The last thing I remember it was dark, I could hear lightning all around me
February 16, 2007 2:15 PM   Subscribe

Paraglider survives 32,000ft fall. A German paragliding champion named Ewa Wisnierska was "sucked into a storm that pulled her higher than Mount Everest." She "soared skywards," and was soon "covered in ice" as she "battled hailstones the size of oranges," becoming one with the weather. "I could see the Earth coming," she later said, "wow, like Apollo 13 – I can see the Earth."
posted by BLDGBLOG (57 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I see a Red Bull Airborne sponsorship coming up.
posted by ericb at 2:21 PM on February 16, 2007

Uh. Mah. Gah.

That is 100% fucking crazy.
posted by tristeza at 2:23 PM on February 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow. How long was she up (the article doesn't really say)?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:29 PM on February 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm a little confused...did she actually fall, or was she able to use here paraglider? I get the impression she was gliding the whole way.
posted by Snyder at 2:30 PM on February 16, 2007

She didn't fall. She glided back down, once she regained consciousness.
posted by thirteenkiller at 2:31 PM on February 16, 2007

Yeah, I read that. She went up at a certain point with approx. 60 km/h up to almost 10 km. Amazing story.
A little more information in The Times
posted by jouke at 2:34 PM on February 16, 2007

There's no place like home.
posted by dov3 at 2:36 PM on February 16, 2007

So it's more like she survived a 32,000-foot rise, amirite?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:43 PM on February 16, 2007

Holy cow! One of my high school teachers once regaled us with a story of WWII paratroopers who got caught in a storm cell and kept cycling up and down until they turned into paracicles and eventually came down frozen solid. I guess he was only slightly exaggerating.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 2:45 PM on February 16, 2007

Ah, that article answers my question:

Ewa Wisnierska is believed to have flown unconscious for almost one hour
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:58 PM on February 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

This reminds me of the Herzog documentary about the German woman who was sole survivor of a plane crash in the Amazon jungle. Incredible story.
posted by Elmore at 3:03 PM on February 16, 2007

And in my pantheon of 'Things that Would Suck'; getting yanked up into the sky and bounced around inside a freezing electrical storm just moved up on the list.

Honestly I'm not sure what is more surprising, that it happened, or that she lived.
posted by quin at 3:08 PM on February 16, 2007

they should have sent a poet ....
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:09 PM on February 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

The flash-freezing must have saved her brain. Just incredible.
posted by docpops at 3:28 PM on February 16, 2007

Poets read about stuff like this and make it art, PercussivePaul. Sometimes poets live through stuff like this and make it art, but the reading option is far, far commoner, from what I've read. (We may get a MeFi rendition of this experience, and it might be poetry; I've seen poetry here before, I think. Not just parody, but honest poems, alive and blue.)
posted by cgc373 at 3:30 PM on February 16, 2007

Wow. This reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe's A Descent into the Maelström, where the protagonist is sucked into the cracks of the earth by tidal currents.
posted by Anything at 3:33 PM on February 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

csi actually did an episode with a similar storyline, but the character in that plotline was male. and, died. what an amazing story this is. i am glad she survived.
posted by lapolla at 3:34 PM on February 16, 2007

Wow - from the Times article: "He Zhongpin, a Chinese paraglider who flew into the same storm, was found dead on Thursday, 75km from his launch site. He is believed to have suffocated or frozen to death after being sucked up into the storm’s centre."

But check this out: "Police are now analysing data retrieved from his GPS instruments to map his exact flight path." (!)

A new geography of air.
posted by BLDGBLOG at 3:42 PM on February 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

“You can’t imagine the power - you feel like nothing, like a leaf from a tree going up,” she said. “I was shaking all the time. The last thing I remember it was dark. I could hear lightning all around me. I knew I was in the middle of a thunderstorm and I could not do anything.”

