10 Heart-Stopping Rescue Missions

In the realm of rescue missions, some stories stand out for their sheer audacity and remarkable outcomes, though not all have been entirely successful or free from controversy. These missions have unfolded in various corners of the world under circumstances where the odds of success were slim, and sometimes, the outcomes have been mixed, leading to debates and discussions about the approaches taken. They involve quick thinking, bravery, and, often, a bit of luck.

From natural disasters to man-made crises, the situations these rescuers faced were as diverse as they were challenging, and the decisions made often carried immense weight and consequences. Each of these missions provides a glimpse into moments where skill, courage, and hope converged, sometimes leading to triumph and, other times, to lessons learned in the complex art of rescue.

Related: Top 10 POW Rescues Too Incredible To Be True

10 Copiapó Mining Accident

The 2010 rescue of Chilean miners from the San Jose mine is an inspiring yet harrowing tale of survival and human resilience. The disaster unfolded in Chile’s Atacama Desert when a “mega block” of stone, twice the weight of the Empire State Building, caused a massive explosion, trapping 33 miners deep inside the mountain. Facing uncertainty in complete darkness, these miners were sealed inside by this colossal block.

Under supervisor Luis Urzua’s leadership, the miners acted collectively, organizing work shifts, conducting daily prayer sessions, and rationing their limited food supply. Meanwhile, above ground, their families, primarily women, rallied for their cause, demanding information and action.

After 69 days, the world watched in awe as all 33 miners were rescued through a newly drilled escape tunnel. Broadcast live globally, this event served as a feat of engineering. The miners’ ordeal and their unwavering spirit under such adversity show the strength of human will and the importance of unity in crisis situations.[1]

9 1952 Pendleton Rescue

On February 18, 1952, a massive sea rescue took place off Cape Cod during a severe nor’easter. The SS Pendleton tanker split in two amid blinding snow and tumultuous seas while heading south. The bow section drifted with the captain and seven sailors while the chief engineer and 32 crewmen manned the still-powered stern.

The Pendleton didn’t issue an SOS, and its situation wasn’t known until its broken pieces were detected by the radar at Chatham Lifeboat Station. Four courageous Coast Guardsmen from this station volunteered for what seemed to be an impossible mission. They braved freezing temperatures and enormous 60-foot (18-meter) waves in a small 36-foot (11-meter) wooden motorboat designed for a maximum of 16 people.

Despite a huge wave shattering its windshield and damaging their compass, they continued. When they reached the Pendleton’s stern, they found 32 surviving crewmen. In a risky operation, the crewmen descended a Jacob’s ladder, often crashing onto the CG-36500 or falling into the sea, where they were subsequently rescued. All except the last Pendleton crewman, George “Tiny” Myers, were saved. Myers was tragically killed when a wave smashed him against the hull.

Meanwhile, Coast Guard cutters saved the crew of the SS Fort Mercer, another tanker that had also split apart. Unfortunately, the captain and seven crewmen on the Pendleton’s other half did not survive. The four Coast Guardsmen were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for their bravery. An investigation later revealed that the tankers’ steel, used during wartime construction, became brittle in low temperatures due to high sulfur content.[2]

8 The Whales of Point Barrow

Known as Operation Breakthrough, a significant rescue effort occurred on October 7, 1988, after a hunter spotted three gray whales trapped in pack ice near Point Barrow, Alaska. The operation required extensive cooperation at regional, national, and international levels and was estimated to cost around one million dollars.

Key participants included the local Inupiat communities of northern Alaska, oil companies in the North Slope region, the Alaska National Guard, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Greenpeace, and the Soviet Union. The rescue operation’s goal was to free the three juvenile whales named Putu, Siku, and Kanik.

Initially, the hunter who found the whales used a chainsaw to enlarge breathing holes in the ice. However, the thickness of the ice made it impossible for him to cut a path to the open sea. Soviet icebreakers eventually carved this path, but not before the smallest whale, Kanik, sadly died. The fate of the other two whales, Putu and Siku, remains unknown as they were not tagged or observed entering the ocean, but it’s assumed they made it.

The operation sparked debate among scientists, with some questioning the biological rationale behind the rescue. One marine biologist pointed out that natural mortality, such as that faced by the whales, is part of natural selection, which strengthens the population.[3]

7 Beslan School Hostage Crisis

On September 1, 2004, the world watched in horror as a catastrophic terrorist attack unfolded at School No. 1 in Beslan, a small town nestled in North Ossetia, Russia. This dreadful event is regarded as one of the most tragic and devastating in the annals of Russia’s history. A group of heavily armed assailants, who were linked to a Chechen insurgency, brazenly stormed the school, taking over 1,100 innocent people hostage. This captive group comprised more than 700 children, their teachers, and parents who were attending a school ceremony.

