A diving bell was dropped by the rescue ship Bettmann/CORBIS

Early in the morning on May 23, 1939, the state-of-the-art diesel electric submarine USS Squalus was conducting a test dive off the Isle of Shoals when a catastrophic valve failure caused the sub to sink to 240 feet. Due to the extreme depth and difficulty of the rescue attempt, the search was called off until the next day, as the 33 passengers watched the crew compartment, engine and torpedo rooms flood with water.

At 11:30 a.m. on May 24, searchers sent down a McCann rescue chamber, a more sophisticated version of a diving bell and, after a few mishaps, hauled all 33 trapped victims to safety in 13 hours.

Rangers of the U.S. Sixth Ranger Battalion participated during a raid on the Cabanatuan prison camp to release American and Filipino prisoners.Corbis.

It's known as the most epic and complex mission of World War II. In January, 1945, 121 volunteer U.S. Army Rangers set out to rescue more than 500 allied prisoners of war who had already survived the Bataan Death March, a brutal multi-day forced walk through the searing heat of the Philippine jungles. Thousands of men died. Those who didn't were imprisoned in the notoriously brutal camp, Cabanatuan.

To free their fellow soldiers, the Rangers snuck behind enemy lines and launched a surprise attack on the Japanese. The assault lasted 30 minutes and freed hundreds of soldiers, with minimal American casualties. The mission was chronicled in Hampton Sides' 2002 bestseller "Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission."

Having been abandoned by her passengers and crew, the crippled Italian passenger ship Corbis

On July 25, 1956, when Italian luxury liner SS Andrea Doria collided at a combined speed of 40 knots with the MS Stockholm in the fog-shrouded water of the North Atlantic near Nantucket Island, the collision had Titanic potential: The Andrea Doria was carrying 1,134 passengers and 572 crew when the Stockholm's prow plowed through the ship's starboard side at a 90-degree angle, piercing five tanks of fuel, which quickly filled with 500 tons of seawater.

As the ship listed, the lifeboats on the starboard side became too high to reach, but the passengers started to immediately evacuate to the nearby Stockholm and passing ships that heard the calls of distress and arrived to help. Eleven hours after the collision, the Andrea Doria sank, but only 46 lives were lost. One thousand, six hundred and sixty passengers and crew survived.

As a picture of Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell flashes on a giant television screen from the recovery carrier Iwo Jima, jublilant flight controllers celebrate the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew.Corbis

Hollywood rehashed this thrilling space debacle in 1995 with Ron Howard's film, Apollo 13. If you haven't seen the movie, here's the shorthand version: On April 11, 1970, the seventh manned Apollo mission launched from Kennedy Space Center to fly 200,000 miles to the moon to explore the Fra Mauro formation, an intriguing 53-mile-wide crater surrounded by highlands.

Less than 56 hours into the launch, the astronauts heard a loud explosion and thought a meteorite had hit the ship. The source of the bang was a ruptured oxygen tank, which raised havoc for the crew, depleting their oxygen supply, and severely crippling the supply of potable water and heat. Most critical, however, was the need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, which the astronauts did with help from engineers on the ground. After a harrowing re-entry, Apollo 13 safely splashed down in the South Pacific on April 17.


This gory plane crash has all the trappings of your worst nightmare, save for the miraculous ending. On Oct. 13, 1972, a Fairchild FH-227 carrying 45 passengers comprising members of Uruguay's Old Christian Club rugby team, their friends and family, departed from Montevideo to Santiago, Chile. Strong headwinds and heavy cloud cover disoriented the pilots at the Andean pass, forcing them to start their descent too soon. The result: the plane clipped an unnamed peak at 13,800 feet, which severed the right wing. The plane hit another peak, which severed the left wing, and the fuselage crashed into the mountain and slid to a halt at 11,800 feet.

More than a quarter of the passengers died on impact and, on Oct. 29, eight more died in an avalanche. The survivors resorted to cannibalism, living off the remains of the dead. Two of the crash survivors, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, struck out to find help and, on Dec. 22, returned with a helicopter rescue party. By Dec. 23, all 16 survivors were safely off the mountain, recuperating from severe frostbite, starvation, hypothermia and many other ills in a Santiago hospital.

