Author: Patricia Pearson
A new book, Opening Heaven’s Door, will make you re-think everything you thought about death. Here, in the third part of our spine-tingling series, survivors of shipwrecks, air crashes and terrorist attacks tell how they were mysteriously guided to safety.
As he lay sleeping in a muddy trench in France one night, William Bird woke to find someone shaking him. It was 1917. He’d just been through the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and he was exhausted. Irritably, he tried to pull away — but whoever it was continued to shake him with some urgency.
So Bird — a journalist in civilian life — wearily opened his eyes and, to his utter astonishment, recognised his brother, Steve, who’d been reported missing in action two years earlier.
‘Steve put his warm hand over my mouth as I started to shout my happiness,’ Bird recalled. ‘Then he pointed to the sleepers in the bivvy and to my rifle. “Get your gear,” he said.’
Bird searched for him frantically, but eventually came to the conclusion he’d been asleep on his feet. Anyway, his brother had been wearing the uniform and cap of 1915 — two years out of date.
It had been a dream, for sure. Bird crawled into the nearest trench hole and fell asleep. The next morning, he was awakened by soldiers who were highly excited to find him alive. The trench where he’d ‘dreamed’ of his brother shaking him awake had been hit by a high-explosive shell.
As Bird soon saw, the bodies of the men who’d remained there were beyond recognition.
Had he dreamed up his brother? Perhaps. However, tales abound of soldiers being assisted by some ghostly presence in their hour of need.
Another World War I soldier, George Maxwell, became separated from his platoon in no-man’s-land. He was not only lost but uncertain of the contours of the enemy lines. Terrified, he was about to bolt in a random direction when a voice commanded: ‘Be seated and await deliverance.’
Brought up short by the authority of this unseen speaker, Maxwell obeyed. One of his comrades later found him kneeling in a crater, and led him to safety.
‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?’ wrote the poet T.S. Eliot in 1922.
‘When I count, there are only you and I together,
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.’
These lines in Eliot’s great poem The Waste Land have been assumed to allude to the uncanny experience of Sir Ernest Shackleton, after his boat became mired in ice in 1916. With two of his crew members, he’d made a desperate, exhausted trek across a 25-mile, mountainous stretch of Antarctica. At some point, all three men became aware of a presence — another companion — accompanying and guiding them.
The Third Man — although in reality it was a fourth — then seemed to escort them safely to a whaling station. Yet none of the men spoke about him during the trek itself, each thinking that they alone had sensed the extra companion.
Later, when Shackleton was asked about this, he said the experience had been too transcendent to be the subject of casual ‘Ouija Board chatter’.
His sense of wonder has been shared by many explorers, sailors, divers and mountaineers who have experienced the Third Man in times of duress. Their companions have sometimes been visible, sometimes not. Sometimes, the presence has spoken aloud to them, other times not. But, always, the presence has comforted them or led them to safety.
How then do we explain the Third Man? Early scientific theories tended to focus on the location.
Soldiers in World War I, for example, were presumed to have been sleep-deprived. Mountaineers were thought to be suffering from the effects of altitude, lack of oxygen and cold.
Victims of shipwreck were assumed to have hallucinated due to sunstroke and dehydration. Polar explorers had been tricked into the illusion by sensory deprivation in a world of white.
But even if any of the above could be proved, what about people in collapsing towers?
In the more recent past, three 9/11 World Trade Centre survivors claimed that they had been guided to safety by ‘sensed’ presences.
One had stopped at a wall of fire, but was prodded through and later led down the stairs of the North Tower. Another was comforted as he lay beneath the rubble. A third, who had been trapped beneath concrete, received encouraging visits from a presence she perceived as a monk.
Similarly, in 1989, two climbers separately became aware of a kind, middle-aged Tibetan woman while they were on Mount Kanchenjunga in India. Lou Whittaker knew her as ‘a friendly spirit’ at the base camp. She kept him company each evening, he says, for three months.
Whittaker’s wife, Ingrid, meanwhile, was trekking down from the summit to the base camp with an expedition group when she developed altitude sickness. For several days, she lay in a tent — where she found herself being attended during the day by a Tibetan woman.
‘She was wearing a headscarf and a long dress. She was shadowy and two-dimensional, like a silhouette — and very comforting,’ she reported.
