History’s greatest rescues
Rescue efforts bring out the best in those who endeavor to risk their lives to save others. The ones who get rescued may have made a poor decision to get them into trouble or been the unfortunate victims of circumstance. In the case of 12 Thai soccer players and their coach who are presently trapped in a cave, perhaps it’s a little bit of both. The team has been to the cave before without incident, but this time extreme rain flooded the caverns and left them trapped. Their smiling faces are a testament to human endurance when faced with extreme hardship and remind us of some of the other incidents that contributed to some of history’s greatest rescues.
1. USS Squalus
Sargo Class diesel submarines saw heavy action in the early years of American involvement in WWII, but it was the USS Squalus that was first to be put in harm’s way. While on sea trials in the Isle of Shoals the unthinkable happened: A valve failed and half the submarine filled with water, drowning 26 men almost immediately.
The remaining crew successfully sealed off the flooded compartments, as the boat sank to 260 feet and rested on the bottom of the ocean (its crush depth was 250 feet). Navy divers used new theories about diving to avoid cognitive impairment and successfully brought all 33 survivors to the surface. Afterward, the ship was raised and renamed the USS Sailfish and participated in WWII. For heroic actions during the rescue, four of the divers were awarded the Medal of Honor.
2. Apollo 13
What all of these rescues have in common is a massive amount of people came together to save lives, and while no one went out to save the Apollo 13 space capsule, a Herculean effort was undertaken by America’s best and brightest. When the moon-bound Apollo 13 endured an explosion over 200,000 miles away from earth, the lives of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert were in grave danger of being the first to be lost by the US in space flight.
NASA pooled together its genius bar to navigate problems such as finding enough oxygen and power to get them home, solving the crew’s buildup of deadly carbon dioxide, and navigating the vastness of space with no guidance system. On April 17, 1970 the world held its collective breath until cameras caught the dramatic scene of parachutes safely guiding the damaged spacecraft to splashdown in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean.
3. The Miracle of the Andes
This next event is definitely more a story of survival than rescue, in that the survivors were mainly responsible for rescuing themselves. An inexperienced flight crew tried to pilot a rugby team into the Andes and crashed on a peak in the isolated mountain range. The crash claimed the lives of 17 people, and the survivors endured 72 days of no heat, no proper medical attention (many were injured from the crash), and almost no food.
“Almost” is used because when food stores ran out, the survivors were forced to eat the bodies of the dead. In a well-chronicled tale, two of the survivors climbed to the top of a nearby peak and hiked out of the mountain range for 15 miles over 10 days without any mountain gear or training. Because of their efforts, 16 more survivors were rescued from the horrific scene.
4. Raid at Cabanatuan
POW’s of the Japanese Empire during WWII suffered some of the harshest conditions of the entire war. Japanese prison guards conducted wanton killings of their captured foes and also had them endure conditions that greatly diminished their physical and mental faculties. When the US Army “returned” to the Philippines in October 1944, many feared the Japanese would retaliate by killing POW’s held in camps well behind enemy lines.
Responding to this threat, the US army put together a band of Army Rangers, scouts, and Philippino guerillas who pulled off a daring raid that saw them penetrate 30 miles behind enemy lines. Once they reached the Cabanatuan prison camp, they quickly overwhelmed Japanese guards and successfully rescued 500 American POW’s.
5. SS Andrea Doria
The Titanic, Lusitania, and Andrea Doria were all first-rate luxury cruise liners that ended up on the bottom of the ocean in the 20th century. The Andrea Doria gets the nod on our list for the expedient rescue efforts that resulted in far fewer deaths than the Titanic and Lusitania. On July 25, 1956, thick fog obscured visibility of the Andrea Doria and MS Stockholm, and the latter ran into the starboard side of the former.
The Andrea Doria immediately began to flood and listed until turned completely sideways before slowly slipping beneath the waves. Thanks to rescuers who were Johnny on the spot, only 46 people perished, which is still a high number but dwarfed by the 1,660 passengers and crew members that were saved.
6. Rescue at Negros, Philippines
When Captain Frank Walker of submarine USS Crevalle got orders to pick up American refugees on the Philippine Island of Negros in early 1944, he was less than enthused. “I’ve become a bus driver,” he wrote. But they were no ordinary refugees, as they were hiding in the jungle from the Japanese for 2 ½ years. Through guerilla efforts, they actually obtained the Japanese battle plans to “annihilate” the US Pacific fleet.