Scott Shaw/Corbis

In the 26 years since Jessica McClure, then an 18-month-old baby, fell through an 8-inch-wide abandoned well and tumbled 22 feet, Bollywood filmed a movie about the 59-hour drama, Eminem rapped about the epic tumble in his song “Oh No," and The Simpsons parodied the rescue. But the accident was a mother's worst-case scenario.

Taking her eyes off Jessica for 5 minutes to answer the phone, Reba McClure returned to her sister's backyard to find that her daughter had disappeared down the hole. Rescuers worked around-the clock, while CNN filmed the entire drama. Using a “rat-hole" rig, a machine designed to plant telephone poles, the rescuers dug a parallel 29-foot deep hole, then drilled a connector tunnel two feet below Jessica. Jessica not only survived, but when she turned 25 she received an $800,000 trust fund, donated by viewers glued to CNN during the two-day drama.

A Coast Guard officer looks for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.NyxoLyno Cangemi/U.S. Coast Guard/Corbis

On Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, a Category IV hurricane with 145 mph winds touched down near Buras, La., 65 miles southeast of New Orleans. The immediate storm surge reached 22 feet and, according to Vice Admiral Thad Allen, the Coast Guard's Chief of Staff at the time, the damage to the city was equivalent to that of “a weapon of mass effect. In other words, it was Mother Nature instead of Al Qaeda."

By 10:30 that morning Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation of the city. In the ensuing hours, days, weeks and months, the U.S. Coast Guard tirelessly worked, tearing through rooftops with axes to get to the trapped people inside. Ultimately more than 5,000 Coast Guardsmen and women saved a total of 33,545 lives.

Eric Thayer/Corbis

On Jan. 15, 2009, flight 1549 was cleared for takeoff for a routine hop from New York's LaGuardia airport to Charlotte, N.C. Three minutes later, the Airbus A320 hit a flock of geese at 2,818 feet and lost engine power. As altitude decreased and airspeed increased, the pilot in command, Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, and First Officer Jeffrey B. Skiles, tried turning the flight back toward LaGuardia, but they were already too low.

Six minutes after takeoff, the plane, which was traveling at 150 mph, crash-landed in the Hudson River near West 50th Street. Everyone on board -- 150 passengers, three flight attendants and the pilots -- survived. National Transportation Safety Board Board Member Kitty Higgins, the principal spokesperson for the on-scene investigation, called it "the most successful ditching in aviation history."

Men reconstruct destroyed buildings in Port-au-Prince.Anthony Asael/Corbis

On Jan. 12, 2010, 16-year-old Darlene Etienne was studying in her cousin's hillside Port-au-Prince home when the 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti and the building crumbled on top of her. Fifteen days later, a passing man heard groaning from a pile of rubble.

Within hours, rescuers had dug a 4-foot deep, 2 1/2-foot wide trench, where they found Etienne, who was covered in white dust and had the sunken eyes of a ghost, trapped under a piece of metal. (See the rescue video.) Other than a broken leg, her injuries were minimal. Etienne later told reporters that she had been awake and conscious the entire time, screaming for help at passersby.

Daniel Aufdenblatten

Helicopter rescues off Mount Everest have become a too-frequent occurrence during the frenetic spring climbing season, but the highest-ever rescue took place on Nepal's 26,545-foot Annapurna, the world's tenth-highest peak. On April 29, 2010, due to a horrific storm, three Spanish climbers were stranded at 22,900 feet.

Unable to land on the inhospitable terrain, the Swiss pilot, Capt. Daniel Aufdenblatten, dropped a long line from his AS 350 B3 helicopter. Swiss mountain guide Richard Lehner hung on to it, helping to guide the climbers below. Then Aufdenblatten flew each climber to safety, to base camp, 9,000 feet below. The duo was later awarded the “Heroism Award," the aviation world's equivalent of an Oscar.