For two and a half harrowing days, the siege continued, drawing the attention of the world and instilling fear in the hearts of those directly and indirectly affected. The standoff reached its horrifying crescendo in a chaotic and tragic battle as security forces, in a desperate and ill-conceived rescue attempt, stormed the school with heavy weaponry. This hasty action led to a significant escalation in the crisis.

While the initial days of the siege were marked by a tense calm with few casualties, the final assault on the morning of September 3 turned the school into a deadly battlefield, resulting in the loss of several hundred lives. The majority of these casualties were children whose lives were cut tragically short.

The authorities’ handling of the crisis was marred by a series of missteps, including misinformation and a severe underestimation of the hostage numbers. This led to a cloud of widespread skepticism and mistrust surrounding the official account of events. The government’s narrative was met with disbelief and questions, and the official investigation into the Beslan massacre largely glossed over any potential responsibility of federal and local authorities for the high death toll.[4]

6 Andes Flight Disaster

The tragedy unfolded on October 12, 1972, when Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed into the unforgiving terrain of the Andes mountains. The flight was ferrying the Old Christians Club rugby team, along with their friends and family members, to a match in Santiago, Chile. A disastrous navigational error led the pilot to initiate a premature descent, resulting in a catastrophic crash that instantly claimed the lives of 12 of the 45 passengers on board.

The survivors found themselves trapped in a harsh, inhospitable environment with a rapidly dwindling supply of provisions. The chilling temperatures and severe conditions tested the limits of their endurance. As their situation became increasingly desperate, they made the unthinkable decision to consume the bodies of their deceased companions as a means of survival.

The severity of their circumstances escalated further with the heartbreaking news that the search operation had been called off and a devastating avalanche that tragically claimed the lives of eight more passengers. After enduring 61 days in these brutal, life-threatening conditions, one of the survivors, Dr. Roberto Canessa, along with two others, bravely undertook a perilous 10-day trek across the treacherous, snow-covered mountains. Their journey led them to Sergio Catalan, who hastily alerted the authorities to the survivors’ location.

The first rescue operation was mounted on December 22, with a helicopter airlifting six survivors out of the frozen wilderness. The remaining survivors were finally rescued the next day, marking the end of their harrowing ordeal. Canessa’s harrowing account of this horrifying ordeal underscores not only the extreme measures they were forced to take in order to survive but also the immense psychological toll of their traumatic experience.[5]

5 Iran Hostage Crisis

On April 24, 1980, during the Iran Hostage Crisis, a rescue attempt for 52 American hostages in Tehran ended tragically, with eight U.S. servicemen losing their lives without any hostages being rescued. This operation was President Jimmy Carter’s final attempt after six months of failed diplomatic efforts with Iran. The mission was plagued with challenges from the beginning, with three out of eight helicopters failing, severely hindering the operation. The mission was aborted in Iran, but during the withdrawal, a helicopter collided with a C-130 transport plane, resulting in the death of eight servicemen and injuries to five others.

The Iran Hostage Crisis began on November 4, 1979, when Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the U.S. allowed the deposed Shah of Iran to receive medical treatment in America. Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s political and religious leader, took control of the hostages, releasing only non-U.S. hostages and American women and minorities. The remaining 52 hostages were held captive for 14 months.

Despite Carter’s efforts, the crisis remained unresolved, with the failed rescue attempt in April 1980 further complicating the situation. The crisis persisted even after the former Shah’s death three months later. In November, Carter lost the presidential election to Ronald Reagan. However, successful negotiations between the U.S. and Iran eventually began, facilitated by Algerian intermediaries.

On Reagan’s inauguration day, January 20, 1981, the U.S. released nearly $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets, leading to the release of the 52 hostages after 444 days in captivity. The freed hostages were greeted by Carter in West Germany the following day.[6]

4 Miracle on the Hudson

US Airways Flight 1549, under the command of Captain C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger, made an extraordinary emergency landing in the Hudson River on a chilly January day in 2009. This happened shortly after departing from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, with Charlotte, North Carolina, as the intended destination.

The flight experienced a disastrous bird strike that caused both engines to lose power. Sullenberger, a seasoned former Air Force fighter pilot, decided to land the Airbus A320 in the Hudson River’s icy waters near Manhattan’s 48th Street. His quick judgment and skillful execution played a vital role in saving the lives of all 155 people onboard, consisting of 150 passengers and 5 crew members.

