Five People Who Lived Out Action Movie Scenes in Real Life
Will you one day wake up in an action movie? Wow, we hope not. If you do, you’ll probably die.
That’s not us commenting on your competence, by the way, just analyzing probability. You’re a fighter beyond compare, but that won’t help when you’re one of the many people standing directly under the mothership’s laser.
Who knows, maybe you will one day find yourself living out an action movie for real. We hope it all turns out okay, and maybe you can arm yourself by reading about how the following people handled it.
The Bus Driver Who Had to Jump the Tower Bridge
On December 30, 1952, a bus driver in London was heading on his normal route over the Tower Bridge. The Tower Bridge is that famous London landmark, appropriately located near the Tower of London. Many tourists call it London Bridge, but that’s not its name. Here’s a helpful way of remembering: Check to see if the bridge is currently falling down. If it is, it’s probably the London Bridge, but if it’s not, it may well be the Tower Bridge next door.
While he was on the bridge, driver Albert Gunter realized that the bridge was opening, as it does roughly twice a day to let ships pass through. The half of the bridge he was on was tilting back. He now had two choices. One: He could brake and let his bus slide all the way backward, no doubt hitting some stationary vehicles behind him, smashing it. Two: He could hit the gas (or, as they call it in England, “hit the gas”). This meant he might leap over to the other side, but he might also not make it, and he’d crash into the river.
He accelerated. He minded that gap harder than anyone had minded a gap before, and he cleared it, making it to the other side. Some of the passengers still got injured when the bus hit solid ground, and Gunter himself broke his leg, but he didn’t crush any sedans, and no one drowned.
Of course, this bridge jumping must remind you of Speed, where a bus jumps a gap in a bridge under construction. Except, the Gunter version was much more cinematic, since it featured a famous landmark and since his bus was double-decker. If Speed 2 simply took place on another bus, but it was double-decker this time, it would have been the biggest film of 1997.
For a little while, people wondered whether Gunter had run a red light, the only conceivable way a vehicle could find itself on the rising bridge. An investigation later cleared him, and he even received a reward — of £10. That was a little more than a week’s salary. Maybe more attractive than that, his whole family received a week’s vacation at the resort town of Bournemouth. Bournemouth is around 100 miles from London, and that’s a long distance for an Englishman. It’s the equivalent of someone in Virginia getting to vacation in Hawaii.
Using Bombs to Defeat a Volcano
Hawaii’s Mauna Loa is the biggest volcano in the world (excluding one competitor deep in the ocean). You might remember it erupting late last year. It posed little danger then. The lava conveniently headed nowhere near anything important, so the eruption just made for some fantastic photos.
In 1935, Mauna Loa presented a very different situation. The volcano started erupting in November, and its lava headed right toward Hilo, population 16,000. The lava moved at around a mile a day. That theoretically gave the town a whole month to evacuate, but everyone would rather the town not be destroyed by a river of molten rock, if that were at all a possibility.
Shutting off the volcano wasn’t an option. Mauna Loa already had enough force to break through the earth itself; any barrier we could erect to cork that flow would be like fighting a hurricane using a flashlight. However, we didn’t necessarily need to stop the flow. So long as the lava flowed in a different direction (as it would in 2022), Hilo would be fine. We just needed to divert that flow. And we had just the tool.
Yes, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory called in help from the U.S. Army Air Service, who sent in a squadron of biplanes. They dropped bombs with the force of 3.6 tons of TNT. The man in charge of this operation was Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton, who’d be better known as General George S. Patton come World War II.
The lava was flowing to Hilo via a network of underground tunnels. If the bombs could collapse these tunnels, the lava would forge a new path, and if that meant going anywhere other than to Hilo, the mission would be a success. In the end, the mission was indeed deemed a success. Which was impressive considering how many of the bombs missed their targets, and how little effect they seemed to have on those tunnels.
They called the mission a success because the lava stopped moving and solidified in place. However, that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the bombing campaign. The lava stopped flowing because Moana Loa stopped erupting. One previous time Moana Loa erupted, in 1899, the lava flow stopped after Hawaiians gave the goddess Pele offerings of brandy, and there too, we’re not certain about any causal link.
Flying a Plane Upside-Down to Thwart a Hijacker
A FedEx plane was flying out for a normal cargo flight on April 7, 1994, taking off from Memphis and headed for San Jose. Along with the flight crew, one other man came aboard. It was Auburn Calloway, who normally worked as a FedEx pilot, but he was allowed on as a passenger this time. That was standard FedEx policy: An employee could ride any plane for free if it had room. Calloway brought a guitar case onboard with him. He didn’t need to pass it through security before boarding.
