What Makes Someone A Survivor?

10/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • John Blake CNN

Deborah Scaling Kiley still can't break free from that night.

She can't shake the screams, the image of the frothing water turning red, and the sounds of sharks attacking the man who had just been sitting next to her.

She still can't forget blurting out the Lord's Prayer to block out the cries of the man dying in front of her.

"As long as I kept saying those words, I knew I was all right," she says today. "It was my only proof that I had not gone mad."

Kiley would survive that night, clinging to a dingy in the Atlantic Ocean for five days without food and water. But so have others in circumstances that seemed as hopeless. They are the amazing characters who seem to surface during every manmade or natural disaster -- those who survive against all odds.

What do these survivors share in common? That's the question that the author Laurence Gonzales has long tried to answer. Whenever a disaster hits -- a cyclone in Myanmar; an earthquake in China; a climbing accident in Alaska -- Gonzales scans the headlines for the stories of those survivors who made it out alive when all others perished.

"I know when something big happens, I know the kind of stories that are playing out and the people who emerge from them with similar stories," he says.