On an otherwise normal day, a character steps out to run an inconsequential errand. They discover upon their return that the space they vacated has, in their brief absence, become the scene of a terrible accident, deadly crime, devastating battle, or even an out-and-out genocide. What would otherwise have meant certain death for an Unluckily Lucky character has been neatly sidestepped with a Contrived Coincidence.
In essence, this trope is when a character shows up fifteen minutes late to their own death because they went out for some Starbucks.
This serendipitous survival can play out any number of ways. The classic example would be when a hero's Doomed Hometown meets its doom while the hero is off doing something mostly unrelated. Almost as often, the focus is on a character fortuitously breaking routine — whether by calling in sick to work or backing out of an obligation at the last minute — on the very day disaster strikes. A common variant involves an assassination attempt that relies on the target following a set pattern and being in a certain place at a certain time, only for the target to get stuck in traffic, make an unplanned stop, or arbitrarily decide to take another route.
Note that the survivor in question is not necessarily the Sole Survivor; frequently, multiple characters simultaneously survive the same disaster this way, but, due to the unpredictable nature of their own survival, are likewise unable to anticipate the survival of anyone else, and thus carry on with their lives completely unaware of each other's continued existence. In especially dramatic cases, this may involve two characters Watching Troy Burn from opposite sides of the fire, concluding grimly that No One Could Survive That!, and then just barely missing each other as they walk away, setting up the possibility for a Quest for the Rest somewhere down the road.
The sidestepped disaster varies widely in scale from one work to another. Anything from the survivor's home up to and including their home planet may be destroyed while they are away. The critical point is that the only reason the survivor lives through the disaster is because random happenstance dictated they themselves would not be present. It's not this trope if an outside force actively maneuvers the survivor away or otherwise waits for them to get out of the line of fire before setting the calamity in motion.
The survivor is likely to suffer from Survivor Guilt, especially if it comes to light that whatever killed their family or friends was specifically intended to kill them to begin with, or that they were somehow responsible for provoking what happened. Inevitably, the survivor will want to uncover the truth about the tragedy so that they can track down their would-be killer in order to see justice done or vengeance served... or because the killer is still after them.
While large scale disaster is the most common form of this trope, it is not the only one. Serendipitous Survival can be applied to situations where the character alone is the only one in danger of death or other misfortune.
Compare Late to the Tragedy, in which the narrative devotes a significant amount of time to piecing together the tragedy's mysterious origins, but does so mostly secondhand: whoever is investigating the tragedy may be completely unrelated to its victims, with the investigator arriving potentially weeks, months, years, or even centuries after the tragedy occurs.
Subtrope to Near-Death Experience. Supertrope to But What About the Astronauts?, wherein death and destruction have swept the entire planet such that only those safely offworld could have survived, and Slept Through the Apocalypse, wherein a character is technically within the disaster blast radius but is coincidentally so well sheltered that they remain blissfully unaware throughout.
Compare Lifesaving Misfortune, which achieves a similar effect by having a minor inconvenience or strictly negative event save a character's life. Also compare Could Have Been Messy, when surviving something that should have been fatal with minimal injury. Inverse of Dice Roll Death, where bad luck or random chance results in someone dying.
As a Death Trope, expect unmarked spoilers!
- When the planet Vegeta was destroyed in Dragon Ball Z, only four of its native Saiyans survived the destruction. Of the four, Prince Vegeta is noted to have been deliberately spared by Freeza and a later-released side chapter shows Goku's father deliberately sending him away to protect him a la Kal El, so they wouldn't count. Raditz and Nappa, however, were just lucky enough to be off planet and, in Raditz's case, on a mission with Vegeta, and thus survived.
- In Year Five #16 of Injustice: Gods Among Us, Batwoman and Harley Quinn exit a warehouse used as a meeting place for a pro-Joker resistance group mere seconds before Superman arrives and slaughters the entire building.
- At the very beginning of Children of Men, Theo avoids being a victim of a cafe bombing about thirty seconds after he purchased coffee there.
- In From Russia with Love, Kerim Bey survives Krilencu's first assassination attempt, a bomb planted on the exterior wall of his office near his desk, because his girlfriend pulled him away from said desk for a make-out session mere seconds earlier.
- The Professional: Matilda is out getting groceries while her family is being killed by corrupt cops. She comes back, acts nonchalant, and hooks up with the titular Antihero for safety, and then revenge.
