Imagine being a window washer on a New York skyscraper, when suddenly the scaffolding you’re standing on starts moving underneath you. Before even realizing what’s going on, the entire structure collapses, sending you plummeting towards the ground, nearly 500 feet (152 meters) below you. Do you think you’d stand a chance to survive?
Research shows that unbroken falls from a height exceeding 84 feet (26 meters) are almost unsurvivable. Yet, window washer Alcides Moreno defied all medical and scientific rules by surviving just that, after the cables that were supposed to hold the scaffolding in place had come loose and sent him tumbling 500 feet down to the ground. Rescuers found Alcides sitting between pieces of broken metal, badly injured, but conscious.
I must admit, I always get the creeps when I stand on one of these glass observation decks they build on top of skyscrapers. Still, I can’t seem to stop going. From San Fransisco’s Salesforce Tower to the eerily tall Shanghai Tower, with its deck at a mind-blowing 1791 feet (546 meter), I feel the ground below is sending a primordial warning to my toes: do not mess with me. Other people, like on the famous 1932 Lunch atop a Skyscraper workers, don’t even flinch when facing such heights. These guys are said to have walked those metal girders with the same ease as people like us walk through the park.
Yet, even the most seasoned construction workers, window washers or rooftop dwellers can fall, as well as old people who can lose their balance on balconies or slip near their window. Or, in case of fire, a building’s collapse or in the event of an attack, it might be your only option. That’s why we want to know how to survive falling from a building!
Obviously, my first question is:
When falling from a building, what’s the LD50?
The LD-what? Sorry, we’re getting scientific again, introducing the term used in medical science for the amount of a certain injury after which more than 50% does not survive, the LD, or the lethal dose. For today’s topic it means we want to know from which height more than 50% of people don’t survive, how it goes beyond that number, and if there’s a way to increase the likelihood to survive a fall from any of these heights.
Comparative trauma studies seem to indicate that a fall from 48 feet (roughly 15 meters, or the fourth floor of a building) has a 50% survival rate, while this drops to 10% when you fall from 84 feet (seventh floor). So, beyond our newfound LD90 at 84 feet, there’s almost no chance to make it, unless your name is Alcides Moreno, or Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulović, who survived a plane crash from a bizarre 33,631 feet (10,250 meter). What’s that, LD-minus-a million?! She may have survived due to being stuck in the plane’s food compartment, which could have broken her fall. Still, it’s extremely unlikely, which is probably why she’s held the Guinness World Record for the highest fall without parachute since 1950.
Obviously, making sure you don’t fall from a building is the best way to survive, but today we’ll focus on what to do if you’re already on your way down.
How long does it take before you hit the ground after falling from a building?
A fall from Dubai’s iconic Burj Khalifa at 2,722 feet (830 meters) to the ground would take about 20 seconds. Falling from 500 feet would take around 6 seconds, but the weight of a person, possible objects on the way, and maybe even the wind play a role in the speed with which you plummet towards the ground. But one thing is clear, you haven’t got much time to wonder what to do.
How to influence our fall from a building?
The ground you land on plays a big role in your chances of survival. Yet, on your way down you can’t choose to fall into a net the size of a football field, so we’d better look at things we do have some control over.
That’s why we’ll first investigate what you can do while falling.
- Grab anything you can
Any chance to grab onto something is a chance to break the speed of your fall. And thus, absorb some of the impact. This can be a ledge, a balcony, an open window, or anything that sticks out. This strategy works better when falling from a slope, but not all buildings are just straight glass boxes, so the sooner you can grab onto something, the better. If you’re extremely lucky (and strong), you may even be able to hold on. Don’t worry about breaking an arm or leg in the process. You have bigger things to worry about.
If actual grabbing doesn’t work, it still makes a big difference if you can break your fall into parts. So deliberately crashing into the aforementioned ledge can be a lifesaver. Just make sure to bundle up before the impact and protect your vitals. A series of shorter falls will dramatically increase your chances of survival, as the impact speed will be much less compared to falling in one straight line.
How to prepare for impact after falling from a building?
The main part in the art of falling is how to land. In the seconds you have, there are a few important steps to keep in mind.
1. Landing maneuvers
Falling headfirst from a ladder can be more deadly than a fall from three stories high. That’s why we need to make sure we land the right way. Even though there’s nothing to hold onto to change your position, you can actually alter it midair, just the way you do somersaults or underwater tricks. If you’re flipping through the air, assuming an arch position can help to stabilize your fall.
The second most vital body part to prevent falling directly on is your pelvis, at the base of your spine. It’s connected to so many main nerve channels and blood vessels that a direct hit could cause lethal internal bleeding or permanent paralysis.
Conclusion: the most important things to do are:
- Land feet first.
- Keep your knees slightly bent.
- Keep your feet and knees together, so both legs take the impact.
- Make sure you land feet first, with knees slightly bent.
- Also keep your feet and knees together, so both legs take the impact.
- Hit the ground with the ball of your foot first.
Luckily, most of these steps come naturally to most people.
In theory, you should fall like a skydiver, with arms and legs stretched out, to slow down your speed. But in reality, when falling from a building, you won’t have time to do all these maneuvers and still land on your feet.
2. Enjoy the view and loosen up
Ok, that’s a bit much, and you won’t even have time to enjoy the view, since the whole thing happens in a matter of seconds. Yet, relaxing the body is vital to ensure the most survivable landing. Science tells us that stiff and locked muscles are much less able to absorb the impact of a fall. That’s why intoxicated people sometimes survive falls better than sober people. But then, they also have a much higher chance of falling in the first place.
3. Don’t let panic overtake
Here’s where that yoga class you did a few years back comes in handy. Just breathe deeply and go over the steps you learned on how to fall. More importantly, many people die of an anxiety-caused heart attack before they hit the ground, so give yourself a chance and do what you can to turn the odds in your favor!
How to land after falling from a building?
Knees bent, muscles relaxed, take a deep breath, and slowly exhale before impact. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Protect your head
Keep your elbows together in front of your head and clasp your fingers together at the back of your head. This way, you prevent falling on your head after impact, which may cause you to bounce and hit an object or the ground with your head.
In case you fall while holding a baby, this is also the best way to protect it.
- Don’t fall backwards
You have a few seconds to plan this fall, so get ready to fall sideways or, if that’s not possible, forwards after impact. Research has shown that a sideways fall is the best way to limit damage.
What to do after impact?
In case you’re still alive, nobody saw you, and your phone is still functioning, call for medical help as soon as possible. Do not move until the ambulance arrives. Even if the adrenaline makes you feel you’re okay, you’re probably not. Oh, right, and pray that you don’t land in water from higher than 30 feet up (9 meters), as you could break your legs on impact, meaning you may survive the fall, but drown subsequently.
But how about those rare survivors?
Cases like Alcides Moreno’s defy laws of medical science and physics and make headlines for a reason. Since even fifty percent of all people die falling from 4-5 stories, you can assume that not much above that, falls become virtually unsurvivable.
Scientists speculated that Moreno could have survived because he fell down while lying on the scaffolding he was working on. This could have decreased the speed of his fall and saved him from the worst of the impact on the concrete below.
Whether falling from 1 or 45 stories, the way to fall is the same. Fortunately, our bodies have a natural inclination to fall the right way. If not, remember: knees together and bent, body relaxed, land on the balls of your feet, drop sideways after impact, and keep protecting your head.