3 Incredible survival stories

3 Incredible survival stories

BY Lisa Fitterman

14th Dec 2023 Life

11 min read

Three people who each faced a close call with death—and lived to tell about it. From a flooded apartment and a parachute malfunction to a "snownado", these survival stories are as horrifying as they are amazing

I survived my flooded apartment

It was 1:20 In the mornIng on July 15, 2021. I had just gone to bed, a bit drunk after celebrating my 31st birthday. I’d had some friends over to my basement apartment, in my sister’s house.
We live in Sinzig, just south of Bonn, Germany. The town is about half a mile from the banks of the Ahr River, and it had been raining buckets that week; there were flood warnings and evacuation orders for some of the nearby areas, but not where I was.
As a precaution, I’d placed sandbags outside my garden door and piled electronics and clothing on tables and the couch just in case water managed to seep through. Before my friends left, they laughed at me for doing that, but I thought, Why take a chance?
As I drifted off to sleep, I was awakened by the sound of rushing water, like I was beside a waterfall instead of in my bedroom. When I swung my legs off the bed, I was shocked to feel cold water already up to my knees and rising fast.
It must be a burst pipe in the bathroom, I thought. Shivering and in darkness, I grabbed my phone and turned on its flashlight. When I stepped into the hall, I saw it wasn’t a burst pipe. Water was coming—like a geyser, or a pressure washer—from the garden door. It must have breached the sandbags. Chairs, bookshelves and pieces of my drum set were floating all over my living room.
I could feel the adrenalin surging as panic began to set in. The Ahr, usually such a quiet, slow-moving river in my region, had violently burst its banks. And now I had to get out—fast!
Illustration of man in flooded apartment
Any effects of the alcohol were gone; fear sobers one up. I heard the garden door starting to rip apart, the wood cracking under the pressure. The sound was like nothing else, screeching, hissing and crashing all at once. Relentless.
With the water now up to my waist, in bare feet and with my boxer shorts plastered to my body, I started to wade to my only escape: the door that leads upstairs to the rest of the house. All around me things were breaking—the lamps were shattering; the fridge and cupboards were being torn apart.
Finally I made it to that door and tried to pull it open, but the water’s pressure was immense. Every time I opened the door a bit, it slammed shut again.
I looked around for anything I could use to wedge it open. In the corner was a broom, a coat rack, and a heavy sword from a medieval fair. I grabbed them all and, once again, pried open the door, throwing the broom and coat rack between the door and the frame, and using the sword to wedge it open some more. I managed to make a gap of about 30 centimetres, enough for me to squeeze through.
In the pitch black, I ran up to the third floor. I knocked on my sister’s door like crazy, trying to find out if she was OK, until I remembered that she wasn’t staying there that night.
Then, I rushed down to the main floor and went outside. I stood in the dark, soaked and panting, staring at a waterscape with debris, branches and trees floating in it. The river had flooded the neighbourhood—and as my adrenalin receded, I realised that if I had woken up just a few minutes later, I would have drowned.
"I stood there in the darkness, soaked and panting, staring at what was now a waterscape "
We’ve been assured that something like this happens only once every 100 years. I hope so. More than 180 people died and parts of villages in the region were entirely washed away.
These days, I’m living at my parents’ place in the middle of town. I study psychology and work with children in schools, teaching martial arts. We didn’t have flood insurance because the house wasn’t considered to be in a high-risk area, so we’re fixing it up on our own. When that’s done, my old apartment will house my martial arts school. I can never go back to live in that flat because I just keep thinking, What if it does happen again? There are too many traumatic memories.
Many of the houses around us were destroyed, including a home for people with disabilities. It was so awful. Not everyone got out.
In the end, I think the experience made me grateful and determined to live each day to its fullest. I came very close to drowning that day. But rather than dwell on what could have happened, I prefer to recall what my mother told me afterwards: “Christian, don’t remember the day when you lost everything. Remember the day you survived.”

