The field of engineering has contributed immensely towards changing the way the world works. In many ways, the innovations and inventions over the last few decades have been nothing short of incredible.
However, there have also been some tragic and unforgettable engineering catastrophes. These disasters have generally resulted from a mixture of design failures, under or overestimations, acting on insufficient knowledge, and other factors.
Nevertheless, these disasters are also an opportunity to learn from our mistakes so as to not repeat them in the future.
Let’s check out these disasters in detail. Please note the following list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. The Hindenburg Disaster – a catastrophe that put a halt to the era of passenger airships
The Hindenburg was a German passenger airship that caught on fire and was destroyed during an attempt to dock with its mooring mast, in Manchester Township, New Jersey, in 1937. There were 35 fatalities from the 97 passengers and crew on board at the time, and one fatality on the ground. Although it was the fourth-worst airship accident, in terms of the number of fatalities, it received a lot of press attention as it was the subject of numerous newsreel coverages, photographs, and recorded radio eyewitness reports.
According to American and German investigators who investigated the crash, the fire broke out due to electrostatic discharge, which led to the ignition of leaking hydrogen gas.
2. The collapse of the Quebec Bridge – an engineering failure made twice
The Quebec Bridge, in Canada, actually collapsed twice. The first time was in 1907, and the second time happened in 1916.
At the time, this was the largest cantilever structure attempted. When the bridge suddenly collapsed during its construction in August of 1907, 75 of the 86 workers on the structure were killed, and the remaining 11 were injured when, in just 15 seconds, the south anchor arm, the cantilever arm, and the partially completed suspended span fell 150 feet (45 mt) into the St. Lawrence River.
The Canadian government decided the project must be completed to establish the rail link for the railway system. In 1913, construction began again. By September 1916, the bridge was nearly completed, except for the work of hoisting the center span and connecting it to the cantilever arms. During this process, the span tore away from its lifts and fell into the river, carrying 13 men on it to their demise, and injuring several others.
Around one year later, the bridge was finally finished and opened to traffic.
3. Titanic – The sinking of the "unsinkable" ship
Titanic is one of the most well-known engineering disasters of all time. The passenger liner was on its first transatlantic voyage, from Southampton to New York in April of 1912, when it fatefully collided with an iceberg and sank.
The ship had been touted an "unsinkable" because it was designed so that it could stay afloat if as many as 4 of its 16 compartments were breached. However, the impact had likely breached at least five compartments. It was also determined that the compartments were not entirely watertight.
Later examination of the wreckage found that the collision had produced a number of thin gashes, along with brittle fracturing and separation of seams in the hull plates. This allowed water to rapidly flood a number of the ships' compartments. There was also speculation that low-quality steel or weak rivets may have contributed to the sinking.
Although the exact number of people on board is not known, it is believed that out of approximately 2,200 passengers and crew, around 1,500 people died when the ship sank.
4. The nuclear plant explosion in Chernobyl – the engineering catastrophe that rocked the world
In 1986, during a test of safety systems on the number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the reactor core ruptured in a destructive steam explosion. This was followed by an open-air reactor core fire that released huge amounts of radioactive contaminants into the air for nine days before the fire was finally contained.
The fire and cleanup operation killed hundreds of people, and many millions more in the former Soviet Union and in parts of Europe may have suffered from the effects of radiation exposure. Some reports put the number of excess cancer deaths due to the accident at between 30,000 and 60,000.
5. The collapse of Charles De Gaulle Airport terminal
The Charles de Gaulle airport was inaugurated in May 2004, and soon after, a huge portion of the roof of Terminal 2E collapsed. The shocking event killed four people and caused severe injuries to three more.
The 1475 ft (450 mt) long terminal building is an elliptical tube constructed of concrete rings. The official investigation report found that the structure had failed due to a lack of detailed feasibility analysis, a number of design flaws were not caught during construction. These included a lack of redundant supports; poorly placed reinforcing steel; weak outer steel struts; weak concrete support beams; and low resistance to temperature fluctuations.
The structure was rebuilt with a metal framework and reopened in the spring of 2008.
6. The disaster of St. Francis Dam – engineering fail of epic proportions
St. Francis Dam was a curved concrete gravity dam, built between 1924 and 1926 in order to help meet Los Angeles' growing need for water regulation and storage. In order to build the dam, an American-Irish civil engineer, William Mulholland was hired.
