It's Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History

D.G. Hewitt - March 19, 2018

Sometimes the smallest decision can have the biggest consequences. Indeed, history is full of these pivotal events. In some cases, tiny, split-second decisions can lead to catastrophe. But at other times, they may well just end up saving your life. As historians with the benefit of hindsight, we can look to the past and see what might have changed had things have been even slightly different. And sometimes it’s possible to see when small, seemingly inconsequential choices or slices of luck end up being a matter of life and death.

So, whether it’s missing a train or having to re-schedule a work meeting, here are 11 times famous figures from history narrowly avoided disaster. Some made music we all love, or made huge advancements in the world of science and engineering. Others made fortunes for themselves but then went on to share their wealth. But in all cases, it’s worth taking a moment to think how different things might have been – not just for the individuals themselves but sometimes even for the whole world as we know it…

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
Admiral Byrd may not have may the history books if fate hadn’t intervened.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd

Richard E. Boyd has gone down in history as a true American hero. As well as being a pioneering aviator, he was also an explorer and, according to many accounts, the first man to reach both the North Pole and the South Pole by air. Oh, and he was also a Medal of Honor recipient, too. But he might have ended up being just another statistic. In 1921, he was due to fly on the ZR-2, a prototype aircraft being trialed by the Navy. Only by missing the ill-fated flight was Boyd able to go on and write his name in the history books.

But that’s not to say he would his life would have been unremarkable had he perished in 1921. Far from it. Even his birth was notable: Richard E. Byrd was born into a prestigious Virginia family and could count numerous political greats among his ancestors. But he really started making a name for himself during the First World War. Volunteering to become an aviator – a hugely risky role – he helped pioneer new ways of navigating planes over bodies of water. However, despite his evident bravery, his was to be a relatively quiet war, with most of it spent commanding naval air forces in Nova Scotia rather than on the Western Front.

Boyd came out of the Great War as a Lieutenant Commander and a respected aviator, which is why he was asked to join a trial flight of the ZR-2, a 695-foot-long airship. The giant dirigible had been built for the US Navy by the British. A trial flight was scheduled for August 24, 1921, out of the town of Howden, in the northeast of England. Boyd accepted his invitation and was all set to join the ZR-2 crew, but then he missed his train and arrived a day late at the airfield. His name was crossed off the crew list, though he was able to see the huge airship lift off into the sky. Writing in his 1928 memoir, he recalled how “she rose slowly and with dignity befitting so huge a craft, sailed away into a cloudless sky”.

Soon after taking off, however, disaster hit the ZR-2. The giant frame broke up mid-air and the airship crashed into the cold waters of the Humber estuary. Then its hydrogen tanks set alight and exploded, killing all but five of the men on board. Had he been one of the crew, it’s unlikely Boyd would have escaped with his life. As it was, pure luck meant that he would go on to fly another day. In 1926, he flew over the North Pole and became a national hero. Then in 1927, he flew non-stop across the Atlantic and the following year set off on the first of five expeditions to the Antarctic and the South Pole.

Having narrowly avoided a violent death in a burning airship, Boyd died in his sleep on March 11, 1957, at the age of 68. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery and is regarded as a true American hero.

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
The billionaire survived a close brush with death and never sailed the Atlantic again.

J. Paul Getty

Though he may well have been named the ‘World’s Richest Man’ by People magazine, in the end, it was dumb luck rather than money that saved J. Paul Getty from disaster in 1956. The industrial tycoon, then in his 60s, was booked to sail on the Andrea Doria. He canceled his plans – most unlike Getty, who was far from spontaneous – and instead joined millions of Americans who watched the boat sink off the coast of Nantucket on his television set. Even if he escaped being sent to a watery grave, things would never really be the same for Getty…

By the 1950s, Getty was already fabulously wealthy. Having been born into a successful family oil business, he managed to steer it through the Great Depression, using his astute business brain to snap up rival firms and oversee a huge increase in the Getty family fortune. Above all, his focus on the oil fields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia helped make him personally one of the wealthiest men on the planet.

It was also in the 1950s that Getty’s long love affair with all things British led him to move to England. He settled into a Tudor-era stately home, Sutton Place, and entertained his business associates and friends either here or in London. Of course, with much of his business running out of the United States, he would often need to return to the land of his birth, which is why he booked passage on the Andrea Doria in the summer of 1956. For some reason, Getty canceled his travel plans at the last minute, and so wasn’t aboard the Italian ship when it collided with a Swedish cruise liner just off the coast of the United States.

