Michael Jackson, Donald Trump and Other Famous Americans Who Escaped Brushes With Death

The roads not taken for these 13 lucky souls saved their lives

"No one on earth can be totally secure, because nothing can completely protect you from life’s tragedies and the relentless passage of time.” (AP Photo)
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Donald J. Trump, long before he became President-Elect of the United States, would call October 10, 1989, “a day that changed my life.”

As he tells the story of that day, the then 43-year-old real estate developer was bidding goodbye to three of his executives who were about to catch a chartered helicopter to Atlantic City.

“For an instant, as they were walking out, I thought of going with them,” Trump wrote in his 1990 book, Trump: Surviving at the Top. “I fly down to Atlantic City at least once a week, and I knew that if I made the forty-five-minute helicopter trip then, we could continue talking business on the way. But there was just too much to do in the office that day. As quickly as the idea had popped into my mind, I decided not to go.”

Later that afternoon he received the news: All three executives, as well as their pilot and copilot, were dead. The helicopter’s rotors had broken off in midair and it had crashed into a wooded median on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey.

Looking back, Trump would reflect that the crash taught him about the fragility of life. “It doesn’t matter who you are, how good you are at what you do, how many beautiful buildings you put up, or how many people know your name," he wrote in his book. "No one on earth can be totally secure, because nothing can completely protect you from life’s tragedies and the relentless passage of time.”

In the midst of last year’s presidential election campaign, reporters from Buzzfeed and Mother Jones resurrected accusations from Trump biographers that he intentionally inflated (or imagined) his part in the day's tragedy. Accounts differ, but some say he wouldn't have left New York because he had a meeting later that day. Others say he would never have considered boarding the ill-fated flight, as the only helicopters he'd fly on were his own. 

Stories of close calls with tragedies are the fodder of many an autiobiography or personal tale. Here are 12 others who dodged death: 

Ansel Adams

The future photographer was just four years old when he was awakened by a thundering noise, felt his bed being jerked around the room, and watched as one chimney of his family’s house plummeted past his window. It was the beginning of the famous San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

After the initial jolt, young Adams went outside to explore. In his autobiography, he remembered being “very curious, wanting to be everywhere at once. There were many minor aftershocks, and I could hear them coming. It was fun for me, but not for anyone else.”

Fun, that is, until an especially strong aftershock flung him against a garden wall, badly breaking his nose. His nose remained off-kilter for the rest of his life.

Although the earthquake itself lasted only about a minute, the fires it caused burned on for three days. An estimated 3,000 residents died and more than 500 city blocks were destroyed.

“From our house I saw vast curtains of smoke by day and walls of flame by night,” Adams recalled. “Refugees poured into our district, setting up their pitiful camps in the dunes with what they had carried from their burning or fire-threatened homes.”

Despite his early encounter with the fury of nature, Adams grew up to become one of the natural world’s greatest chroniclers and advocates. He died in 1984 at the age of 82.

Gerald Ford

In December 1944, the future president was an assistant navigator aboard the light aircraft carrier U.S.S. Monterey in the Philippine Sea when the ship ran into a deadly storm aptly named Typhoon Cobra. Powerful winds and high waves caused three of the Navy destroyers in the group to capsize. According to historian Douglas Brinkley, more than 800 sailors were lost, including six from Ford’s own ship.

One victim might well have been Ford himself. As he remembered the incident in his 1979 autobiography, A Time to Heal, he had just returned to his bunk after four hours on watch during the storm, when he began to smell smoke and went back to investigate.

“As I stepped on the flight deck, the ship suddenly rolled about 25 degrees,” he wrote. “I lost my footing, fell to the deck flat on my face and started sliding toward the port side as if I were on a toboggan slide.” Ford’s slide was finally halted by a two-inch-high steel ridge that ran along the deck to keep the flight crew’s tools from falling into the sea. “I was lucky; I could have easily gone overboard.”

Ford’s troubles weren’t over, though. He soon realized he was right about the fire. The storm had torn planes on the hangar deck loose from their moorings, and as they collided, some of their gas tanks ruptured. Then stray sparks set the gasoline on fire. Meanwhile, the typhoon raged on.

