Man found alive after 61 days trapped in icy car

Rescue teams in Sweden have freed a motorist who survived two freezing months trapped in his car by eating handfuls of snow. Doctors say it is a miracle he is still alive.

When a pair of Swedish snowmobilers came across a car buried beneath a metre of snow last Friday, they assumed it had been abandoned. But, as they scraped the ice from the windscreen, they saw something extraordinary: a movement from within.

Hours later, rescue teams pulled the emaciated figure of a man from the metal box that, by all reasonable expectations, ought to have been his coffin. Peter Skyllberg had been trapped in the car since the middle of December, as temperatures outside dropped as far as -30°C. He survived on little more than mouthfuls of frozen snow.

How he got there is so far a mystery. Skyllberg could force out only a few words before being rushed into intensive care, but pictures of his car reveal glimpses of a meagre survival kit: a few empty food and drink cartons, a battered sleeping bag, a winter jacket.

Doctors are astonished. Quite apart from the freezing temperatures, even one month without food is usually fatal. One expert suggested that Skyllberg must have started hibernating, ‘like a bear’ – although others are sceptical. All, however, agree that Skyllberg’s survival is little short of a miracle.

This is not the first time that a person has baffled scientists by defying death. In 2010, two-year-old Gore Otteson toddled out of his family’s caravan and into an ice-cold irrigation ditch, where he lay submerged for 25 minutes. His body was rigid, his heart still – by many definitions, Otteson was dead. Yet not only did ‘Lazarus Boy‘ survive – he went on to make a full recovery.

Cheaters of death have always captured the imagination. The adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the original literary castaway, were based on the life of a real man called Alexander Selkirk – who survived four years on an uninhabited island.

More recently, the film Alive told the true story of plane crash survivors in the Andes. Stranded in a barren landscape, they kept starvation at bay by eating their dead comrades.

Then there is Wenseslao Moguel, the Mexican revolutionary who escaped a firing squad. Despite being shot nine times, including once in the head at close range, he remained alive and conscious. Then, when his executioners were gone, he simply snuck away.

Will to live

These survival stories are certainly impressive, say cynical observers – but the triumph is one of blind chance, not heroism. Survivors like Skyllberg are blessed with extraordinary physical resilience. Others, like Moguel, just get very lucky indeed. There’s nothing more to it than that.

On the contrary, others reply. When humans are pushed to extremes, it is strength of the mind, not the body, that makes the difference between life and death.

You Decide

  1. Which is more important in survival situations: luck, physical toughness or mental strength?
  2. Does the ability to endure terrible conditions make a person a hero?

Activities

  1. Design a survival kit that could keep you alive in extreme situations. It must be small enough to be easy to carry at all times. What would you bring?
  2. Research an extreme survival story and write an account of it from the survivor’s point of view.

Some People Say...

“There’s nothing heroic about the will to live – it’s just a selfish instinct.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is there something that makes extreme survivors different?
It may be simply that in certain conditions, humans are capable of surviving situations that we usually think of as fatal. For instance, there have been several cases of people surviving for days, even weeks, in very low temperatures; some scientists believe that if the cold is extreme enough, we instinctively respond by shutting down all but a tiny, crucial part of our brains.
Couldn’t we use this to keep people alive?
‘Lazarus Boy’ is one of a few cases where this ‘cooling treatment’ has been successfully used. But since freezing can do irreparable damage, it is a dangerous, temporary last resort rather than a long-term solution. ‘Cryogenic freezing,’ as it is known, still belongs mostly in the realms of science fiction.

Word Watch

Hibernating
From bears to hedgehogs, hibernation is used by many mammals to stay alive when conditions are harsh. Animals close off many bodily functions and their temperatures can drop to below 0°C as they live off reserves of fat they have previously built up. There have been efforts to artificially hibernate humans, but so far it has not proved possible.
By many definitions
For something that seems so definite, death is surprisingly hard to define. For most of history it has been measured from the stopping of the heart or lungs, but sometimes these can be restarted. Nowadays a person is considered dead when their brain is inactive – but it is disputed whether even this is really final.
Lazarus Boy
Named after the Biblical Lazarus, whom Jesus is said to have revived four days after his death.
Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe’s literary creation far outdid the man who he was based on, surviving 28 years on an island on the Pacific. However he is not completely alone in the book: his servant, ‘Man Friday’, is the escaped meal of cannibals who occasionally visit. Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is one of the world’s oldest novels.

Subjects

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