Beating the Odds

07/25/2002 at 01:00 PM EDT

A split second after 12,000 volts shot through his body -- but before passing out -- Cameron Spence remembers thinking, "Now I've done it." Skydiver Joan Murray had similar thoughts when, as she dropped from 14,500 feet, her parachute failed to open. Ditto Paul Wilk, as he stepped off a railroad bridge and into thin air. Yet, like the others on these pages, they overcame overwhelming injuries, confounded doctors and survived. How does that feel?

Joan Murray: Plunged 2.6 miles

What's worse than stepping out of an airplane, discovering your parachute won't open and smacking into the ground at 80 mph? Joan Murray, 47, did all of the above -- and landed in a mound of stinging fire ants. On Sept. 25, 1999, the Charlotte, N.C., bank exec jumped from a plane at 14,500 feet and couldn't get her main chute to deploy. Her reserve chute opened 700 feet from the ground, but in her confusion she spun out of control, causing the chute to deflate. "It wasn't one of my finer, brilliant moments," she says dryly. The impact shattered the right side of Murray's body and knocked filling from her teeth.

Then came the ants, which stung the semiconscious skydiver more than 200 times before paramedics arrived. (Her doctors think the stings may have shocked her heart enough to keep it beating.) At Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, Murray lay in a coma for two weeks, her 115-lb. body swelling from her injuries until "she looked like she was 300 lbs.," says coworker Spencer Denton, 36. But six weeks later Murray had mended enough to head home, where her husband, Don, 47 (they divorced last year), and twin daughters Arriane and Carmen, 19, tended her. By June 2001 she was limping to work with a metal rod in her right leg and five 5-in. spikes in her pelvis. Incredibly, in July 2001 Murray went for her 37th skydive. "It was perfect," she says.

She didn't resume all her old habits. "She's not the workaholic she was before," says Denton. Indeed, says Murray, "I've learned to take time for the important things." Among them: "Saying 'thank you' and 'I love you.' "

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