A few years back, while visiting my brother-in-law’s family in Morocco, I found myself atop a large waterfall. Azilal Falls to be more precise, the biggest in the country. One of his brothers who I didn’t know very well, but was trying desperately to impress (the man looked like a young Arab George Clooney), asked if I wanted to look out over the ledge. He said that he would hold me as I leaned out over the cliff side. I sidestepped the barrier and met him on the cliff’s edge. He wrapped his arms around my waist and, in a move of grand stupidity, I leaned out over the edge.
I actually filmed this as it was happening. Somewhere in my mother’s storage unit, there is a CD with a video of these antics on them and I’m fairly certain if she found them she would ban me from ever leaving the house again. In the video you see him playfully jerk and say, “oops!” as I’m face to face with a very rocky way down. I scream. I lose my nerve. I’m scrambling back over the barrier in two seconds flat.
Which brings me to the survival topic of the week: falling. Surviving it is much more possible than you may think. It will take a bit of thought and outcomes will vary depending on where, on what, and from how far you take that dive. But we’ll try to cover a variety of subjects, interesting anecdotes and tips and tricks. Remember, there are people who do stunts like this for a living. It can be survivable. It’s just up to you to know how.
Medium Height Free Falls:
Whoops, I guess sitting up on the ledge of your balcony didn’t make you look so cool after all. Now you are falling towards Earth in front of God and everyone. If you live in a medium-sized town there is a good chance that your apartment building isn’t over three stories tall. This is very survivable. However, you must act quickly. A fall from 2-3 stories only lasts about 2.5 seconds. Here’s what you need to do in that time:
- Make sure you fall feet first. You may not have time, but if you’re going head first, do whatever you can to reposition your body.
- Keep your knees bent, do not stiffen up or brace, that will only make things worse. Land on the balls of your feet to prevent spinal injury. Interlace your fingers behind your head and neck and tuck your chin to protect during impact.
- Roll when you hit the ground. Try to roll on your shoulders rather than your neck or head.
Very High Building Free Falls:
So you’ve healed from your last vertical adventure and made it to NYC. You soothe your wounded pride in the 24-hour eateries and eventually make some friends who invite you to a raucous rooftop party in the Village. Who are you to say no to that? Exactly. You head over and after one too many indie-label beers you find yourself wandering perilously close to the edge. Suddenly a pigeon flies up from a storm drain nearby and you lose your balance. This must be the end! Or is it? In 2010 a man named Thomas Mangill survived a 39-story plummet and in 2007 Alcides Moreno survived a 47-story fall. Both are alive today. Here are some tips that will get you on Good Morning America too:
- You probably won’t have much time to really slow your fall by spreading yourself out. However, do try to keep control of your senses.
- Realize that landing is going to matter. You want to avoid the concrete sidewalk at all costs. Cars, dumpsters, patches of greenery, awning, even glass. Anything is more preferable than the sidewalk.
- You can turn right and left in the air by dipping your shoulders. If you can, try to maneuver yourself toward a dumpster full of trash or a closer landing spot.
- Bend your knees. Always. This is imperative to survival.
- Relax. When you are in an accident (and this counts for motor vehicle as well) tense muscles will direct force more quickly to your vital organs than relaxed muscles. Hence that old adage about the drunk always surviving. Focus on your breathing if you must but make sure you aren’t tensing up.
- If you are falling from a high area you will have time to get your legs in front of you. Excellent. Do that. You always want to land with the expendable part of your body first (nobody really needs their legs).
- Land on the balls of your feet as per usual, cover head and neck with interlaced fingers to protect them.
- Wait for the bounce. When falling from a high distance, there is a good chance that you’re going to bounce. This can be just as fatal as the first impact. When you brace your neck, swing your elbows forward to protect your face. Keep your chin tucked, keep your body relaxed and try to use your shoulders for rolling.
- Here’s the creepy part: If you survive, you may not feel injured. Adrenaline levels will be through the roof and you might think you can walk, when in actuality, your legs have been shredded. Do not move. Unless you’re out of reach from all of humanity, you need to stay still and wait for help to come to you. I don’t care if you feel fine, you sit there and wait.
The Impossible Dream: Waterfalls and Aeroplanes
The first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel (and live) was none other than a woman. Her name was Annie Taylor. After meandering through adult life without finding a niche she figured there was only one way to stay out of the poor house: go over Niagara Falls in a barrel full of compressed air. She survived with only bruises. However, despite sitting around Niagara year after year, telling her story, she still ended up dying in poverty. Meanwhile Bobby Leach, the first man to survive (11 years later and in a steel tube), received fame, fortune and adulation for his feat. However, fate, clearly not a fan of sexist shenanigans, was quick to put an end to the fun. While touring New Zealand, Bobby slipped on an orange peel and died from complications.
