45 Haunting Photos Taken Right Before Disaster

By: Calla Conway | Last updated: Jan 16, 2024

A photograph can be misleading. It can only capture a moment in time and yet tell an entire story. We like to use photography to remember special moments and occasions with our loved ones, historic moves, and sometimes, dark moments too.

What gets particularly unsettling is when we see a seemingly “normal” photo that was taken just before disaster struck. We’ve collected some haunting photos that were taken just before disaster struck and changed the subject’s lives forever.

A Good Deed Gone Wrong

In order to raise awareness for the homeless in 1995, Robert Overacker decided to deploy a stunt to get people’s attention about the issue. As a professional stuntman, he decided to drive a jet ski over Niagara Falls.

Robert Overacker jumping off of his jet-ski as it goes over the edge of Niagara Falls. You can see his orange parachute attached to his back.

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This photograph captures the exact moment before disaster struck and Robert’s parachute failed to deploy, leaving him to plummet to his death into the depths below. 

Wall of Ash and Destruction

Photographer Robert Landsberg took his role as a photographer seriously until his dying breath. When Mt. St. Helen erupted, the photographer snapped a picture of the wall of ash that rose from the mountain’s tantrum.

A grainy image of Mt. St. Helens' eruption. You can see a massive plume of ash rising into the air.

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Robert Landsberg did not survive the eruption, but his film did, and this was intentional on the professional’s part. While he came to terms with his own death, he used his body to shield the photos that he took. 

Calm On the Top Chaos On the Bottom

This is a perfectly timed photo just that likely captured the last moments of a bird’s life. Sharks are intelligent and curious creatures, meaning that there is a chance it was just poking around to see what it was.

A shark is aimed upward toward a bird's feet that are poking through the surface of the water.

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We don’t know the bird’s fate, but this photo is definitely suggestive. To be honest, the bird likely did not survive. Circle of life.

There Is a Bomb In This Photo

In August of 1998 in a town called Omagh in Northern Ireland, a car bomb was set off in a political attack. The red car in the photo was carrying the bomb. 

A boy sits on a man's shoulders. They are next to a red car. The background shows a town's street.

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The man and the child in the photograph miraculously survived the disaster, though the person who took the photo did not live to see another day. The attack killed 29 people and injured another 220 others.

A Nurse Gave Her Life

A woman named Mayinga N’Seka was working as a nurse in 1976 during the first Ebola outbreak in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

African woman wearing protective medical gear.

CDC/Wikimedia Commons

Mayinga N’Seka died while working with her patients. She gave her life to help heal others. Rest in peace!


A Farewell to Planet Earth

The Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy remains an important pillar in American (and perhaps world) collective memory. The shuttle left Earth and within 73 seconds broke apart and killed all seven crew members on board.

Space Shuttle Challenger launches from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Smoke is spreading all over the launchpad and birds are swirling in the foreground.

NASA/Wikimedia Commons

This photograph captured the last moments before disaster struck and critical failure in the ascent stage doomed the crew to their fates. Though their mission was not successful, it left a lasting impact. This photo is incredibly sad.


Youthful Mistakes With Big Consequences

We all made some silly mistakes when we were young, and luckily the ones reading this all lived to tell the tale. Not all of us are so lucky. A 14-year-old boy named Keith Sapsford made the biggest mistake of his life when he decided to climb into the wheel of an airplane.

Keith Sapsford, a 14-year-old Australian boy, falling in midair from a flying commercial airplane's wheel-well.

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Taking off from Sydney towards Japan, the plane lifted into the air, and Keith was not able to hold on. A new photographer was testing out his camera lens when he accidentally got a photo of the boy falling through the air, 200 feet from the ground, in the midst of disaster.


Intentionally Poking the Bear

In 2009, a woman jumped into the Berlin Zoo’s polar bear enclosure. According to her ex-husband, the woman was suffering from depression and unemployment. He believed that this was a suicide attempt on her part.

