Escapes Even Houdini Would Be Proud Of…

A passenger plane clipping a taxi before crashing into the Keelung River in Taiwan

A passenger plane clipping a taxi before crashing into the Keelung River in Taiwan

I recently wrote a post about some great escapes from prison, however yesterday’s air crash in Taiwan has prompted me to revisit the topic but from a slightly different angle. If you haven’t seen the Taiwan footage, you can find it online, suffice to say that it is both tragic and spectacular all at once.

The photo above shows the passenger plane seconds from impact. That yellowish vehicle with the dust around it is a taxi, which was clipped by the plane’s wing as it headed over a motorway overpass before crashing into the Keelung River.

At the time of writing 31 bodies have been recovered, 12 are still missing and 15 passengers somehow survived. That anyone could live through such an accident is remarkable but even more so is that the driver of that yellow cab survived too.

Mr Zhou, for that is the cabbie’s name, emerged from the car with some serious head injuries but was still able to tell rescuers about his ordeal… not bad going for someone who had just been hit by a passenger plane.

Such hair-raising escapes leave us shaking our heads in bewilderment, but Mr Zhou is not the only one out there in possession of nine lives.

Klara Markus

Klara Markus

Klara Markus is one lady who certainly falls into that category. Last New Year’s Eve she celebrated her 101st birthday. For anyone to achieve that heady milestone is quite impressive but to do so after what Mrs Markus has been through is nothing short of miraculous.

Dachau… Ravensbruck… Auschwitz… the names alone make our blood run cold. Klara Markus, a Jew from northern Romania, was in all three Nazi concentration camps.

There are other Holocaust survivors, of course, but what makes Klara stand out amongst them is that she survived the gas chamber itself.

The nightmare began for her in August 1942 when she was deported to a Jewish ghetto in Budapest, Hungary where she started work in an umbrella factory.

Klara remained there until she was forced on a month-long march to Dachau on October 20, 1944. A week later she was sent to the women’s’ camp in Ravensbruck, before being transported to Auschwitz.

Shortly before the evacuation and subsequent liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, Mrs Markus, then 30 years old and weighing around 70lbs (32kg), was sent to the gas chambers.

She said: ‘I was chosen towards the end of the day with a large group of other women and we were made ready for the gas chamber.’

Once inside the gas was turned on, but nothing happened… incredibly, the Nazis had run out of gas.

‘One of the guards joked that it was our lucky day because they had already killed so many they didn’t have any gas left for us. God was watching over me that day.’

Clem ClementI’m sure paratrooper Lt. Percy ‘Clem’ Clements (left) would empathise with that story. As far as escapes go, ‘Clem’ would seem to have cornered the market. Not only did he survive a firing squad, but he also escaped a PoW camp and was shot four times in battle, but still managed to make it home.

‘Clem’ was a founding member of the airborne SAS and was involved in the first British paratroop drop over Italy in 1941. Unfortunately for ‘Clem’ he and 34 others were captured after their mission to destroy an aquaduct.

Stripped and lined up against a wall in front of 20 shotgun-toting locals, ‘Clem’ prepared to meet his fate. However, just as the order to fire was to be given, an Italian officer appeared and ordered a stop to the execution as it would have been in breach of the Geneva Convention.

Lt Clements then spent over two years in a PoW camp, before managing to escape in 1943, and walked more than 100 miles to reach the advancing Allied forces in Italy.

He rejoined his unit and was soon in the thick of things in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

The Germans launched a surprise attack and ‘Clem’ had to lead his men in a retreat. As he did so he was shot four times – in the stomach, arm and leg. Even his two stretcher bearers were killed as they carried him away. Nevertheless he continued to issue orders until he passed out from blood loss.

Lt Clements was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Military Cross and Military Medal for his bravery.

Escaping with your life is one thing, but there are other sorts of escapology. After World War Two, the threat of fascism was replaced by that of communism. Berlin once again became a battleground, but a political one in which the city was divided between the allies and Russia.

GREAT ESCAPE: The  Strelzyk and Wetzel families. Peter Strelzyk is pictured right

GREAT ESCAPE: The Strelzyk and Wetzel families. Peter Strelzyk is pictured right

There are many, many stories of those who risked their lives for a free life in the West, none better captures those times than one escape across the Berlin Wall by two families, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels, who built their own hot-air balloon (as you do), powered by an improvised flame thrower and floated over the Berlin Wall to freedom in 1979. As escapes go, that one ranks pretty high on the list of most spectacular.

Finally, I’ll end with a conundrum: When is an escape not an escape? Irish republican rebel leader Ernie O’Malley can answer that for you.

Ernie O'Malley

Ernie O’Malley

In his book, The Singing Flame, O’Malley recounted one extraordinary incident when he was a PoW in Mountjoy Prison, during the Irish Civil War. He tells of how PoW Paddy Coughlan, the wing’s OC, wrote a letter to the Governor to complain about the treatment of prisoners. The Governor returned Paddy’s letter with some sarcastic comments added in red ink.

Paddy was a bit put out by this and wrote another letter to the Governor in which he complained about the Governor’s bad manners.

That appeared to inflame the prison chief who sent police to Paddy’s cell to have him arrested. But Paddy wasn’t there, in fact Paddy couldn’t be found anywhere.

The Governor was certain that Paddy was still in the jail. Searches were instigated, but Paddy avoided them all. He slept on different landings, changed his appearance and clothing, grew a moustache and went ‘on the run’… inside prison.

Paddy didn’t let the small matter of being a wanted man behind bars deter him from his duties. He dealt with the routine work of C wing, held his Spanish class regularly, then disappeared at night to sleep in the next wing, with which he had a means of communication.

Eventually, though, Paddy was discovered and imprisoned in the basement of another wing of Mountjoy.

But not for long…

The men in the cell above broke through the floor and hauled him up using roped blankets. Paddy was, as O’Malley puts it ‘again at liberty in jail’.

I know I’m biased, but I think only an Irishman could manage to escape and remain in prison all at the same time. As they say in these parts: ‘you couldn’t make it up’.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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7 Responses to Escapes Even Houdini Would Be Proud Of…

  1. Traci lawrence says:

    Absolutely fascinating! Riveting! Thanks for always bringing little-known history alive!

  2. This is a great read!

  3. lbeth1950 says:

    This is great reading.

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