Then there are the two women (and yes, only women) who survived the mid-air break up of an airplane. Vesna Vulovic was a Serbian flight attendant in the 1970s. In 1972, an explosion in JAT 367 caused the airplane to break apart mid air. Vesna fell approximately 30,000 feet and was found in the middle of the airplane wreckage, suffering a fractured skull, broken vertebrae, broken legs and was in a coma for 27 days. She says she has no memory of the accident. The other (young) woman to survive such a fall is Juliane Kopcke. She was 17 when she was on LANSA 508 to Lima with her mother. The plane was hit by lightning and exploded mid-air (no, that can no longer happen). Juliane fell two miles to earth, strapped into her seat and suffered a gash on her arm, broken collar bone and a swollen eye. She then survived the next 10 days by herself in the Amazon.
There are no real tips to surviving a fall like this because, well, it seems to be a matter of dumb luck. That and there is a good chance that you won’t be conscious for most of the fall. However, if you ever do find yourself in these improbable situations and are awake than follow the exact same steps that you would when falling from a high rise.
There have been a few notable examples of people surviving skydiving accidents. There is Shayna Richardson, who survived a poorly deployed emergency chute while pregnant (the boy was born without complications). Then there is Michael Holmes who survived his 12000’ fall with a video record of what he thought were his final moments. So you’re falling through the sky, taken by the beautiful colors. Earth, in all her brilliance, is stretching out as if for your eyes alone. Poetic. But numerous problems can occur. If you’re simply inexperienced, or your bag is packed incorrectly there are a few things that you can do to save yourself. Here they are:
- Slow your fall by using the arch position. This means that you let your legs and arms go slightly higher up than the rest of your torso and spread them out. This extra area helps reduce the speed at which you will be falling.
- If you can, look for gently sloping hills. Falling onto the side of one will help you slowly lose your momentum. If the hill is covered in snow, even better.
- If there is water nearby or marshland it is better to fall into there. What you want to avoid is jagged or hard surfaces. You need something that will help distribute the weight of your body evenly.
- You can steer yourself and travel a substantial distance in the air because you’ll have a few minutes to do so. Here’s how you go about it: Fly Forward: Put your arms closer into your body and close your legs a bit. This also may sort of look like a dive position (with arms back instead of forward). Note that you’ll also speed up using this method. Fly Backward: Make a much deeper arch. Extend your arms and you legs so it’s like you’re trying to touch your feet with your head. Fly Side to Side: Just like written above, to move left, dip your left shoulder. To move right, dip your right shoulder.
- As you get closer to the ground follow the same steps as above, bend the knees, land feet first on the ball of the toe, and get ready for the bounce.
- If nothing else remember these wise words from David Carkeet: “Much will depend on your attitude. Don’t let negative thinking ruin your descent. If you find yourself dwelling morbidly on your discouraging starting point of seven miles up, think of this: Thirty feet is the cutoff for fatality in a fall. That is, most who fall from thirty feet or higher die. Thirty feet! It’s nothing! Pity the poor sod who falls from such a ‘height.’ What kind of planning time does he have?”
Falling into Water:
Despite what you may think, falling from a long distance into water is not that much better than slamming into concrete. Water is dense and it will not displace quickly enough to make a nice hole for your body. However, with some steps it is more survivable. Here’s the special precautions you need to take:
- When you are about to enter the water, press your legs together very tightly. Also press your arms to your side but cover your groin, bend your back ever so sightly backward and contract your ass. Water, when you hit it, will go everywhere. This means up your nose, up your anus and quite possibly any other hole it can get into. Be prepared for that by covering your bits and clenching your ass like your life depends on it.
- When you hit the water, follow the bubbles. It’s easy to get disoriented but bubbles always go towards the surface.
- If nobody saw you go into the water then do try to get to shore. However, if there are boats nearby and somebody is coming for you then do what you can to remain relatively immobile. You will have to move a bit, but there is no reason to start your 50m butterfly after a traumatic fall. Remember, adrenaline might urge you to do otherwise, but adrenaline is only necessary if you need to save yourself.
Many of us are afraid of heights, and for good reason. Falling is the second largest accidental killer, just behind motor vehicle accidents, with 14,900 Americans per year. Leaning over balconies, being that dumb girl trying to impress a boy on a waterfall (yours truly) or even just using a ladder without a spotter below are all unnecessary risks that, in the end, are simply not worth it. However, humans are hardly perfect or sensible at all times and it’s ridiculous to expect otherwise. So, when situations do occur and you feel your balance shifting to the point of no return, follow the steps you’ve learned, keep calm and remember that you too can survive.