For almost every famous disaster you can name there’s an equally famous person who, though some lucky quirk of fate, happened to miss the ill-fated boat, doomed plane, mass murder, or other calamity. Here are 10 examples from recent American history.
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1. Admiral Richard E. Byrd
In August 1921, Richard Byrd was scheduled to join the crew of a new, 695-foot-long Navy dirigible known as the ZR-2, departing from Howden, England, on a trial flight. But Byrd, later to gain fame as an aviator and the first explorer to fly over the South Pole, missed his train the day before and was late arriving at the airfield. As a result, he was crossed off the crew list.
Byrd did, however, have a chance to inspect the huge airship and watch it lift off the next morning. “How magnificent she looked, the rosy light of sunrise tinting her bright sides a series of soft violet and lavender tints,” he recalled in his 1928 memoir, Skyward. “Officers and observers aboard, lines cast off, she rose slowly and with dignity befitting so huge a craft, sailed away into the cloudless sky.”
A day later, back in London, he learned that the ZR-2 had broken in half, exploded in midair, and crashed into the Humber River near Hull. A total of 44 American and British crew members died.
Byrd would live on to have other adventures, including six pioneering expeditions to the Antarctic. He died in 1957 at age 68, at home in bed.
2. Kirk Douglas
In March of 1958, the actor known for his starring roles in movies such as Lust for Life (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957) planned to join film producer Mike Todd on a trip to New York in Todd’s private plane, but his wife objected. As Douglas recalled in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, he and his wife were listening to the car radio when an announcer interrupted with the news that Todd’s plane had crashed in New Mexico, killing everyone on board.
Douglas is still alive, at age 96.
Another A-list movie star who narrowly missed being aboard Todd’s plane was Elizabeth Taylor, then the producer’s wife (see below). There may have been others, as well. Two weeks after the crash, gossip columnist Earl Wilson noted that so many people were claiming to have avoided the flight that he’d heard someone joke, “Those are the same people who barely missed the Lusitania."