10 Great Escapes

Rescue me

MGM Studios.

Whether it's Steve McQueen tunneling out of a POW camp or 33 Chilean miners enduring two months in a collapsed mine, there's something that fascinates and inspires us about unlikely escapes. Seeing other people beat the odds boosts our faith in the human spirit, not to mention ingenuity, and gives us hope we could persevere if ever faced with a similar plight.

The following 10 survival stories show how risky it can be on the outskirts of civilization — from outer space to Antarctica to mile-deep mines — as well as how bad luck can strike out of nowhere. But they also illustrate something even more important: how far people will go not only to escape the jaws of death, but to rescue other people from them, too.

(Text by Laura Moss, Russell McLendon, Noel Kirkpatrick and Benyamin Cohen)

Chile's trapped miners

Chile's Presidency/AP.

On Aug. 5, 2010, a copper and gold mine in Chile caved in, trapping 33 miners 2,300 feet underground. Rescue workers descended into the mine two days later, but were forced to abandon their route when a fresh cave-in blocked the duct, so they began drilling holes in an attempt to locate the miners. Seventeen days later they were rewarded with tapping noises and a note tied to the drill that read, "The 33 of us in the shelter are well."

Realizing the miners could be trapped until Christmas, Chile asked NASA for advice, and a strict schedule of exercise, nutrition and entertainment was developed to prepare the miners mentally and physically for the months ahead. Known in Chile as "Los 33," the miners ate 2,220 calories a day, but also exercised to stay slim enough to fit through the rescue hole. While they watched 13 hours of television a day, they were denied handheld video games and personal music players to avoid isolation.

Workers finished drilling an escape shaft Oct. 9, and after reinforcing it with metal, a capsule named "Phoenix" was lowered inside on the night of Oct. 12. It resurfaced just after midnight with 31-year-old Florencio Avalos, the first miner out, to a raucous welcome from family, rescuers and supporters. The process continued with no major problems past sunrise and throughout the day, as miners were pulled up one by one, each greeted by an eruption of cheers. Shift foreman Luis Urzúa, 54, who was credited with keeping the miners alive those first few weeks before they were found, was the 33rd and final one rescued at about 10 p.m. on Oct. 13. "We've done a good job," he said in Spanish after stepping out of the Phoenix. "Seventy days of the fight were worth it. We had the guts to fight."

Apollo 13

NASA.

Dramatized in the 1995 Tom Hanks movie, this lunar mission found astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert stranded in space during a moon mission in the spring of 1970. An explosion caused a loss of electricity to the command module of the spacecraft, forcing the astronauts to use the lunar module as a floating "lifeboat." (The damage gave birth to the pop-culture phrase: "Houston, we have a problem.")

The drama captivated the nation as reports came back to Earth that the lifeboat, built for two men with only two days' worth of air, would now have to be the home of three men for four days. With NASA engineers providing out-of-the-box ideas, the astronauts were able to jury-rig a solution using a plastic bags, cardboard, tape, and an old sock. This MacGyver-like solution enabled the astronauts — cold, tired, and hungry — to return safely back home. The mission was dubbed a "successful failure."

Baby Jessica

Eric Gay/AP.

On Oct. 14, 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell down a narrow well in her aunt's backyard in Midland, Texas, where she was trapped for nearly three days.

For the first few hours, rescuers tried to get a visual on Baby Jessica and finally lowered a video camera into the 22-foot well to confirm her presence. Fences and clotheslines were torn down as rescuers rushed to bring in backhoes and drilling equipment to rescue the terrified toddler. Police officers took turns sitting by the hole talking to her and encouraging her to sing "Winnie the Pooh," and 58 hours later a parallel shaft had been drilled and a gauze-covered child was lifted from the hole.

Baby Jessica's rescue gripped the world — viewers were glued to their TVs and people across the nation showered the McClure family with teddy bears, cards and gifts. The 24-year-old has had 15 surgeries since her rescue and is now married with a son and will soon gain access to a trust fund worth more than $1 million — money donated in her name by well-wishers during the three-day ordeal.

Miracle on the Hudson

Steven Day/AP.