It was located about 40 miles (64 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The dam was designed and built by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (called the Bureau of Water Works and Supply at that time), under the direction of its general manager and chief engineer, William Mulholland.
On March 12, 1928, the dam catastrophically failed, and the resulting flood killed at least 431 people. The disaster was largely blamed on poor design and the use of poor quality concrete, which allowed water to undermine the dam's foundations. The disaster marked the end of Mulholland's career.
7. The collapse of The Tacoma Narrows Bridge
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington was a suspension bridge built to an area of the Puget Sound between Tacoma and the Kitsap Penninsula.
Construction began in 1938, and from the time the deck was built, it began to move vertically in windy conditions, so much so that construction workers nicknamed the bridge Galloping Gertie. After the bridge opened to the public, damping measures were put in place, but the bridge continued to oscillate.
On the morning of November 7, 1940, the bridge's main span finally collapsed in 40-mile-per-hour (64 km/h) winds. The deck oscillated in an alternating twisting motion that gradually increased in amplitude until the deck tore apart.
Fortunately, there were few people on the bridge at the time, and the only fatality was a dog.
8. The explosion of the SS Sultana – when negligence leads to disaster
In the early hours of April 27th, 1865, just days after the end of the Civil War, the Sultana steamboat burst into flames along the Mississippi River, killing an estimated 1,800 passengers and crew.
The ship was built in Cincinnati in 1863, and regularly transported passengers and freight between St. Louis and New Orleans on the Mississippi River. Although designed to hold 376, that day there more than 2,000 Union troops on board.
The severe overcrowding and faster river current caused by the spring thaw put increased pressure on the ship's boilers, which had been newly repaired. Shortly after leaving Memphis, the overstrained boilers exploded, blowing apart the center of the boat and starting an uncontrollable fire.
9. The disaster of the Space Shuttle Challenger – when a structural failure leads to a tragic loss
The NASA Space Shuttle Challenger disaster took place on January 28, 1986, when the shuttle broke apart precisely 73 seconds into flight. The disaster killed all 7 astronauts who were on board.
The entire event was shown live on television.
After the investigation, it was found that the space shuttle’s external fuel tank had exploded after the right solid rocket booster came loose and ruptured the tank.
10. The Air France Concorde flight crash – the downing of a mighty airliner
On July 25, 2000, the flight of Air France flight 4590, a Concorde supersonic airplane, crashed in Gonesse, a suburb of Paris almost immediately after takeoff, killing all 109 people on board and four people on the ground. It was the first fatal crash of a Concorde in 24 years of regular passenger service.
The disaster occurred because one of its tires blew out during take-off after it ran over a strip of metal debris that was lying on the runway. A large fragment of rubber struck a fuel tank on the underside of the wing, which likely caused the full tank to rupture. The leaking fuel quickly ignited, probably from an electrical arc in the landing gear wiring, and the fire caused the engines to fail.
The strip of metal on the runway had come from an engine part that had fallen from a Continental Airlines DC-10 which had taken off just ahead of the Concorde. The part had recently been replaced in routine maintenance with a non-standard component. Other possible contributory factors may also have included that the Concorde exceeded its recommended takeoff weight, and it was missing a “spacer” in the landing gear mechanism.
Three years later, Concorde had stopped flying.
11. The Atlantic telegraph cable failure
When compared to some of the other disasters in this list, the failure of the first transatlantic telegraph cable can be considered as merely an engineering inconvenience.
The laying of the cable was complex and suffered from a number of mishaps, with numerous cable breaks and repairs. It was finally completed and began operation in August 1858; but within a few weeks, the cable had failed. The cause of the failure was thought at the time to be due to it being driven at too high a voltage from the American end, which compromised its insulation.
Later analysis of a length of cable that had been retrieved from the original deployment placed the blame on the cable's poor quality, and the fact that the copper core was very close to the metal sheathing in places.
After the cost of the laying, and the heavy fanfare of its opening, the disappointment was so great that it took six years for the project to be revived, and a new cable made.
12. The Gretna Green Rail disaster – when carelessness claims lives
May 1915 saw one of the worst rail disasters in British history. This tragedy killed more than 226 people, but a definitive list of victims was never established.
