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Ultimate Survivor Stories (Part 3): Mafia Hit

Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa wasn't fazed after a gang of baseball-bat-wielding Gambino crime family members nearly beat him to death for making disparaging comments about John Gotti Sr. on his radio show during the mafia Don's fourth and final trial in 1992. "[They] assumed that I would learn the code of omerta, that I would shut my mouth. Well the moment I got out of the ER at Beth Israel I just ratcheted it up," says Sliwa during his Big Think interview. "Instead of a half hour a day of mob talk it was an hour a day and now I talked about unsolved crimes involving Gotti Senior and Gotti Junior and that obviously caused him to pop the top because I didn’t realize he was given an AM radio in federal prison, so he could listen to me every morning before he would go to trial and he ordered his son, the underboss of the Gambino crime family to whack me."

Early one April morning, Sliwa hailed a cab outside his Lower East Side apartment on his usual route uptown to host what was then his WABC morning radio show. Little did Sliwa know, he had just stepped into what he now refers to as a "rolling coffin." In an elaborate scheme to murder Sliwa, Gambino family lackeys had stolen a yellow cab, sawed off the door handles on the inside, and hired two hit men to circle Sliwa's block each morning, waiting for him to hail a ride. "On the sixth day that they went round and round bingo, lotto day for them," says Sliwa. "I jumped in the back, told them, 'Madison Square Garden, hurry up Mac.' He said, 'No problem Sliwa.' And I thought wow, an English speaking cab driver, a guy who knows where he is going. Man, this is my day. I can max and relax, read the newspapers, prepare for the broadcast. Half way there instead of turning left and going west he turns right." An armed gunman arose from the front passenger seat of the taxi and began to open fire. 

After surviving a point blank shooting, Sliwa offers up a few tips for anyone who finds themselves staring down the barrel of a gun. If you have the physical ability, Sliwa advocates attacking your assailant as early as possible, because there is a good chance you're going to "get capped for whatever reason." If, on the other hand, you feel you do not have the physical capacity to fight, Sliwa recommends putting your hands in the air and "giving up everything like you just don't care."

In the particular case of his own survival, Sliwa says anyone who finds themselves in similar situation must first master the art of "run-fu": "That means if you have a slither of an opportunity to get the hell out of there, feet don’t fail me now, get your rear in gear, scrape the barnacles off your backside and fly, just keep running, running, running because that is what you really have to do." Secondly, Sliwa says a "distraction is always an ounce of prevention." Whether by continually talking, yelling, shouting, or picking up an object and throwing it in your assailant's direction, anything out of ordinary to take your assailant's eye off you may serve to help you gain the upper-hand.

For the fourth and final installment of Big Think's Ultimate Survivor Stories series, check back tomorrow for our discussion with journalist Jere Van Dyk, who survived for 45 days as a captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thus far, the series has explored the limits of human endurance in life or death situations with Laurence Gonzales, author of the bestselling "Deep Survival," and Stephen Alpert, a former Assistant U.S. District Attorney who was kidnapped off the streets of Manhattan.

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