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

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 he 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 a 20-year-old Halas been a bit more organised 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, colourful 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’s 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 may 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 also 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 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 was 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 on 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 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 was as disciplined in his personal life as he was in his business life. He was punctual to a fault, hated postponing or cancelling meetings and always pushed himself to the very limit. So, when he set out to taking 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 travelled 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

At 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.