I survived a parachute malfunction

November 14, 2021, was a perfect day for skydiving: sunny, with little wind. I was a novice solo jumper; I’d done 14 jumps, not enough to be licensed. It scared me, but fear always makes you a better risk taker, right? That’s what drew me to skydiving. I’ve always been extreme.
It took about 40 minutes to drive from my home to the hangar near Suffolk, in the US state of Virginia; the area has lots of empty land and airspace.
I went up in the plane with a group of about 15 for a first jump at around 1:30pm, and it was beautiful. To start, I went through the safety procedures with my coach—a ritual done for every jump, no matter how much experience you have had. This includes pointing from the plane door to the drop zone—where you land—4,100 metres below, so you can direct your jump.
Illustration of woman skydiving with cords wrapped around her ankle
Then we jumped; me first, then my coach. We were in freefall at some 125mph, descending about 985 feet every five seconds. It was exhilarating and terrifying all at once, with the world opening up before me, coming into focus in mere seconds, even though it felt a lot longer.
The wind eddies carried me for the freefall, and at about 4,000 feet, I deployed my pilot chute—the small parachute used to extract the main one. After the main chute was released and inflated, I had about a minute to enjoy the peace and quiet as I floated gently to the ground, the grass quickly coming into focus. I felt invincible.
Not long after, we went up again for a second jump. The mood on the plane was light—lots of joking, lots of laughing. My coach and I went through the same safety routine, then we jumped.
After 30 seconds, at around 5,500 feet, we tracked away from each other because you need lots of empty space to safely deploy your parachute. I looked at my altimeter and realized I was lower than I’d thought. The ground was coming up so fast! I knew I had to pull the pilot chute at roughly 4,000 feet, like I’d done the last time, but in my rush to pull my chute I hadn’t taken time to stabilise my position. When I pulled it, instead of releasing into the airstream to inflate, the pilot chute wrapped around my right leg.
"When I pulled it, instead of releasing into the airstream to inflate, the pilot chute wrapped around my right leg"
The chute was pulling my right leg up like a ballerina’s, while the main parachute remained in its bag. Just get it off, I told myself calmly. I wasted about seven seconds trying—unsuccessfully—to get untangled; I should have opened the reserve chute right away. (It’s a backup for when the main one isn’t working.)
With the ground rapidly coming into focus below me, I prepared to crash. I didn’t think it would be a catastrophic impact—maybe you’ll break a leg, I thought. I’ve always been an optimist.
Then, suddenly, the reserve parachute opened. I managed to gain some control, steering myself toward some grass, hoping for a softer landing.
I had only seconds to feel some relief. Then the main parachute released! The two parachutes began pulling in opposite directions, causing me to accelerate hard and fast toward the ground.
When I crashed, my body felt like it was on fire. I tried to get up because that’s what you’re supposed to do if you don’t land on your feet, to show you’re OK. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t move anything below my waist. So I lay there, my face in the grass, my arms flung out to either side, and I screamed. “Please, somebody help!” In between calling for help, I prayed out loud. “Please, God, don’t let me be paralysed.”
I lay with my face buried in the grass, fully conscious, for about five minutes before people from the skydiving club got there. They quickly surrounded me, eager to help, but there was nothing they could do. It was too risky to move me before the paramedics arrived. But I didn’t understand that yet, and they had to listen to me swearing and yelling at them to help me as the shock wore off and the pain really set in.
When the first two paramedics arrived by ambulance, half an hour later, they tried to move me onto a board for transport, but it hurt so much, I screamed. Then I heard the helicopter.
The air-ambulance crew came equipped with ketamine, which sent me to la-la land, and I was transported to a trauma centre. My injuries were pretty intense: a shattered ankle, broken shin and a spinal injury that caused a spinal fluid leak. In February 2022, three months after the crash, I walked again for the first time and several months after that, I was able to climb to Everest base camp.
Oh, and I plan to skydive again. But I haven’t told my parents yet.