The 40 refugees were crammed into the submarine and endured bombings from an enemy airplane and depth charges from a destroyer on their journey to Australia. Thanks to the efforts of the refugees and crew of the Crevalle, efforts to take the island of Saipan resulted in far fewer American casualties.
7. Rescue of Bat 21 Bravo
Seldom has a country’s military gone to such great lengths and been willing to sacrifice so much for the life of one man. But when Lt. Colonel Iceal Hambleton punched out over the skies of North Vietnam, the US intelligence community was gravely concerned that if captured, Hambleton would spill invaluable secrets.
For eight days, the 53-year-old eluded swaths of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units and watched as five aircraft were shot down, 11 men were killed, and another two were captured. With air efforts only leading to more deaths, the mission to rescue Hambleton was undertaken by a Navy SEAL named Tom Norris. Norris slipped through enemy patrols in a captured Vietnamese sampan and rescued Hambleton in the night. For his efforts (and separate actions in and around that time), Norris was awarded the Medal of Honor.
8. Hurricane Katrina
In August of 2005, a category 5 hurricane devasted the Gulf Coast and left an entire city underwater. The storm caused $81 billion worth of damage and claimed the lives of 1,800 people in what amounted to the Red Cross’s largest relief effort in their history. Countless local and state governments, military personnel and equipment, and aid organizations produced dramatic scenes of individuals being rescued via helicopter from rooftops, and from boats in the flooded streets.
Survivors of the storm still experience various forms of PTSD, but the Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) study also found that the number afflicted has greatly diminished over the years, and many experienced mental growth. While it comes at a terrible cost, RISK is evidence that surviving such extreme circumstances can make a person feel stronger.
9. Mount Everest 1996 disaster
This survival story has it all: Climbers were faced with unimaginable circumstances and impossible decisions on the planet’s highest peak. After reaching the “death zone” on Mt. Everest (26,000+ feet) multiple expeditions were faced with turning back or reaching the summit amid a terrible storm. Their decision to summit proved consequential as eight climbers lost their lives, and many others suffered life-altering wounds.
The climbers made their way down the mountain in blizzard-like conditions and several became separated. A man named Beck Weathers would survive the climb after being rescued via helicopter at an astonishing 21,000 feet (did we mention there was a storm?!). Climbing Mt. Everest has become much safer in recent years (though still terribly treacherous), but prior to 1996, for every four that made the summit, one climber lost their lives trying.
10. Miracle on the Hudson
Don’t you love rescue stories where everyone survives? We sure do, and when it comes to plane crashes, the “Miracle on the Hudson” is certainly the best-case scenario. A flock of Canadian Geese shredded both engines shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, and left Flight 1549 in the air without power.
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger then made the extremely difficult decision to put the plane down in the Hudson River. Not only did everyone survive the water landing, but there were also very few injuries. In another Johnny-on-the-spot moment, New York ferries began rescuing passengers almost immediately. They were so effective that 155 passengers and crew were off the plane in under 15 minutes.
11. 2010 Copiapó mining accident
This is another story where everyone survives, but these men had to endure decidedly more difficult circumstances. At the San Jose gold mine in Copiapó, Chile a collapse in the mines main roadway led to 33 men being trapped nearly half a mile below the earth’s surface.
For 17 days no one knew the fate of the miners, until a drill that bore a deep hole came back to the surface with a note that said all 33 men were just fine. Slowly but surely the men made contact with the outside world and held it together for 69 days. Eventually, a massive joint effort involving multiple governments and corporations (even NASA) saw the advent of a new machine that rescued each of the miners one by one.
12. Alaska Ranger 2008 incident
Fewer things will bring greater shivers than the thought of abandoning ship at night in the middle of the Bering Sea, but for the crew of the fishing boat Alaska Ranger, that’s exactly what happened. Inexplicably, the aft section of the boat began to flood when one of the rudders fell off.
The crew didn’t know why the boat was sinking but heralded the US Coast Guard as they began evacuating. Five of the 47-man crew were lost that night, and just about every survivor suffered severe hypothermia after enduring -24-degree temperatures (with wind chill) amid 15-foot ocean swells. The rescue mission by the USCG 180 miles from the closest port was considered the largest cold-water rescue in their 228 years of existence.
13. The Wangjialing mine
Accidents happen, and when it comes to the Chinese coal mining industry, accidents happen a lot. The industry that averages seven miners dying every day had a brief moment of triumph in April 2010. Miners in the Wangjialing Mine were digging a hole when they accidentally struck another hole that contained millions of gallons of water.
