Near-death Experiences, Dramatic Stories and Tsunami Survival of Dick Ebert

Some people call me cursed. I describe myself as having an adventurous life. You see, I keep having once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The most dramatic was surviving the tsunami in Thailand in 2004 (see Tsunami Photos). But like a cat with nine lives, I keep bouncing back. Below are some of my memorable adventures.

Near-death Experiences:

1953: Plane Crash – During my first plane ride, the landing gear would not retract over Tokyo. While the pilot dumped fuel into the ocean, my mom raced me into the bathroom, baptized me in the sink and then clutched me into the crash position. As people cried and prayed, and fire trucks raced along, the plane skidded across the foamed runway. Miraculously, no one was killed.

1966: Appendix Emergency – During eighth grade, I routinely had severe stomach cramps. The family doctor claimed it was an excuse to avoid school. However, when I collapsed during a Florida vacation, we took the next plane home where I passed out again. I was immediately hospitalized. An exploratory operation discovered a ten-inch appendix had wrapped around my colon like a boa constrictor. The doctor said the near-record appendix would have soon killed me.

1969: Car Crash – I was in the backseat of a Ford Mustang when a car slammed into us going 70 m.p.h. The police spent an hour prying me loose. When I woke up in the hospital, a priest was administering Last Rights. I broke most of my ribs, my clavicle and pelvis plus punctured my lung and ruptured my kidney. I was expected to die for several days. It took a year to fully recover.

1970: Allergic Reaction – Before conducting a test on my ruptured kidney, a nurse injected me with a dye and then left the room. My lungs immediately contracted. I was suffocating yet couldn’t scream. When she returned, I had passed out. Luckily, a fast acting crash team revived me.

1971: Infection Emergency – Every college student loves using their spring break to have their wisdom teeth extracted. After two days, my left side was returning to normal but the right side kept swelling. The dentist assured me it was normal. The next day I had a bowling ball in my neck and shoulder. My mom called a surgeon friend who met us at the hospital in his tuxedo. Within an hour, I was in surgery to stop the spreading infection. He said it would have killed me once it reached my heart and lungs.

2004: Tsunami in Thailand – My family was dropped off at Maya Bay in the Phi Phi Islands at 10:00 Sunday morning, December 26. The day was gorgeous and the beach was spectacular. But, within ten minutes, the water drained away and sucked my kids out 100 yards. They shouted to come take a picture. As I walked across the empty bay, a 400 m.p.h wave came roaring in. We battled the thrashing currents for 2 1/2 minutes before being thrown to safety. Over 280,000 people died that day. Click to see my Tsunami Photos.

Close Calls:

I will do anything for a perfect photo. When I get behind a lens, I am oblivious to everything else. As a result, I am accident prone. For five years, my cameras had an average life span of six months. Here are a few examples of close calls while photographing.

1972: Plane over Niagara Falls – While filming an industrial movie, I hired a pilot to fly over Niagara Falls. The scene was spectacular through my wide-angle lens … the falls were gushing, the mist was rising and the sun was causing bursts of light. The pilot said we should pull up but I said keep going. Then he shouted but I kept filming. Within seconds, the plane was rocking out of control as we careened past the falls. He made an immediate landing near a corn field and rushed out to vomit. Then he ordered me out of his plane and left me stranded.

1974: Helicopter over Valley Forge – While making a slide show to celebrate the upcoming Bicentennial, I hired a helicopter for aerial shots of Philadelphia. In pursuit of a better angle, I leaned outside. A rush of air ripped off my headphones and yanked me out of my seat. As I dangled outside, the pilot grabbed my belt and pulled me to safety.

2004: Rogue Wave in Rio de Janeiro – I relished the chance to photograph Copacabana Beach in Rio. The sky, water and women were beautiful. While shooting from a lookout point, I never saw the rogue wave coming. The monster slammed into me and two families. We were flattened, smashed along the jagged rocks and, as the water receded, dragged toward a cliff. Two people fell over but were able to swim to shore.


1963: Money Exchange – During a Hawaiian vacation, my dad drove the family to a remote location and instructed my mom to take us to the beach. I noticed another car approach him. The driver gave him something before speeding off. Back at the hotel, I discovered a suitcase in the closet. I opened it. It was stuffed with $100 bills. My dad became livid and swore me to secrecy. The next day at the airport, my dad made an exchange with another man who carried an identical case. Years later, I learned my father worked for a government agency while maintaining his airline job. He never told us the details.

