Here are the 25 Biggest Engineering Calamities of This Century
We will look at the worst engineering disasters in this report. The most recent engineering disasters were included, as well as the oldest on record that happened nearly 400 years ago! Dams, bridges, falling walkways; molasses running down the streets, burning nuclear plants, sinking large ships (other than Titanic!), leaking tons of toxic gas, all these incidents sadly have everything to do with engineering fails.
In recent times, and particularly in the last 100 years, engineering processes have greatly improved, but the path to get where we are now was not always a smooth one. Unfortunately, developers and engineers can never get to a stage where everything is flawless, and there are plenty of cases of disasters caused by technical failures over the years. Over the past 100 years, engineers have developed their abilities and extended their expertise, and have researched these engineering disasters in order to avoid further accidents such as these from repeating.
We’ve written about the 5 Engineering Mistakes that ended in Tragedy before; now let’s look at the top 25 engineering disasters over the past 120 years:
1. Sinking of the SS Sultana
A side-wheel steamboat that operated on the Mississippi River was the SS Sultana. It is regarded as the worst underwater tragedy in the history of America when three of the boat’s four boilers exploded and the waterline burned down. Although the boat’s legal capacity was 376 passengers, 1,960 inmates, 22 guards, 70 paying customers, and 85 crew members were seriously overcrowded that night, the exact death toll is uncertain and is estimated at 1,238.
2. The Titanic
On its first voyage, the Titanic (full name RMS Titanic) was a huge British passenger liner that went down in the Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912. Over 1,500 people are believed to have lost their lives when the ship sunk, solidifying its status as one of the worst maritime disasters in history. The boat’s hull buckled inwards on April 14th, striking an iceberg about 375 miles south of Newfoundland, resulting in flooding that the ship could not withstand. In our article: Engineering Disasters – Titanic, please read about this engineering tragedy in great detail.
3. St. Francis Dam Collapse
St. Francis Dam was a concrete, curved gravity dam located in Los Angeles, California. For Los Angeles, it built a massive storage reservoir and was a major part of the city’s water infrastructure. St. Francis Dam burst and spilled its water on March 12th, 1928, killing at least 431 people. It is considered as one of the worst civil engineering catastrophes in the history of America.
4. Banqiao Dam Disaster
The collapse of 62 dams in Henan, China, which was triggered by Typhoon Nina, was the Banqiao Dam failure in 1975. This is the third deadliest flood in history, occurring in August 1975, resulting in the loss of lives in the range of 85,600-240,000. 6.8 million Homes were also damaged by this storm, leaving millions homeless in its wake. In our article: Engineering Disasters: Banqiao Dam collapse, you can learn more about this catastrophe.
5. Bhopal Chemical Leak
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy, also known as the Bhopal Disaster, occurred at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, on December 2-3, 1985. A highly toxic gas spill led to the exposure of over 500,000 individuals to MIC (methyl isocyanate) gas. The exact death toll is unclear, but over 16,000 people were said to have died within two weeks, with hundreds of thousands more suffering permanent injuries as a result of the spill.
6. Chernobyl Meltdown Disaster
On April 26th, 1986, the well-known Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened. At the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the power for the number four reactor fell to almost zero, which in turn caused a nuclear chain reaction within the reactor. This resulted in a powerful explosion of steam, which was accompanied by a fire that released the nuclear radiation into the air in the reactor core.
It is difficult to find exact figures for the death rate, but it is estimated that between 9,000 and 16,000 lives have been lost due to nuclear disasters across Europe. Read the details of the Chernobyl catastrophe here: Engineering Disasters: Details of Chernobyl.
The video below is about Pripyat, a town about three kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which was abandoned after the disaster. The town used to have a population of 47,000 and was founded before the disaster. In 1970, it was created.
