In this article we will look at the worst engineering disasters. We included the most recent engineering disasters, as well as the oldest on record that happened almost 400 years ago! Dams, bridges, walkways collapsing; molasses pouring down the streets, nuclear stations exploding, massive ships (other than Titanic!) sinking, tons of poisonous gas leaking – all these disasters had something to do with engineering fails, unfortunately.
Engineering processes have vastly improved in recent times and especially in the last 100 years, however the journey to get to where we are now was not always a smooth one. Engineering and engineers will unfortunately never get to a level where everything is perfect, and examples of disasters caused by engineering errors throughout the years are plentiful. Engineers have improved their skills and expanded their knowledge over the past 100 years and they also study these engineering catastrophes in order to prevent more failures like these from reoccurring.
We have previously written about the 5 Engineering Bodges that ended in Disaster, now let’s take a look at the top 25 engineering disasters in the last 120 years:
1. Banqiao Dam Failure
The Banqiao Dam failure in 1975 was the collapse of 62 dams in Henan, China, which was caused by Typhoon Nina. Occurring in August 1975, it is the third deadliest flood in history and resulted in the loss of lives in the range of 85,600 – 240,000. This flood also destroyed 6.8 million houses, leaving millions homeless in its wake. Read more about this catastrophe in our article: Engineering Disasters: Banqiao Dam failure.
2. Bhopal Disaster
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy, also known as the Bhopal Disaster, occured in December 2nd-3d, 1985 in a pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. A highly toxic gas leak resulted in over 500,000 people being exposed to MIC (Methyl Isocyanate) gas. The exact death toll is not known, but it has been said that over 16,000 people died within two weeks, with hundreds of thousands more sustaining lasting injuries because of the leak.
3. Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster
The well-known Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on April 26th, 1986. The power for the number four reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant dropped to almost zero, which in turn caused a nuclear chain reaction within the reactor. This resulted in a powerful steam explosion, which was followed by a fire in the reactor core that released the radioactive contamination into the air.
Exact figures for the death toll are hard to find, but it is estimated that across Europe there has been between 9,000 and 16,000 lives lost due to the nuclear disaster. Read about Chernobyl disaster in detail here: Engineering Disasters: Chernobyl in Detail.
The video below is about Pripyat, the town located about 3 kilometres away from the Chernobyl nuclear power station, which got abandned following the disaster. The town used to have 47,000 population and was newly built before the tragedy. It was founded in 1970.
4. Pennsylvanian Johnstown Flood
The Great Flood of 1889, also known as the Johnstown flood, occurred following the failure of the South Fork Dam, upstream of Johnstone town, Pennsylvania. On May 31st, 1989, 14.55 million cubic meters of water descended on the town, killing more than 2,200 people. The cause of this engineering failure was extremely heavy rainfall that had fallen several days prior to the flood. More about this engineering fail in this video:
5. SS Sultana Disaster
The SS Sultana was a side-wheel steamboat that sailed on the Mississippi River. It is known as the worst marine disaster in America’s history, when three out of the boat’s four boilers exploded and it burned down to the waterline. Although the legal capacity of the boat was 376 people, it was severely overcrowded that night with 1,960 prisoners, 22 guards, 70 paying customers and 85 crew members, the exact death toll is unknown and is estimated at 1,238.
The Titanic (full name RMS Titanic) was a large British passenger liner that went down in the Atlantic Ocean on April 15th, 1912 on its first journey. It is estimated that over 1,500 people lost their lives when the ship sank, solidifying its place as one of history’s deadliest marine disasters. On April 14th, it hit an iceberg about 375 miles south of Newfoundland, the boat’s hull buckled inwards and resulted in flooding that the ship could not withstand. Read about this engineering disaster in great detail in our article: Engineering Disasters: Titanic.
7. St. Francis Dam Disaster
The St. Francis Dam, located in Los Angeles, California, was a concrete, curved gravity dam. It created a large storage reservoir for Los Angeles, and was a huge part of the city’s water infrastructure. On March 12th, 1928, the St. Francis Dam burst and released its water, killing at least 431 people. It is known as the one of the worst civil engineering catastrophes in America’s history.
8. 1970 DC-10 Disasters
American Airlines Flight 191 was just one of many crashes involving the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft during the 1970s. On May 25th, 1979, the flight was taking off when it crashed into the ground. Everyone on board was killed including the 258 passengers and 13 crew members, two people on the ground were also killed. The cause of the crash was engine number 1 separated from the wing and severed main lines. This imbalance and erratic aerodynamics caused the plane to crash into an open field at the end of the runway. Also check out our article about the Concorde disaster.
9. Gretna Rail Disaster
On May 22nd, 1915, there was a multi-train crash near Gretna Green in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. This is known as the Quintinshill rail disaster, resulting in the deaths of over 200 people, and is still the worst railway catastrophe in British history. The cause of the crash was down to negligence of two signal men, who did not acknowledge a Northbound train running on the Southbound line, therefore leading to the crash.
10. Cleveland Gas Explosion
The East Ohio Gas Company built a gas plant in Cleveland, Ohio in 1940, and this was the first plant of its kind in the world. It had four tanks and worked properly for three years before exploding. A vapor began to emit from tank number 4, which ignited but didn’t seem to cause any major damage. Then a second tank exploded, which levelled the tank farm. The explosion travelled through the sewers and up peoples drains, killing less than 200 people. Read our article about this disaster here: Engineering Disasters: East Ohio Gas Company.
11. Hyatt Regency Hotel Disaster
Two walkways collapsed in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri on Jul 7th, 1981. The walkways were directly above one another, crashing into a tea dance that was being held in the hotel. It killed 114 people and injured a further 216. It is known as the deadliest non-deliberate structural failure in America’s history, and was caused by changes to the design of the walkway’s steel hanger rods. Read more in our article: Engineering Disasters: Hyatt Regency Hotel.
12. Air France Concorde Disaster
Air France Flight 4590 was an international flight, departing from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. This flight was to be completed using an Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde.. During take-off the aircraft ran over debris on the runway, which led to it blowing a tire, and causing debris to fly into the landing gear bay. A fire resulted, which affected the engines and the plane crashed into a nearby hotel, killing all 109 passengers on board and four people in the hotel. Read more in our article: Engineering Disasters: Air France Flight 4590.
13. Quebec Bridge Disaster
The Quebec Bridge, located across the lower Saint Lawrence River in between Sainte-Foy and Levis in Quebec, Canada. The particular rail, pedestrian and road bridge collapsed twice, and caused the deaths of 88 people. It is still the longest cantilever bridge in the world, and took over 30 years to finish. The cause of the first collapse was that the bridge was not strong enough to hold its own weight, and just nine years later it collapsed again. This time the bridge’s centre span fell into the river as it was being lifted into place. This video looks at the history of the design and construction of this major engineering fail.
14. Hindenburg Disaster
On May 6th, 1937, a German airship LZ 129 Hindenburg full of passengers went on fire and crashed while it was docking in Manchester Township, New Jersey, United States. 35 people died, including 22 crewmen and 13 passengers, of the 97 people that were on the airship, one additional person was killed on the ground. The cause of the fire was undetermined, and greatly affected the use of airships to transport passengers, and this led to the end of the airship era. Read more here: Engineering Disasters: LZ 129 Hindenburg.
15. Vasa Disaster
Vasa was a Swedish warship developed between 1626 and 1628. The ship sank within a few minutes of setting sail, due to the vast amount of weight in the upper levels of the hull, making it extremely unstable. It is famous for having primarily bronze cannons aboard and being one of the most powerful vessels in the world. The issues with the ship were known previous to its departure, but impatience combined with negligence resulted in its doomed journey, killing the 30 people aboard.
16. Boston Molasses Disaster
The Great Molasses Flood, also referred to as the Boston Molasses Disaster, took place on January 15th, 1919. A huge storage tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst, resulting in a 35mph wave of molasses rushing through the streets. It killed 21 people and injured a further 150. The cause of the flood was attributed to the thermal expansion of the molasses that had just been delivered to a warmer than usual Boston.