Wow. Amazing.
posted by jokeefe at 3:46 PM on February 16, 2007


From the Free Fall Research PageUnlucky Skydivers, Free Fallers, Wreckage Riders, and other Amazing Stories:
William Rankin: In 1959, Lt. Col. William Rankin was flying at 47,000 feet when he had to eject from his F8U jet over Norfolk, Virginia due to an engine failure. He parachuted into the middle of a severe thunderstorm that carried him over 65 miles to Rich Square, North Carolina. The trip took over 40 minutes.
The details of Rankin's wild ride are in his 1960 autobiography, The Man Who Rode the Thunder.
posted by cenoxo at 3:48 PM on February 16, 2007

A 42-year-old Chinese man, He Zhongpin, was killed in the tornado-like storm.
posted by bwg at 4:05 PM on February 16, 2007

I would kill to see what she saw. But not, you know, die.
posted by brundlefly at 4:09 PM on February 16, 2007

Reminds me of the Kittinger post. Wow.
posted by spiderwire at 4:38 PM on February 16, 2007

Hah. I forgot that I owed bugbread an apology for that wacked-out 7 AM post on heroism. Sorry, bugbread.
posted by spiderwire at 4:42 PM on February 16, 2007

That Kittinger post is friggin' wonderful, spiderwire! That one, the one loquacious did about the dude in the weather-balloon chair, this one: Icarus, can you hear these people?
posted by cgc373 at 4:59 PM on February 16, 2007

"It's like winning Lotto 10 times in a row - the odds of her surviving were that long "

Aww, those are pretty long odds....I guess. I'd be more impressed if she did it in clown pants or something.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:04 PM on February 16, 2007

All I can think of is the great bit from Life of Brian: after seeing Brian survive an unlikely chain of events including a fall from a tower into a passing spaceship, being carried off into an interstellar battle, and then crash landing at the base of the vewry same tower and walking away unscathed, a witness just looks at him and says "You lucky bastard."

My favorite line in a movie chock full of great lines.
posted by John Smallberries at 5:43 PM on February 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Fantastic performance. Once in a lifetime happening. May the good Lord keep watch over herand keep her safe.
posted by farmen at 6:59 PM on February 16, 2007

Honestly I'm not sure what is more surprising, that it happened, or that she lived.
I don't think getting swept up to that altitude is odd — thunderstorms have massive updrafts in the middle; that's one reason everyone avoids them when flying. The surprising thing is definitely that she lived.
posted by hattifattener at 8:10 PM on February 16, 2007

"Fantastic performance. Once in a lifetime happening."

It'd be great if she had the aplomb to pull off being blase' about it: 'Yeah, no big deal really. I saw it coming and you just have to sort of twist a certain way. Pretty easy once you get the hang of it.' Or completely blow it off like it was nothing. Of course few humans have achieved that level of cool. The Fonz (but barely, plus he's hampered by being fictional), Ray Charles perhaps.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:56 PM on February 16, 2007

How cold would it be at 32,000 feet inside a thunderstorm? I'm guessing "quite" due to the diagnosis of frostbite.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:07 PM on February 16, 2007

But when she landed did she kill the Wicked Witch of the East?
posted by nickyskye at 9:13 PM on February 16, 2007

How cold would it be at 32,000 feet inside a thunderstorm? The Times' article I linked to mentions a temperature of -40 Celsius.
posted by jouke at 9:21 PM on February 16, 2007

jouke: Thanks, I only read the bbc link. Holy moses. The cool (sorry) thing about -40c is that it is also -40f.

So unconscious, swirling around a thunderstorm, at -40 degrees, for an hour.

Surviving is indeed a hell of a longshot given those conditions.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:06 PM on February 16, 2007

This is truly an astounding story in so many ways. Thanks for the interesting post BLDGBLOG.

Photograph of what the storm might have looked like. Google images of storm cells.

She was flying, or flung, 9000 feet higher than where these breathtaking paragliding images were filmed.

Film of a paragliding crash (he survived okay). A kite surfer, sucked up in cloudy weather for over half a minute (also survived ok).