The multi-train crash occurred on May 26, outside the Quintinshill signal box near Gretna Green in Dumfriesshire, Scotland.
The first collision occurred when a southbound troop train traveling from Larbert to Liverpool collided with a stationary local train. One minute later, the wreckage was itself struck by a northbound sleeper express train traveling from London to Glasgow. Gas from the lighting system used on the old wooden carriages of the troop train ignited, starting a fire which soon engulfed all five trains.
After an investigation, it was found that the reason behind the disaster, as expected, was human error, when signalmen ignored the rules.
13. The gas explosion in Cleveland, Ohio – poisonous gases claiming innocent lives
On 20th October 1944, a gas explosion took place in Cleveland, Ohio. It occurred following a leak in a storage tank containing Liquified Natural Gas.
During that time, it was quite common to keep such storage tanks above ground, and that was precisely the case here. What happened next was a series of explosions and fires that claimed the lives of 130 people.
It happened when the liquefied gas leaked and became combustible when mixed with air, and exploded. The vaporizing gas also flowed along the curbs, entering the underground sewers, and causing a series of secondary explosions as it mixed with sewer gases.
Around 130 people were killed in the fires and explosions, and many more were left homeless. But the fire and subsequent investigation led to the development of new and safer methods for the low-temperature storage of natural gas.
14. The walkway collapse in the Hyatt Regency Hotel – when failed engineering makes the sky fall down
On 17th July 1981 in Kansas City, two vertical walkways, on the second and fourth floors, collapsed and crashed onto a dance being held in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The collapse claimed the lives of 114 people and injured 216.
Investigators found that the collapse was the result of flaws in the design of the steel hanger rods used to support and connect the two walkways, which meant they were unable to support the load being placed on them.
15. The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster – just a piece of loose insulation
On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon its reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. On further investigation, it was deduced that during the launch of the space shuttle, a small piece of the foam insulation had broken from the shuttle.
This had hit the left-wing of the space shuttle and damaged the heat shield tiles that are responsible for protecting the shuttle during its reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Due to the damage, when the space shuttle re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, the tiles failed and caused a rapid chain of events that led to the disintegration of the shuttle.
16. The Pennsylvania Johnstown flood – the high price of a dam failure
In 1889, Johnstown was a very prosperous Pennsylvania town, and known as a center of steel production. However, that same year, heavy rains led to the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam, located 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town. The dam broke, releasing 14.55 million cubic meters of water which inundated the town. The flood, later referred to as the “Great Flood of 1889," killed more than 2,200 people.
This catastrophe almost completely wiped Johnstown off the map. It was later found out that the South Fork Dam had been poorly maintained
17. The Banqiao Dam failure in China – even the "unbreakable" can break
Almost forgotten today, this dam failure is likely the deadliest structural failure in history. Although it is largely a forgotten legacy now, in 1975, the Banqiao Dam in China was referred to as the “iron dam” and was well-known as an unbreakable engineering wonder.
A typhoon in August 1975, led to the collapse of the dam, sending a wall of water nearly 20 feet high (6 mt) and more than seven miles wide through the villages below. The dam's collapse also set off a domino effect, collapsing a series of 62 dams downstream. More than 26,000 people drowned in the ensuing flood.
But the disaster was not at an end. Over the following days and weeks, many of those who had survived the floodwaters starved or died of thirst or disease as they were stranded without food or clean water. In total, the death toll would reach between 171,000 and 230,000, making it what some have called the worst structural failure in history.
The reasons for the dam's collapse have been attributed to poor design, which left too few sluices for drainage, as well as poor maintenance, unsafe construction, and overuse of dams in that region. A lot of the blame also fell on the government for its failure to mount an effective disaster response.
18. The Bhopal disaster – the disaster that still continues
The Bhopal tragedy took place in early December, 1984, when toxic gas was released from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide and located in Bhopal, India. This disaster resulted in the immediate deaths of around 2260 people, with an estimated more than 11,000 deaths following in the months and years after the catastrophe.
The disaster took place when Methyl Isocyanate became contaminated with water, causing an exothermic reaction that resulted in the release of a deadly cloud of gas. The pesticide plant was surrounded by shanty towns populated by more than 600,000 people.
The chemical contamination continues to affect residents of the area and it is estimated that thousands of tons of hazardous waste remain buried at the site.