Getty would, however, have been aware of the disaster. Since it was so close to the shore, camera crews could reach the sinking ship, documenting in real-time the disaster that left 51 people dead. But that’s not where the story ends. According to one respected biography of the great man, Getty visited a fortune teller soon after the Andrea Doria disaster. She warned him that if he ever attempted to cross the Atlantic again, he would surely die. While he did book passage on several ships over the years, he never did end up setting sail, and Getty spent the next 20 years in England. He died in London in 1976, aged 83 and is now known more for the art museums that bear his name.

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
Hollywood icon Cary Grant narrowly avoided an air disaster in Lisbon.

Cary Grant

While Jean Paul Getty didn’t manage to catch his ride on the Andrea Doria, the actress Betsy Drake did. While she escaped with her life, she lost a small fortune in jewellery, all of which had been given to her by her husband, Hollywood legend Cary Grant. However, Grant himself might not have been in a position to buy his lady fine jewels had history taken a different path. In fact, he may not have lived to meet Betty Drake at all had he not changed his plans to fly on the ill-fated ‘Yankee’ in February 1943.

In all, 24 passengers and crew died when the Pan Am Clipper crash-landed in Lisbon. The aging plane had flown across the Atlantic and was attempting to land at the Cabo Ruivo Seaplane Base, in the heart of the Portuguese city, when disaster struck. It hit the water hard, breaking up and killing dozens outright, among them the prominent American author Benjamin Robertson. The American singer and actress Jane Froman was also on board the doomed Yankee, but she managed to escape with her life, though she did emerge from the wreck with serious injuries.

Silver screen icon Grant got a lucky break. Along with his fellow actor George Murphy, he changed his travel schedule at the very last minute. And, while the Lisbon crash may not have been the most dramatic aviation disaster of the twentieth century, with other incidents claiming far greater losses of life, it did go on to become one of the most infamous. Two of its survivors would make sure of it. When a film biopic of actress Freeman was released in 1952, the crash was placed front and center. Similarly, when Murphy, who left acting to pursue a career in politics, wrote his own memoirs, he made a note of his and Grant’s brush with death.

In the end, Grant lived to a fine old age. He retired from the movie business in the 1960s and enjoyed his family life, as well as indulging his love of art into old age. He died in 1986 at the age of 82. Grant’s ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California, a fate far more fitting to a film icon than a premature death in the cold waters of the Atlantic.

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
The history of American sports would have been much different had Halas met a watery grave. ESPN.

George “Papa Bear” Halas

American football wouldn’t be the sport it is today if it wasn’t for George Halas. His vision and hard work helped transform it from a pastime into a major entertainment industry. What’s more, he also founded not only the National Football League (NFL) itself, but also set up one of its biggest and best-loved teams, the Chicago Bears, earning him the nickname “Papa Bear”. So, the sporting landscape would have looked a lot different had 20-year-old Halas been a bit more organized and made it onto a leisure boat on Lake Michigan in the summer of 1915.

At the time, Halas was just a student. Away from his studies, he held down a summer job at Western Electric in the city of Cicero, Illinois. As was the custom for big companies at the time, the bosses would lay on an annual day out for their workers, and 1915 was no exception. Halas and his colleagues were invited on a cruise along Lake Michigan, from Michigan City to downtown Chicago. The name of the boat that would take them on their summer picnic cruise? The Eastland.

Halas tells the story best: He was running late, rushing to the docks to join his co-workers. “When I came to the river where the Eastland was docked, an appalling site awaited,” he recalled in his 1979 autobiography. “The Eastland had turned on its side. Only a few passengers had escaped.” The top-heavy boat, filled with more than 2,000 passengers as well as dozens of lifeboats – a precaution introduced after the sinking of the Titanic – simply toppled over. In all, 844 passengers and four crew members died that day, making it by far the deadliest maritime disaster on the Great Lakes.

Since he had a ticket for the sailing, the media reported that Halas had been on the Eastland and had perished. Members of his university fraternity went to their buddy’s family home to pay their respects, only to find out Halas had in fact survived. He would go on to enjoy a long, colorful career., helping establish the NFL in 1920 and even turning out as a professional baseball player for a short while. As for the Eastland, she too enjoyed a second life. The boat was raised was pressed into military service. In the First World War, it patrolled the Great Lakes, and in the Second World War, it had the honor of transporting the President and his chief military advisors. The infamous boat was finally scrapped in 1947.