The event, termed a “Miracle on the Hudson” by Governor David Paterson, prompted an immediate response from emergency crews and rescue workers. Passengers recalled hearing loud engine noises after takeoff and Sullenberger’s instruction to brace for impact. The successful water landing enabled passengers to escape onto the wings and life rafts.

Many were saved by nearby ferries that rushed to the scene, with one ferry captain reportedly rescuing at least 30 passengers. Some passengers ended up in the cold river but were quickly saved. Several were treated for hypothermia at local hospitals. Sullenberger was praised for ensuring everyone was safely evacuated before he exited the aircraft.[7]

3 Entebbe Hostage Rescue

The Entebbe Rescue Operation, also known as Operation Thunderbolt, was a successful mission executed by Israel on July 4, 1976, to rescue 257 hostages on an Air France plane hijacked by terrorists. The aircraft, departing from Tel Aviv, was seized during an Athens stopover by members of the German Baader-Meinhof terror group and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

After being forced to land in Benghazi, Libya, for refueling, it was flown to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Upon arrival, Ugandan President Idi Amin welcomed the terrorists, who then separated Jewish and Israeli hostages from the others. The terrorists demanded a $5 million ransom and the release of 53 convicted terrorists. Meanwhile, the Israeli government negotiated to buy time, and detailed planning for a rescue operation began.

The rescue plan utilized Israel’s advantages, such as detailed knowledge of the airport layout and intelligence from released hostages. Over 200 elite Israeli soldiers were involved in the operation, which was carefully planned to surprise the terrorists and minimize casualties. The mission began on July 3, with Israeli aircraft flying low to avoid radar detection and landing undetected at Entebbe. The commandos, disguised as Ugandan forces, approached the terminal in a convoy, using a black Mercedes similar to Amin’s car.

Despite a confrontation with Ugandan sentries, the commandos entered the terminal and quickly neutralized the terrorists, freeing the hostages. The operation’s commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed during the mission. The rescue force also faced resistance from Ugandan soldiers, resulting in several deaths and the destruction of Ugandan Air Force MiGs to prevent pursuit. Despite lasting just 58 minutes, the operation was a remarkable success, with all but three hostages rescued.[8]

2 Thai Cave Rescue

In June and July 2018, a high-profile rescue operation in Northern Thailand grabbed global headlines. The Wild Boars soccer team and their coach were trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system due to unexpected heavy rains. The group had entered the cave for a ceremony and found themselves stranded when the cave flooded, blocking their way out.

The rescue operation was intricate and involved international collaboration. It took the divers nine days to find the team, located 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) from the cave entrance. The coach taught the boys meditation to help conserve energy and maintain their composure. The rescue required navigating through narrow, submerged passageways, a task complicated by the rising water levels and decreasing oxygen.

Several strategies were discussed for the rescue, including teaching the boys to swim and dive, pulling them out manually, or waiting for the monsoon to pass. The final decision was to get them out by diving—a risky operation underscored by the tragic death of Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy SEAL, during the mission.

The rescue was done in stages, with two divers guiding each boy through the murky waters. To prevent panic, the boys were sedated during the extraction. Over three days, the entire team and their coach were successfully rescued.[9]

1 Apollo 13 Rescue Mission

Apollo 13, launched on April 11, 1970, was projected to be NASA’s smoothest Apollo mission until an unforeseen crisis occurred. The mission, manned by astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, aimed for a lunar landing. Yet an oxygen tank explosion just over 200,000 miles (321,869 kilometers) from Earth turned the mission into a dire survival situation.

The disaster was traced back to an incident prior to the Apollo 10 mission, where the No. 2 oxygen tank was inadvertently dropped. This caused internal damage that went unnoticed. During a pre-flight test in March 1970, the tank overheated to over 1,000°F (537.8°C), damaging its internal wiring and setting the stage for the subsequent explosion.

NASA’s Mission Control in Houston quickly refocused on survival, directing the crew to the lunar module Aquarius, which was not designed for such prolonged use. The crew and ground controllers had to overcome numerous challenges, including energy conservation, water rationing, and improvised solutions like the “mail box” to eliminate carbon dioxide buildup.

Despite these severe conditions, the mission was declared a “successful failure” as the crew safely returned to Earth on April 17, landing in the Pacific Ocean. This incident led to significant changes in NASA’s procedures, including the addition of extra batteries and a reserve oxygen tank in future Apollo spacecraft to prevent a recurrence of such an event.[10]

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