A woman in a polar bear enclosure's pool being bitten by a bear.


She survived the attack, of which was witnessed by stunned onlookers. The zoo decided to press charges against her for breaching the peace and harming their reputation. She was able to recover from the mauling.


A Story Fit For A Scary Movie

Sometimes life is stranger than fiction. This is the case with the last photograph taken before disaster struck Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. The plane, which was coming from Uruguay towards Chile crashed in the Andes, but the nightmare did not end there. 33 of the 45 crew members survived the crash, but the number dwindled to only 16 due to the harsh cold weather and the wounds that were not able to be tended to.

A group of people sitting in a small airplane. One man is posing in the aisle.


After 10 days, the search was called off in search of the survivors. In order to survive, the remaining passengers were forced to do the unthinkable. Faced with starvation, they turned to cannibalism. The cold weather preserved the bodies of those who passed. After 72 days, two of the survivors gathered enough strength to look for help to return back for the others.


JFK’s Last Caravan

We live in a very different world than the world we lived in when John F. Kennedy was the United States president. This picture captures the last time the president would ever see the light of day and the last moments his wife Jackie and the rest of the world would see his face. 

JFK rides in his motorcade in Dallas with his wife, moments before being assassinated.

Walt Cisco/Wikimedia Commons

This photo alone would leave the viewer to see it as a happy moment in his presidency, but the moments that followed made a forever stain on the American public and the feelings of safety a sitting president did or did not have.


End Of the Magic

A famed magic show put on by Fischbacher and Roy was brought to a tragic end after a white tiger lashed out—as a wild animal will do—and attacked Roy.

Siegfried and Roy onstage in Las Vegas during a performance with a white tiger.

Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

The 2003 performance and subsequent attack ended with the performer partially paralyzed. Hopefully a lesson was learned from those who want wild animals to “act” in show business.


The Falling Man

For most Americans, the Falling Man lives in our memories of 9/11 as a deeply unsettling and scary reminder of that fateful day. While the man is still unknown, his photo will always shake the cores of minds and hearts.

A person falling headfirst through the air in front of the World Trade Center.


After a terrorist attack left the Twin Towers engulfed in flames, this man took his fate into his own hands and leapt from one of the buildings.


A Hero Until the Last Moments

A man named William “Dave” Sanders earned the right and then some to be called a hero for the way he went out on his last day alive. During the infamous and tragic Columbine shootings, Dave ushered out more than 100 students to their safety.

A still from video camera footage of Dave Sanders running in the cafeteria during the Columbine massacre.

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Dave would not survive the horrific attack, later dying from multiple gunshot wounds to the chest. It is because of his heroism that so many lived to see another day.


Tragedy and Outrage

Originally published by the New York Post, this photo caused an angry stir when it was released to the public. The photo was taken moments before disaster when the man on the tracks (named Ki-Suck Han) was struck by an oncoming subway train.

A man hangs onto the platform, his whole body still on the tracks, as a subway train rushes toward him.


Many were concerned about the way the photo was taken instead of the photographer trying to help the man off the track. The photographer, R. Umar Abbasi was the person who took the picture. He claimed that he was trying to use his phone light to stop the train and captured the photo in the process.


Mick Fanning Rivals Chuck Norris

In one of the most stunning moments within the professional surfing world, Mick Fanning was confronted by a great white shark while in a heat out in the line-up.

Man swimming away from a shark in the ocean. The shark's fin is visible above the waves.


Apparently, the shark got entangled in the surfer’s leash. Thrashing around near Mick, the surfer decided to punch the creature, ending the sheer terror of those watching from the shore.


A Chilling Act of Desperation

Though this photo was not taken in the last moments of the children’s lives, it is a photo that represented the moment these four children’s lives catapulted into disaster. The mother, Lucille Chalifoux, 24, can be seen hiding her face from the photojournalist.