7. The Johnstown Flood
Following the failure of the South Fork Dam, upstream of Johnstown city, Pennsylvania, the Great Flood of 1889, also known as the Johnstown flood, occurred. 14.55 million cubic meters of water descended on the city on May 31, 1989, killing more than 2,200 residents. Extremely heavy precipitation that had fallen several days prior to the flood was the cause of this engineering failure. In this video, more of this engineering fails:
8. 1970 DC-10 Crashes
Flight 191 by American Airlines was only one of many accidents during the 1970s involving the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft. The flight was on its way off when it crashed into the ground on May 25th, 1979. Everyone onboard, including 258 passengers and 13 crew members, was killed and two people on the ground were killed as well. Motor number 1 detached from the wing and broken main lines were the cause of the crash. This mismatch and unstable aerodynamics caused the plane at the end of the runway to crash into an open field. Check out our post on the Concorde catastrophe as well.
9. Gretna Train Derailment
There was a multi-train accident on May 22nd, 1915, near Gretna Green in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. This is recognized as the railway tragedy of Quintinshill, resulting in the deaths of over 200 individuals, and is still the worst railway disaster in British history. The cause of the crash was due to the incompetence of two signalmen who did not notice a train operating on the southbound line running on the northbound train, resulting in the crash.
10. East Ohio Gas Explosion
In 1940, the East Ohio Gas Company constructed a gas plant in Cleveland, Ohio, and this was the world’s first plant of its kind. It had four tanks and worked properly before exploding for three years. From tank number 4, which ignited but did not seem to cause any significant damage, a vapor started to emit. Then a second tank blew up, leveling the tank farm. The blast went through the sewers and up the drains of people, killing fewer than 200 people. Read our report about this tragedy here: East Ohio Gas Company: Engineering Disasters.
11. Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse
On July 7th, 1981, two walkways collapsed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri. The walkways were straight over each other, smashing into a tea dance held in the hotel. It killed 114 people and wounded 216 more. It is remembered in America’s history as the deadliest non-deliberate structural failure, which was caused by improvements to the design of the steel hanger rods of the walkway. Read more in our article: Disasters of Engineering: Hyatt Regency Hotel.
12. Air France Concorde Crash
Air France Flight 4590, leaving from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, was an international flight. The Aerospatiale-BAC Concorde was to be used to complete this flight. The aircraft ran over debris on the runway during take-off, which resulted in it blowing a tire and causing debris to fly into the landing gear bay. The result was a fire that struck the engines and the aircraft crashed into a nearby hotel, killing all 109 passengers on board and four in the hotel. Read more in our article: Air France Flight 4590. Engineering Disasters:
13. Failure of the Quebec Bridge
The specific train, pedestrian, and road bridge collapsed twice, causing 88 individuals to die. It’s still the world’s longest cantilever bridge, and it has taken over 30 years to complete. The cause of the first collapse was that the bridge was not strong enough to support its own weight, and it collapsed again only nine years later. The center span of the bridge dropped into the river this time as it was being raised into place. This video looks at the design and construction past of this big failure in engineering.
14. Hindenburg Explosion
A German LZ 129 Hindenburg airship full of passengers went on fire on May 6th, 1937, and crashed while it was docking in Manchester Township, New Jersey, United States. Out of the 97 people who were on the airship, 35 people died, including 22 crewmen and 13 passengers, and one additional person was killed on the ground. The cause of the fire was undetermined and the use of airships for transporting passengers was significantly affected, leading to the end of the age of airships. Read more here: Disasters in Engineering: LZ 129 Hindenburg.
15. Vasa Explosion
A Swedish warship built between 1626 and 1628 was Vasa. Owing to a large amount of weight in the upper levels of the hull, the ship sank within a couple of minutes of setting sail, making it highly unstable. It is known mainly for having bronze cannons on board and being one of the world’s most powerful warships. Prior to its departure, the problems with the ship were known, but impatience combined with indifference culminated in its doomed voyage, killing the 30 people onboard.
16. Boston Molasses Flood
On January 15th, 1919, the Great Molasses Flood took place, often referred to as the Boston Molasses Tragedy. A large storage tank loaded with 2.3 million gallons of molasses exploded, causing the streets to rush through a 35 mph wave of molasses. It killed 21 people and wounded an additional 150. The cause of the flood was due to a warmer than average Boston thermal expansion of the molasses that had just been shipped.
