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Why survival stories like the Bangladeshi factory rescue are so captivating

Rescuers carry a survivor pulled out from the rubble of a building that collapsed in Saver, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, May 10, 2013. Rescue workers in Bangladesh freed the woman buried for 17 days inside the wreckage of a garment factory building that collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people. Soldiers at the site said her name was Reshma and described her as being in remarkably good shape despite her ordeal.

Rahul Talukder/AP

As the death toll surpassed 1,000 in the Bangladeshi garment factory disaster, remarkable details emerged about Reshma, a seamstress who survived for 17 days in the rubble. Rescued Friday, Reshma had subsisted on spare amounts of water and dried food, which ran out after 15 days.

"I heard voices of the rescue workers for the past several days. I kept hitting the wreckage with sticks and rods just to attract their attention," the woman told Somoy TV from her hospital bed. "No one heard me. … I never dreamed I'd see the daylight again."

After more than two weeks, Reshma caught rescuers' attention by banging with a steel pipe. Digging her out with handsaws and welding tools, the rescuers found that she was in surprisingly good shape given her ordeal: She had suffered no injuries and was able to walk, army officials said.

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"This is an unbelievable feat," the country's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was quoted saying. Reshma reportedly told the PM, "I am fine, please pray for me."

This week also unearthed the harrowing survival stories of three Cleveland women rescued after years of enslavement inside Ariel Castro's padlocked home. Their horrific experiences have gripped readers, as has their extreme resilience, 11 years of it in the case of Michelle Knight, the first to be abducted. The woman is alleged to have miscarried five times, starved and beaten by her abductor.

Psychological resilience is now thought to be at the core of human responses to trauma, according to George Bonanno, a leading psychologist in the field. Somewhat controversially, he argues that resilience is the most common reaction for people experiencing extreme stressors.

So why are so many enthralled when cases of great resilience make headlines? Consider the white-knuckle tale of the Chilean miners' rescue, or canyoneer Aron Ralston, who got the James Franco treatment in 127 Hours after amputating his own arm to escape a slot canyon.

Or Rita Chretien, who endured for seven weeks in the mountains of Nevada after the GPS system of her and her husband's Chevy Astro van sent them down a dangerous back road. (Chretien survived by rationing trail mix and fish-oil pills, drinking melted snow – and praying.)

The stories arrest because we ask ourselves, could we do it?

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