But it's incredible to think that Ewa Wisnierska was sucked up into that storm for over an hour. She survived the insane height, near lethal cold, huge hail, her ears almost being frozen off, being unconscious for half an hour due to extreme cold and lack of oxygen, lightning all around, then coming to all frostbitten and landing in one piece.

Miraculous she wasn't brain damaged being unable to breathe for an extended period of time. "Ms Wisnierska's top speed of ascent was clocked at 20 metres per second and her descent at 33 metres per second by an on-board tracking system, she told ABC radio."

How the hell she landed alive and ok is almost incomprehensible. Wow.
posted by nickyskye at 11:49 PM on February 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

hattifattener : I don't think getting swept up to that altitude is odd

OK, I'll bite, others upthread have given indications that this has happened before, but please gimme some evidence that this is not unusual. Commonplace it's not, I'll grant you that. But if this isn't odd, give me some links to others that have hit that height outside of some sort of aircraft. Bonus points if they weren't trying to get to that altitude, and it was an uncommon force of nature type thing.

I could be wrong, but I'm betting it's not as regular as you might believe.
posted by quin at 12:09 AM on February 17, 2007

And once again, nickyskye is there with the relevant details that make this post worthwhile. How much do I love that commenter? Let me count the ways...

OK, the data is in and this person should of died. Somewhere out there Death is being kind and turning over an hour-glass to give someone more time.

I like heights, but at some point, you have to start asking the questions about sanity and all that. These people have a sport that just boggles me.
posted by quin at 12:17 AM on February 17, 2007

A story so fucking amazing, the BBC had to run it with a misleading headline!
posted by ryanrs at 3:46 AM on February 17, 2007

Let me be the skeptic. How does she or anyone know she was at 9940 meters? The number is so particular and the story doesn't tell. It says she was followed by GPS, but GPS isn't an altimeter. She was unconscious. It says she regained contact with her ground crew at 4000 meters. Okay, a nice rounded off number, believable because it is an estimate.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:49 AM on February 17, 2007

spiderwire : that wacked-out 7 AM post on heroism

So sorry to hear about your heroism addiction. When you're shooting heroism and getting "wacked out" at 7am, I'd say you have a problem. You need to get into recovery. Heroism kills.
posted by kcds at 6:35 AM on February 17, 2007

dws GPS isn't an altimeter

GPS maybe not a super-accurate altimeter, but it does give your position in three dimensions, so it is an altimeter of sorts.
posted by kcds at 6:37 AM on February 17, 2007

dances: most GPS units measure altitude. The one on my motorcycle does, and I rarely go over 2000ft. I figure what they use for this flying sport certainly does.

The way modern GPS works is you are actually finding your place in 3-D space, not just latitude/longitude on a flat map.

The way I see it, the satellites wouldn't care if you were on top of a mountain or flying around in a glider.
posted by Ynoxas at 6:41 AM on February 17, 2007

kcds, don't dis it 'till you tried it man. Just stay away from the harder stuff, like gunpoint-rape rescue and that sort and stick to the kitten-up-in-a-tree saving heroism. That shit is goood...
posted by Catfry at 5:26 PM on February 17, 2007

how could GPS not measure altitude?

inductive / intuitive arguments:

(a) because of projection, your position is different at higher altitudes than at sea level
(b) it's a triangulation question anyway, i don't see how you could triangulate between satellites at arbitrary positions and not take altitude into account
(c) GPS has to compensate for friggin general relativity, i'd think that altitude would be pretty trivial after that

also, the article says that they were monitoring her rate-of-climb, as i recall.
posted by spiderwire at 7:44 PM on February 17, 2007

So how does the biology of this work? She's sucked up to 10km in the blink of an eye: oxygen deprivation + flash freezing, then a slow melt?

Because truth of it is here that she was very likely dead up there in the clouds. -40C is lethal, and all the more so when it is wet and windy. Everest altitudes are lethal to those who haven't trained for it. The pressure change might also be something quite lethal; it certainly is for divers.

