Major disasters involving planes, trains, buses and ocean liners get plenty of media coverage, which has a way of making us more concerned about these modes of transport than we should be, since people are generally terrible at calculating probability. This doesn’t make our hesitation to jump on a plane after seeing a news item about a terrible plane crash any less understandable, but if only there were more stories like these to report – instances in which, despite the presence of every conceivable factor favoring tragic disaster, none occurred.
10. Airbus A320 Near-Crash At Hamburg Airport
On March 1, 2008, a Lufthansa passenger jet carrying 137 passengers and crew arrived in Hamburg from Munich, only to find the conditions less-than-favorable for landing; the area was in the midst of a ferocious winter storm, and there were reports of wind gusts approaching 60 miles per hour. The captain, named in the press only as “Oliver A.”, took it in for a landing, which was going well at first.
Just as the plane touched the runway, it was buffeted by a gusting crosswind, causing the left wing to actually make contact with the ground. The plane lurched, threatening to go completely out of control, which is when the pilot made a snap decision to do what seemed unthinkable – he lifted off again.
This decision may very well have saved the lives of everyone on board, as forcing the initial landing attempt almost certainly would have resulted in disaster. But the plane had sustained only minor damage, and was able to lift off and circle around; with “heroic calm”, the pilot attempted another landing, which he executed perfectly. All 137 passengers and crew deplaned under their own power, shaken but completely unharmed.
9. Helsinki Train Crash
While a passenger train was being shunted to the station to board passengers in Helsinki, Finland in January 2010, something went wrong – almost catastrophically wrong. Four cars, which were empty except for one conductor and two other staff members, became uncoupled from the train during braking, and they kept going – right toward the main station hall, which was filled with Monday morning commuters.
Thinking fast, a traffic controller made an impossible decision. He quickly diverted the four cars from track nine, which would have put them on a beeline to the main hall, to track thirteen, which diverted them toward the office wing of the station’s Holiday Inn hotel. His reasoning was likely that the offices were less likely to be filled with people at that early hour than the station hall platform – and was he ever right.
In fact, the office wing was completely vacant. The cars plowed through a concrete barrier and into the hallway of the hotel, causing quite a bit of damage but absorbing the brunt of it themselves. Miraculously, not a single person was injured. The security chief of VR, the company that operates the trains, had high praise for the controller, whose name was not released to the press; we can only hope that the occupants of the hotel at least got a free continental breakfast or something.
8. TAM Flight 8078
Flight 8078 from Rio De Janeiro was set to touch down at JFK International Airport in September 2012, when the pilot noticed a problem with the front landing gear. It wasn’t that they’d failed to deploy, it’s that they deployed sideways, cocked at a 90 degree angle. Landing gear not being designed to work this way, Captain Moacir de Oliveira had a quick decision to make – one that pretty heavily affected the 190 people aboard his plane.
After briefly consulting with his crew and officials on the ground, Oliveira calmly instructed his passengers to assume the position, because he was bringing this baby in (our words, not his.) As the plane descended steadily toward the runway, its useless front landing gear stubbornly locked in the wrong position. Passengers were screaming and crying as the Captain explained that everything would be fine, he and his crew knew what they were doing (ie, crash landing). Then, seconds before touching down, the impossible happened.
The front landing gear just kinda straightened themselves out. Technicians on the ground, deployed to the runway for disaster response, said it looked like “the hand of God” reached down and adjusted the wheels. The plane landed completely normally, and the shocked passengers burst into applause.
7. Bridge Collapses With School Bus On It
While not as potentially major a disaster as many on this list, it was still an unusual situation confronting school bus driver Debbie Brady on a January day in 2012 – and her quick thinking in response to it likely saved the lives of four children, not to mention herself.
She had dropped off all but those four, when the bus reached the south bridge on Heritage Creek road. Utility workers had been reporting problems with the bridge, which had appeared to be bowed in due to heavy runoff after two straight days of rainfall; a county commissioner was en route to the site to inspect the bridge when the unthinkable (almost) happened.
Brady told the press afterward that there didn’t appear to be a problem with the bridge upon approach, or she obviously would not have driven over it. However, as soon as the front wheels touched the bridge it collapsed, plunging the front of the bus down at a 45-degree angle toward the icy creek. Brady calmly directed the panicked children through the only course of escape – out the front door of the bus, and across the collapsing bridge to safety.
Then, before presumably going home to have a panic attack, Debbie Brady walked all four children home to their parents.
6. Iran Air Flight 742
Iran Air Captain Hooshang Shahbazi was at the controls of a Boeing 727 approaching Tehran Airport, when the front landing gear failed to deploy. While there are troubleshooting measures that can be taken in an event such as this, Captain Shahbazi had reason to be a little disheartened. The 727 is an obsolete model – 40 years old at the time of this 2011 incident – and a similar plane had crashed in Northern Iran about eight months prior, killing everyone aboard.
The captain remained calm. The troubleshooting was not successful, and the decision was made to divert the flight to Mehrabad, where it could make a low approach – one which confirmed that the landing gear was up and locked.
Displaying nerves of steel, Shahbazi landed the plane on two landing gear and its nose. Though it must have been an incredibly rough landing, all 113 of the plane’s occupants not only survived, but were uninjured. As is typical for Iran, the pilot was not recognized by the government for his heroic effort, and was actually suspended from flying for two months while the incident was investigated.
