Miracle on the Hudson (2009)
About a minute after taking off from New York’s La Guardia Airport on January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 collided with one of the aviation industry’s most threatening foes: a flock of geese. Crippled by the bird strike, both engines lost power and went quiet, forcing Captain Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III to make an emergency landing. When air traffic controllers instructed Sullenberger to head for nearby Teterboro Airport, the pilot calmly informed them that he was “unable” to reach a runway. “We’re gonna be in the Hudson,” he said simply, and then told the 150 terrified passengers and five crew members on board to brace for impact. Ninety seconds later, he glided the Airbus 320 over the George Washington Bridge and onto the chilly surface of the Hudson River, where it splashed down midway between Manhattan and New Jersey. As flight attendants ushered passengers into life jackets, through emergency exits and onto the waterlogged wings of the bobbing jet, a flotilla of commuter ferries, sightseeing boats and rescue vessels hastened to the scene. One survivor suffered two broken legs and others were treated for minor injuries or hypothermia, but no fatalities occurred during the incident, which Governor David Paterson dubbed “the miracle on the Hudson.” After walking up and down the aisle twice to ensure a complete evacuation, Sullenberger, a former fighter pilot with decades of flying experience, was the last to leave the sinking plane. His heroic actions propelled him into the public eye and earned him a slew of honors, including an invitation to Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration and resolutions of praise from the U.S. Congress.
MV Maersk Alabama (2009)
On April 8, 2009, in the crime-ridden waters off the coast of Somalia, a small band of Somali pirates hijacked the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama. It was the first attempted pirate seizure of a vessel flying the U.S. flag since the early 19th century. After a standoff with the crew, the rifle-toting pirates fled in a covered lifeboat, taking the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, with them. Several days of tense and halting negotiations ensued between Phillips’ captors and the missile-armed destroyer USS Bainbridge, which had been dispatched to address the hostage situation. During this time, the U.S. Defense Department obtained permission from President Barack Obama to use force against the pirates if it appeared Phillips’ life was in imminent danger. When two of the pirates poked their heads out a back hatch and a third pointed an automatic rifle at Phillips, U.S. Navy SEAL sharpshooters took aim using night-vision scopes. Despite the darkness and choppy water, the expertly trained shooters were able to take out the three pirates with just three shots, setting the stage for Phillips’ rescue.
Baby Jessica (1987)
On October 14, 1987, an 18-month-old girl named Jessica McClure was playing with a group of children in her aunt’s backyard when she fell into an abandoned well, becoming wedged in a narrow crevice 22 feet below the surface. As rescue operations began, reporters and television crews descended upon Midland, Texas, the recession-stricken city where Jessica’s teenage parents were struggling to eke out a living. Glued to their televisions, people around the world learned that “Baby Jessica,” as she became known, spent her time underground sleeping, crying, singing songs and calling for her mother. They watched as emergency workers piped fresh air down the well, burrowed through solid rock to create a rescue shaft and, more than 58 hours after her ordeal began, hauled the frightened but alert toddler out of her cramped, dark prison. The photographer Scott Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for capturing the moment on film. Despite undergoing multiple surgeries and losing part of her foot due to circulation loss, Jessica went on to live a happy childhood, sheltered from her parents from the media circus that accompanied her rescue. The drama ended on a more tragic note for Robert O’Donnell, the paramedic who extricated Jessica from the well and appeared with her in Shaw’s famous photograph. Plagued by depression and post-traumatic stress—ostensibly due to the strain of the rescue and the resulting glare of the spotlight—he committed suicide in 1995.
Andes Flight Disaster (1972)
On October 13, 1972, a chartered flight carrying a Uruguayan rugby team and a group of their friends and family members slammed into an unnamed peak in the Argentine Andes. Of the 45 passengers on board Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, 12 died in the crash, and half a dozen others succumbed to injury or the freezing mountain temperatures in the days that followed. The remaining survivors took refuge in the plane’s fuselage, where they subsisted on a dwindling supply of snacks, chocolate bars and wine. On October 29, an avalanche struck their shelter, killing an additional eight people. Meanwhile, rescue parties from three countries halted their search for the missing plane after little more than a week, citing the passengers’ minuscule chances of survival. As the days wore on, with no food left and no end in sight to their nightmarish situation, the survivors resorted to eating their dead teammates and acquaintances. By December, 16 passengers were still alive; two of them, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, set out on a 12-day trek across the mountains to seek help in Chile. Thanks to the duo’s bravery and determination, the last 14 survivors were rescued after 72 days on a remote mountaintop. The 1993 film “Alive,” directed by Frank Marshall and starring Ethan Hawke, was inspired by their story.
Apollo 13 (1970)
When an explosion rocked the Apollo 13 spaceship on April 13, 1970, the third lunar landing mission quickly became a fight for survival for the three men on board, an intense rescue operation for mission control in Houston and a drama unfolding in real time for millions of people around the world. The craft had left Cape Kennedy, Florida, two days earlier, carrying astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, and Fred W. Haise. If all went as planned, Apollo 13 would enter the moon’s orbit and land in its uncharted Fra Mauro highlands; soon after, Lovell and Haise would become the fifth and sixth people to walk on its surface. Instead, an oxygen tank blew up, disabling the spaceship’s electrical system and prompting Lovell to utter the immortal words: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” With the command module hemorrhaging oxygen, mission control instructed the three men to move to the attached lunar module, a separate craft designed to ferry astronauts to the moon’s surface and back again. Its power supply could support two people for 45 hours. But for the crew of Apollo 13 to make it home alive, it would have to support three men for at least 90 hours and successfully navigate more than 200,000 miles of space. Guided and monitored by mission control, the astronauts conserved supplies, adjusted the lunar module’s trajectory and spent three days huddled in its increasingly cold confines. Meanwhile, engineers on the ground scrambled to develop a procedure that would allow the astronauts to restart the command module for reentry. Miraculously, their solution worked, and the crew splashed down safely into the Pacific Ocean on April 17.