From surviving plane crashes and sinking ships to overcoming the heat of the Saharan sands, Verve brings you some of the most remarkable tales of human courage, spirit and perseverance.
>> Trapped in an Underwater Bubble
It was the early hours of 25 May 2013 when tugboat Jacson-4 ran into some heavy swell 20km off Nigeria’s coast. Harrison Okene, the ship’s cook, was in the bathroom when the vessel lurched violently, overturned, then sank. His 11 fellow crew members were locked in their cabins — a safety precaution introduced to guard against pirates that ultimately sealed their deaths. The boat came to rest upside down at a depth of 30m, a level that would likely be fatal to even experienced divers for any more than half-an-hour, but Okene, crouched in an air bubble, survived for 60 hours. Divers sent to recover the sailors’ bodies were flabbergasted to find him alive. His claustrophobic ordeal was not quite over, however, for he had to spend a further two days in a decompression chamber upon his rescue.
>> Miracle on the Mountain
Norman Ollestad’s father was an adrenalin-junkie who also pushed his son to his very limits, taking him surfing on his back as a baby and setting him off on skis by the age of three. Eight years later tragedy struck when Ollestad senior chartered a small plane to fly over California’s San Gabriel Mountains so that his son could collect a national ski award. Minutes into the flight, a storm hit, sending the plane hurtling through the treetops before coming to a halt balancing precariously over an ice chute. Ollestad’s dad and the pilot died instantly. Sandra Cressman, Ollestad’s father’s girlfriend, survived, but soon after suffered a fatal fall, leaving the 11-year-old alone on the mountainside. It took the boy nine hours to climb down the treacherous ice fields to safety. His 2009 memoir, Crazy For The Storm, was a bestseller.
>> Shipwrecked by Orcas
The Robertson family left the UK on 27 January 1971 and had been sailing for 17 months when their schooner was struck by a pod of killer whales near the Galapagos Islands, splintering the vessel which then sank in minutes. The six-strong group — five family members and a hitchhiker — scrambled for the 10-man raft, terrified that they’d be attacked by the orcas. After 16 days the inflatable boat became unusable and they were forced to squeeze into a 3m dinghy. Over the following weeks, each took turns to sit on the boat’s only dry point, such was the overcrowding. Water and food rations had been exhausted leaving the family to survive on fish and turtles. They once even managed to snare a five-foot shark with a paddle-turned-spear. Thirty-eight days after the disaster, the group were spotted and saved by a Japanese vessel, fitting, as 30 years previously patriarch Dougal Robertson, a retired naval merchant officer, had been sunk by a Japanese missile during the Second World War.
>> Sun, Sand and Survival
Italian Mauro Prosperi was one of 80 ultra-marathoners who took part in the 1994 Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 250km race which snakes through the Sahara Desert — in itself an incredible feat of endurance. Prosperi’s race, though, was to be even trickier. “My wife, Cinzia, thought I was insane,” Prosperi told the BBC. “the race is so risky that you have to sign a form to say where you want your body to be sent in case you die.” Which he very nearly did — more than once. Four days in, a sandstorm kicked in and the runner became lost. Two days later, unable to attract the attention of passing helicopters and planes, Prosperi stumbled upon a a Muslim shrine housing the body of a holy man. Prosperi survived on urine and bats. Concerned of ceding to a long and drawn out death he sliced his wrists with a pen knife, but was so dehydrated his thickened blood wouldn’t flow out. The next morning, with quite literally a new lease of life, the athlete headed back out onto the sands where he ate reptiles, insects and cacti. Prosperi was finally discovered and taken to a military camp having survived a scorching 10-day ordeal.
>> Maiden of the Ice
Alaskan native Ada Blackjack was a timid 23-year-old who stood at just one-and-a-half metres tall when she was sent with a team of male explorers to claim an Arctic region for the British empire in 1921. She knew nothing of hunting or living off the land, fearing both bears and guns, but she was a desperate mother in need of work following her husband’s death by drowning. Only two of the group had real knowledge of the area, and, as the winter of January 1923 worsened they began to starve. When one of the men fell desperately ill, the three others went in search of help leaving Ada to tend to their friend. But he died in April and Ada survived alone until her rescue on 19 August 1923 when she was hailed as a female Robinson Crusoe. “She had guts like a hero,” recorded one newspaper. “Her physical stomach wasn’t a bit more adapted to seal oil and blubber than theirs. But in Ada’s heart there was a fire that isn’t easily blown out. If Ada ever takes it into her head that she would like to see what the North Pole looks like, she will wade up and look at the place.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces