Mankind made progress through mistakes. Today, the field of medicine and technology is so far advanced that we can successfully reverse alzheimer’s disease. These achievements, however, did not come as easy as you may think. Many men, women and children paid the ultimate price with their lives as we advanced through each field. For instance, the Titanic rammed into an iceberg and sank; claiming 1,503 lives. Yes, it hit the iceberg but it sank because of the design flaw in the ballasts and the hull surrounding them. The impact could have been less devastating and thousands of lives could have been saved if not for that one flaw. Here, we have collected 10 of the worst engineering disasters from history.
1. Tacoma Washington Bridge Disaster
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built in Washington during the 1930’s and opened to traffic on July 1, 1940. The dual suspension bridge, nicknamed Galloping Gertie, was designed by it’s engineers without considering aerodynamic forces around the location. On November 7, just four months after its grand opening, the bridge which is the fifth longest suspension bridge in the United States, was subjected to high winds, causing it to collapse.
Around 11 AM, the bridge swayed considerably and concrete dropped from the road surface. A few minutes later, the stress on the suspension cables caused them to snap and a 600-foot section of the bridge broke free. The bridge was being tossed back and forth wildly before collapsing completely. The only fatality was a dog and the bridge was rebuilt and opened for the public on October 14, 1950. The new bridge was constructed to withstand strong winds and oscillations produced by the winds. The remains of the bridge are still at the bottom of Puget Sound, where they form one of the largest man-made reefs in the world.
2. Hindenburg Airship Disaster
On May 6, 1937, the skies above Lakehurst, New Jersey, was filled with smoke and fire after the German zeppelin Hindenburg exploded. Airships were gaining popularity at the time and was considered as a way to travel safe and fast. However, the Hindenburg disaster brought an end to the age of the rigid airship. Surprisingly, the crash was the first ever engineering disaster to be caught on camera. It was 245 meters (803.8 feet) in length and 41.2 m (135.1 feet) in diameter, according to Airships.net.
On its final, fateful voyage, the Hindenburg took off from Frankfurt, Germany, on May 3, 1937. Although strong winds had delayed the arrival time by 12 hours, New Jersey was facing severe weather conditions that particular day. As it approached Lakehurst just after 7 p.m. on May 6, the officers piloting the aircraft decided to make an S-turn to land smoothly. Soon after the turn, the landing gears were dropped. At the same time, hydrogen had escaped near the end of the ship. Around 7:25 PM, flames appeared and within a minute, Hindenburg was completely burned down. Of 97 people aboard, 62 survived by managing to jump to safety. The film depicting the disaster was aired on television and the public lost its confidence in airships.
Skylab was launched into the orbit back in 1973. The station, weighing 75 Metric tons was made to go up but not to come back down. Skylab was designed as an orbiting workshop for research on scientific matters. Severe damage was sustained during launch, including the loss of one of its main solar panels. The damage caused further complications after it reached into orbit as the side solar panels were pinned by debris. NASA decided to develop a new tool to boost Skylab into a higher orbit, thereby extending the lab’s operational life by about five years.
However, when enough funds couldn’t be obtained, the plan had to be abandoned and NASA had to find an alternative way. On July 11, 1979, with Skylab rapidly descending from orbit, engineers fired the boosters rockets on Skylab, hoping that it would crash into the Indian Ocean. Although most of the heavy parts fell into the Indian Ocean, small parts of the space station fell into populated areas of western Australia. Fortunately, no one was injured.
4. St. Francis Dam Flooding
The collapse of the St. Francis Dam on March 12, 1928, is the second-greatest disaster in California history. Built by William Mulholland, the 1,300-foot span of concrete in San Francisquito Canyon held more than 12 billion gallons. Before the dam turned two years old, leaks started appearing at different spots. On March 12, 1928, the dam keeper summoned Mulholland and his chief assistant to inspect the dam. The two showed up and vouched that it was built to withstand anything.