17. Blowout at the Deepwater Horizon
The Deepwater Horizon was a semi-submersible “ultra-deepwater” offshore drilling platform. Constructed in 2001, the deepest oil well in history with a vertical depth of 35,050 feet has been drilled. An explosion occurred on the rig on April 20th, 2010, while drilling, killing 11 workers. This fire was inextinguishable and, two days later, the Horizon sank, causing the biggest spill of marine oil in history. A blowout, which is an uncontrolled release of crude oil / natural gas from an oil/gas well, caused the fire.
Deepwater Horizon in post-explosion fire
18. Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion
The Space Shuttle Challenger was involved in a deadly crash over Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 28th, 1986. The space shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight and exploded, killing all seven crew members inside. Some of the crew members were believed to have survived the initial break up, but they may not have survived the force with which the crew compartment entered the ocean. Easy O-ring seals that had frozen and failed during the launch triggered the failure. Read our Space Shuttle Challenger article devoted to this engineering tragedy.
19. Failure of the Space Shuttle Columbia
The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on February 1st, 2003 when it entered the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members inside. Damage sustained when launched by the shuttle caused the shuttle to penetrate hot atmospheric gases and cause it to break apart. It was the second fatal engineering disaster to occur, after the previously stated Space Shuttle Challenger, during the Space Shuttle program. Read our post on the Columbia tragedy here: The Columbia Space Shuttle.
20. Charles De Gaulle Terminal Collapse
France’s main international airport is Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. It is regarded as the tenth busiest airport in the world and the second busiest in Europe. A portion of Terminal 2E collapsed near Gate E50 on May 23rd, 2004, taking four lives. This was not long after the terminal had been inaugurated, and one single fault was not assigned to the cause of the failure. Among the problems mentioned, once some penetrations were made, the concrete roof was said not to have been significant enough. This video goes into depth about the weaknesses in engineering that resulted in the collapse.
21. Apollo 1 Fire
The very first crew flight of the Apollo Space Program was Apollo 1 (also known as AS-204). It was expected to be the Apollo program’s first orbital drill, scheduled to be launched on 21 February 1967. The spacecraft, however, never launched, as during the launch there was a fire in the cabin that killed the three crew members. The fire source was determined to be electric, and because of the pure oxygen environment in the cabin, it spread rapidly.
22. Tacoma Bridge Failure
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, located in Pierce County, Washington, opened on July 1, 1940, and its main span collapsed only four months later, causing the bridge to collapse into the river. The cause of this failure was found to be an aero elastic flutter, which was made worse by the strong sides of the bridge that didn’t allow wind to pass through. Fortunately, in this tragedy, there was no loss of human life, just one dog abandoned in his owner’s vehicle. Read more in our article devoted exclusively to this disaster: Tacoma Narrows Bridge: Engineering Disasters.
23. Apollo 13 Near Miss
The third mission to land on the moon was intended to be the Apollo 13 mission, which was the seventh mission in the Apollo Space Program. When an oxygen tank exploded 2 days into the flight, the landing on the Moon was abandoned. The spacecraft looped around the Moon and returned to earth safely, landing in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean. The use of non-combustible materials for space travel was prompted by this catastrophe to improve the crew’s protection.
24. Skylab Crash
NASA launched the first U.S. space station, Skylab, and between 1973 and 1974, three separate astronaut crews inhabited it. The space shuttle, however, would not be ready again until 1981, causing the orbit of Skylab to fall and crash into the Earth. In Australia, mathematical mistakes led to pieces falling, but luckily no one was injured.
25. Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster, a nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, occurred in 2011. It was triggered by the earthquake and tsunami of Tōhoku and was the most destructive nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster described above. The failure of reactor core cooling has resulted in three hydrogen explosions, three nuclear meltdowns, and the release of radioactive materials into the air. As a result of this tragedy, there have been no reports of any fatalities or injuries.
There you have it, the top 25 in the last 400 years of engineering disasters. By providing case studies to new engineers and improving safety standards in all engineering fields, all of these errors have strengthened engineering. What are your opinions on these engineering disasters? Would you add to this list anything else? Let us know below, with a message!