Pretty freaking neat. Dead and brought back to life, she descended from the heavens...
posted by five fresh fish at 8:13 PM on February 17, 2007

What happened in this video of the paraglide crash? Everything seemed cool as cucumbers, then all hell broke loose on the poor guy. What happened to start it, what could he have done differently to recover, and why the hell didn't he leave those goddamn twigs alone?
posted by five fresh fish at 8:26 PM on February 17, 2007

...and then won the Lotto ten times in a row.

[img: "Ta-da!"]
posted by ryanrs at 10:35 PM on February 17, 2007

fff, she wasn't up there for very long. apparently decompression sickness is linked to sustained low pressures, and is alleviated by recompression (hence decompression sickness.) it also seems that the risk is different because "the bends" are caused, at least in part, by the anomalous way the body absorbs gases at high pressures. (but i'm not an expert.)
posted by spiderwire at 10:40 PM on February 17, 2007

spiderwire, I think the point f5f was making wasn't that it was compression/ decompression thing over the fact that she was subjected to weather conditions that would be normally lethal. Specifically the temperature (or lack thereof) and the absence of oxygen. Yes, the number of atmospheres (again, or lack thereof) can reign havoc on a human body, but probably not as quickly as oxygen deprivation or sub-zero temperatures.

And for the record fresh five fish, you raise a good point that I hadn't thought of. My only suggestion is that the winds generated by being on top of a mountain might have bearing here. A wind-chill kind of scenario that would kill people on Everest, but let someone live in a windless environment when wearing good thermal cloths. Problem is, I can't see being in the middle of a storm 'dodging hailstones and lighting' as being in a windless environment.

Your contributions will keep me up tonight trying to figure this out. The thing is, I don't have the meteorology framework to disprove any of this. So I will probably be sleepless.

Thanks for that.
posted by quin at 10:56 PM on February 17, 2007

The pressure change idea is just conjecture; I've no idea if it would be significant, nor does it really matter in the end; the cold and wet and thin air would have killed her regardless.

(She came up through a cloud: you can be certain she was wet.)
posted by five fresh fish at 11:16 PM on February 17, 2007

To be honest, I doubt the pressure change made much of a difference in light of the other trials she would have faced. Pressure change really only seems to be an issue going under water where a couple of atmos will fill you with nitrogen and give you the bends and other horrors-of-the-deep kind of problems. Going up subjects you to less atmospheres which humans have proved to be good at dealing with.

Wind, low temperatures, and lack of O2 seem more relevant concerns to a person's chances at surviving and/ or living in what she was facing.
posted by quin at 11:48 PM on February 17, 2007

the "divers" issue fff mentioned = the bends = decompression sickness
posted by spiderwire at 1:19 PM on February 18, 2007

K, let's all get off the decompression/low pressure thing. It was a throwaway conjecture, it is not important.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:54 PM on February 18, 2007

why must you insist on un-derailing everything, fff? :)

i think we've pretty much exhausted the amazingness of the post -- i mean, what else is there to say, it's just mind-boggling -- so we might as well learn a little bit about the bends :) ...and it is tangentially relevant. i mean, i only looked it up 'cause you mentioned it and i wondered about it.

in fact, just to tie in the joe kittinger post i linked above, they had him breathe pure oxygen for a few hours before going up, for precisely this reason.

now, the GPS thing -- that was a derail, and i apologize for that. although the general relativity thing is true. and cool.
posted by spiderwire at 4:43 PM on February 18, 2007

I think it's significant that she died and rose (er, descended) again. Ewa could be Christ!

I suspect she might object.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:27 PM on February 18, 2007

oh, yeah, way to bring the thread back on track there :)
posted by spiderwire at 5:35 PM on February 18, 2007

They - along with 200 others - were preparing for a world paragliding championship in the town of Manilla, Australia, when the thunderstorm hit.
I'd call this one an automatic win.
posted by scrump at 11:14 AM on February 19, 2007

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