17. Deepwater Horizon
Deepwater Horizon was an “ultra-deepwater” semi-submersible offshore drilling rig. It was built in 2001 and drilled the deepest oil well in history with a vertical depth of 35,050 feet. On April 20th, 2010, while drilling an explosion occurred on the rig, killing 11 workers. This fire was inextinguishable and the Horizon sank two days later, causing the largest marine oil spill in history. The fire was caused by a blowout, which is an uncontrolled release of crude oil/natural gas from an oil/gas well.
18. Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
On January 28th, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was involved in a fatal accident over Cape Canaveral, Florida. 73 seconds into its flight, the space shuttle broke apart and exploded, killing all seven crew members inside. Some of the crew members were known to have survived the initial break up, but the force with which the crew compartment hit the ocean could not have been survived. The failure was caused by simple O-ring seals that had frozen and failed during the launch. Read our article dedicated to this engineering disaster: Space Shuttle Challenger.
19. Space Shuttle Columbia
On February 1st, 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members inside. Damage sustained when the shuttle launched allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate the shuttle and cause it to break apart. It was the second fatal engineering catastrophe to occur during the Space Shuttle program, after the previously mentioned Space Shuttle Challenger. Read our article about Columbia disaster here: Space Shuttle Columbia.
20. Charles De Gaulle Airport Disaster
The largest international airport in France is the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. It is known as the worlds tenth busiest airport and Europe’s second busiest. On May 23rd, 2004, a section of the Terminal 2E collapsed near Gate E50, and took four lives. This was not long after the terminal had been inaugurated, and the cause of the collapse has not been attributed to one single fault. Among the problems listed, the concrete roof was said to not have been substantial enough once some penetrations had been made. This video goes into detail regarding the engineering fails that led to the collapse.
21. Apollo 1 Disaster
The Apollo 1 (also known as AS-204) was the very first crewed mission of the Apollo Space Program. It was supposed to be the first orbital test of the Apollo program, due to launch on February 21st, 1967. However, the spacecraft never launched, as there was a fire in the cabin during the launch that killed the three crew members. The source of the fire was determined to be electric, and it spread rapidly due to the pure oxygen atmosphere in the cabin.
22. Tacoma Bridge Disaster
On July 1st, 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge located in Pierce County, Washington opened, and just four months later its main span failed and caused the bridge to collapse into the water. Aeroelastic flutter was determined to be the cause of this failure, which was made worse by the bridge’s solid sides that didn’t allow wind to pass through. Fortunately, there was no loss of human life in this disaster, just one dog that was abandoned in his owner’s car. Read more in our article dedicated exclusively to this disaster: Engineering Disasters: Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
23. Apollo 13 Disaster
The Apollo 13 mission was supposed to be the third mission to land on the moon, and was the seventh mission in the Apollo Space Program. The landing on the Moon was aborted when an oxygen tank exploded two days into the mission. The spacecraft looped around the Moon and returned safely to earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat. This catastrophe prompted the use of non-combustible materials for space flight to increase the safety of the crew.
24. Skylab Disaster
The first United States space station, Skylab, was launched by NASA and occupied by three different astronaut crews between 1973 and 1974. However the space shuttle would not be ready again until 1981 causing Skylab’s orbit to decay and crash into the Earth. Mathematical errors led to pieces falling in Australia, but fortunately there was no one injured.
25. Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster occured in 2011, from a nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It was caused by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and was the most devastating nuclear accident since the aforementioned Chernobytl disaster of 1986. Three hydrogen explosions, three nuclear meltdowns and the release of radioactive contaminants into the air was the result of the loss of reactor core cooling. There has been no report of any deaths or injuries as a result of this disaster.
There you have it, the top 25 engineering disasters in the last 400 years. All of these mistakes have improved engineering by giving new engineers case studies and improving safety standards across all engineering disciplines. What do you think of these engineering disasters? Would you add anything else to this list? Let us know with a comment down below!