U.S. Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York on its way to Charlotte on Jan. 15, 2009, but minutes later the plane struck a flock of Canada geese, disabling both engines. The crew determined that they would be unable to reach any airfield in time, so pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger turned the plane toward the Hudson River.

The captain told passengers to "brace for impact" and a few seconds later the Airbus A320 hit the river. As soon as the planer touched down, the aircrew began evacuating the 155 passengers from the slowly sinking airliner. By the time rescuers in Coast Guard vessels and ferries reached the plane, it was submerged up to its windows, but everyone was safely brought to shore.

The entire crew of Flight 1549 was later awarded the Master's Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, and today Capt. Sully is widely regarded as a hero.

Essex whaling disaster

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On Aug. 12, 1819, the U.S. whaling ship Essex set sail from Nantucket, Mass., to hunt sperm whales in the South Pacific. It arrived there six months later, and things went smoothly for the following nine months as the crew hauled in a fortune in whale oil.

But their luck ran out on Nov. 16, 1820, when a sperm whale sank one of the Essex's small whaleboats with its tail. Four days later, another whale smashed into the Essex itself, sinking the ship and forcing its crew into their three remaining whaleboats. They sailed for weeks until spying a desert island on Dec. 20, but quickly realized it was too small to support the entire crew. All but three returned to sea, where several died before the survivors resorted to cannibalism; the final five were eventually rescued in February 1821.

The three who had stayed behind on the rocky outcrop — now known as Henderson Island — lived there for 107 days until they too were rescued in April 1821. The captain's son later recounted his father's ordeal to a young whaler named Herman Melville, inspiring him to write the novel "Moby Dick."

Escape from Antarctica

National Science Foundation.

Dr. Ronald Shemenski was the only medical doctor among 50 scientists at the South Pole's Amundsen-Scott research station (pictured) in April 2001, so when he passed a gallstone and developed severe pancreatitis, everyone knew it was bad news — especially since the long Antarctic winter was just beginning.

No one had ever flown into Antarctica so close to winter, but fearing Shemenski's condition could worsen, the National Science Foundation decided to try. It sent in a small rescue plane on April 14, and after several weather delays, it finally reached the Antarctic coast on April 22, greeted by daytime darkness and temperatures of minus 80 degrees. The plane then had to wait three more days before flying inland to the research station, where it finally arrived on April 24. Shemenski was flown out the next day, and once back in the U.S., doctors found he had also suffered a heart attack on top of his other ailments. They performed heart surgery on May 3, followed by gall bladder surgery in June, and he eventually made a full recovery.

Andes flight disaster

Wikimedia Commons.

On Oct. 13, 1972, a Uruguayan rugby team and their friends and family boarded Air Force flight 571 in Montevideo, Uruguay, for a match in Santiago, Chile. However, inclement weather caused the pilot to crash in the Andes Mountains the next day, killing 12 of the 45 passengers on impact.

Chances of survival were so slim that the search mission was called off after just eight days, and as days passed, passengers succumbed to injuries and freezing temperatures and survivors were left with little hope. Rationed food ran out quickly, and the remaining passengers made the gruesome decision to eat the flesh of their dead friends, which had been preserved in the snow.

Disaster struck again on Oct. 29 when an avalanche killed eight people who had been sleeping in the fuselage of the plane. Realizing they wouldn’t survive much longer without help, two of the players began a trek over the mountain in search of help on Dec. 12. Several days later, Fernando Parrado and Roberto Canessa reached the Rio Azufre river valley where they encountered a group of cowboys who alerted authorities. The remaining survivors were rescued the following day, and the rugby team’s story of survival — and cannibalism — blanketed the media.

Tasmanian mine collapse

Ian Waldie/AP.

When a magnitude-2.1 earthquake hit Tasmania on April 25, 2006, the damage didn't seem too bad at first — until word spread that it triggered a rock collapse in a gold mine near Beaconsfield, leaving three miners missing. All three were initially feared dead, but five days after the quake, investigators used a thermal-imaging camera to find two of them still alive, trapped 3,000 feet underground.

