Luck? Chance? Miracles? Willpower? The Mysterious Common Thread in Extreme Survival Stories

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by Fabian Ommar

The true story of a 17-year-old girl who survived a high-altitude airplane accident over the rain forest is perhaps the quintessential script of the perfect marriage between survival, preparation, and the role of chance in the outcome of SHTF.

Juliane Koepcke is one of the (very) few people in history to ever come out alive from a high-altitude airliner crash. The daughter of two German biology researchers, she was the sole survivor of LANSA Flight 508.

Juliane’s incredible story of the jungle, survival, and angels

On Christmas Eve, 1971, Juliane boarded the Lockheed 188 Electra OB-R-941 with her mother and other 83 passengers and crew to make the one-hour trip from the capital of Peru, Lima, to Pucallpa, a small town deep in the Amazon forest. About midway through, the turboprop entered a storm and got hit by lightning. It immediately plunged, shattering into pieces on the descent. As the aircraft’s cabin burst, Juliane got ejected, strapped to her seat, into the void, and on a 10,000 ft. drop at full speed towards the ground.

She woke up in the middle of the Peruvian rain forest with a broken collarbone, a twisted ankle, both eyes swollen shut, multiple bruises, and deep cuts all over her small, frail body. It’s so incredible to the point of being almost unbelievable.

For ten (you read that right – ten) days, she wandered alone, amidst the dense, inhospitable jungle, without her glasses and wearing only a dress and one sandal. She finally reached a small village on the riverbanks, almost unconscious yet still walking by her own feet. Here is where she was rescued.

She had just escaped a 2-mile free fall and managed to survive darkness, starvation, poisonous insects and deadly animals, heat and cold, rain and sun, for days – all the while in a state of weakness and severe pain. When the villagers saw Juliane, they thought the limping little blonde girl was some jungle deity coming out of the woods, and she thought those men were angels.

You can read her story here.

There are many other incredible survival stories

Perhaps one of the most famous is that of another airplane accident that happened in South America less than a year after Juliane’s (October 1972). A Uruguayan Air Force Fairchild FH-227D transporting a school rugby team and their families hit a snow-covered mountaintop on the Cordillera de los Andes. The survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism (the ultimate taboo and perhaps the worst nightmare of most humans) to stay alive until rescue came, 72 days later.

Another tale worth mentioning is that of Aron Ralston, the explorer who had to perform self-amputation to escape certain death (by dehydration or worse) after an 800lb dislodged boulder trapped the then-28 years old outdoorsman by the arm for six days in a canyon in Utah, back in 2003.

Then, there’s Anne Frank, the 14-year-old Dutch girl who was forced to spend two years in a small refuge with relatives and strangers, hiding from the Nazi invaders during WW2. Her story – the classic Diary Of A Young Girl (a.k.a. Diary of Anne Frank) is a moving, at the same time haunting and beautiful, account of survival during one of the darkest periods in the history of humankind.

Our very own Selco had to rely on his inner strength and cunning for an entire year to survive a brutal civil war in his hometown during the Balkans conflict in the ’90s. There are many more conflicts and battles that have happened. There’s probably one taking place as you read this. And indeed, even more, that will remain untold, for one reason or another.

What is the common ground in these stories of survival?

Luck, or chance, whichever you choose to call it, is one thing. But, there is something more. Something that is beyond our limited comprehension, let alone our control. Divine intervention, maybe?

This intervention is evident more perhaps in no other instance than the case of Juliane Koepcke. Most other passengers were thrown out of the aircraft just as she was. But the canopies broke her fall. Ten thousand feet. I’m willing to bet that if there were another 300 or even a thousand passengers in that airplane, she’d have been the only survivor all the same.

But wait, there’s more:

In 1998 famous German director Werner Herzog, inspired by Juliane’s story, made a TV documentary called Wings Of Hope, about her miraculous survival. But here is something interesting: at the time of the accident, Herzog was in Peru scouting locations for his film Aguirre – Wrath of God, and had almost taken that flight.

Juliane survived the crash. Herzog escaped what most certainly would have been his death. At the time, he famously quoted: “She did not leave the airplane; the airplane left her.”

Mystical? Maybe. But I find it hard to overlook something so powerful

I mention her fall from the sky to highlight the role of chance in survival. Because let’s be honest: no matter how we try to rationalize or wrap our heads around it, surviving an airplane crash like that goes even beyond luck. It is a true miracle, an act of God (or whatever supreme force you may believe in).

By picking that, I’m in no way making light of other survivors’ luck. There’s really no measure of luck between escaping a bullet, a plane crash, or an 800lb rock trap: if someone survived SHTF, that’s all there is to it. By a little or a lot, it does not matter.

