14 Worst Engineering Disasters Of All Time
The engineering world has seen some great achievements. However, history has shown that engineering has also faced many terrible failures. Manufacturers, workers, and engineers carry huge responsibilities on their shoulders. A slight miscalculation or a lack of communication has led to some of the worst catastrophes ever. These disasters claimed the lives of many workers and innocent people, not to mention the huge economic loss that followed.
Here, you can gain some insight into such disasters through our chronologically-ordered list of the 14 worst engineering disasters of all time.
1. The SS Sultana steamboat explosion near Memphis, Tennessee in 1865 is the worst maritime disaster in the US history, but it did not get a lot of media coverage that time. People hardly remember this disaster today.
The SS Sultana was a steamboat engineered in Cincinnati and usually sailed on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The steamboat was state-of-the-art, boasting the most advanced safety equipment for those times.
On 27th April 1865, the steamboat carried approximately 2,300 passengers including released Union prisoners of war, civilians, and the crew. Three of Sultana’s four boilers exploded at around 2 a.m., and the steamboat sank around seven miles from Memphis, Tennessee. The death toll was estimated to have been between 1,500-1,800 passengers.
After the investigation, the conclusion was reached that the water levels in the boiler caused this disaster. The crew had overloaded the steamboat (Sultana’s carrying capacity was 376) which made the situation worse. Furthermore, the investigation cited that one of the four boilers had been leaking a few days prior to the mishap, and its repair was dubious. The combined effects of these factors led to the unfortunate catastrophe.(source)
2. The Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, 1889. Heavy rains and failure of a neglected dam led to the disaster which caused 2,209 reported deaths, and nearly wiped off the city of Johnstown.
Johnstown was a prosperous town in central Pennsylvania, USA. It was known for its steel production.
The South Fork dam was a poorly maintained dam and hardly strong enough to handle the tremendous pressure from Lake Conemaugh. However, heavy downpours combined with the lake’s pressure led to the catastrophic failure of the dam and a terrible flood ensued. 2,209 people reportedly died in the “Great Flood of 1889.” Moreover, the estimated property damage was around $17 million, a huge sum at that time.
The American Red Cross led the relief effort and they collected around $3.7 million from donations. The flood is a prime example of an engineering failure and poor maintenance.(source)
3. The Quebec Bridge collapse in Canada was the largest ever cantilever bridge in the world. It collapsed twice, once in 1907 and again in 1916. The disaster killed a reported 88-89 workers.
The Quebec Bridge with its span of 1,801 feet, is still the world’s largest ever cantilever bridge. In fact, the bridge still has its name in the National Historic Site of Canada.
The bridge collapsed the first time on 29th August 1907. During the collapse, the workers were working on the cantilever arm. Fifty-five people reportedly died by either drowning or the falling debris.
The board of engineers felt they had learned from their mistakes and decided to rebuild the bridge with the lower chords of the cantilevers arms several times stronger than before. Yet again, on the 11th September 1916, the bridge’s central span crumbled killing 13 workers.
The total damage cost of the two disasters was estimated to be $22 million. The incident showed humanity the disastrous effects of engineering failures and improper supervision.(source)
4. The sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912 is a famous catastrophe. The grand British passenger liner sank into the North Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg. It is reported that 1,514 passengers died. The accident incurred an estimated economic loss of $7.5 million.
The world had declared RMS Titanic a legend even before its maiden voyage. When the ship set sail from Southampton to New York, the crew was so assured about Titanic’s safety that they carried only 20 lifeboats. This was barely enough for half of the 2,200 passengers.
Four days after the voyage began, the ship struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m on 14 April 1912. The collision proved deadly as the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean soon filled the ship. The death toll was 1,514 passengers. Later on, the liner Carpathia rescued 705 survivors.
According to the builders, Titanic should have stayed afloat for at least two more days despite the collision. After several investigations, conclusions came out that the grand liner had several design flaws and material failures. The collision with iceberg caused a fracture of the brittle hull steel and the wrought iron rivets. The fracture was immediate and it was a result of a combination of three factors: low temperature, high impact loading, and high sulfur content in the hull steel.(1,2)
5. The Hindenburg airship disaster in 1937 during a docking attempt in New Jersey, USA caused 36 fatalities, and the catastrophe marked the end of airship travel.
The German LZ-129 Hindenburg was the biggest commercial airship ever built. Moreover, at that time, it was technologically the most advanced airship. Its size was three times that of a Boeing 747, and it was capable of a top speed of 84 mph.
