23 Engineering Disasters of All Time

Engineering disasters that teach how a small mistake can lead to catastrophic events.

23 Engineering Disasters of All Time
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The field of engineering has contributed immensely towards changing the face of the earth. The innovations and inventions made by man in this area in the last few decades have been nothing short of incredible.

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Worst 8 Disasters in Global History by Deaths Per Second

However, there have been some unforgettable engineering disasters as well. These disasters have been a result of design failure, under or overestimations, insufficient knowledge and much more.

Nevertheless, these disasters have been a subject of study and research for the new age engineers, so that they can learn from the mistakes and improve the engineering of the future.

Let’s check out these disasters in detail!

1. The Hindenburg Disaster – A Catastrophe That Puts A Halt on Passenger Airships Altogether

Hindenburg was an airship made in Germany and led to a big disaster that killed 36 passengers including crew members. The incident was caught on a video as well.

The airship caught fire and also crashed while trying to dock itself in New Jersey. The reason, according to American and German investigators who worked on the original study, stated that the fire on the airship broke out because of electrostatic discharge which led to the ignition of the leaking hydrogen gas.

After the Hindenburg disaster, the commercial use of passenger airships also ended.

2. The Collapse of The Quebec Bridge – A Mistake Made Twice

The Collapse of Quebec Bridge
Source: A.A. Chesterfield / Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia Commons

The Quebec Bridge collapsed twice in Canada. The first time, it was in 1907, and the second time, it happened in 1916. This disaster is known to have killed as many as 88-89 workers.

It was the largest Cantilever bridge in Canada and around the world. When the bridge collapsed in 1907, there were workers who were working on the Cantilever arm, and almost 55 people were reported dead, either because of the falling debris or due to drowning.

It was a big disaster for them, and they thought they had learned their lesson. So, they decided to build the bridge again. The second time, they used lower chords for the Cantilevers, and they were much stronger than before.

Yet again, disaster struck in 1916 and the central span of the bridge crumbled down. This time, it killed 13 workers.

3. Titanic – The Fall of The Mighty Ship

Titanic Ship Disaster
Source: F.G.O. Stuart/Wikimedia Commons

Titanic is one of the most well-known engineering disasters in the world that claimed the lives of more than 1500 people onboard. Titanic was a passenger ship that took its first journey from Southampton and was supposed to go to New York in April of 1912.

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This British ship is known to have sunk after its collision with an iceberg. It is also considered an engineering failure because according to the tests on the several rivets, they were made up of very low-quality iron.

Therefore, after a huge impact of the iceberg, it fell apart. It might be one of the biggest reasons that led to the sinking of the Titanic.

Another fault that was discovered later was that the sixteen compartments that were watertight were connected near the ceiling and were not individually sealed. 

4. The Nuclear Plant Explosion in Chernobyl – The Explosion That Affected Generations

Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster
Source: Carl Montgomery/Wikimedia Commons

In 1986, nuclear reactors failed and led to a series of explosions and radioactive fallout. As many as 64 people died on the spot as a result of this engineering disaster.

However, almost 30,000 people suffered from premature deaths due to cancer. This disaster occurred because of a flawed design of the reactor and the people operating it were not trained properly.

In 2011, this site was declared as a tourist attraction.

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5. The Collapse of The Charles De Gaulle Airport – An Engineering Failure Personified

The Charles De Gaulle Airport Roof Collapse
Source: Eduardo Manchon/Wikimedia Commons

The Charles de Gaulle airport disaster reflects one of the biggest engineering failures. The airport was inaugurated in May 2004, and soon after, a huge portion of the roof of Terminal 2E collapsed.

Due to the collapse, 4 people died immediately and 3 people incurred heavy injuries. Later, when the place was examined, experts did not find any fault.

However, when the inquiry team did a thorough check, they found that the roof was not strong enough to hold heavy metal pillars. After this disaster, they reconstructed the terminal which cost them as much as $120 million.

The airport was reopened in 2008.

