Occupational Hazards

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photo by Borut Sraj

One of the scariest experiences I’ve had in my career was crashing into a frigid glacial lake in the former Yugoslavia while on assignment for National Geographic.

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A twilight moon rises above the Kamniske mountains and Slovenia’s Sava River Valley, Slovenia.

I had hired a small, ultra-light, two-seater airplane in to do aerials over Bled Lake in Slovenia. The pilot flew down to the surface of the lake, very, very close — in fact so close that I told him to go up because we were only about five feet from the water.  If I had wanted to be that close I could have hired a boat, but it was too late. The wheels got caught in the water and we couldn’t pull out. We went down and as soon as the fuselage and the propeller hit the water, the propeller blew apart.

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Rijeka, Croatia, 1989

We flipped upside down in the 40-degree water in the middle of February and immediately began to sink. The cockpit was not enclosed. The seatbelt was a jerry-rigged homemade device and I hadn’t studied it and couldn’t get it off me.

I realized I was going to die. I guess that part of your brain concerned with self-preservation kicked in, and I slid underneath the contraption, literally went underneath, and was able to swim to the surface. The pilot made it, but didn’t attempt to help me.  My passport and equipment went to the bottom. Fortunately the pilot and I were picked up by a fisherman within ten minutes. Days later the plane was raised but all of my equipment is still 60 feet down.

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Picture of me in Lubiana before going to Lake Bled where my plane crashed.

There was another airplane incident in Africa.  Again, I was on assignment photographing the Sahel, that band of land that separates the Sahara Desert from the grasslands of the Savannah.

We got lost flying from Timbuktu in Mali back to the capital of Bamako. We had left in a sandstorm and started flying along the Niger River. I guess the pilot’s navigational instruments weren’t working. He literally could not find his way back to the capital.

 

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Chari River in the Sahel region near N’Djamena, Chad.

I watched him circling and I started to wonder what was going on.   He came back down through the clouds. It was getting dark and there was a huge thunderstorm right in our path.  The pilot dropped the small craft to search for his bearings.

Fuel was getting low, and we could never make it back to Timbuktu.  To the south, an enormous black wall of clouds loomed from the horizon – a monsoon storm.  In vain, for a half an hour we scanned the landscape searching for an opening.  We had no radio contact, and and no navigational equipment.  We prepared our last thoughts.

Finally, the pilot spotted a millet field, agonizingly small, but flat.  As we thundered in, I watched the wheel of the plane miss a six-foot hole by a few steps.

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Muddy field, Mali

We shuddered to a stop with a few hard bounces.  Villagers ran out from the surrounding bush in wonderment as the sky opened up.   We slept on the plane that night, and finally found a vehicle to take us back to the capital city of Bamako, fourteen hours of bone-rattling roads.

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Niger River, Mali

 

24 Responses to “Occupational Hazards”

  1. Me ha gustado mucho esta pagina que titulas Occupational Hazards Steve McCurry’s Blog .

  2. Hello!
    I’m from Slovenia and I’m very glad that such artist as you visited our beautiful country, although it didn’t turn out so well. I’m sorry you didn’t get you equipment back and I hope you don’t take amiss to Slovenia because of your bad experience.
    By the way, I just discovered this blog and I’m blown away – your writing is very interesting and your pictures are beautiful!

  3. Great photos.
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. you should be one of my uncles, telling this stuff on christmas :D amazing, I really love your blog.

  5. hi Steve ;)
    Well this is a first for me (posting a message on here). I’ve been following your work for quite some time now! (like many others) I don’t have any words that can do your work justice! That’s all I can say!
     
    Read your Mali blog – it was ‘deja-vous’; I was in Mali earlier this year, like yourself and I travelled from Bamako to Timbuktu.. mainly to capture the spirit of some of these historic places… I know what you mean when you say ‘bone rattling’ ride… luckily I stopped over at places like Mopti.. Djenne.. Dogon… along the way…
     
    I flew back from Timbuktu to the capital… on ‘Air Mali Express’.. I’m not sure if you have read about Air Mali Express on the Lonely Planet? It described Air Mali Express as one of the ‘top 10 black listed’ airliners in the world! Wow…  oh-oh! That made it more exciting.. What I found shocking and a bit crazy – is that they never checked my luggage and very briefly checked my passport when boarding the plane. Once I boarded the plane I was trying to figure out who the air steward/stewardess was – they had no uniform on! I later found someone bringing sweets over to the passengers and assumed that was the steward! Anyway, because the plane was half empty (explains why it’s ‘black listed’) the steward decided to put everyone’s luggage in the way of the fire exit! Which made the whole thing more freaky! What was more shocking was how the draft was coming in while we where in mid air! It was totally crazy!
     
    However it was an experience though!
     
    Thank you for telling us your stories… and showing some ‘behind the scene images’! Moreover hats off to you – with your work!
     
    Oh! Photography along the ‘life lines’ of Mali (Niger and Bani) is just incredible at sunset!     
     

  6. Great stories. I’m a big fan. Don’t think I’ll try small planes for a while.

  7. I’m glad I didn’t read these stories before my family and I boarded a tiny airplane that looks exactly like the one you flew in Mali. I’m so happy you are safe! You must miss the photos that are marinating 60 feet under.

  8. Hi Steve, wonderful stories and bone-chilling moments indeed… Please post more.

    Hope you’ll visit Singapore again BTW…

  9. Beautiful photography. The last photo is particularly stunning to me.

  10. awful moments behind those awesome pictures! …..take care steve.

  11. All I can say is, “Oh my gosh!”, from my warm 17th century Norman house, in France.

    ‘National Geographic’ is more like International Adventure. Steve, travel safe and warm with your passion and talent. Thanks for sharing these stories of survival.

  12. Steve,

    Those were really close calls… and good to know that you finally manage to make it.

    Moon rises above the Kamniske mountains is superb… I am amazed to see the building (i guess a church) and ice of mountains are exposed, great work…

    Take care,
    Pawan

  13. Hi Steve,

    I’m a huge fan of your work and have been for several years.

    It’s great to be able to read the stories behind the legendary photographs you’ve given us through your Life. Keep shooting and writing!

    Naveen

  14. Hi Steve,
    That’s quite the survival story!
    I lost my former roommate a couple of years ago in a light airplane crash on the Swiss alps…those machines can be tinfoil.
    Also I got your new book the other day. The front cover i’m 99% sure that was shot on the Rajastan workshop… either I was with you at the time or I saw it up on the big screen a bit later

    cheers,
    Jonathan

  15. You must have some very diligent guardian angels! I have been a fan of your art for very many years, but only recently discovered this blog. Thank you so much for all that you share with us!

  16. Robert Pljuscec Says:

    Great stories, with happy endings! Greetings from Croatia.

  17. thamizhini Says:

    I love your photography.im happy that you got over this hazard.take care.the world needs you.

  18. Man, that’s some scary stuff! Thank goodness you ended up okay.

  19. Great stories. Thanks for sharing. ;-)

  20. I really appreciate your passion for photography and the risk you are willing to take for getting those god-awesome shots.

  21. I read somewhere about the fact that you felt in a lake with an airplane, but I didn’t know until now it was Bled. I’ve been to Bled this summer, beautiful place.
    Did they pull the plane out eventually?

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