SuperMom: Could a mother actually lift a car to save her child?

January 20, 2006

Dear Cecil:

I've noticed that when people want to "prove" that humans are capable of amazing things under stress, they often cite the 90-pound mother who lifts a car off her trapped child. I know humans can do incredible things, like the guy who chopped his own hand off to get free from a fallen boulder, but have mothers really hoisted cars? Has anyone actually seen this happen or is it an urban legend? Are we talking about a Yugo here or a 1956 Caddy? Let me know soon, Unca Cecil--I'm trying to walk more these days, and if I get run over I need to know whether to call mom or a tow truck.

Always smart to be prepared, Eric. I haven't gotten to the bottom of this yet, but my interim judgment is: (1) This sure sounds like an urban legend. (2) But maybe it's not. I just got off the phone with a woman who lifted, if not an entire car, at least a nontrivial fraction of the weight of one off her trapped son.

The woman's name is Angela Cavallo, and she still lives in Lawrenceville, Georgia, where the incident happened on April 9, 1982. (An Associated Press account didn't appear till April 14, but Angela remembers the date because it was Good Friday.) Her then-teenage son Tony had a 1964 Chevy Impala jacked up in the driveway--he'd removed a rear tire and was working on the suspension. A neighbor kid came to the kitchen door to tell Angela there'd been an accident. She rushed out to find Tony pinned under the car--something had been stuck and in trying to loosen it he'd rocked the car off the jack. Now he was caught in one of the rear wheel wells; all she could see of him was from the waist down. Ancient Chevies being big ol' cars with a lot of room around the wheels, Tony wasn't immediately crushed. But he was out cold.

Hollering to the neighbor kid to get help, Angela grabbed the side of the car with both hands and pulled up with all her strength. The AP account said she raised the car four inches; she doubts it was that much but believes it was enough to take the pressure off. She recalls nothing about the rescue, but the AP said two neighbors reinserted the jack and dragged the boy out. (Tony recovered OK.) Angela, then in her late 50s, guesses she kept the car propped up for five minutes. She describes herself as 5-foot-8, large-framed and strong, but figures she couldn't have picked the car up under normal circumstances, attributing her feat to adrenaline. (Thanks to journalist Mariana Minaya for providing the AP story.)

Some may quibble that lifting a car a couple inches is hardly the same as picking it up. A doctor friend says an adrenaline rush (norepinephrine rush, whatever) wouldn't last five minutes and suggests what we're seeing here wasn't so much superhuman strength as endurance in the face of otherwise overwhelming pain. Maybe; my point is, car-lifting stories have a basis in fact. I've got a line on a couple similar tales but no details yet. In the meantime, a few other tidbits:

  • Laurence Gonzales, in Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (2003), writes, "On Mother's Day 1999, Saint John Eberle and his partner, Marc Beverly, were climbing in New Mexico's Sandia Mountain Wilderness when a rock weighing more than 500 pounds fell on Eberle, pinning him. Beverly watched as Eberle lifted the rock off of himself." Gonzales tells me he got this story from an annual summary entitled Accidents in North American Mountaineering. I'm trying to reach the men for more details.
  • From Ikai and Steinhaus, "Some Factors Modifying the Expression of Human Strength," Journal of Applied Physiology, 1961, we learn the following: "The maximal pull of forearm flexors was increased and, in some instances, decreased in predictable fashion by a loud noise, by the subject's own outcry, by certain pharmacologic agents (alcohol, adrenaline, and amphetamine), and by hypnosis. Significant average changes ranging from +26.5% to 31% were observed." The authors suggest that the normal human inability to exert oneself to one's physiological maximum is the result of "acquired inhibitions that in turn are subject to disinhibition by pure Pavlovian procedures, by anesthetization of inhibitory mechanisms, or by pharmacologically induced symptoms serving as stimuli for disinhibition." In other words, you're always capable of great feats; it just takes a crisis for you to actually perform them.
  • In a 1990 interview the late comic book artist Jack Kirby said he created the Incredible Hulk after seeing a mom lift a car off a kid. However, Kirby's former assistant Mark Evanier doubts the story, saying Kirby never mentioned it privately. Let it not be said the Straight Dope suppresses negative results.
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