Water came flooding in and fearing that all was lost, a full week went by before tapping noises confirmed that at least some of them survived. Over eight days, the miners ate bark from pillars made of pine and used their belts to strap themselves to walls. Eventually, rescue efforts prevailed and 115 of 153 men were lifted to safety.
14. Baby Jessica
Jessica McClure was only 18 months old when she became the most famous person in America (briefly). Her case helped give rise to the 24-hour news cycle as networks such as CNN provided nearly constant coverage. “Baby Jessica,” as she’s been dubbed by the press, somehow fell into a well while her mother’s back was turned, and even more miraculously, somehow managed to survive a fall of over 20 feet.
For 58 harrowing hours, rescue crews descended on the well in Midland, Texas and dug a hole right next to the well shaft. Eventually, the hole was deep enough, and crews constructed a tunnel that connected it to the shaft. As rescuers brought her to the surface, a photographer named Scott Shaw captured the moment in a still image that would win him the 1988 Pulitzer Prize.
15. Quecreek Mine rescue 2002
This is another story where everyone survives, and how that occurred is nearly unbelievable. In another mining accident, this time in Pennsylvania, nine miners took a wrong turn in Albuquerque when they used a faulty map to drill a hole. Just like in China, they accidentally opened a cavern that flooded their compartment with millions of gallons of water.
Luckily for them, the accident occurred in the United States in the 21st century. Rescue crews used a satellite to pinpoint their location, then drilled a hole to pump in air, and then drilled a bigger hole to install a kind of elevator. The men spent 77 hours in the mine, and miraculously, every single one of them came back to the surface.
16. Port-au-Prince 2010 earthquake
This miraculous young woman endured hardship rarely seen in recorded history and somehow lived to tell the tale. The devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake virtually destroyed the city of Port-au-Prince in Haiti and resulted in the deaths of a mind-blowing 220,000 people.
After two weeks, rescue workers had all but given up hope of finding survivors, until the faint whisper of a 16-year-old girl could be heard by a passerby. A French team immediately began removing concrete and twisted metal to free Darlene Etienne from the rubble. Her leg was broken, and she was trapped after the earthquake. She had survived 15 days without food or water.
17. Jeanesville, PA coal mine rescue
Coal mining in the 19th century was an extremely dangerous endeavor — nearly three people died every day (still much safer than modern-day China). In 1891 a mining crew did a thing that miners do, and hit a cavern that… you guessed it: flooded the chamber they were in.
In another tale that’s more about the survivors than rescuers, five men swam and climbed their way to an upper chamber after 18 of their mates were buried alive. Once there, the five survived for six days with only the meal they had in their pales. According to reports, the men survived on lamp oil and sulfur infused water when they ran out of food.
18. The Miracle at Dunkirk
This popular story gains allure out of the fact that it was one of the largest and most important rescue missions in the history of the world. While the over 330,000 survivors from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) are extremely important, this story is more about the rescuers.
The German army stood at the doorstep of annihilating the BEF in late May and early June of 1940, and if it weren’t for the efforts of the British Navy and countless civilians, Germany would’ve walked right through that door. Instead, nearly 1,000 yachts, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and lifeboats rose into service to rescue the trapped survivors from the fierce German war machine.
19. Enrique Rebsamen School, Mexico City
This is one of the more tragic rescues that occurred throughout history, and it took place only recently. When a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City in September of 2017, rescuers worked frantically to help the children trapped inside Enrique Rebsamen Elementary School. Tragically, 25 people died when the building collapsed from the furious shift in the earth. But little Frida, a student at the school, was spotted more than 15 hours into the search for survivors. The problem was that Frida didn’t exist!
Outrage gripped the world after they realized the whole story had been fabricated. But rescuers did manage to pull 11 children out of the school. First, they lowered a microphone into the rubble to see if anyone was alive. Then a rescue dog went into the rubble and found the children. Digging through the rubble was difficult and delicate, as any shift in the rubble could’ve caused further collapse.
20. Moscow Theater Rescue
The Mexico City earthquake is a reminder that not all rescue missions get everyone out alive. We were reminded of that fact in Moscow in 2002 when Chechen terrorists took an entire movie theater full of people hostage. With automatic weapons and explosives strapped to their bodies, the terrorists demanded the Russian army end its occupation of Chechnya.