5. Bomb On A Train
A terror attack, with the potential to be one of the deadliest ever, was thwarted in Guwahati, India, in June of 2011. Railway police, conducting a routine check of passenger cars on the Kanchenjunga Express, stumbled upon something that must have made their blood run cold: inside a small, but curiously heavy, unclaimed bag, there was an explosive device. A powerful one.
A steel milk can housed an improvised device containing three detonators and 4 to 5 kilograms of high explosives, enough to cause one hell of a train-shattering kaboom. Over a thousand passengers were evacuated from the train before bomb technicians went to work, disabling the device.
Terrorist group Adivasi People’s Army claimed responsibility for the bomb, probably while vowing to get better at hiding things. It was only the alertness of a couple of rail employees that saved the lives of literally hundreds of people.
4. Polish Airlines Flight 16
In November of 2011, Polish Airlines Captain Tadeusz Wrona was bringing his plane in for a landing at Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin International Airport, after a long flight from New Jersey. “I have flown this plane 500 times,” he would later tell the astonished press, “and this is the first time the undercarriage did not open.”
The plane had suffered a massive failure of its central hydraulic system, and the landing gear would not be making an appearance. After relaying the situation to his 231 passengers and crew- and circling for an hour in preparation, giving everyone time to make peace with every God that had ever been worshiped by anybody ever – Wrona brought the 767 in for a screeching, grinding, spark-showering belly landing. After it skidded to a stop, passengers were hurriedly deplaned and told to run into a nearby field, as far from the smoking plane as possible.
But the hour of circling had depleted most of the fuel (that was the point,) and there was no explosion, no fire and no injuries. Captain Wrona subsequently downplayed his heroism, saying essentially that anyone should have been able to pull off the impossible landing, and that he had been mentally replaying the incident, trying to determine what he could have done better. We’re not sure Batman could have done any better, but there you have it.
3. Bus Driver Incapacitated At The Wheel
During a 2012 trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh aboard a double-decker Megabus, passengers started to get the feeling something was slightly awry when the bus began listing from side to side. That would have been scary enough on its own, but the gigantic bus wasn’t slowing down; in fact, it was speeding up, approaching 70 miles per hour.
The driver was experiencing a medical emergency, rendering her incapacitated and unable to regain control of the bus. As the listing became more severe, some passengers began to panic – and that’s when the semi-trucks appeared. Two of them, one on each side, started flanking the bus to make sure it didn’t go off the road.
While the trucks acted as barriers, an alert passenger – a young preacher who had just earned his CDL license – literally jumped into the lap of the driver and took control of the bus, pulling off to the side of the highway. Amazingly, neither of the semis made physical contact with the bus, and the drivers simply went on their way, once they saw that the situation was under control. The heroic passenger likewise declined any publicity; he may not want to be remembered for his selflessness, but the 50-plus people whose lives he saved are not likely to forget him anytime soon.
2. Cruise Ship Almost Crashes Into Bridge
Captain Peter Liley was operating the Carnival cruise ship Pacific Dawn on Australia’s Brisbane River in April 2010, when the ship suddenly lost power. And propulsion. It had suddenly become an enormous, drifting hulk, 700 yards up river from the crowded Gateway Bridge.
Captain and crew remained calm, even briefing passengers on what was happening, as the ship bore down on the six-lane bridge. The captain was quite concerned about the possibility of the ship ramming the bridge’s pylons – a concern he did not share with the passengers. As he steered the powerless ship, two tugboats attached themselves, and began pulling mightily in the opposite direction of the bridge.
Incredibly, they were able to bring the disabled liner to a full stop, less than 100 yards from the enormous structure. The ship was towed back to port, where it was determined that a faulty fuse, due to a saltwater leak, was to blame. Amazingly, a Carnival Australia spokesman asserted that it had been a “controlled situation,” the result of a “temporary loss of power,” and the ship headed on out on another cruise to the South Pacific the following weekend.
1. Soviet Water Landing
In August 1963, 27-year old Captain Victor Mostovoy was at the controls of an Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-124 passenger jet bound for Moscow. It became apparent that something was amiss shortly after takeoff; the landing gear failed to retract properly, and were stuck in an awkward position. The decision was made by ground control to divert the flight to Leningrad, and the plane made several loops over that city’s airport to burn off fuel.
One out of fuel, one engine quit, and then the other. The airliner was now a very large, not-too-maneuverable glider, with 52 terrified people aboard.
The plane was over the center of the city by this point, too far from the airport to even attempt a runway landing, and the crew determined that their only choice of runway was now the 980-foot wide Neva River. Water landings were known to not go terribly well as a general rule, and this particular river had three bridges along its length that Mostvoy would have to contend with; but the Neva being their only option, he took the plane down.
The first bridge, the Liteyny, they cleared by a good 300 feet. The second, the Bolsheokhtinsky, was passed with less than a hundred feet of clearance. The last, the Alexander Nevsky Bridge, damn near got a face full of plane, with screaming construction workers leaping into the river when they saw the plane approach. The plane splashed down on the river’s surface, right next to a trusty late-1800’s tugboat.
The tugboat captain broke the plane’s windshield, secured a cable to the cockpit control wheel, and proceeded to tow the flooding plane – with all the passengers and crew still aboard – to the river bank, where they were evacuated, luggage and all. Shortly, a bus came along to take everyone to the airport. Ho hum, just another flight to Moscow.