A woman posts a sign in front of her house to sell her children during the Great Depression. She is turning her face away and hiding while her children sit on the steps of the house.

Bettmann Archive/Wikimedia Commons

Lucille and her husband, 40-year-old Ray, were facing eviction. Ray had just been laid off from his job as a coal truck driver and they were faced with potential homelessness. Unable to feed all of their children, they decided to auction them off. Within two years of this photo, all four children sitting on the steps, as well as the child Lucille was holding in her arms, were sold off or re-homed.


Moments Before a Fire Consumed the Venue

A band called Great White was playing in a Rhode Island nightclub called Station’s Nightclub when pyrotechnics caused a fire to break out inside the club. You can see in the left, behind the bassist, the fire beginning to set ablaze.

Band performing live on stage inside a club. Pyrotechnics are going off on the left side of the stage and igniting a fire.

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The fire ended up taking the lives of 100 people inside the venue. While the band had only intentions of creating an excellent show fit with fireworks and excitement, it went horribly wrong.


Eagles of Death Metal Concert

When the Bataclan Theatre booked the band Eagles of Death Metal to perform, little did anyone know that the show would never take place. What would happen instead was a worst-case scenario.

The marquee in front of the Bataclan Theatre showing that the Eagles of Death Metal are performing.

Cherry/Wikimedia Commons

Moments later, four gunmen stormed into the venue and began to attack the crowd. Attendee Gilles Leclerc threw himself on top of his date Marianne Labanane during the disaster, saving her life. Unfortunately, he did not survive but went out with heroism and love.


Into the Wild

A book and a movie were devoted to the man in this photograph, Christopher McCandless, who burned his money and took off into the wilderness to live a life off the grid. He hiked until he found an abandoned bus that he lived inside of for 100 days.

The last photo of Christopher McCandless. He is wearing a brown jacket and waving at the viewer. Behind him is a forest.

ritkanlathatotortenelem/Wikimedia Commons

This was Christopher’s final self-portrait. His decomposed body was found by a pair of moose hunters in 1992. His death was officially ruled as death by starvation, though many still debate how he died to this day.


A Public Suicide

From 1981 to 1987 a man named R. Budd Dwyer was the treasurer of Pennsylvania before he was accused of bribery and withholding taxes–a serious offense, especially for someone sitting in a position of power.

Black-and-white photo of Budd Dwyer, one-time treasurer of Pennsylvania. He is wearing a suit with a striped tie and holding his hand out to stop anyone from coming near him. In his other hand is a loaded revolver.

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His trial was played out in the public forum and broadcast on live television. Budd brought a gun to the trial and took his own life on live television, reaching millions of people. This photograph is from moments before he shot himself.


An Escaped Animal On the Attack

Having escaped the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in West Bengal, a Bengal jaguar began to wreak havoc on a village called Limbu. While trying to recapture the creature a tranquilizer was shot into it, but it was not strong enough.

A Bengal jaguar leaps at a man with his back turned. Behind the jaguar and the man it is attacking stands another man with a gun in his hands and a helmet on his head.

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In this photo, the jaguar attacks a forest warden from behind. The man survived, but the jaguar did not. It was shot by the man nearby, ending the terror and fear.


Princess Diana’s Sad Fate

Most are familiar with the ways in which the Royal British Family are hounded by paparazzi. The paparazzi’s incessant stalking of Princess Diana is arguably what led to her untimely and upsetting death. This photograph was taken not long before disaster found the princess.

Princess Diana, her bodyguard, driver, and partner driving in a car in Paris. The photo is taken with flash and brightly lights up the interior of the car. Princess Diana's hair is visible over the shoulder of her bodyguard.


As the paparazzi chased her, her driver Henri Paul, her bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, and her partner Dodi Fayed through the streets of Paris in August of 1997, the four tried to escape. Ultimately, they crashed while driving through the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. Only her bodyguard survived. 