According to a government affidavit released in 2006, this tragedy resulted in 558,125 injuries from which 3,900 people suffered from permanently disabling injuries.
Even 34 years after this horrific disaster took place, land and water in Bhopal remain toxic to humans and animals.
19. The Apollo 13 disaster – prepare for the worst
The Apollo 13 disaster is quite well-known, as two iconic Hollywood films have been made about it. It has been called a "successful failure" because also it meant the scrapping of a mission to the Moon, all three of the crew survived the mishap.
The Apollo 13 mission launched on April 11, 1970. A routine stir of an oxygen tank ignited damaged wire insulation inside it, causing an explosion that vented the contents of the space module's oxygen tanks into space. The command module's systems were shut down to conserve its remaining resources for reentry, while the crew used the landing module as a lifeboat.
Mission controllers worked frantically to bring the crew home alive, which they succeeded in doing on April 17th.
20. The Vasa disaster – when overconfidence kills
At 4 p.m. on August 10th, 1628, the Swedish ship Vasa had just left the docks of Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage, when a light gust of wind caused the vessel to topple over on its side.
Water flooded through the gun portals of the ship, and it rapidly sank, killing its crew of 53 — at that time, many seamen didn't learn how to swim as they believed it would only prolong their suffering if their ship sank.
The ship had been heavily armed and had too much weight in the upper structure of the hull, making her dangerously unstable.
21. The Apollo 1 disaster in 1967 – take heed of the warnings
Three astronauts died when a fire broke out in the midst of a preflight test on January 27, 1967. The fire spread throughout the cabin in a matter of seconds. The cabin had also been filled with a pure oxygen atmosphere for the test, and the oxygen to permeate the material in the cabin, leading to the fire's rapid spread.
The hatch could only open inward and was held closed by a number of latches and by the interior pressure, which required venting of the command module before it could be opened, a process which normally took at least 90 seconds, but took around five minutes during the emergency. By the time the hatch was opened, the astronauts had already met their demise.
An investigation concluded that the most likely cause was a spark from a short circuit in a bundle of wires. The program was halted while the hatch was redeisgned to open outward and much of the flammable material was replaced with self-extinguishing components.
22. The Boston Molasses disaster – some disasters happen without warning
Around noon on the afternoon of January 15, 1919, a giant tank of molasses burst open in Boston’s North End, flooding the streets with more than two million gallons of sticky liquid which travelled at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour (56 km/h). The molasses flood crushed buildings and people, leading to death of 21 people and injuries to around 150 more.
The accident was initially pinned on fermentation in the storage tank causing an explosion, but more recent analysis suggest the structure of the tank was flawed and its walls were too thin to hold the weight of the molasses. In addition, the rivets were poorly designed and the stress on the rivet holes was too high.
23. The Skylab disaster – when a mistake costs billions
America's first space station, Skylab was launched on May 14th, 1973. It was built, in part, using hardware left over from the Apollo Moon program.
It sustained severe damage during the launch, including the loss of both of its primary solar panels and the micrometeoroid shield-sunshade. The first Skylab crew spent a good deal of time repairing the damages, including installation of a parasol-like sun shade through the scientific airlock, to keep the station from overheating.
Two more crews spent time at the station, in July-August 1973 and November 1973-February 1974. No more crews visited Skylab, and the station's orbit began to decay. Although NASA considered ways to extend the station's lifespan or boost its orbit using crews from the Space Shuttle, delays meant that the Shuttle would not be operational in time to save Skylab.
By late 1978, it was obvious that the station was coming down, and there was concern that NASA had failed to build in any way to steer the orbiter away from inhabited areas or to safely land it.
On July 11, 1979, as Skylab rapidly descended from orbit, engineers fired the station’s booster rockets in an attempt to bring the 85-ton station down over the Indian Ocean. Most of it did land in the ocean, although some debris did reach a sparsely populated section of Western Australia.
Despite its somewhat untimely end, NASA considers Skylab to have been a success, and to have made a significant scientific contribution.
And that's all for now folks.
The field of engineering has no doubt simplified our lives and marked some unmistakable achievements in human history. However, there have also been plenty of engineering failures that have caused unforgettable disasters due to carelessness, underestimations, negligence, and insufficient knowledge.
Rest assured, all these tragedies have left the new generation of engineers more cautious than ever!