In October 1915, the polar exploration ship the Endurance was crushed by Antarctic ice, tearing out the ship’s stern and rudder posts and breaking the main deck, and forcing the crew to take refuge on an ice floe. In the months that followed, the expedition gradually ran out of provisions, and its leaders explorer Sir James Shackleton, was forced to set out with two crew members to on a desperate bid to reach the distant Stromness Whaling Station for assistance. As this biography of Shackleton recounts, the explorer and his crewmen had to hike 17 miles through the snow, and scale a previously unconquered mountain range. Somehow, they made it–but not, as Shackleton would later confess, without help. As he wrote in his 1919 memoir, South:
…during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterward Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was an other person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea.
Shackleton’s experience, though, wasn’t unique. Over the years, many people who’ve had brushes with mortal danger–from pilot Charles Lindbergh to 9-11 survivors–have reported afterward that they felt accompanied by a mysterious supernatural presence. John Geiger, a journalist and governor of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, documented more than 200 such experiences in a 2009 book, The Third Man Factor: The Secret to Survival in Extreme Environments. Geiger says his research may be merely a modern twist on an old notion. “What I call the third-man factor may well be what people historically have described as a guardian angel, or a protective spirit,” he says.
The idea of ethereal beings showing up in times of trouble to protect humans dates back to antiquity. Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion that was founded around 700 BC, taught of the existence of Fravashi, winged spirits who were the rough equivalent of the guardian angels alluded to in Acts 12:12-15 of the New Testament and described by Fourth Century AD Christian scholar St. Jerome. (As the Catholic Encyclopedia article on guardian angels recounts, Jerome wrote: “How great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from birth an angel commissioned to guard it.”)
During medieval times, numerous people–including Charles the Fat, the Ninth Century king of France–claimed to have been rescued from death by angels, according to Carol Zalecki’s 1987 book-length study of medieval and modern near-death experiences. Charles, for example, reported being led through hell by a tether of light, held by his angelic guide. The belief in guardian angels has persisted into modern times. U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Barfield, a hero who won the Silver Star for heroism during the Korean War for carrying his wounded platoon lieutenant to safety and killing five enemy soldiers along the way, told the stricken officer he was unafraid of being killed in battle because he was certain that an angel protected him.
For some, the Third Man is merely a feeling, but others actually have reported seeing or feeling a non-human presence at their sides during moments of danger. In James Giblin’s 1997 biography of Charles Lindbergh, for example, he recounts the record-setting aviator’s belief that he was assisted by ethereal beings who materialized i the cockpit during his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic.
These presences seemed kindly, not threatening. First one and then another leaned over and spoke to Charles in a soft, friendly voice. They offered advice on the flight and gave him important messages–none of which he could remember later.
In his book, Geiger details the experience of Ron DiFrancesco, the last person to escape the World Trade Center’s South Tower before it fell on September 11. DiFrancesco recalled being trapped on the 91th Floor, gasping for breath and being on the verge of passing out from smoke inhalation, when he sensed someone near him. DiFrancesco said that he then heard a male voice telling him to get up. His companion then guided him through a gantlet of hazards to safety. As this CNN story explains, DiFrancesco never saw his mysterious benefactor.
Maybe it was an angel. I didn’t see the face of God, but I know that somebody came and helped me.
Some have theorized that these paranormal rescuers are merely hallucinations conjured up by brains under life-threatening stresses, and have speculated about the existence of a neurological “angel switch” that is triggered to summon them. In this Wall Street Journal interview, Geiger speculates that the Third Man actually may be some sort of ancient evolutionary adaptation. “Imagine the advantage for primitive man, perhaps separated during a hunt, alone far from his tribal group, to have the guiding hand of a companion pointing the way home.” If the Third Man is a miracle of brain wiring or biochemistry, Geiger suggests that humans eventually could learn to manipulate it at will, enabling them to counteract loneliness, fear and stress.