10 Lucky Celebrities Who Escaped Disaster

Most of the time it's the disasters that are famous—but sometimes, famous people escape disasters instead

On February 15, 1958, Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, producer Mike Todd, board his private plane named "The Liz," which crashed a month later killing Todd and two others. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

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As Halas told the story in his 1979 autobiography, Halas by Halas, he was late leaving to catch the ship, much to his good fortune. “When I came to the river where the Eastland was docked, an appalling sight awaited. The Eastland had turned on its side. Only a few passengers had escaped.” 

The final death toll was more than 800 men, women, and children. Because his name was on a passenger list obtained by a newspaper reporter, Halas was briefly assumed to be among them.

Halas lived on to become the founder and owner of the Chicago Bears, which he built from a company football team called the Decatur Staleys. He coached the Bears for 40 seasons and died in 1983 at age 88.

6. Waylon Jennings

Jennings, who later gained fame as a country singer and songwriter and narrator of “The Dukes of Hazard” television show, was a little-known member of Buddy Holly’s backup band in 1959. When Holly decided to forsake their tour bus and charter a plane to fly to their next stop, Jennings gave up his seat to the singer J. P. Richardson, better known as the Big Bopper. The plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing Holly, Richardson, and Ritchie Valens, as well as the pilot—a tragedy memorialized as “the day the music died” in the Don McLean song “American Pie.” 

Years later, Jennings described their last, jokey conversation after Holly learned he wouldn’t be joining them on the plane. “Well, I hope your damned bus freezes up again,” he remembered Holly saying.

Jennings’s reply: “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”

Waylon Jennings died in 2002 at age 64.

7. Steve McQueen

The actor was planning to drop by actress Sharon Tate’s rented home in Los Angeles on the night of August 8, 1969, but supposedly had a better offer from another female acquaintance and didn’t show. That proved to be a smart move. Tate, her unborn child, and four others were butchered shortly after midnight by members of the Manson Family cult.

About Greg Daugherty
Greg Daugherty

Greg Daugherty is a magazine editor and writer as well as a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com. His books include You Can Write for Magazines.

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