Last Moments of a Terrified Woman

This photo is chilling as it is horrifying. Regina Kay Walters’ last moments were documented by the man who took her life. The positioning of her hands in the defensive position is enough to completely shatter anyone’s heart.

Regina Kay Walters holding her hands out to protect herself. She is standing on a small wooden platform and a field is behind her.


Regina and her boyfriend, Ricky Lee Jones, had decided to escape their day-to-day life in Pasadena and head south toward Mexico. While hitchhiking, they were picked up by an unassuming truck driver Robert Ben Rhoades. Robert had converted his truck into a torture chamber and became known as the Truck Stop Killer.


James Dean and His "Cursed" Car

Legend has it, James Dean lost his life due to his “cursed” car, a Porsche 550 Spyder. In this photo he is seen filling his gas up not long before disaster sealed his fate when he crashed and died inside the car.

James Dean standing next to his silver Porsche wearing sunglasses, as the fuel tank is being filled by an out-of-shot attendant.

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After his death, the car was broken into different parts and sold to become a part of other vehicles. Several of those cars were involved in other accidents, leading many to believe that the car is cursed.


An Insurgent Uprising

This harrowing photo, taken by an unknown photographer, was snapped in Cuba during civil unrest and uprising.

A black-and-white photo of a man standing before a firing squad. He stands with his back to a wall, blindfolded and handcuffed. The firing squad are in military uniform and are preparing to shoot.


The Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s soldiers are seen preparing to take the life of a man who was a suspected insurgent during the uprising. This photo captured the last moments of the man’s life.


The Complicated Last Moments of Archduke Ferdinand and Wife Sophie of Austria

Widely called the trigger to the First World War, Archduke and wife Sophie were assassinated shortly after this photo was taken. The assassin tried to throw a bomb under the royal’s car, but missed and exploded the car behind them. The Archduke panicked and took a cyanide pill; however, it was faulty and caused him to throw up.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofie exit Sarajevo Guildhall following a speech. They are coming down the steps toward their car, flanked by people of interest.

Unknown photographer /Wikimedia Commons

In a fit of panic, he threw himself into a river, which was too shallow. He was rushed away and survived. Later, he went to visit the survivors of the bomb meant for him. On the way there he was shot.


The Last Photo of John Lennon With His Killer

When Paul Goresh took this late-evening photo of John Lennon, he had no idea he was taking some of the final photos of the famed celebrity and Beatles frontman, John Lennon. But that was not the most jaw-dropping part of the photo. 

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The person in the photo, with Lennon, whom he is signing an autograph for, is Mark Chapman, who would take his life later that night at point blank range. 


Bear Beware

“Leave no man behind” is an old adage that many of us have heard. For Darsh Patel, his and his friend’s decision to split up ended in his final moments. While hiking in the Apshawa Preserve in West Milford, New Jersey, a group of friends noticed a black bear nearby. 

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To try to confuse the bear, the group decided to split up. The 300-pound animal picked up Darsh’s scent and followed him, eventually catching up to him and mauling him to death. This was the photo that Darsh took of his attacker bfefore disaster claimed his life.


A Pilot Being Ejected From the Plane

Back in 1990 a British Airways flight experienced catastrophic failure due to a windscreen panel falling out. The incident caused the cockpit to decompress, and the captain of the plane was partially ejected. This photo shows the pilot’s harrowing experience during the disaster.

Pilot of British Airways Flight 5390 almost completely outside of the cockpit window of the aircraft. He is being held in place by another crew member inside the cockpit.


When we say “partially” we mean that the lower half of his body was inside the plane being held by his co-captain in the cockpit. Amazingly, the man survived 20 minutes flying outside of the jet!


Unknowingly Capturing a Young Woman’s Final Breath

The couple embracing for a photo had no idea the kind of sadness that lurked behind them. While posing for a photo over Niagara Falls, a woman named Ayano Tokumasu stood over the famously massive and unforgiving waterfall and counted the last moments of her life.