It’s safe to assume most people believe that chance is a significant player. “It’s just one of those things in life.” “It’s too ethereal and random. Why even bother?” Maybe that’s why I don’t see it discussed much in prepping circles. Perhaps we don’t want to give it too much thought, because after all, it’s way beyond our control. Maybe there are other reasons.

There’s a purpose in reflecting on such things in life in general and when it comes to SHTF and survival. We’re humans. That’s what we do. We try to make sense of things around us, even when there’s no evident meaning, or it seems to escape us entirely. It’s important to reflect, to philosophize.

To have a different perspective, let’s look at the other side of the coin

In Juliane’s case, the remaining 84 passengers who boarded that airplane, including her mother, did not make it. In Selco’s event, countless people remained in that city, only to die and be buried there. The Andes tragedy killed 29 from the 45 passengers: eight on the crash, eight more during an avalanche (another SHTF inside SHTF, which isn’t uncommon), and the rest from extreme cold, sickness, or starvation, until rescued arrived 72 days later.

In the case of Anne Frank, well, it was The Holocaust. Enough said. Some may argue that she was captured by the Nazis just weeks before Hitler committed suicide, and the war ended. Therefore she didn’t really survive SHTF. It’s true, so it happened. And yes, that’s a way to look at it.

I’d offer a different view, though: just like all the others mentioned here (and many more), she survived SHTF, and long enough to even gift us with her beautiful work, her diary, her lessons. We’re all going to die one day. And if death is the common denominator, then how come something like that isn’t victory?

In Aron’s case, it could be said that he survived only by his own merits. No luck, just courage and common sense. In fact, he had bad luck with that rock and all the crap he went through. As if just surviving isn’t lucky enough, he acknowledges that many fortuitous circumstances contributed to him making it instead of bleeding to death.

Surviving for days, weeks, or years in extremely difficult situations is a miracle of the spirit

From an article published in the Washington Post Haunted by Cannibalism: I Will Never Forget That First Incision Roberto Canessa, one of the sixteen survivors of the Andes crash described his experience:

Canessa said he agonized over what they had done and how others would feel about it. He recently talked to People magazine about seeing his mother and father after he was saved.

“I told her, ‘Mother, we had to eat our dead friends,’” he told People, “and she said, ‘That’s okay, that’s okay, sweetie.’ ”

Canessa told his father that his main concern was how the victims’ families would react to the harsh reality.

“I said, ‘I don’t care,’” he told People, ‘”the only thing I want to do is go to the families of my friends who died and tell them what happened. I don’t expect them to understand but they should know what happened.’

“But thank God, people were very receptive and very supportive and they consider what we did something we had to do so everything went very smoothly.”.

“In these kinds of situations,” he told People, “it’s not how you survive but why you survive.”

“It is not how you survive, but why you survive.” So it is. So it is.

Is it just me, or do those few simple words define the essence of survivalism with absolute precision? I could end right here (and maybe I should). I fear any effort to elaborate further on the will to survive, the fortitude to do what is necessary to keep going, may be a waste of words.

At the same time, I feel we must keep reflecting on this. Material and practical preparations are in no way a small matter when it comes to survival. Selco admits to that. Juliane tells how years spent in the middle of the wilderness with her parents prepared her to prevail in the rain forest. I’m sure she, the sixteen survivors of the Andes, and all other survivors would love to have a bag full of tools and cool stuff at hand in any SHTF.

But what really transpires (and inspires) in all these stories is the will of the spirit to be alive

Maybe you noticed I didn’t use the word “fear” when describing Juliane’s reactions after the fall. It’s pretty safe to assume she felt afraid during her entire SHTF.

But in her book, she makes an important distinction: she didn’t fear the forest. She was never afraid of nature. She declares that the forest saved her life. And not just once, but three times. First, when the trees and foliage broke her fall. Then the forest kept her alive for days. Finally, she says it saved her in a broader, more profound sense: by giving purpose and meaning to the rest of her life, just as it did for her parents.

After the crash, Julianne tried to find her mother in the forest. At the shack, she did not take the fishermen’s boat so as not to feel like she was stealing. Later she helped with the recovery of bodies, just days after she was rescued. Now that’s strength, dignity and character right there.

During SHTF, everyone is pushed to the limit. We have to do things we don’t want. That’s how it is. But to be able to see things so clearly and above all, to perform small yet significant acts of integrity and courage like those can keep us strong, sane, human and connected to life.

The gift of hearing stories of survival like these during and after SHTF is perhaps what keeps us connected to life and doing what it takes to keep going.

Now to more practical matters: what training can we do?