- Star Wars: When R2-D2 runs off in A New Hope, Luke Skywalker has to chase after him and hopefully get him back before anybody notices so he won't get in trouble. This, and the subsequent meeting with Obi-Wan Kenobi, delay Luke enough that he doesn't get home until long after Stormtroopers looking for R2 and C-3PO have already raided it.
- Three Days of the Condor. The protagonist Joe Turner, a CIA analyst, misses an assassination attempt after he leaves his workplace to pick up lunch for everybody. He goes out the back entrance because it happens to be raining, so the hit squad waiting outside doesn't see him leave and assume their targets are all on site when they break in and start killing everyone.
- The Avenger: In the first book of the series, Benson is on an commercial airplane flight with his wife and daughter when he gets up to use the bathroom. When he returns his wife and daughter have disappeared and everyone on the plane swears was alone when he boarded. Everyone else on the plane was involved in a smuggling ring. The plane had slowed down to drop its illegal cargo over a lake, and the crew had murdered his family and threw them into the lake at the same time. If Benson had been in his seat they would have done the same to him.
- Discworld: In Guards! Guards!, when the dragon learned to summon itself and destroyed the cult for daring to command it, the only survivor apart from the leader was Brother Fingers, because they'd sent him out to steal some eats. When the Watch responded to the attack, they found him just staring in shock at the melted ruin, still holding a stack of pizza boxes.
- At the beginning of Gunner Kelly by Anthony Price, Kelly is sent on an errand by his employer and thereby misses an assassination attempt intended for him.
- When the Manticore System is hit by the Oyster Bay attack in the Honor Harrington book Mission of Honor, the space station Weyland suffers the least fatalities because its commanding officer scheduled a surprise evacuation drill that day. Sadly, the CO had been on the station overseeing the exercise and was killed when Weyland was destroyed.
- In Death: In Survivor in Death, nine-year-old Nixie Swisher survives the attack that kills the rest of her family because of not one, but two coincidences. She gets up to get a drink at the exact time the murder team arrives, and she had a friend sleeping over that night who resembled her enough for the killers to mistake for her.
- Tortall Universe: In The Immortals, the story of Daine's Dark and Troubled Past begins with her family's farm being attacked by bandits and burned to the ground while Daine happens to be in the next hamlet over helping with a difficult lambing.
- The main antagonist in Flashpoint "Behind the Blue Line" was a former soldier suffering an extreme case of survivor's guilt because of this trope, especially because one of the men killed was someone he convinced to sign up.
- In Game of Thrones, the Blackfish was one of the few survivors of the massacre known as the "Red Wedding" by virtue of the fact that he went to use a privy right before the slaughter and escaped at some point during or afterward.
- An episode of Law & Order featured a woman who survived having a hit put out on her because she didn't show up where she was supposed to be. It takes the police some time to realize this because a woman who looked like the intended victim who was there was murdered instead.
- M*A*S*H had an episode where one patient was a young soldier who had been in a foxhole with his buddies and left to get food just before said foxhole was hit by artillery fire. The soldier is understandably devastated and has been unable to eat since due to the circumstances.
- On The Mentalist a former football star is presumed dead when a bomb explodes in his car. However, the agents then discover that the man is still alive. The man is a notorious womanizer and he kept a apartment within walking distance of the bar he owned. On the night of the bombing he hooked up with a female fan and they snuck out to have sex in the apartment. His assistant was tasked with moving the car and was killed by the bomb.
- In Mike & Molly, Mike and Carl step out of their squad car during a traffic jam to deal with a rude motorist. Moments later, a girder falls on the car, crushing it. This close call gets Carl thinking about how he lives his life and leads to him proposing to Molly's sister Victoria but then changing his mind.
- In The Pretender episode "Crash", Jarod befriends a student while waiting for a plane and offers his ticket to him so he won't miss registration. When the plane crashes, Jarod's motivated to find out why in part because he feels responsible for the young man's death.
- Sam from Quantum Leap takes the place of a lounge pianist. Shortly after he leaps in, an employee at the lounge asks to borrow his car to drive a drunken patron home and he readily hands over the keys, a move the employee says is out of character for him. Then Al shows up and explains that the pianist was supposed to die right around then from a car bomb. Just after he says that, there's an explosion in the parking lot.
- Teen Wolf: The Hale fire — set by rogue werewolf hunters — kills almost the entire Hale family, since all its supernatural members are magically trapped inside the house. Derek and Laura only survive because they happen to still be at school. Unfortunately, grade schoolers get home a lot earlier than highschoolers.
- In Texas Rising the Wykoff family is massacred by a Comanche raiding party. Nate, their slave, survived because he was working away from the farmstead and did not get back till the Comanches had already left.