A man and woman embrace in a photo taken at the Niagra Falls observation deck. To their left is a woman in red standing near the railing, facing the falls.

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Ayano, the woman in red, was a 20-year-old student who threw herself over the railing, falling to her death. This photo was the last photo ever taken of her. 


Paul Walker and His Car

Here is a photo of Paul Walker, one of the stars of Fast and the Furious, entering into his Porsche Carrera GT. In this car he would eventually end up in a car accident with his friend, wrapping around a tree in a fatal crash.

Paul Walker with his red Porsche Carrera GT.

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This photo was taken in 2013. At the time of the crash, Paul’s friend was in the driver’s seat. Both died instantly.


September 11th, 2001

The world was rattled and upended in many ways when the United States fell under attack on September 11th, 2001. Two planes were intentionally crashed into the Twin Towers in New York, killing around 3,000 people.

The second hijacked airplane moments before it crashed into the World Trade Center.


This photo, taken moments before the second plane hit the towers, was a devastating moment from all those who watched with shock on site and on television. It was a moment of realization that the first plane was not an accident, that New York was in fact under attack. 


“King of Snakes” Bows Out

This photo was taken only moments before disaster, when snake charmer Ali Khan Samsudin was bitten by the lethal and fatal grip of the cobra. Captured in 2006, Ali did not survive the bite. 

Ali Khan Samsudin kneels in front of a cobra that is bearing its fangs. Onlookers are gathered in the background.


As onlookers watched, the snake sunk its teeth into the snake charmer and ended his life. Ali was known as the “Snake King” in Malaysia. After being bitten in the left hand he died of his injuries at age 48.


A Free Dive Gone Wrong

A man named Nicholas Mevoli was attempting to dive 236 feet deep into the sea, unknowingly that it would be the last dive of his life. He completed the dive successfully and surfaced, giving those around him the “OK” sign.

Nicholas Mevoli preparing for a 236-foot dive from which he would never recover. He is floating in the water in a dive suit, surrounded by two others.

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Nicholas tried to speak but was unable and passed out. The diver never regained consciousness, dying the same day. He passed from a pulmonary edema, which is caused by too much fluid in the lungs.


Last Known Photograph of the Titanic Afloat

This is the last known photograph of the fated Titanic afloat before disaster met it in its tragic fate. The “unsinkable” ship was setting sail from Southampton, England to New York in April of 1912.

A black-and-white photo showing the Titanic floating in the distance. A small raft with a handful of people are floating in the foreground.

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Most are familiar with the infamous ending of the Titanic. It collided with an iceberg before splitting in half and sinking to the bottom of the ocean. It is estimated that there were around 2,224 passengers aboard. Of that number, more than 1,500 did not survive.


Fatal Octopus

After exiting the ocean in Australia this man still could not shake the octopus clinging tightly to his back. If the octopus had chosen to bite this man, his life would have been in great peril.

A man who has just come out of the ocean stands with an octopus attached to his upper back. A woman in front of him looks on in anticipation. The ocean fills the background.


A bite from this kind of octopus can begin to affect the body within five to ten minutes, creating paresthesias, muscular weakness, numbness, and difficulty breathing. Luckily, the man was able to get the creature off of him safely with little harm and survived.


A Tragedy Compounded

A man named Joseph Avery was on the Niagara River with two other men when he crashed his boat. The two other men perished immediately; however, Joseph was able to cling to a rock and save himself. He awaited help for 18 hours, but his plight was not yet over.

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A rescue boat came from Joseph, and they were able to reach him. Tragically, as soon as the survivor managed to climb into the boat, it capsized, and Joseph was lost forever.


Pawns In a Game No One Wins

Dave Hally and his wife Kim Valley-Verhaugh were leaving for their dream vacation with their small daughter in July of 2014. The couple and their four-year-old, Megan, were set for Bali, Indonesia. This photograph captures the last moments before disaster, as Malaysia Flight 17 prepared for takeoff.