There are many ways to train for the most practical situations and scenarios imaginable. There are resources all over the internet on how to prepare for what comes next. There are books and online courses to ready yourself for civil unrest and chaos.

I personally believe in constant practice to have our internal resources and skills more easily and quickly accessed if and when necessary.

I wrote an entire book on how to ‘train’ to be homeless, to survive in the streets. I advocate for controlled exposure to danger, hardship, discomfort, fear, pain, and deprivation to develop discipline, wisdom, fitness; to harden the body, the mind, and the soul.

Is there training for the soul or the spirit?

Yes. There is.

We can achieve this training by witnessing SHTF from the other side of the fence, without having to experience a SHTF situation. How? By helping in places where the consequences of evil have come to the surface and the fallout of SHTF is apparent. SHTF events are happening all around us, all the time. It is 2020 after all.

Other training suggestions: volunteer to work in a hospital, a civil defense organization, an institution that helps the homeless and mentally ill, or rescue centers that treat abandoned or abused animals. Working in prisons and correction institutes is the best (as in most effective) way to get in touch with humankind’s evil and ugly side peaceful times. It’s hard, and it is not for everyone, I admit. And dangerous too. It may not even be possible to volunteer in such places in some countries.

By helping you will gain and give at the same time, which helps to alleviate the suffering on both ends (ours and others’). It’s called “doing good.” I’ve personally found it helps in seeing how lucky we are just to be alive, frequently in better condition than the ones we’re trying to help. The knowledge gained from doing good in the aftermath of evil is priceless.

Almost everyone I know lives in denial or willful ignorance of evil in the world

Sure, everyone knows these things exist – but most from a safe and comfortable distance. Thinking and talking about these things and survival makes people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too, I admit, even after all these years. But I keep forging ahead while remaining a sensible human.

Many people will not acknowledge SHTF could ever happen to them. We as preppers must, though, especially if we want to become survivalists. I understand life is hard enough for most people as it is. I’m not criticizing, by any means. As a prepper, consciously reflecting, pursuing, and making an effort to develop this conscience, the suggestions above are effective ways to change how we see reality and improve our chances to survive SHTF at the same time.

Reading true stories of survival is a form of training

History shows what people are capable of in extremes. But that’s a glimpse of the collective, for the most part. Individually, nothing can prepare us for a plane crash, a civil war, or a holocaust. There’s no training for cannibalism or to amputate one’s own arm. But we can still take from stories of survival as a reality check. It is an alternative way to prime the psychology and mentality of survival. It is equally a form of gaining something, while at the same time giving something, by honoring the courage and strength of survivors.

As if their hardships were not enough, revisiting the past to tell others about these things is a sign of strength. It should be admired, revered, and inspire us. It opens the mind to the ugly and brute side of life. And, it also opens the mind to the beauty of it all. These people have shown it is possible to survive and find meaning during and after SHTF. Whether you’re a teenager, an experienced explorer, an ordinary worker, or a trained soldier, finding meaning in all things is a precious lesson.

Not to mention these stories contain invaluable, real-life, practical advice on survival in the most varied conditions.

I admit this has been a great deal of information, but, the more you know…

It’s that time of year when many of us begin to reflect on our lives, lessons and the world around us. Even though Selco’s latest “SHTF Survival Bootcamp” is essentially a practical book, for some reason, reading it got me reflecting (again) on these philosophical questions of preparation and survivalism.

I find that soul searching every once in a while, is a good thing and can help me remain grounded, connected.

Preparations, training, plans, and strategies are all great. They have their place, and they keep us working, sharp, and moving forward. I love handling new gear, learning new skills, all of that. Yet I can’t escape the – dare I say – metaphysical aspects of survivalism, which also play a part. And not a small one, as I have attempted to reveal to you in this article.

If my writing has inspired you to pursue other real-life anecdotes, search for answers to all-too-important questions, or to reflect on philosophical matters of survival, then I guess I’ve contributed to something. And I’ll be happy about that.

Speaking of happy

Juliane (Koepcke) Diller still travels by airplane and still loves the rain forest (even more so now, in her own words). She got married and has a family and leads a productive life. She is an incredibly positive person, a living testament to the power of the will to live—the greatness of the spirit of a true survivor.

What do you think the common thread is in all of these unimaginable stories of survival? Share your thoughts – and your own stories – in the comments.

Want to read these stories yourself?

Books are an excellent gift idea for those prepper friends too. (I have also included a movie suggestion.)

Stay Safe! ~ Fabian

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. 

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor

Luck? Chance? Miracles? Willpower? The Mysterious Common Thread in Extreme Survival Stories
Fabian Ommar

About the Author

Fabian Ommar

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