5 Amazing Tales of Sole Survivors

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People are amazing survivors, capable of living through even the most desperate circumstances. That survival instinct isn’t always enough; sometimes a bizarre twist of fate carries a person through a harrowing ordeal. The modern history of accidents and disasters is punctuated with strange-but-true stories of sole survivors who lived to tell the tale. We’ll leave it to the statisticians and actuaries to calculate how the following survivors beat the odds and walked away from almost certain death.


5. 4-Year-Old Girl is Lone Survivor of Crash That Killed 156

Four-year-old Cecelia Cichan was the only one of 155 passengers and crew to survive a 1987 plane crash in Detroit. AP/Fair Use

On Aug. 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed shortly after takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, exploding in a fireball along a busy highway. The crash killed 154 people on board, along with two on the ground. The only survivor: 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan, whose parents and brother were killed in the crash.

Cecelia’s aunt and uncle raised her, and were careful to shield her from any media attention in the years that followed the crash. Cecelia, who is now married and known as Cecelia Crocker, didn’t talk publicly about the accident until the release of the 2013 documentary Sole Survivor, which details her story and other lone survivors of air disasters. “When I realized I was the only person to survive that plane crash, I was maybe in middle school, high school maybe,” Crocker told ABC. “Being an adolescent and confused, so it was just extra stress for me. I remember feeling angry and survivor’s guilt. Why didn’t my brother survive? Why didn’t anybody? Why me?” Although Cecelia has no memory of the incident, she still bears physical reminders, with several scars … and the tattoo of an aircraft on the inside of her left wrist.


4. Prisoner Survives Volcano That Destroyed Town

Ludger Sylbaris survived a volcanic eruption that killed more than 30,000 people, although he suffered horrible burns.

Police threw Ludger Sylbaris in solitary confinement on May 7, 1902 in St. Pierre, Martinique for a minor offense, likely drunk and disorderly conduct. His misfortune, however, saved him from a disaster of epic proportions. The very next day, Mount Pelée erupted. Trapped in his tiny, stone-walled cell, Sylbaris urinated on his own clothes and stuffed them in the cell door’s slot in an attempt to shut out flying hot ash. Outside, the cloud of hot ash and noxious gas raced down the mountain at hundreds of miles an hour, wiping out the town of more than 30,000 people on the volcano’s slopes within minutes. Rescuers pulled Sylbaris from his cell four days later, badly burned but alive.

Sylbaris gained minor celebrity in later years, touring with Barnum & Bailey’s circus. Although billed as the only man who survived the “Silent City of Death,” there may have been two other survivors from that catastrophe.


3. Teen Survives Plane Crash, Jungle Ordeal

Juliane Koepcke shared her amazing tale of survival in the international bestseller, When I Fell From the Sky.

High school senior Juliane Koepcke boarded LANSA Flight 508 in Lima, Peru on Christmas Eve, 1971 with her mother, bound for the eastern part of the country. But 40 minutes into the flight, lightning struck the right-wing fuel tank, shattering the plane. Koepcke awakened the next day on the dense jungle floor, with a broken collarbone, cuts, bruises and a ruptured ligament in her knee. The only survivor of LANSA Flight 508, she had actually fallen almost 10,000 feet into the jungle and survived. Yet her tale had just begun. Wandering through the wreckage, she desperately searched for her mother among the 92 dead passengers as she faded in and out of consciousness.

Realizing that rescuers were unlikely to make it to the dense jungle crash site, Koepcke made her way to a small stream. She spent nine days making her way downstream, sometimes wading along its shores and at times floating. Insects feasted on her wounds; at one point, she removed almost three-dozen maggots from the wounds on one arm. Finally, Koepcke came upon a small boat and a shack, and locals rescued her. Koepcke now lives in Germany and wrote an account of her ordeal in her 2011 memoir entitled When I Fell From the Sky. Koepcke told Harper’s Magazine in 2011 the incident still haunts her. “I had nightmares for a long time, for years, and of course the grief about my mother’s death and that of the other people came back again and again. The thought, ‘Why was I the only survivor?’ haunts me. It always will.”


2. Stewardess Survives Fall From 33,000 Feet

Vesna Vulović survived a fall from more than 33,000 feet after her airplane exploded. AP/Fair Use

On Jan. 26, 1972, 22-year-old flight attendant Vesna Vulocić boarded JAT Yugoslav Airways Flight 367 from Stockholm to Belgrade. Disaster struck just over an hour out from their final destination, when the plane exploded high over the country then known as Czechoslovakia. Vulović survived the aircraft explosion and a fall from 33,330 feet, a currently standing record recognized by the Guinness Book for surviving a fall without a parachute. To this day, it’s unclear just how Vulović survived: researchers suggest that she was pinned in the rear part of the plane during the fall, though a rescuer found her lodged under a food cart in the mid-section of the plane. She suffered two broken legs, temporary paralysis from the waist down, a fractured skull, a broken pelvis and broken vertebrae. After being rescued, Vulović spent 10 days in a coma.

The official account is that a terrorist bomb brought down the plane, although two journalists uncovered evidence in 2009 suggesting an air-to-air missile brought down the flight. And they claimed the plane might have broken apart much closer to the ground, at around 1,000 feet. Others have hotly disputed that new theory, suggesting the original account is accurate. Whatever the case, Vulović became a national heroine in her native Serbia, and used her fame to lobby for political causes. She once told the New York Times she still flew, and that, “People always want to sit next to me on the plane.” Vulović passed away on Dec. 23, 2016 in Belgrade.


1. Man Survives Atomic Bombing … Twice

Tsutomu Yamaguchim, shown here at age 93 in 2010, survived both atomic bomb explosions in Japan in 1945.

The United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. local time on Aug. 6, 1945. As fate would have it, Mitsubishi businessman Tsutomu Yamaguchi was in town at the time on a three-month business trip and survived the attack. Yamaguchi was at the train station about to depart Hiroshima, when he realized he’d forgotten his travel stamp and hurriedly returned back to his office to retrieve it. He actually saw the Enola Gay drop the Little Boy atomic bomb, and was only three kilometers away from ground zero when the blast occurred.

Burned, injured and temporarily blinded,Yamaguchi managed to return home the next day … to the city of Nagasaki. Rumors were flying around Japan about a new American weapon that could level a city, and Yamaguchi was actually describing the Hiroshima bombing to his employer when the more powerful Fat Man plutonium bomb exploded over the city. Yamaguchi was recognized as a hibakusha (person impacted by an atomic explosion) in 1957, and is the only recognized survivor of both atomic bombs by the Japanese government. Yamaguchi died of stomach cancer — perhaps as a result of radiation exposure during the two bombings — in 2010 at the age of 93.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.