Enter the Spetsnaz, Russia’s elite special forces unit. After three days of failed negotiations, Russian authorities pumped a chemical agent into the theater to incapacitate the terrorists. The move worked in that the Spetsnaz lightning quick raid ended. Tragically, 129 of the 800 hostages perished because of the “mystery” gas. In a further insult to injury, experts say all they had to do was sit the incapacitated hostages upright, instead of laying them down to suffocate.
21. Gran Sasso Raid
If the New Guinea rescue stimulated your imagination, then this next one will blow your mind. When the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, Italians rose up against their fascist leader Benito Mussolini and had him arrested. He was being held in a castle on top of a large plateau that was basically impossible to get to from the ground. But Hitler wasn’t about to let his idol and friend go down like that.
German commandos in 10 gliders descended on the mountain top and nine of them successfully landed. The garrison of 200 troops was so surprised that they were overwhelmed without firing a single shot. A plane then landed on the plateau, and just 10 minutes later Mussolini was airlifted out. Unfortunately for Mussolini, (but good for the world) he was recaptured less than two years later and sentenced to death for his war crimes.
22. Operation Nimrod
Say what you want about the title of this 1980 operation, it was considered “the greatest special [operations] feat of the century.” Here’s the scenario: 24 hostages held by six heavily armed terrorists inside the Iranian embassy in London. Six days of negotiations failed when the terrorists executed a hostage and threw them into the street. The Iranian Embassy siege took place from April 30 to May 5, 1980, after a group of six armed men stormed the Iranian embassy on Prince’s Gate in South Kensington, London.
While television cameras broadcast a live feed, members of the elite British special forces unit SAS stormed the embassy. In less than 17 minutes, the entire embassy was secure with only one hostage was injured, five terrorists were dead, and another captured alive.
23. Operation Chavin de Huantar
In another daring raid, this time in Peru in 1997, the Japanese Ambassador to the country was taken hostage in his home by highly trained terrorists. For 122 days, a standoff took place that left military planners baffled. Their solution was as outlandish as it was genius.
Because of the way the house situated, a frontal assault on the home was impossible. Instead, members of the Peruvian military dug a tunnel underneath the home using only conventional equipment so as to remain silent. This gave them the advantage of surprise to commandos who were able to spring upon the terrorists. Two commandos and a hostage lost their lives, but within 20 minutes, 14 terrorists were dead and the ambassador was secure in the tunnel.
24. Ross Perot’s Raid in Iran
You may be asking, what? Well, here it is: In 1978 two of Ross Perot’s employees were arrested by the Iranian regime and held prisoner for months. Without seeking US government approval, Perot decided to take matters into his own hands. He assembled a group of retired special operations soldiers and planned a daring raid.
At first, his team was able to gain intelligence about the prison where his employees were held, but then they were moved. With time running out, his team managed to incite a riot that grabbed the attention of the Iranian guards. With them distracted, his team swooped into the prison and managed to successfully escape with the two Americans in tow.
25. Maersk Alabama Rescue
The Maersk Alabama rescue (aka Captain Phillips’s worst day) was a feat in special operations logistics. When four Somali pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama cargo ship in April of 2009, the situation rapidly deteriorated. After the 23 man crew captured one of the pirates, the pirates took to the lifeboat with Captain Phillips in tow.
US warships trailed the lifeboat for days as tensions rose, and members of a Navy SEAL team took command of the situation. Using sniper rifles on the deck of a ship that ebbed and flowed with the rising and falling ocean current, three members of the team managed to overcome the pirates in very tight quarters without inflicting any harm on Captain Phillips.
26. Thailand soccer team rescue
Rescue efforts will never cease as long as people endeavor into great depths and heights, engage in conflict, and build cities susceptible to ruin from natural disasters. We were just recently reminded of that as 12 soccer players and their coach became trapped in a tunnel network in Northern Thailand. They became trapped when a birthday celebration for one of the players saw them walk into the cave, and then they became trapped when heavy rain flooded the cave, leaving them trapped. After 10 days divers penetrated deep inside the cave and found the boys alive.
According to reports, they stayed alive by eating birthday snacks they brought in and drank water that dripped from the cave walls. The coach, who was a former monk, kept their mental state intact by teaching them meditation to combat the constant darkness. An international coalition of divers, engineers, and logicians pumped water out of the cave, established stages to replenish vital oxygen for divers (one volunteer diver lost his life when he ran out), and shepherded the team out of the cave. Somehow, someway the boys were in good health, good spirits, and wore the famous Thai smile as rescuers worked through a logistical nightmare to save them.