The mishap occurred on 6 May 1937. The Hindenburg was carrying 97 passengers when it exploded filling the sky over New Jersey with fiery smoke. The gigantic airship fell to the ground on its tail and burned to ashes within a minute. Sixty-two passengers leaped over dozens of feet to their safety and managed to survive.
The cause of the accident was a hydrogen gas leak from the fuel cells which combined with oxygen to form a highly flammable mixture. This mixture ignited and spawned a massive fire. It was the first engineering mishap caught on film, and it shattered the public’s confidence in airships.(source)
6. The Tacoma Bridge collapse of 1940 in Washington, USA was a calamity of the world’s third longest suspension bridge back then and had a crucial impact on engineering. It caused the governing of the modeling of all the long-span bridges in the future.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was an iconic, long-span bridge built in the state of Washington in the USA in the 1930s. It was opened to traffic on t July 1940. Leon Moisseiff planned the building’s design to be far more flexible than the acceptable standard ratios.
On 7 November 1940, strong winds of 40 mph battered the area and the bridge oscillated significantly. The bridge towers were made of strong, structural carbon steel, yet they proved no match for the violent movements which eventually caused the bridge to collapse. Fortunately, there were no fatalities except for a dog. The estimated loss from the mishap was $6.4 million.
The disaster is now presented in popular physics textbooks as an illustration of elementary forced-resonance. The high-velocity winds caused aero-elastic flutter at a frequency equaling the bridge’s natural frequency. Furthermore, the bridge was vulnerable to wind-generated vibrations, and the investigations proved that the collapse was inevitable.(source)
7. The failure of the Banqiao Dam in China in 1975, now a forgotten legacy, is arguably the worst engineering disaster of all time. Estimates tell that an unprecedented 171,000 to 230,000 people died in the calamity while 11 million more people had to relocate.
The Banqiao Dam was built on the river of Ru in June 1952. The design of the dam gave it the name “iron dam” as it was considered unbreakable. However, Chen Xing, a prominent hydrologist of the country warned that the overbuilding of dams and reservoirs could increase the water table beyond safe levels and cause a disaster. The government removed Chen from the project.
Chen’s warnings turned out to be true when in August 1975, Henan Province’s Banqiao Dam toppled. The flooding killed an estimated 171,000 to 230,000 people and forced 11 million people to displace. Moreover, the disaster caused a staggering economic loss of approximately $1.6 billion.
This disaster was a culmination of many factors including unsafe construction, poor design and maintenance, overbuilding of dams in the region, and the typhoon Nina which precipitated the disaster.(source)
8. The Skylab crash on Western Australia’s south-east coast in 1979 was a calamity of America’s first-ever space station and became a worldwide sensation.
NASA launched the US space station in 1973. It was the world’s first successful space station. Skylabcollected huge amounts of data including 175,000 solar images. It also gathered useful information on the biological impact of living in space for a prolonged time period.
NASA abandoned the space station in 1974. Five years later, Skylab’s orbit started deteriorating towards the earth. On 11 June 1979, the empty Skylab broke up in the atmosphere and showered fiery debris onto Australia and the Indian Ocean.
Skylab was reportedly designed to go up but not land back to earth. The orbit deterioration started far earlier than NASA had anticipated, and they were not able to control it. Reportedly, solar activity caused the Earth’s atmosphere to expand and the space station faced an increasing drag from the Earth. In addition, the cost of the project of building a single unit was an astounding $2.2 billion.(1,2)
9. The Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway collapse of 1971 in Missouri, USA. The mishap reportedly killed 114 people and injured at least 216 more. It is among the deadliest engineering disasters in U.S. history.
The disaster took place at the hotel Hyatt Regency Kansas City in Missouri. On 17th July 1981, two adjacent walkways collapsed directly on the hotel’s lobby. At that time, the hotel held a tea dance party and over 1600 people gathered in the lobby. Reportedly, 114 people died and more than 216 were injured. Furthermore, the resulting property loss was in the range of several million dollars.
Apparently, the constructors found a design flaw during the hotel construction. They decided to fix it in a manner that resulted in the two walkways of second and fourth floors to be adjacent, causing double loading on the atrium’s roof. In fact, the walkways weighed a staggering 64,000 lbs. The connections failed spectacularly. Further investigations revealed that the tie rod designs were faulty and there was a critical error in how the walkways’ suspension system from the atrium.
The catastrophe proved to be a result of failed engineering, too many design changes, poor communication, and general negligence.(source)
10. The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in Madhya Pradesh, India. It is the worst industrial disaster in history. The immediate official death count was 3,787. However, it is the long-term impacts that were devastating, causing injuries, disabilities, and ailments to over an estimated 5 million.
