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Pulled From the Rubble: 4 Amazing Stories of Survival

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A Turkish rescuer searches for earthquake survivors in Van province of Turkey.
© Ma Yan/Xinhua Press/Corbis

When two-week-old Azra Karaduman was pulled from what was left of a seven-story apartment building 47 hours after a devastating earthquake leveled parts of Turkey, spectators marveled that such a tiny morsel of humanity could survive such a horrific ordeal. But scientists tell us that infants are actually the most likely survivors due to their incredible resiliency. Newborns are equipped with extra body fat and can survive much longer than adults without food. In addition, having recently experienced the traumatic (for a baby who’s been resting cozily in the womb for nine months) birth process, their bodies more easily adapt to stress and new, uncertain environments/circumstances, and their metabolic rates adjust accordingly.

Biological details aside, stories of youngsters living through mind-boggling tragedies still give pause to even the most stolid observer. Here are four incredible examples.

1. Paul Vick, 16 Months Old

Robert Vick was a Baptist pastor from Connecticut who was working as a missionary in China after World War II ended. Vick, his wife, and two sons (Theodore, age 2, and Paul, 16 months) boarded a China National Aviation Corp. flight in Shanghai bound for Chungking on January 28, 1947. One engine broke out in flames en route, which quickly spread to the cabin. When it became clear the twin-engine craft was doomed, several of the 23 passengers aboard leapt from the plummeting plane in a panic. Mr. and Mrs. Vick were two who jumped, each with a child in their arms. Robert Vick and his bundle, baby Paul, were the only survivors.

Robert was badly injured and died 40 hours later, but not before giving hospital personnel the names and address of Paul’s U.S. grandparents, where the infant (who’d suffered broken bones in his legs) was sent to live after his injuries had been treated.

2. Elisabeth Joassaint, 11 Days Old

Michelene Joassaint had just put her 11-day-old daughter down for her afternoon nap when an earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010.

She attempted to run to the bedroom to retrieve Elisabeth, but the second story of the house began to collapse on her head and her path was blocked. She managed to get outside and spent the next seven days grieving with her husband in a makeshift camp set up in a nearby football field.

The couple fully expected to be told that their daughter had perished in the quake, so they were completely dumbfounded when news reached them that a French rescue team searching the rubble had heard faint cries and found Elisabeth curled up on her bed in a tiny hollow under the debris. The baby was dehydrated, but otherwise uninjured.

3. Cecelia Cichan, Four Years Old

Northwest Flight 255, bound for Phoenix, Arizona, pushed back from the gate at Detroit Metropolitan Airport at 8:32PM on Sunday, August 16, 1987. It was cleared for takeoff at 8:44 and approximately 20 seconds later (according to witnesses) the wings rotated right and left about 35 degrees in each direction. The left wing hit a light pole and then the roof of an Avis Rent-A-Car building before slamming into the ground. The fiery wreckage spread out over nearby I-94 and killed two commuters on the freeway.

News stories that followed immediately after the crash reported that the sole survivor, four-year-old Cecelia Cichan, had been found embraced in her deceased mother’s arms. The wire services picked up the erroneous information and presented it as the one “feel-good story” amidst such an overwhelming tragedy, the ultimate act of motherly love – shielding your child’s body with your own when disaster is imminent. In reality, Flight 255 went down too quickly for anyone to unbuckle and react, and when rescue personnel arrived on the scene, they found Cecelia alone, buckled into overturned seat number 8F. Cecelia suffered a broken leg and burns over 30% of her body.

Her identity remained a mystery for several days after the crash (her parents and brother had also been aboard the doomed aircraft) until her maternal grandmother read news reports that the little survivor was wearing purple nail polish and had a chipped front tooth. Pauline Ciamaichela tearfully remembered painting little Cecelia’s fingernails lavender before the family left to return to Arizona. After being released from the University of Michigan hospital, she was raised by relatives in Alabama.

4. Claudia Isabel Rios, Araceli Santamaria Romo, et al, Mere Days Old

When the earthquake that struck Mexico City in 1985 (which ultimately killed almost 10,000 people), one of the areas most devastated happened to be a location where several of the city’s major hospitals stood. It was shift change at the 12-story Juarez General Hospital when the 8.1 magnitude quake hit, so the corridors were more crowded than usual. Aftershocks hampered rescue personnel and ultimately 561 bodies were recovered from the debris.

Amazingly, however, nine days after disaster had originally struck, construction workers removing the rubble found what used to be the hospital’s nursery and 16 infants—none who had been older than one week when the building first collapsed—still clinging to life. Two of the babies later succumbed to their injuries, but the rest managed to beat the odds and are now in their mid-20s (and are occasionally annoyed by the annual media attention devoted to the “Miracle Babies.”) None of them remember the earthquake, and sadly, most of them grew up never knowing their mothers.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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