able to pull over and get out of the car before suffering any more than just singed hair and minor burns. The next year he was hit by a bus while crossing the road, but it was moving quite slowly, and he didn’t suffer any serious injuries. Finally, his seventh escape from the grim reaper came in 1996 when, in an effort to avoid a head-on collision with a truck, he swerved his vehicle into a guardrail on the side of the road, and, because he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, he was ejected from the vehicle, yet somehow survived.

But his story isn’t over yet, Just after his 73rd birthday in 2003, Selak, who spent most of his adult life as a music teacher, won the lottery, and received 6.5 million Kuna, which is about 900,000 euros. He bought himself two homes, several cars, and shared the money with his family and friends. His fitting nickname after all this is the Luckiest Unlucky Man on Earth.

A lot of his survival stories have received criticism because they have been hard to independently verify, and Selak has been accused of either fabricating or exaggerating his own stories to make them seem more dangerous, after all, it seems unlikely that one man would survive a crash from a plane, train, bus, and a car? It seems the only vehicle he didn’t have a near fatal accident with was a boat, which is ironic because he was born on one. Selak has been interviewed by BBC, The Guardian, and countless times by Croatian media, and was always adamant that his story was the truth until his death in 2016 at age 87.

Tis but a Scratch

The last person on our list might just be the luckiest of them all. So far we’ve covered close calls with falling from an airplane, surviving without food in the Amazon, and a train crash into an icy river, but these incidents are arguably nothing compared to the explosion of an atomic bomb.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi was an engineer working for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries during The Second World War, a war which he believed Japan had no business getting involved in. His view of his country’s situation was getting more and more disheartened every day, as Japanese ships were sunk, resources were becoming scarce, and the economy was beginning to suffer.

On August 6, 1945, Yamaguchi was sent by his boss to Hiroshima for a business meeting. At 8:15 AM, he was walking toward the city’s docks when the first atomic bomb was dropped. He recalled seeing the airplane in the sky, the parachutes holding the bomb, and then a blinding light. The bomb went off just 3 kilometers from where he was standing, but he survived. His eardrums were ruptured, his vision was distorted, and he had radiation burns on the upper half of his body. After recovering for a brief moment, he located his colleagues to make sure they were alright, and after spending the night in an air-raid shelter, hopped on the first train back to his hometown, Nagasaki.

Yamaguchi showed up for work in Nagasaki on August 9 and was trying to explain what had happened to his boss, who simply couldn’t believe that one bomb had destroyed the whole city. Just then, the second atomic bomb was dropped, once again just 3 kilometers from where he stood. This time around, he wasn’t visibly injured from the blast, but the radiation had ruined his bandages and made him extremely sick, causing him to continuously vomit for over a week.

Despite being near ground zero for two atomic bombs, Yamaguchi went on to lead a relatively healthy life. He had to wear bandages constantly for several years after the war, and permanently lost his hearing in his left ear.

Yamaguchi returned to work at Mitsubishi, and later became an advocate for nuclear disarmament, using his own shocking tales to convey the horrors of atomic weapons. And in 2009, He became the only person to be officially recognized by the Japanese government as a survivor of both atomic bombs.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi died in 2010 at age 93, having walked away from two of the most catastrophic events in human history.

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