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
Future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was scarred by an early brush with death.

Eleanor Roosevelt

The wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt is widely regarded as one of the greatest First Ladies. Holding the position for a record 12 years, she redefined the role of First Lady, and she would even go on to be called the “First Lady of the World” by President Truman due to her promotion of human rights. However, it could have all been so different. As an infant, Roosevelt had a close brush with death. It was, according to several of her biographer an experience that would affect her for the rest of her life. Indeed, while she may have escaped with her life, that early trauma never stopped haunting her…

The year was 1887 and the two-year-old Eleanor was crossing the Atlantic Ocean on board the White Star liner Britannic. Since the Roosevelts were extremely wealthy, they occupied cabins in a prime position on the huge vessel, and it’s possible that their status put them at a distinct advantage when disaster struck. Just one day into its voyage and sailing in thick fog off the coast of New Jersey, the Britannic was rammed by another boat. A number of less-wealthy passengers in steerage class were killed outright by the collision, and more were later found to have been tossed overboard.

With the captain worried the crash might cause his ship to sink, he ordered passengers to the lifeboats. As was the custom, it was women and children first, with the crew’s pistols ensuring the rules were followed. But, perhaps because of his wealth, Eleanor’s father managed to secure a spot on a lifeboat. It was to him a crewman passed the infant, an event the future First Lady would never forget. The sensation of the lifeboat being lowered into the Atlantic Ocean while passengers panicked above stayed with her for the rest of her life.

The Roosevelt family were taken to New York City. While mother and father were determined to push ahead with their travel plans across the Atlantic, Eleanor refused to join them. What’s more, her biographers have revealed that, from that fateful day onwards, she was affected by a fear of not only water but of heights too. She died in 1962, aged 78. And what of the Britannic? It was fixed and returned to service, though the name was transferred to one of White Star’s newer and bigger boats. That second Britannic hit a German mine in 1916 and sank, though all but 30 of 1,065 people on board survived.

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
A late-night poker game saved composer Jerome Kern from an early death. Wikipedia.

Jerome Kern

The Great American Songbook would be a lot lighter – and, frankly, not nearly so great – without classics such as “Ol’ Man River” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. But these classic songs might never have been penned if not for a simple twist of fate. The man behind the music, legendary composer Jerome Kern, narrowly avoided being just another number in one of the worst maritime disasters of the twentieth century, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat in the spring of 1915.

That’s not to say he wouldn’t be remembered for at least a few tunes. By the time the First World War erupted, Kern was already making a name for himself on Broadway. In fact, he had penned more than 130 tunes for 30 different shows, most of them adaptations of productions from London’s West End. It was his love of all things British that led Kern to book a ticket from New York to London in early 1915. He was to join his friend and fellow musician Charles Frohman on the Lusitania as it left New York in May of that year. But things didn’t quite go to plan.

The night before his scheduled voyage, Kern was living the good life in New York. He ended up at a late-night poker game and then slept late. The ship, with his friend Froham and around 2,000 other passengers on board, left without him. Sailing was smooth, but then the boat reached the coast of Ireland, where a German U-boat was lying in wait. A direct torpedo hit, followed by an explosion in the engine room, was enough to seal the Lusitania’s fate. It sank within minutes, with the loss of 1,198 souls. The incident provoked anger around the world, though Germany maintained the attack was justified. This outrage helped push President Wilson to involve America in the Great War.

In 1946, MGM made a biopic of Kern’s life. In it, the central character is seen rushing to the docks only to see the Lusitania leave him behind. The reality, Kern insisted, was far less dramatic: he was fast asleep when the doomed ship set off. The composer died in 1945 at the age of just 60. In the preceding three decades, he wrote some of best-loved Broadway tunes of all time, songs the world would never have known had it not been for a late-night New York poker game.

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
His radios sailed on the Titanic, but Marconi himself missed the doomed voyage. New Scientist.

Guglielmo Marconi

Widely credited with inventing the radio, Guglielmo Marconi also won himself the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics. He was also an astute businessman, turning his radio communications systems into big money. But perhaps the best decision he ever made in his life was to not accept an invitation on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Had he been on board the infamous vessel, it’s highly likely that he would have perished in the freezing waters of the Atlantic – after all, it was women and children to the lifeboats first, with no special preferences in place for engineering geniuses.