A woman and her daughter seated beside one another on Malaysia Flight 17. They are smiling and looking up at the camera.


Not long after the flight began it was shot down by Russian forces while flying over Ukraine. No person on board survived, although photos by rescuers were recovered. 


Dangerous Fun Gone Horribly Wrong

Parkour enthusiast Pavel Kashin was performing a trick for the photographer when he miscalculated his movements. While trying to perform a back flip on a precarious building roof’s ledge, he lost his balance.

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Pavin was unable to get his composure back and ultimately fell to the ground to his death. It was an unfortunate and ultimately completely avoidable incident. 


Flight 182 Collision

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182 was en route from Sacramento to L.A. and San Diego, California on September 25th, 1978, when it collided with a private aircraft over San Diego. Both aircrafts fell from the sky and crashed into North Park, a San Diego neighborhood.

Southwest Airlines Flight 182 careens downward while engulfed in flames and smoke.


Flight 182 plummeted north of an intersection and killed all 135 people on board, as well as seven people on the ground in their homes, including two kids. The smaller aircraft, Cessna 172, also fell onto civilians, injuring nine people and damaging 22 residences. This is the deadliest air disaster in California history.


Hot Air Balloon Disaster Kills 11

Passengers boarding a hot-air balloon in Carterton, New Zealand, in January 2012. Everything was going just fine until the balloon accidentally collided with power lines when attempting a landing. This photo was snapped during the disaster.

A multi-colored hot-air balloon strikes power lines in New Zealand. The basket carrying the passengers is illuminated in a bright white light.


Tragically, all 11 passengers in the basket of the balloon perished in the collision. Onlookers stood by horrified and unable to help at all.


2 Climbers Who Were Lost to Mt. Everest

George Mallory and Sandy Irvine made an attempt at reaching the peak of Mt. Everest in 1924. In this image you can see them preparing for the ascent at their base camp.

George Mallory and Sandy Irvine pictured wearing gas tanks and large winter clothing outside of tents at their Mt. Everest base camp.


The pair were spotted on June 8, 1924, hanging onto the northeast ridge of the mountain, not far from the summit. The climbers would never return. It has been left up to speculation whether or not they ever made it, as Irvine’s body was never recovered, and Mallory’s was found in 1999, less than 300 feet from the summit.


Brazilian Priest Takes Off in a Balloon Chair and Never Returns

In 2010, an experienced skydiver and priest named Adelir Antônio de Carli took off from Brazil in a chair strapped to 1,000 balloons. His goal was to raise money for a spiritual rest stop for truck drivers. In the photo you can see him taking off.

Adelir Antônio de Carli strapped into a chair attached to a mass of cluster balloons. You can see hands of a crowd reaching up to him.


Unfortunately for Carli, he never reached land again. Something went wrong somewhere off the coast of Brazil, and he lost contact with the military police. Pieces of his body were eventually discovered near an oil rig.


The Night Tupac Died

The famous American rapper Tupac Shakur was in Las Vegas on September 7, 1996, attending a Mike Tyson boxing match. After the match, he and record executive Suge Knight were on their way to a charity concert Shakur was putting on. This photo was taken while they were on their way.

Tupac Shakur seated next to Suge Knight in a black car in Las Vegas. Shakur is looking at the viewer, while Knight is looking ahead.


Little did anyone know that Shakur would be shot in a drive-by shooting only a few minutes later while parked at an intersection. He was rushed to a nearby hospital but succumbed to his wounds six days later.


Before Disaster at the Pool

A man posed for a photograph while hanging out at the pool. He didn’t know that behind him three women were chatting, and one was about to have a big slip.

A photo of a man at a pool with his arms crossed. In the background are three women. One of them is in the midst of slipping off the pool's edge into the water.


The woman perched precariously on the pool’s edge most certainly fell in, but she is likely completely all right.