I survived a "snownado" trapped in my car 

The snowstorm was supposed to hit on the evening of Monday, January 31, 2022. I was working from home but I had to leave that afternoon and go to my office at First Nations University in Regina, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, so I could sign an emergency bursary cheque for a student. As the director of finance, I wanted to get it to him as soon as possible, snowstorm or not. Besides, I wasn’t worried. I figured I had lots of time to make it to the office and get back home.
The route to the school takes about 30 minutes, straight east along a highway as flat as a pancake. When I got there, my colleague came to my office to co-sign the cheque, then he left for the day. As I was packing up, I noticed he had left his laptop bag in my office.
“Shoot,” he said when I called him. “I’m already home.”
“I can bring it to you,” I assured him. It was 4.30pm. The snow wasn’t supposed to start until later, but just to be safe, I decided to use the country roads near his home instead of the highway, which could fast become a skating rink. On the way, I filled up my SUV with petrol and picked up two stuffed-crust pizzas because I’d promised my kids, aged 10 and 15, I’d get some for dinner.
It took me about 15 minutes to get to my colleague’s house, where I dropped off the laptop case and got right back on the road. Then the snow started—and it was coming down fast. Within minutes I was in a whiteout. The storm was a “snownado,” or “Saskatchewan screamer,” because it comes in fast and is so windy it screams. It was terrifying!
Illustration of woman trapped in SUV during a "snownado"
The road soon went from paved to gravel, so I had to reduce my speed. I rolled down my window, thinking I could follow the edge of the road and keep to a straight line. But really, I hadn’t a clue where I was or even which side of the road I was on. At one point, I stopped because I was afraid of driving into a farmer’s field, the ditch or worse. I kept the car running to keep warm and called 9-1-1. The dispatcher told me I’d have to wait out the storm for the night—nobody was coming to get me until morning at the earliest.
Those seconds after the call were the worst of my life. Getting out to walk in a whiteout and high winds when it was -10 degrees C—when I didn’t even know where I was—wasn’t an option. But I worried other drivers wouldn’t see me and would smash into the car. Or that the tailpipe would get clogged with snow and I’d die from carbon monoxide poisoning. Or that the storm would be longer than predicted and I’d be found too late. Breathe, I told myself. Panicking won’t help.
"What would my black SUV look like in a whiteout at night? A shadow? Or worse, invisible? "
And my kids! It was the first time they’d ever be spending a night without me at home. I called and told them what was happening, forcing myself to sound calm. I didn’t tell them I was terrified. That I, a problem solver all my life, couldn’t figure out what to do.
It was now about 6pm and dark. What would my black SUV look like in a whiteout at night? Would it appear as a shadow? Or worse, would it be invisible? Suddenly a truck drove by, barely missing me. It was close. At first, I was scared. But then I thought, salvation! I put the car in drive and followed the truck, desperate, driving slowly with no idea where we were going. When it suddenly turned, I didn’t know what to do.
“I’m going to the beach,” the driver shouted through his open window, his words almost lost in the wind.
I knew the beach wasn’t in the direction of my home. I had no idea where I was. So I stopped the car and texted my colleague whose laptop bag I had just returned. I joked about my good deed ending in disaster. But he had an idea. “Pin your location on Google Maps and send it to me,” he said.
I did, and a few minutes later he texted me back a screenshot of the satellite view of where I was. We figured out that I was on a road called Bouvier Lane, in between two farms. It was now 6.30pm. I posted this new information to my Facebook community group, pleading for anyone who knew someone who lived here to help me get rescued.
After that, all I could do was sit in the car and try to stay warm. I was so glad that I’d just filled it up. I’d done all I could, and no matter what happened, I had to be at peace with that. But even if someone did figure out where I was, would help be able to come through the swirling snow and shrieking wind?
Soon enough, though, people started chiming in on my post. They knew the family who lived there! I got a message from someone who was going to put me in touch with them. At 8pm, my mobile phone rang. It was the son of the farmer who owned the land beside the road I was stranded on. He told me that his dad was coming to get me!
Then, about 45 minutes later, I saw a tall figure in a yellow rain slicker striding toward me in the dark, carrying a flashlight. Oh my gosh, was I relieved to see him! It was André Bouvier, who’d walked half a mile through the blizzard to find me, fighting the wind and snow each step of the way, shielding his eyes from the stinging snow with a mittened hand.
“Can you drive?” I asked, shakily, through the car window. “My nerves are shot.” Despite his strong stride, now that he was close up, I realised he was an elderly man.
“No,” he replied, his voice steady. “I want you to follow me in your car. You’ll be OK.”
He turned around and started to trudge through the snow, sure of the direction. I drove slowly behind him, clutching the wheel, feeling my heart begin to beat more slowly. When we reached the house a few minutes later, I got out of the car and burst into tears, all my fears turning into relief and gratitude.
As his wife treated me to hot drinks and apple sauce, André, who I’d learn was 80 years old, said he’d noticed two other cars stranded, too, and he went back out into the storm to get them: a father and his two kids, and a couple with their daughter. That’s the kind of guy he is—his energy and outlook is so much younger than his actual age.
We all spent the night telling stories, the kids ate the pizza I’d bought, and we slept scattered around the house, on sofas and La-Z-Boy chairs. By 5:30 the next morning, André had cleared the snow from his driveway enough that we could all get out and drive home, which in my case ended up being only five minutes away. The storm turned me around so much, I didn’t realise how close I was. Even so, I couldn’t have gone any further without risking my life.
The experience gave me a new perspective, letting me approach challenges and surprises with a sense of calm. It reminded me to always reach out and help others—both friends and strangers. But best of all, it brought André into my life. We’re still in touch, and I know we’ll be friends forever.
Banner credit: Illustration of a skydiving accident by Kagan McLeod

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by 
subscribing to our weekly newsletter