Sometimes against all odds and in defiance of science, people manage to withstand experiences that really should have killed them.
Take these five stories, for example, of people getting impaled, crushed, and literally blown up — and surviving to tell the tale.
A stick through the brain
Getting impaled through the brain is usually deadly because the brain controls all sorts of things we don’t think about — breathing, heartbeat, and blood pressure, for one. Yet in 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage survived getting impaled by a 3.5-foot, 13-pound rod he was using to pack a hole with explosives.
As the 25-year-old turned to greet coworkers, an explosion in the hole shot the heavy iron rod through Gage’s jaw, brain, and skull, like this. Like a javelin, the rod landed several yards away. Unlike a javelin, it was carrying a bit of brain with it. Gage lived for another 12 years, saddled with a drooping eyelid, seizures, and dramatic emotional and cognitive problems. He remains a subject of medical fascination to this day.
Forced through a small hole
Moving at high speed through a hole that’s far smaller than your body can result in stripped skin, dislocated joints, broken bones, and crushed or punctured organs. That’s what happened to welder Matthew Lowe in 2008, when his overalls got caught in a factory machine that transports metal parts.
He felt his skin rip and heard his arm snap as the mechanism yanked him through a 5-inch opening, dragging him along the conveyor. The machine spat him out, screaming, from the other end with a broken back, pelvis, hips, and ribs, and a ruptured stomach and bowel. Six operations and many metal pins later, the 25-year-old Lowe was back to work at the factory, hoping to get off the factory floor by training as a supervisor.
Falling onto an air hose
Allowing air into the body any way but through respiratory system can kill. A pocket of air, or embolus, can enter the bloodstream and travel quickly to the brain, quickly causing death. But factory worker Steven McCormack of New Zealand survived an accident in 2011 in which he fell, butt first, onto the nozzle of an air hose.
He screamed as his skin separated from underlying fat and muscle while high-pressure air filled much of the available space, expanding his body to nearly twice its normal size. At the hospital, the inflated man found that doctors couldn’t do much, so they waited while he deflated — loudly.
McCormack went home with medications and an unbelievable story to tell. How did he survive? Nozzle placement — it punctured his buttock but didn’t hit any major blood vessels.
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Caught in an up-up-updraft
When 35-year-old paraglider Ewa Wisnierska went for a practice glide in 2007 as storm clouds gathered above her, the result was an unscheduled flight across the Australian countryside in little more than the clothes she was wearing.
High winds whisked her up at 70 feet per second to just over 30,000 feet above ground and pushed her, frozen and bruised by hail reportedly the size of tennis balls, some 40 miles from where she started. Wisnierska fell unconscious during the flight, but came to after a while and steered herself out of the sky and onto a farm. Her main injury? Frostbite.
Dropped out of the sky
We humans have an uneasy relationship with gravity. We count on and appreciate it for helping us stay grounded, and for keeping objects where we left them. But we also have to be concerned about falling, whether off a chair, down the stairs, or, in the case of New Zealander Michael Holmes, from the sky.
After leaping from a plane in 2009, the skydiving instructor ended up with both his main parachute and the backup chute disabled. Falling at a reported rate of 70 miles per hour, he should have died from internal injuries. Instead, the lucky leaper landed on a blackberry bush, sustaining only a broken ankle and a collapsed lung.