The two miners survived their first week by rationing a cereal bar and licking water from rocks, but soon received meals via a pipe from the surface. They were also given an iPod with their favorite music, an idea suggested by a psychologist to keep their spirits up. The miners drew global praise for their stoicism and even humor, at one point jokingly asking for classified ads to help them find new jobs.

Rescuers used explosives, rock splitters, handheld drills and diamond-tipped saws to carve out an escape tunnel, and the two miners — Todd Russell and Bryant Webb, pictured at left and second from left — were finally freed after 14 days. But the rescue was bittersweet, coming just hours before the funeral of a colleague who didn't survive.

Haiti earthquake survivor

Photo: By arindambanerjee/Shutterstock.com

After Haiti was shaken by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010 — killing an estimated 230,000 people — optimism was scarce in the devastated capital of Port-au-Prince. The only bits of good news came as survivors were pulled from the rubble, but without enough machinery to excavate all the fallen buildings, hope was fading quickly.

But 11 days after the quake, just as officials declared an end to searches, a faint tapping noise was heard under the ruins of a hotel. Rescuers traced it to Wismond Exantus, a 24-year-old cashier who had crawled under a desk as the hotel was falling, and lived for 11 days on chips, candy, sodas and beer — plus an entire bottle of white-label whiskey. A Greek and French rescue crew cleared an opening to access him, but when none of the male rescuers could fit through, they sent in a 5-foot-5 Scottish volunteer named Carmen Michalska, who finally helped Exantus squirm free. In a field hospital afterward, Exantus told the Associated Press that optimism and faith kept him alive: "Every night I thought about the revelation that I would survive," he said.

Flooded Chinese mine

Photo: By Vladislav S/Shutterstock

A group of Chinese miners were constructing a mine in Wangjialing on March 28, 2010 when they hit an abandoned shaft filled with water — enough water to fill more than 50 Olympic-size pools — and a wave came rushing into the mine.

By clinging to walls and creating makeshift boats from mining carts, 115 miners were able to stay above water, and after five days of pumping the flooded mine, rescuers were finally able to hear voices and frantic tapping sounds. Through a pipe they dropped pens and paper and a glucose solution for nutrition, and after a week, enough water had been pumped out that rescue crews were able to enter the mine in small boats.

Forging through strong underground currents, rescuers were able to transport more than 100 men out one by one. The surviving miners were suffering from hypothermia, dehydration and ulcers from their long exposure to water, but they were alive. In 2009, more than 2,600 people were killed in Chinese mining accidents.

Famous fictional escapes

Mario Perez, ABC/AP.

Lost: Oceanic flight 815 crashed onto our TV screens in the fall of 2004 and became an instant pop culture phenomenon. The castaways — including a surgeon, a con man, a pregnant woman, a rock star and dozens of “others” — spent six seasons stranded on a mysterious, mythical island. The characters escaped the island a couple of times. First they escaped by helicopter (and then by raft after the helicopter ran out of fuel) only to return to the island. A few of the castaways escaped in the series’ finale, this time using a plane that had landed on the island. Despite their escapes, many of the castaways (and the audience) never managed to answer all the questions posed by the island.

Gilligan’s Island: After 15 years stranded on an uncharted desert isle, the seven castaways finally escape by lashing their huts together to create a makeshift raft. The U.S. Coast Guard spots smoke coming from the raft (Gilligan left a fire unattended while cooking fish) and tows the castaways to Hawaii. The group reunites for a Christmas cruise on the S.S. Minnow II, but they get lost in a storm because Gilligan breaks the compass. The group ends up shipwrecked again ... on the same island.

Castaway: A violent storm causes Chuck Noland’s plane to crash into the ocean and he washes up on an island, where he lives for four years until he constructs a raft. Noland sets sail to escape the island, but a storm destroys his raft and sweeps his only friend, a volleyball named Wilson, out to sea. Overwhelmed by grief, he gives up any hope of rescue but is soon found by a passing cargo ship.

Pinocchio: When Pinocchio learns that Geppetto has been swallowed by a giant whale named Monstro, he immediately jumps into the ocean where he, too, is eaten by the whale. Upon being reunited with Gepetto in the whale’s stomach, Pinocchio devises a plan to burn wood, which makes Monstro sneeze and frees them from his belly.