Although the Navy told the crew to abandon ship, the captain asked for time to fight the blaze.  Seven tense hours later, as Ford recalled it, the fire had been extinguished and the badly damaged ship headed for the island of Saipan. 

“Years later, when I became President, I remembered that fire at the height of the typhoon and I considered it a marvelous metaphor for the ship of state,” he wrote.

Ford would live on to serve 25 years in Congress and as president of the United States from 1974 to 1977, following Richard Nixon’s resignation. He died in 2006 at the age of 93.

The Four Tops

The famous R&B vocal group—known for such hits as “Reach Out, I'll Be There”—was scheduled to catch Pan Am Flight 103 from London in December 1988. However, a recording commitment forced them remain in London and take a later plane.

Less than 40 minutes after takeoff, the flight was brought down by a bomb planted on board. It crashed in the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and crew and another 11 people on the ground. The terrorist act was later attributed to the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi.

In October 2016, Duke Fakir, the last surviving member of the group, told British reporters that the group would have boarded the flight but for a BBC producer who insisted they record a pair of upcoming television appearances in two separate sessions rather than one.

“I was glad, so, so glad that we didn’t do it in one session,” Fakir said.

The Four Tops were not the only celebrities who might have been on board. Sex Pistols singer John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, was also set to be on the flight, as was the actress Kim Cattrall. Lydon missed the flight because his wife was slow in packing; Cattrall also missed boarding when she went to buy a teapot to bring home to her mother.

The Four Tops, with some changes in personnel, continue to perform to this day. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Michael Jackson 

A decade after 9/11, Michael Jackson’s older brother Jermaine made headlines when he asserted that, if not for a late night on September 10, the pop star would have been at the World Trade Center on the morning of the terrorist attack.

“Thankfully, none of us had had a clue that Michael was due at a meeting that morning at the top of one of the Twin Towers,” Jermaine wrote in his 2011 book, You Are Not Alone Michael: Through a Brother’s Eyes.  “We only discovered this when Mother phoned his hotel to make sure he was okay. She, Rebbie [Jackson] and a few others had left him there around 3 a.m. ‘Mother, I’m okay, thanks to you,’ he told her. ‘You kept me up talking so late that I overslept and missed my appointment.’”

One colorful tale that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11 had Jackson fleeing New York in a rental car with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando—the trio gorging on fast food en route and making it as far as the Midwest. Alas, that account has never been verified.

Jackson would live for another eight years after 9/11. In 2016, seven years after his death in 2009, he topped the Forbes list of highest-paid dead celebrities, with earnings for the year estimated at $825 million.

John McCain

The future U.S. senator and presidential candidate was a 31-year-old naval aviator in 1967. One July morning, as he was about to take off from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Forrestal, then in the Tonkin Gulf off Vietnam, a stray missile from another plane hit either his fuel tank of that of the plane next to him (historical accounts differ). Burning jet fuel spewed across the deck, along with one or more bombs from the damaged plane.

McCain escaped his plane—only to step into another inferno.

“Small pieces of hot shrapnel from the exploded bomb tore into my legs and chest,” he remembered in his 1999 memoir, Faith of My Fathers.  “All around me was mayhem. Planes were burning….Body parts, pieces of the ship, and scraps of planes were dropping onto the deck.”

The crew fought for more than a day to get the fire under control. The death toll would eventually reach 132 men, with two others missing and assumed dead. The Forrestal took two years to repair.

Just three months later, McCain faced death again. On a bombing run over Hanoi, his plane was hit by a Russian missile he described as “the size of a telephone pole.” McCain managed to eject from the plane but was badly injured. Captured by the North Vietnamese, he spent the next five years as a prisoner of war.

After his release in 1973, McCain continued to serve in the Navy until 1981.He was elected to the House in 1982, to the Senate in 1986, and ran as the Republican candidate for president in 2008. Today he is the senior U.S. senator from Arizona.

Dan Quayle

Dan Quayle was a young Indiana congressman in 1978, when a friend and fellow House member, California Democrat Leo Ryan, invited him on a trip to Guyana. The purpose of Ryan’s trip was to investigate abuse allegations against the American-born cult leader Jim Jones, who had moved his followers from California to the South American country a year earlier.