Once they were in the air, Calloway opened the case and took out his hammers. He had packed two claw hammers and two club hammers. He smashed the head of the flight engineer, Andre Peterson, and smashed the head of the copilot, James Tucker. Then he wrestled a bit with the one remaining member of the crew, the pilot, David Sanders. He managed a couple of lighter hammer swings. Next, he returned to his guitar case and took out his remaining weapon: a speargun.
It might not sound immediately obvious why anyone would postpone bringing out the big guns until after their initial attack, unless it’s to escalate the drama for the audience's sake as the narrative progresses. Calloway’s plan suited his purpose, however. He wanted to crash the plane and kill everyone in it. He also wanted to leave no trace of why the plane had crashed. So, he figured he needed to incapacitate the crew, sabotage the flight recorder, then threaten the pilot into flying the plane half an hour more, so the black box would loop over its limited tape with bad data.
Despite the attacker now pointing a scuba weapon at him, Peterson — with a fractured skull and an artery cut open — got up and fought him. Captain Sanders joined in. Then Tucker, the copilot, got behind the controls and pointed the aircraft steeply upward. This threw Calloway off-balance, and threw the other men off-balance, too. Tucker straightened the plane and banked (rotated without changing the flight direction). He flipped the plane 140 degrees, which meant it was nearly flying upside-down.
Tucker had pieces of loose skull embedded in his brain at the time, thanks to the hammer strikes. Despite this, or maybe because of this, he pulled off a bunch more maneuvers, flinging Calloway against the walls till he lost his gun and the two other men overpowered him. The crew finally managed an emergency landing and got Calloway into police custody. Calloway, later investigations revealed, had wanted to die and paint the crash as an accident for a life insurance payout, after learning FedEx was going to fire him because he had fudged his hours. He received 20-to-life, for the crimes of air piracy and interfering with a crew member.
The crew had all performed beyond the call of duty generally expected of a package delivery service. Particularly Tucker — who, by the way, had earlier been a flight instructor for the Navy, in a program that was until 1996 known as TOPGUN.
Zooming Through a Collapsing Tunnel
Every time you drive through a tunnel, do you hold your breath, waiting to see if the whole thing is going to fall down on you? No? Okay, guess that’s just us then. Tunnel collapses remain a possibility, though, as drivers found out in 2012 as they rode the Chūō Expressway a little bit outside of Tokyo.
The Sasago Tunnel is three miles long, which is a bit too long to hold your breath for, and not all of it collapsed. But 150 sections of the ceiling fell down, with each tile weighing more than a ton. They landed on vehicles, crushing them. One van caught fire. Nine people died, making it the deadliest road accident in Japanese history.
One car sped out of the tunnel despite a tile smashing it. Behind the wheel of this blue Subaru was an employee at a TV network, and his wife sat beside him. While many other unharmed cars got out of the tunnel as well, this Subaru got out while looking like this:
You wouldn’t think that car would be able to start, much less escape a tunnel and then eventually make it to the parking lot where the above photograph was taken. To be fair, the car didn’t look nearly as bad from other angles, but still, you don’t generally get to move forward at all after 2,400 pounds of concrete hits you. The driver got out unscathed, his wife was only mildly injured and we assume he used this story to catapult his career as a reporter, making him a star.
The Mountain That Fell
In 1962, a bit of a glacier broke off on the mountain Huascarán in Peru. This triggered a huge avalanche that killed loads of people, and we could do a whole article just talking about this one incident. But in a disaster movie, this would be only the opening scene, a mini disaster to tease you about what’s to come.
Scientists from MIT now took a look at the mountain and realized that this landslide foreshadowed worse stuff. If the wrong sort of wave hit the mountain, disaster would follow, and the people in all the villages at the foot of the mountain would suffer. The authorities in one of these villages, Yungay, responded with a statement: “Return to your homes with your faith placed in God.” Anyone who spread this report would be charged criminally with “disrupting public tranquility.”
The government ordered the American scientists to retract their paper. They refused, instead opting to flee the country to avoid prison.
For a few years after the warning, nothing happened. Then came 1970. A huge earthquake hit Peru. The tremors tickled Huascarán, breaking off a chunk of the mountain almost a mile long. It fell and hit that glacier that had lobbed off one piece in 1962, making it collapse totally. Now came an avalanche of mud and rock, measuring some 100 million cubic meters. We were fretting about a lava flow earlier, which moved one mile a day. This mudflow moved at 270 miles an hour.
It was the deadliest avalanche in history. It destroyed all of Yungay, as well as several other villages, killing 30,000 people.
This is what we meant when we said you’d probably die in an action movie. Roll some dice and see which of the people you learned about today you’d likely be. Statistically, though, you’ll be one of the 30,000 buried under the falling mountain. Sorry.