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.