According to the World Health Organization, nearly 400,000 people a year die from falls. These falls vary in height but many are from less than 20 feet. Then there’s this group of people, some of whom fell tens of thousands of feet and lived to tell about it.
Distance Fallen: 33,000 feet
Vesna Vulovic was a flight attendant on a Yugoslav Airlines flight on Jan. 26, 1972 when a bomb planted by Croatian terrorists exploded at 33,000 feet, ripping the plane in half. Vulovic was pinned in the tail section by a food cart, which kept her from being sucked out. The tail section landed at just the right angle on a snow-covered slope enabling her to survive. She was in a coma for 27 days and was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, but made a full recovery and continued working for the airline for another 20 years. She is in the Guinness Book of World Records for surviving the highest fall without a parachute.
Side note: A report in 2009 claimed that it had uncovered evidence that this flight was actually shot down at a much lower altitude by a Czech fighter protecting a nuclear installation. The Czech government has dismissed the reports, and regardless of what actually happened, Vulovic is a very lucky woman.
Distance Fallen: 18,000 feet
If you have one thing going for you when falling out of an aircraft tens of thousands of feet in the air (and it’s not much), it is the phenomenon known as terminal velocity. Basically, terminal velocity stipulates that an object falling to earth will eventually top out at a maximum speed. For a plummeting human, terminal velocity is around 120 mph. Reaching terminal velocity takes about 1,500 feet so the speed at which you’ll hit the ground from 1,500 feet or 15,000 will be nearly identical. Not by any choice of his own, Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade, a tail gunner in the Royal Air Force during World War II, found himself testing this idea. During a bombing mission into Germany, Alkemade’s airplane was attacked, caught fire, and began spiraling toward the earth from 18,000 feet. The fire destroyed his parachute, so he opted for a quick free-falling death instead of burning alive by jumping out of the plane. Miraculously, he survived the fall and was able to limp away after suffering a sprained leg and a few bumps and bruises. German soldiers who had witnessed the fall captured him, but they were so amazed by his survival that they gave him a certificate detailing his incredible story. A couple of factors that contributed to Alkemade’s survival are that he fell through several pine branches which slowed his descent, and when he hit the ground, it was covered in fresh snow.
Lt. Ivan Chisov
Distance Fallen: 22,000 feet
Your best bet for surviving a long fall is hitting a downward slope on a surface that compresses like mud or snow. Soviet airman Lt. Ivan Chisov put this idea to the test during World War II when German fighters attacked his bomber. Forced to bail out, Chisov waited to open his parachute, fearing he would be gunned down by nearby Germans while floating helplessly. However, before he could pull his chute, he lost consciousness. He impacted a snow-covered ravine and rolled to the bottom. The fall was witnessed by Russian troops on the ground who went to recover his body. To their utter shock, he was still alive. Chisov suffered spinal injuries and a broken pelvis, but amazingly was flying again three months later.
Distance Fallen: 10,000 feet
On Dec. 24, 1971, LANSA Flight 508 from Lima, Peru to Pucallpa, Peru was struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm. The lightning set the plane’s fuel tank on fire, causing it to break apart. 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke fell to the ground strapped to her seat and landed in the Amazon rainforest. Suffering only superficial wounds and a broken collarbone, her ordeal wasn’t close to over. Using survival skills taught to her by her father, she hiked through the Amazon jungle for 10 days before coming upon some loggers.
Airman Alan Magee
Distance Fallen: 22,000 feet
On a bombing run in German-occupied France during World War II, U.S. Airman Alan Magee was forced to bail out after being attacked by enemy fighters. With his parachute destroyed during the attack, his fate appeared sealed. However, after plummeting more than four miles, he fell through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station and was found alive by rescuers. It is believed that the glass roof actually saved him by slowing his fall before he hit the ground. Besides having numerous broken bones and a nearly severed arm, his German captors also discovered 28 shrapnel wounds that occurred prior to the fall during the fighter attack. Magee returned home after the war, worked in the airline industry and lived to the ripe old age of 84.
Distance Fallen: 245 feet (from the Golden Gate Bridge)
While the distances from airplanes can’t be topped, there are still remarkable survival stories concerning people who have fallen from fixed objects like bridges and buildings. In addition to being known as one of the world’s architectural wonders, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge also has the dubious distinction of being the single site with the highest frequency of suicides. Since the bridge opened in 1937, there have been approximately 1,500 suicides, and that number continues to climb each year. In 2000, Kevin Hines appeared to be on his way to adding to that number. 19 years old and plagued with bipolar disorder, Hines chose a spot on the bridge that would allow him to hit the water cleanly for a quick death. After several minutes of contemplating his decision he jumped, falling 245 feet to the water below. However, on the way down he decided he wanted to live and positioned himself to hit the water feet first. Despite 98 percent of all Golden Gate jumpers dying, he beat the odds and survived. He has since become a vocal proponent of mental-health issues and installing a barrier on the bridge to prevent further suicides.
Distance Fallen: 472 feet
In December 2007, New York window washer Alcides Morena fell 47 stories when his platform gave way. Morena held on to the platform on the way down, which is thought to be a key reason for his survival. Sadly, his brother who was working on the same platform did not survive. Morena had been in vegetative state for almost three weeks when on Christmas Day he miraculously spoke his first words since the accident. Morena broke both legs, his wrist and also suffered brain and spinal injuries. He was discharged from the hospital less than two months later, and was walking with only a slight limp just six months after his fall.
Distance Fallen: 876 Feet
Once a year, BASE jumpers flock to West Virginia’s New River Gorge Bridge. Spanning 876 feet above the New River, BASE jumpers are allowed to jump off the bridge and parachute to the water below. Last October, Floridian BASE jumper Christopher Brewer made the trek to West Virginia to try his luck. While tens of thousands of onlookers watched, Brewer’s parachute failed to open. Luckily, Brewer was wearing a wing suit that slowed his fall. It is estimated that he hit the water at 80 mph. When rescue crews found him, he was still conscious. He survived, but suffered a broken pelvis along with lung and spinal injuries.
Betty Lou Oliver
Distance Fallen: 750 feet
Imagine surviving two horrific accidents in the same day. That’s exactly what happened to elevator attendant Betty Lou Oliver in 1945 when a military pilot disoriented by fog crashed his airplane into the upper floors of the Empire State Building. Oliver survived the impact but was badly burned. Rescuers tried to send her down to safety using the elevator, but were unaware that the cables had been damaged in the fire. When the doors closed the elevator cable snapped, sending her plummeting 75 stories to the basement. Oliver survived the fall along with her burns and returned to work five months later. Her fall still stands as the longest elevator fall by an individual who survived, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Next: Epically Hilarious Photos, Vol. 5
Distance Fallen: 400 feet
In 1985, Danny Yamashiro survived two separate falls totaling 400 feet. He and his girlfriend were climbing near Pali Ridge in Hawaii when she suffered a 20-foot fall. As Yamahsiro tried to rush to her assistance, he slipped and fell 300 feet head first, landing on a small ridge. Despite having his scalp torn off and suffering numerous other injuries, he was somehow still alive. As rescue crews worked their way down to him, he moved and fell an additional 100 feet from the ridge. Yamashiro survived both falls and made a full recovery. He has since become a pastor and founded his own ministry in 1993.