That Marconi was offered a free berth on the ship of the moment was hardly surprising. Not only was he something of a celebrity right across the English-speaking world but his Marconi Company had provided the radio system for the ship, as well as the two specialists who would man it. Certainly, his family were keen and encouraged him to take up White Star Line’s offer, not least so they could experience for themselves the ship’s much-talked-about luxury.

In the end, Marconi put his own work needs ahead of the wishes of his family – a decision that could well have ended up saving all their lives. But that doesn’t mean the Italian wasn’t unaffected by the disaster. According to the experts of the time, it was only due to Marconi’s radio system that any help was able to reach the stricken Titanic; without his invention, all of the souls on board may have been lost to the ocean.

Everybody knows what became of the Titanic. But what of Marconi? Just three years after his first brush with death, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean again, this time on the RMS Lusitania. Fortunately for him, he was booked on the London-to-New York crossing and not the return trip. While he arrived at his destination safely, those sailing the other way just a few weeks later were attacked by a German U-boat, with hundreds killed. In the end, Marconi died of natural causes, succumbing to a heart attack in 1937 at the age of 63.

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
A change in work schedules saved Milton Hershey from the Titanic disaster. CBS News.

Milton S. Hershey

The founder of the confectionery company that bears his name, Milton S. Hershey was a very wealthy man indeed. Indeed, he had made his fortune – and his name – well before 1912, the year he was booked to sail on the Titanic. Along with the banker J.P Morgan and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, heir to the family shipping and railroad empire, Hershey ultimately decided against taking what was hyped up as ‘the trip of a lifetime’, a wise move indeed.

As soon as he learned of the record-breaking ship and plans for her maiden voyage, Hershey would have been interested and desperate to go. While he may have been old-fashioned in many ways, this was a man who loved technology and new advances in science and engineering. A giant ship setting out from Southampton and attempting to speed across the Atlantic in record time would have definitely been his cup of tea. And it was. As the company record show, in December of 1911, Hershey wrote White Star Lines a check for $300, enough to secure two places on the Titanic for himself and his wife Catherine.

The happy couple had been spending that winter in the south of France and in Germany, where Catherine had been receiving medical treatment. At the last minute, however, their travel plans were changed. Hershey was required to return to the States sooner than initially anticipated. Just three days earlier, but those three days were all that mattered. The Titanic sailed without him and, not wanting to go on such a trip without her beloved husband, without Catherine too.

There’s no question that the world would still have Hershey bars in it had he managed to take up his berth on the doomed ocean liner. However, once he made his money, Hershey dedicated the latter part of his life to giving it away. In 1918, he set up his own School Trust and then in 1951, the M.S. Hershey Foundation was established. All the people who have benefited from this philanthropy in the years owe their good fortune to that fateful day when the chocolate giant chose to return to his homeland three days earlier than he initially planned.

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
An uncharacteristic moment of lateness may well have saved Rockefeller’s life.

John D. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time was as disciplined in his personal life as he was in his business life. He was punctual to a fault, hated postponing or canceling meetings and always pushed himself to the very limit. So, when he set out to take a train from Cleveland to New York City on the morning of December 18, 1867, you could have put your bottom dollar on Rockefeller catching it. For once, however, he was late, and in this instance, his lateness most probably saved his life…

Though he was only 28, by Christmas of 1867, Rockefeller was already a very big deal in American business. And like many successful businessmen, he hated delegating tasks and responsibilities, which is why he frequently traveled from his Ohio home to the Big Apple to check on his company’s East Coast operations, overseen by his brother. He packed Christmas presents for friends and family in New York and set off for Cleveland station. But, while the luggage he sent on ahead made it onto the train, Rockefeller himself did not. Just hours later, that same train was involved in an accident that’s the stuff on nightmares.

Dubbed ‘the Angola Horror‘, the disaster occurred that same afternoon, when the train was crossing over a high railroad bridge just outside of the village of Angola, New York State. It’s believed that a loose wheel hit a broken part of track, causing the back two cars to rise up into the air and then off the bridge, down into the icy waters below. Around 50 people were killed and the tragedy made headlines across the United States. The nation was gripped by a sense of morbid fascination, including Rockefeller himself.

The tycoon visited the scene of the accident just a couple of days later. Here he learned that all his luggage had been lost amid the carnage, so he too would probably have been killed had he been traveling with it. If he was shaken by the close shave, he didn’t let it distract him from his business endeavors. Rockefeller would go on to become the richest person in all of the United States before dedicating the last few years of his life to his religion, family and philanthropy.