Twelve hours later, the dam keeper, Tony Harnischfeger and his six year old son were among the first to die when the dam collapsed. When the dam broke, it sent a 10-story-high avalanche of water into the neighboring towns, ranches and camps. More than 450 people including 42 school children died when the dam failed. It demolished 1,200 houses, washed out 10 bridges and knocked out power lines.
5. The SS Sultana Steamboat Explosion
On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana was traveling up the Mississippi River, when it exploded and sank, killing an estimated 1,800 people. The Sultana was packed with Union soldiers who’d been released from Confederate prison camps and on its way from Vicksburg, Miss., to St. Louis when the explosion occurred. The steamboat had a legal carrying capacity of 376 passengers and as it was going up the river had more than 2,500 on board.
Around 2 AM, one of the boilers exploded, causing two other boilers to overheat and explode. Soldiers from Kentucky and Tennessee were packed next to the boilers and sadly, they were the first to die. Many died from smoke inhalation while some drowned. Most of the survivors were rescued by passing boats as well as people from both ends of the Mississippi river.
6. Boston’s Great Molasses Flood
On January 15, 1919, the Purity Distilling Company which had built a gigantic tank in Boston’s North End in 1915 to supply its booze-making operations, cracked. The massive tank was nearly full on January 15 with more than 2.3 million gallons of molasses from Puerto Rico when something went wrong. Witnesses described a loud bang followed by the sound of steel ripping. 26 million pounds of molasses poured through the street in a 15-foot wave.
The powerful wave caused a train track to elevate, cracked foundations of buildings and caused more than $100 million (in today’s dollars) worth of damage. The molasses flood also claimed 21 lives, and another 150 people suffered injuries.
7. Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway Collapse
On July 17, 1981, the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, held a videotaped tea-dance party in their atrium lobby. Most of the party-goers stood and danced on the suspended walkways while some of them stood on the first-floor and enjoyed the show. However, connections supporting the ceiling rods that held up the second-and fourth-floor walkways across the atrium failed, causing the walkways to collapse.
An investigation revealed that the original design sketches for the walkways were in violation of Kansas City’s minimum load requirements. The hotel had only been in operation for approximately one year at the time of the walkways collapse. More than 100 people were killed and another 200 or so were injured.
8. Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
On January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds after liftoff, the NASA space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board. Although many myths and conspiracy theories surrounded the incident, later investigation revealed that the shuttle failed due to two rubber O-rings. The rings were designed to separate the sections of the rocket booster but failed to do so, due to cold temperatures on the morning of the launch. Since January is usually cold, engineers had warned their superiors about certain elements and components being vulnerable to the freezing temperatures.
The warnings were ignored and the launch took place as scheduled. Seventy three seconds after liftoff, the shuttle disappeared into a cloud of smoke and rubbles. Within seconds, the spacecraft broke apart and plunged into the ocean, killing its entire crew.
9. DC-10 Disasters
In 1979, an American Airlines flight crashed and exploded after losing one engine. The flight, Flight 191, carrying 277 passengers took off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and was bound for Los Angeles. Everything was normal until the flight reached about 400 feet when it stalled, then rolled to the left and plunged straight down. Since the flight had a full tank, it exploded on impact, causing all passengers including the crew to perish. The heat was so intense that firefighters had to wait about an hour before they could get close to the crash site.
Following the crash, all DC-1os in the U.S. were impounded and grounded by judicial order. An investigation revealed that the maintenance crew was at fault for not following proper procedures when removing the engine and pylon during repairs and maintenance.
10. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster
On April 26, 1986, a sudden surge of power during a reactor systems test destroyed Unit 4 of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, Ukraine. Just a day before the disaster, plant operators were preparing for a one-time shutdown to perform routine maintenance on reactor number 4. On April 26, plant operators lowered fuel rods into cooling water, which created an immense amount of steam. The reactors many design flaws created more reactivity in the nuclear core of reactor number 4 and led to a power surge.
The surge caused an explosion, killing two of the plant workers and releasing radiation into the atmosphere. Emergency crews worked hard to evacuate approximately 30,000 people from the surrounding area as well as to contain the fire and radiation leaks. Twenty-eight of the workers at Chernobyl died in the four months following the accident.