- The Top Gear segment on the Vampire dragster was originally supposed to have James May driving it, but he was forced to pull out due to a scheduling conflict. Richard Hammond took his place and ended up having a very serious crash which resulted in the dragster hitting the ground upside-down. Hammond suffered a serious brain injury, but eventually made a full recovery. However, it's believed that May (who's significantly taller than Hammond) would have been decapitated if he'd been driving.
- Madam Secretary: In one episode Jay reveals that when he was stationed in Afghanistan, four of his coworkers were killed in a Taliban bombing, which he survived due to not being in the car with them. He has some Survivor's Guilt over this, as well as over not staying on in Afghanistan afterwards.
- In the beginning of Tales of Phantasia, Toltus gets destroyed by Mars looking for a pendant belonging to Cress, who just happened to be out hunting with his friend Chester. Not that this does Cress any good, since Mars catches up to him later in Euclid.
- Early in GoldenLand, you raid a convoy transporting an artifact, whose guards, a group of Albertan shieldmaidens, fight you to the death. Much later on, you meet a wayward shieldmaiden who can join you as a Non-Player Companion and eventually reveals that she was supposed to be part of that convoy, but took a short leave on the day you slaughtered her sisters-in-arms. If you don't tell her right away, she learns the truth about your involvement eventually, and either attacks you or lets herself be persuaded to stand down.
- Exaggerated in the Futurama episode "A Bicyclops Built for Two" in which Alcazar claims he survived the depopulation of the Cyclopian planet because he was cleaning a pool at the time and the massive fireball passed over him safely.
- Inspector Gadget once took a trip to England to look into a case. While he was at his hotel, a MAD agent broke in to try to kill him. The agent fights with Brain for a bit, and successfully manages to blow up Gadget's room. While Brain is looking at the damage, Gadget walks through the door and says "Bathroom must be down the hall."
- In The Simpsons episode "Catch 'Em If You Can", Homer and Marge ditch an out-of-town family visit at the last second to take a vacation elsewhere without telling their kids. The hotel they were supposed to be staying at gets completely destroyed by a tornado. Marge calls the kids, who are relieved that she's alive, but immediately catch on when she still claims to be staying at the hotel.
- Star Wars Rebels: In "Empire Day", Zeb at one point has Agent Kallus in his gun sights, but is told by Kanan to shoot the Inquisitor, a much larger threat who arrived on the scene at the same time, instead. Kallus' survival ends up having some interesting consequences.
- Bugs Moran survived the Valentine's Day Massacre because he left home late and when he arrived at the garage where his gang was meeting, he spotted a police car in a side alley. The police car was most likely a fake used by the assassins who thought that Moran was already inside the building and moved in for the kill. If Moran arrived a bit earlier he would have been killed with the seven of his associates already in the building. Three other members of Moran's gang survived because they also arrived late and spotted what they thought was a police raid.
- One day in 1950, a church in Nebraska exploded five minutes after choir practice was scheduled to begin. There were no casualties, however, because completely by coincidence, every single member was late that day.
- Michael Jackson was scheduled to have a meeting in the World Trade Centre on the day of 9/11, but overslept and missed it.
- Similarly, Seth MacFarlane was supposed to be on one of the planes that crashed into the WTC, but missed his flight by ten minutes due to a massive hangover and his travel agent messing up the departure time. It's the reason why he refused to do any 9/11 jokes until he created American Dad! (a reflection of the post 9/11 world).
- On March 27, 1977, KLM Flight 4805, amongst many other aircraft, had to make a stop at a regional airport in Tenerife due to a terrorist attack at Gran Canaria International Airport. Passengers on this flight were allowed to disembark and relax in the terminal. One passenger in particular decided to sneak out and not re-board the plane in spite of the regulations she would violate, as she lived on Tenerife anyway and wanted to see her boyfriend; going to Gran Canaria and then coming back the next day would've been redundant especially after the flight being delayed for so long. In doing that, she managed to avoid getting caught up in the Tenerife airport disaster, which took all of the lives aboard the KLM jet at takeoff as well as a majority of personnel aboard the plane it crashed into, and in fact she was the only passenger of the former to survive as a result.
- On November 28, 1942, the Boston College football team lost to their archrivals from Holy Cross in a stunning 55-12 upset. The BC team, who were undefeated going into the game and expected to win that year's national championship and an invitation to the Sugar Bowl, were so devastated by the loss that they canceled a planned post-game celebration at Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub... which caught fire that night, resulting in the deaths of nearly 500 people.