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten was minutes away from flying on the doomed Pan Am 103.

Johnny Rotten

In their prime, The Sex Pistols were the voice of a generation and the most important British band since The Beatles. And nobody personified the teen angst of the late 1970s quite like their frontman, punk-in-chief John Lydon, also known as Johnny Rotten. Since the heyday of punk, Lydon has carried on recording and performing and has even become something of a national treasure in his native England. However, it could have all been so different had his wife not been so bad at packing a suitcase…

The singer and his lady were booked on a flight from London to Detroit just before Christmas in 1988. The code of the flight? Pan Am 103, better known as the plane that was hit by the Lockerbie Bombing. Recounting his brush with death years later, Lydon revealed that it was just sheer dumb luck that saved him from being among the dead passengers. “Nora and I should have been dead,” he told the Scottish Sunday Mirror in 2004. “Nora hadn’t packed in time. The minute we realized what happened, we just looked at each other and almost collapsed.”

Had the first couple of punk made it onto the flight, they would have not stood a chance. All of the passengers and crew were killed outright, as well as 11 people on the ground in the village of Lockerbie, Scotland. The disaster was caused by a bomb hidden in the luggage compartment. A former Libyan intelligence agent convicted of the atrocity in 2001, even though he maintained his own innocence right up until his own death.

What’s more, Lydon has also revealed that the near-miss affects him to this day, not least when it comes to air travel. In 2004, he walked off a reality TV show in Australia after the producers failed to confirm whether or not his wife’s plane had landed safely.

It’s Hard to Believe These 11 Famous Figures Narrowly Escaped the Worst Disasters in History
Country star Waylon Jennings was haunted by his near miss for almost 50 years. Rolling Stone Magazine.

Waylon Jennings

It was the ‘Day the Music Died‘: On February 3, 1959, a chartered plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson and their friends and colleagues, crashed into a field in Iowa, killing everyone on board instantly. It was a flight Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on. At the last minute, however, he gave up his seat – a split-second decision he would live with for years to come.

It was supposed to be a joyful time. The brightest young stars of America’s burgeoning rock and roll scene, touring the country together. At the head of the billing was Buddy Holly, arguably the brightest of all stars on the American music scene at the time. After splitting with The Crickets, he was touring with a makeshift band, including Waylon Jennings on guitar. Together, they played shows in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Michigan. But by the time the tour reached Iowa, things were getting tough. Their shared bus had no heating and the long journeys between concert venues were sapping their morale and even causing frostbite. A decision was made to charter a plane between Mason City and Hector Airport.

Holly intended that the plane would just be for himself and his band. Jennings, however, noticed that the Big Bopper was looking ill and offered up his seat, volunteering to take the cold bus instead. Upon learning of this, Holly jokingly told his guitarist: “Well I hope your old bus freezes up!” to which Jennings replied: “Well, I hope your old plane crashes”. Less than 90 minutes later it did just that, coming down in a cornfield. The occupants had no chance.

News of the disaster was soon all over the radio and in the newspapers. The headlines declared Holly had gone down with his band, Jennings included. The guitarist had to put the record straight. He was soon performing and recording again, though his last words to Holly never left his mind. According to his biographers, Jennings turned to alcohol and drugs in an effort to overcome the guilt he felt over his jokey comment. His addictions led to long-term health problems and Jennings eventually died from complications of diabetes in 2002 at the age of 64, leaving a huge musical legacy behind.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Airship: Disaster Over the Humber”. Hull Museums Collection

“The Sinking of the Andrea Doria”.

“How the Eastland Disaster almost reshaped Chicago sports”. Mark Jakob, The Chicago Tribune

“2 Ships Passing in the Fog: 35 years before the Titanic, Uneasy Sailing on the White Star Line”. Mary Karmelek, Scientific American, May 2013.

“8 Famous People Who Missed the Lusitania”. Greg Daugherty, The Smithsonian, May 2013.

“How Marconi’s Wireless Tech Helped Save Titanic Passengers”. NBC News, April 2012.

“Milton S. Hershey almost sailed on the Titanic”. Deb Kiner,, April 2013.

“The Angola Horror: The 1867 Train Wreck That Shocked the Nation”. Charity Vogel, Cornell University Press, 2013.

“Sex Pistol recounts Lockerbie near miss”. Matthew Taylor, The Guardian, February 2004.

“Flashback: How Waylon Jennings Survived the Day the Music Died”. Stephen L. Betts, Rolling Stone, February 2013.