It wasn’t till months later that the couple compared notes and realised they’d been visited by the same ethereal woman.
For many, however, the sensed presence remains unseen.
From all reports, it’s not like the shivery sensation you get when you’re being stared at, or a momentary stirring of shadow and light. Nor is it like thinking someone’s there when the wind whispers through a candle.
There is nothing at all speculative about the Third Man. Indeed, those who encounter him all describe having a sudden, vivid and indisputable awareness that someone is with them.
So what do scientists make of the Third Man now?
Over the past decade, Swiss neuroscientists have tried to replicate a sensed presence in their labs by using electrodes to stimulate a part of the brain called the left temporoparietal junction.
Lead researcher Olaf Blanke, at the Mind-Brain Institute in Lausanne, suspects that any dysfunction in this area — due, for example, to a reduction in oxygen — could make someone disoriented. Specifically, he thinks that this brain dysfunction may cause people to blur the boundaries between themselves and others.
So far, however, his theory remains unproven. Nor is it likely to explain why a sensed presence can keep reappearing, or stay with someone for months, until he’s no longer needed.
For the Third Man is nothing if not helpful. As journalist John Geiger discovered when he researched the subject, there are literally dozens of references in memoirs, diaries and letters to his crucial interventions.
Which, of course, makes it even more unlikely the Third Man is a by-product of oxygen deprivation or sunstroke.
Another journalist, Maria Coffey, embarked on a book about endurance athletes — and was surprised by what she found.
Many of the athletes were typically hard-headed pragmatists. Yet they’d not only had sensed companions, but often had accurate dreams about their coming ordeal and telepathic access to distress messages from partners.
What the athletes also had in common was intense focus and heightened awareness. Was this, Coffey wondered, what enabled them to tune in to fields of perception to which we are ordinarily oblivious?
Possibly. But perhaps an even tougher question is: why is the Third Man so purposefully supportive of the people who sense him? After all, far from being just a voice in someone’s head, he often prods, bullies, meddles and seizes control.
In 1983, the U.S. climber James Sevigny was severely injured by an avalanche in Banff National Park, and could barely move.
His back was broken, as were his arms, nose and some ribs. He was bleeding internally, and he lost consciousness for an hour.
Just as he was succumbing to shock and hypothermia, a sensed presence more or less bullied him to get up. Then it pushed him through deep-crusted snow, 1.5km back to camp.
‘All decisions,’ said Sevigny, ‘were made by the presence. I was merely taking instructions.’
As soon as he reached his tent, his bossy companion disappeared. Moments later, Sevigny was found by some cross-country skiers and taken by helicopter to a hospital.
Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail solo around the world, had a similar experience. In the midst of a storm, he had fallen ill with food poisoning and was no longer able to steer his boat.
To his astonishment, a tall man appeared and said that he’d handle the tiller. Somehow, Slocum had the impression that he was ‘a friend and a seaman of vast experience’.
The man kept the vessel on course for 145km, until Slocum could resume control. Then he dematerialised.
In most such cases, the presence seems to vanish moments after the problem is resolved, even if the person at risk isn’t yet aware that he’s out of danger.
For instance, shipwreck survivor Ensio Tiira said he’d finally lost all hope — while adrift on a raft — when his sensed companion disappeared on the 30th day. But that also turned out to be the day that Tiira was rescued.
Why is the Third Man so comforting — and so real? Most scientists believe the answer must lie deep in the brain, which somehow projects the image of a consoling, guiding presence. In truth, that’s just another theory. No one really knows. In the meantime, describing a sensed presence as a hallucination seems presumptuous and unhelpful.
As Martha Farah, director of the Centre for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania, has said: ‘We should not assume we can explain everything that matters in terms of chemistry, biology and physics.
‘And certainly, we should not infer that whatever cannot be explained in those terms does not matter.’
On a bitterly cold day in January 1979, a young woman doctor was tending to her critically-ill patient in the back of a small plane.
It was a case of measles encephalitis, and Dr Yvonne Kason was anxious to reach the nearest hospital, a few hundred miles away, as quickly as humanly possible.
The wind, however, had started to rise, and soon the twin-engined craft was in the midst of an icy blizzard. Then, to the horror of the pilot, one of the propellers suddenly stopped working just as the plane was approaching a hill.
There was no choice: he had to attempt a crash landing.