The mishap occurred at the pesticide industry Union Carbide India Limited in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Post-midnight on 3rd December 1984, there was a leak of methyl isocyanate (highly toxic) gas from the factory when the country was sleeping. The gas leak killed thousands of people within a few hours of the incident. Reportedly, about 558,000 people were injured, of which 3,900 were cases of permanent-disabling injuries.
The accident cost the UCIL owners in excess of $520 million.
Investigations revealed that the gas tank leaked over 40 tonnes of toxic gases to the city of Bhopal. There was a large volume of water in the MIC gas tank. It caused a toxic chemical reaction which forced open the pressure release valve, allowing the gas to leak.
Such was the extent of the disaster that Bhopal’s third generation, born 34 years after the tragedy still suffers from various ailments.(source)
11. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. All 7 crew members died during the catastrophe. Economic losses incurred: $56 billion unit cost + $130 million mission cost + $500 million investigation cost + $7.7 million compensation to victim’s families.
NASA’s space shuttle Challenger exploded during its tenth flight merely 73 seconds after the liftoff. The disaster occurred on 28th January 1986. The crew comprised of five astronauts and a couple of payload specialists. Noone survived the disaster.
The space shuttle shattered in the air and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, near the coast of Florida in the USA. The catastrophe began when one of the joints in the solid rocket booster (SRB) failed right at the liftoff.
Several investigations proceeded following the disaster. They revealed that two of the O-rubber rings designed to separate the rocket booster’s sections failed due to cold temperatures during the launch. Furthermore, the tragedy prompted NASA to temporarily withdraw from all of its space shuttle missions.(source)
12. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 in Pripyat, Ukraine. Reportedly, 62 people died immediately after the explosion. The long-term death count is an estimated 4,000 – 9,000 people. Moreover, the economic loss incurred over the next 30 years is around $235 billion, making it one of the costliest disasters in history.
On 26th April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power station of the Soviet Union witnessed the world’s most catastrophic nuclear accident.
The technicians at the reactor Unit-4 conducted a poorly planned experiment. They switched off the reactor’s power-regulating system along with its emergency safety systems. The workers removed too many control rods from the core and allowed the reactor to run. Eventually, at night the core’s chain reaction became uncontrollable and it triggered a series of explosions. The graphite reactor core lit up in flames and released a tremendous amount of radioactive material directly into the atmosphere.
Around 30,000 Pripyat dwellers evacuated the next day. But the disaster had done most of its damage. People contracted severe radiation illness. Moreover, several thousands of people died due to radiation sickness and radioactive cancer.
The International Nuclear Event Scales rates the Chernobyl disaster as a level 7 event, the maximum level.(source)
13. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, USA. The reported casualties are 11 deaths and 17 injuries. However, the oil spill caused deaths of staggering numbers of flora and fauna underwater, including the endangered species. It is the largest marine oil spill ever.
The industrial disaster started on 20th April 2010. Pressurized methane gas expanded from the well into the drilling riser and rose into the oil rig. The gas caught fire and exploded, and the Deepwater Horizon sank during the early hours of 22nd April.
Several reports have cited that the massive oil spill killed or harmed over 102,000 birds, 6,165 sea-turtles, 25,900 sea mammals, and a billion of newly hatched fish. The gulf was home to over 8332 species. Also, the total property damage was estimated to be $61.60 billion.
The investigations that proceeded revealed that the major cause of the disaster was a poorly planned well. The well did not have sufficient cement between the seven-inch production casing and a nearly ten-inch protection casing. Another reason was the faulty Blow-Out Preventer (BOP) which failed to do its job of sealing and controlling the gas well.
Furthermore, the government declared the well sealed on 19th September, but later reports revealed that the well site had still been leaking.(source)
14. The Rana Plaza Collapse of 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh is the worst industrial disaster in recent times. The calamity claimed an estimated 1,134 lives and injured at least 2,500 more.
The Rana Plaza was a five-story commercial building in the Savar Upazila of Dhaka District in Bangladesh. It comprised of a bank, clothing factories, several apartments, and numerous shops.
The structural failure occurred on 24 April 2013. The site abruptly collapsed with only the ground floor remaining intact, killing more than 1,134 people as per the final reports. Most of the victims were women and young children.
There were several glaring reasons behind the fall of the Rana Plaza. First of all, the building was built on a filled-in pond, and that compromised the structural integrity. It had three floors more than the original permit, and the construction material was substandard at best. Moreover, the manufacturers’ negligence was astounding and all the factors pointed to an inevitable collapse of the commercial site. The disaster prompted the site owners to compensate the victim’s families with a sum totaling $40 million.(source)