1964: Anchorage Earthquake Aftermath – While on Easter vacation, my dad received a call about Anchorage’s 9.2 magnitude quake (the second largest in recorded history). He had to fly there immediately to help restore the airport. The city was devastated. It looked like a disaster movie. When we went to the airport manager’s home in the Turnagain neighborhood, I nervously complimented his wife on the view. She became hysterical while explaining that three rows of houses (75 in all) had plummeted over a cliff in front of their house during a landslide triggered by the earthquake. I had the privilege of visiting this spot again 50 years later. It is now the Earthquake Park.

1992: Mall Shooting – The Mall of America is one of the largest tourist attractions in the U.S. I took my family to MOA soon after it opened. After shopping, we sat down at a restaurant in the open courtyard next to the full-scale amusement park. While reading the menu, I heard a bang. I looked up to see a person fall to the floor while a gunman aimed his pistol in our direction. He then sprayed bullets before running off. A shell casing rolled under our table and stopped at our feet.

1998: Protest in Chile – While working in my hotel room, I heard loud noises from the street below. Santiago has over five million people so I ignored the sounds. Then CNN showed tanks rumbling towards a crowd. I ignored that too … until the banner read, “Live from Santiago.” I raced to the window to see an enormous crowd storming the British Embassy in protest over the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator. I watched police disperse them with tear gas and water cannons.


1974: Robbed in Philadelphia – After dinner with my visiting parents, I was walking back to my college dorm when a guy jumped out of an alley, declared he had a gun and demanded money. He looked destitute, panicked and high. As I reached for my wallet, I said I didn’t have much but perhaps my parents could help. He dramatically softened and said no one ever offered to help him before. He took half of my money and told me to walk away. I braced to be shot. When I dared to look back, he was gone.

1995: Robbed in Rome – My wife and I had just parked a rental car near the Colosseum when a passing woman warned us about local crime. I returned to the car and stuffed two weeks of film under the seat. When we returned 30 minutes later, all of the windows had been smashed and our luggage was gone. But the film survived. A couple of photos from that trip are on this site.

1997: Robbed in St. Martin – Having learned our lesson about leaving stuff in a rental car, we adopted the practice of taking valuables with us. While in St. Martin, we had carried everything to the beach then back to the car after sunning. My wife said she forgot her sunglasses on the beach so we went searching but never found them. When we returned, the car had been vandalized. The only thing left were her sunglasses; she had left them on the dash.

Timing is Everything:

When something tragic happens to a place I have just visited, I get this terrible, sick feeling. The TV images are not just video clips of a remote location. I know the spot and remember standing there with my camera. I hate watching helplessly while wondering if people who I met are safe.

1960: Our family barely escaped Donna, a category 4 hurricane, before it slammed into the Florida Keys. Our hotel collapsed two hours later.

2001: I ate at the Windows of the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center a few weeks before the 911 attack.

2007: The I-35 Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed killing 13. I drove over that bridge the day before.

2008: Terrorists killed 166 people in attacks around Mumbai a few weeks after our visit to the Taj Mahal Hotel.

2011: The Egyptian Revolution erupted in Cairo a few weeks after our trip.

Other Interesting Events:

1966: After the great airline strike that grounded 60% of the nation’s planes, my dad invited my family to the White House where he had been a lead negotiator. As a backdrop, the TV show Man from U.N.C.L.E was a big hit. I wanted to emulate the show and James Bond. So, while we walked past President Johnson’s residence door, I exclaimed to my dad, “Look, those Secret Service guys have shoulder holsters … just like mine.” In horror, he opened my coat to reveal my holster and plastic gun. He swore, picked me up and hustled me towards the front gate.

1972: I listened to my dad making decisions over the phone regarding the $200,000 ransom demands of D. B. Cooper, the plane hijacker.

2003: Traveled through China during the SARS epidemic.

2012: Accidentally walked up very close to a brown bear in Montana’s Glacier National Park.

Now you know why my friends always ask me, “Where have you been traveling and what happened this time?”