Because he had two young children and a third on the way, Quayle wrote in his 1994 memoir, Standing Firm, “I begged off this one, even though Leo asked me two or three times.”

That proved fortuitous on Quayle’s part. At the end of his visit to Jonestown, Ryan, three journalists and one cult defector were shot dead on an airstrip as they attempted to leave. Eleven other people were wounded in the attack by Peoples Temple gunmen.

Later that day, on Jones’s orders, more than 900 members of the cult were either murdered or killed themselves by willingly drinking cyanide-laced punch. Jones died of a gunshot wound.

Dan Quayle went on to serve in the U.S. Senate and as vice president of the United States from 1989 to 1993.

John Tyler

In 1844, Tyler, the tenth president of the United States, was part of a large group of dignitaries who came aboard the new, state-of-the art warship U.S.S. Princeton for a cruise on the Potomac River. The festivities included a demonstration of the ship’s powerful guns, said to be capable of hurling a 200-pound cannon ball a distance of five miles.

The guns fired several times without incident. Then, in another test firing, one of them exploded, sending shrapnel across the ship’s deck. Eight people were killed, including Tyler’s secretary of state and secretary of the navy. At least 20 were injured.

Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, great-great uncle of the famous American painter, was knocked unconscious by the explosion. When he came to, he remembered “seeing the gun itself split open—two seamen, the blood oozing from their ears and nostrils, rising and reeling near me—Commodore Stockton, hat gone, and face blackened, standing bolt upright, staring fixedly upon the shattered gun.”

Luckily for Tyler, who would otherwise have been in the line of fire, he had lingered below deck, supposedly to hear his son-in-law perform a song.

Tyler left the presidency in 1845 and died in 1862 at the age of 71.

King Vidor

The future Academy-Award-nominated director grew up in Galveston, Texas, where, as a boy of five, he survived the legendary Galveston Hurricane of 1900, still considered the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. While estimates vary, as many as 12,000 people may have died in the storm.

Before anyone realized the full fury of what was to come, Vidor’s mother took him and two young friends to the beach to see the spectacular waves. Vidor described the scene in a magazine story published years later:

“I could see the waves crash against the streetcar trestle, then shoot into the air as high as the telephone poles….I was only five then, but I remember now that it seemed as if we were in a bowl looking up toward the level of the sea. As we stood there in the sandy street…I wanted to take my mother's hand and hurry her away. I felt as if the sea was going to break over the edge of the bowl and come pouring down upon us.”

The Vidors took shelter in the house where the other two boys were visiting. As the first floor filled with seawater, they moved up to the second, eventually crowding into one small room with more than 30 other people.

In the morning, they left Galveston by boat and headed to the Texas mainland, passing countless floating corpses along the way.

Vidor would grow up to become a celebrated filmmaker, with a career that spanned both silent movies and talkies. Among his better-known works are The Big Parade, Stella Dallas, Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead, and several scenes in The Wizard of Oz. He died in 1982 at age 88.

Edward G. Robinson

The tough-guy actor and his family were traveling in Europe in 1939 when word came that the German army was preparing to invade Poland—an act that signaled beginning of World War II. Like many other Americans, they decided to get packing.

As Robinson tells the story in his 1958 autobiography, My Father, My Son, the ship they had in mind was the British ocean liner Athenia. “But something went wrong, the boat was crowded or left early,” he wrote. “Anyway, I remember the best we could do was to get a single cabin on an American ship, the S.S. Washington.”

Their accommodations on the Washington may have been cramped, but the Robinsons would have been even less comfortable on the Athenia. On September 3, 1939, it was stuck by a torpedo from a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, becoming the first British ship sunk by the Germans in World War II. Of the roughly 1,400 passengers and crew on board, a reported 112 died, including 28 Americans. The rest were rescued, in part because the ship took 14 hours to sink. Fearful that the incident would mobilize the then-neutral U.S., Nazi propagandists denied any involvement and tried to blame it on the British.

The S.S. Washington arrived safely in New York with a passenger list that not only included the Robinson family but Sara Delano Roosevelt, mother of the president, and one of his sons, James. Robinson went on to make some of his best movies, including Double Indemnity, Key Largo, and The Stranger. He died in 1973 at the age of 79.

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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