‘I just felt intense panic, intense fear,’ Dr Kason told me 30 years later. ‘I thought: “Oh my God, I’m going to die!”’
But, to her astonishment, she felt a wave of tranquillity wash away her terror. Then she heard a voice. ‘Be still,’ it said, ‘and know that I am God.’
Hold on, I asked Dr Kason when we met — how did she know it wasn’t her own voice, or a thought passing through her mind?
She considered the question. ‘OK. It’s like you’re walking down a hall, and someone comes on a loudspeaker and tells you to stop. You know it’s not you. It was a low voice, a deep tone, and it was profoundly comforting.’
As the plane fell from the sky, Dr Kason said: ‘I felt peaceful and calm. I knew there was nothing to be afraid of. And I knew that there is nothing to fear in death.’
The plane came down on a partially frozen bay in Ontario, Canada — but the ice was so thin that the Piper began to sink. Dr Kason, then 26, tried desperately to rescue her patient, but she couldn’t undo the stretcher straps in time.
She, the pilot and an accompanying nurse were thrown into the freezing water. Dr Kason tried to swim through the blizzard to reach a firmer part of the ice — but the voice once again took charge.
‘Swim to shore,’ it kept repeating. Against her better judgment, she decided to follow its advice.
‘My parka and boots were like lead,’ she recalled. ‘I didn’t think I was going to make it. I kept going under, and water filled my lungs.’ Abruptly, she said, ‘it was like I was no longer looking out of my eyes. I was 20-30ft up, and I could see myself swimming.’ Dr Kason continued: ‘This, to me, was bizarre, because I’d heard descriptions of people going out-of-body when they were lying down, but not when they were swimming’.
She found herself encompassed by light. ‘I still existed, but I was in this incredible ocean of light and love,’ she said. ‘The strongest aspect for me was the love. It was a maternal love. Like I was a newborn baby on my mother’s shoulder, utterly safe. Like I’d been lost for centuries and I’d found my way home. There was no question but that I was sort of embraced by a higher power.
‘In that love, and in that light and in that intelligence, I just knew that whatever happened was meant to be. I was in complete joy, complete love, complete contentment.’
Yet somehow her body, now pain-wracked from the cold, also kept swimming. In fact, her consciousness was constantly shifting back and forth between the light and the physical reality of the water.
‘It was sort of like a split-screen TV — that’s the best way I can describe it,’ Dr Kason said.
‘The big picture was the light, and the little tiny picture was the body swimming to shore.
‘But at a certain point, as my body was sinking, I shifted more of my attention to it. I remember thinking calmly: “Oh, yes, you drown the third time you go down.”’
Dr Kason might well have died then, but a current suddenly swept her towards a pine tree that had fallen into the lake. ‘And that’s how I survived, because I did not have the strength to swim the last few feet to shore.’
Miraculously, the pilot and nurse also survived. All three were later rescued by a helicopter that had responded to the Piper’s final
distress signal. By the time they reached the hospital, Dr Kason was slipping in and out of consciousness and suffering from severe hypothermia. All the while, she continued to hover above her body.
Again, she heard a voice — though she was also articulating the words herself.
‘It said: “Boy, could I use a hot bath.” Clearly, it was something higher speaking through my mouth, telling the nurses what to do. How did my body speak this, when I wasn’t even thinking it?’
Dr Kason herself had no training in the treatment of hypothermia. Even the nurses clearly hadn’t considered putting her into a hot bath. But one of them remarked: ‘Gee, maybe that would help — let’s take her to the whirlpool in Physio.’
Again, the voice had been right. ‘When they put me in the bath,’ said Dr Kason, ‘I felt like a genie being sucked back into a bottle. I was fully back in my body.’
Thirty years on, every detail of her ordeal was vivid. But did she really have an encounter with God? Or was it the Third Man, providing guidance but strength?
As an open-minded doctor, Yvonne Kason feels her experience has much in common with that of a religious mystic who spends hours in prayer, or of a yogi in deep meditation. ‘To me,’ she said, ‘these are all glimpses of the same spiritual reality’.
Adapted by Corinna Honan from Opening Heaven’s Door by Patricia Pearson, to be published by Simon & Schuster on Thursday at £12.99. © Patricia Pearson 2014. To order for £11.99 (inc. P&P), tel 0844 472 4157