6. The Disaster of The St. Francis Dam – A Failure of Epic Proportions

St. Francis Dam Disaster
Source: Stearns, H.T. USGS/Wikimedia Commons

The St. Francis Dam was built in order to meet the demands of Los Angeles that were expanding rapidly around the mid-1920s. In order to build the dam, an American-Irish civil engineer, William Mulholland was hired.

He made the design himself and built the dam alongside the LA Aqueduct. Mulholland is known to have designed the dam himself and also to have overseen the entire construction himself.

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There were warnings of leakage and cracks in the dam after 2 years. But Mulholland ignored them all.

Finally, in 1928, the dam burst 2 hours after his inspection and killed over 450 people.

7. The Collapse of The Tacoma Bridge – The Failing of The Century

In the year 1940, the Tacoma Bridge in Washington collapsed. In November of 1940, there were strong winds of the speed 40 mph in that area.

This led to a significant oscillation of the bridge. Although the towers of the bridge were made up of strong carbon steel, they failed to protect it against the violent movements made by the heavy wind.

Ultimately, it led to the collapse of the bridge. Fortunately, there were no people around the bridge who died in this disaster except for a dog. Nevertheless, the mishap led to a loss of $6.4 million.

8. The Steamboat Explosion in The SS Sultana – When Negligence Leads to Disaster

Sultana Ship Disaster
Source: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

SS Sultana was engineered in the city of Cincinnati and had a usual sail on the rivers of Mississippi and Ohio. The steamboat boasted of highly advanced safety equipment that was available in those times.

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In 1865, the steamboat was carrying almost 2300 passengers that included the crew, the civilians, and the prisoners of war.

The disaster happened when 3 out of the 4 boilers of Sultana exploded and the steamboat sunk almost 7 miles from Memphis. The estimated death toll was somewhere between 1500-1800 passengers.

According to the investigation, it was found that Sultana was overloaded, which made the disaster worse. Moreover, it was also reported that the leakage of the 4 boilers started a few days before the catastrophe and the repair was dubious.

9. The Disaster of The Space Shuttle Challenger – When Structural Failure Leads to Big Losses

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 7 astronauts who were on board.

The entire event was shown live on the television.

After the investigation, it was found that the space shuttle’s external fuel had collapsed, which released all the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants. The mixing of these chemicals led to ignition and broke off the tank.

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The shuttle orbiter thus couldn’t tolerate the aerodynamic forces without the tank and the boosters, resulting in breaking off of other components and ultimately death of all the onboard astronauts.

10. The Air France Concorde Flight Crash – The Crashing of a Mighty Airliner

The Concorde flight of Air France on 25th July 2000 crashed soon after its take-off from the Charles De Gaulle International Airport. It killed 113 people in total.

The disaster happened because of one of its tires that were cut during take-off by a metal strip debris that was lying on the runway. It ruptured the tire that was struck under the wing and led to a chained reaction which ended in a crash.

After an investigation, it was found that Concorde was more prone to such disasters resulting from the explosion of tires as compared to other types of aircraft. After the accident, many modifications were made to the original design of airplanes.

This accident also led to the end of the Supersonic Airliner, and three years later, Concorde also stopped running.

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11. The Atlantic Telegraph Cable Failure – When the Engineering Failure Is Related to Spooky Activities

Atlantic Telegraph Cable Failure
Source: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

When compared to some of the other disasters in this list, the Atlantic telegraph cable failure can be considered as merely an engineering inconvenience. Brunel’s Great Eastern laid out this cable across the Atlantic, but the engineers on board faced many problems in addition to those faced by our Victorian predecessors.

They claimed that the cable wires “were bewitched” and that fresh faults could take place anytime without warning.

12. The Gretna Rail Disaster – Carelessness Claims Lives

The Gretna Rail Disaster
Source: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

May 1915 saw one of the worst rail disasters that have ever happened in British history. This tragedy killed more than 226 people, but a definitive number or list of victims was never established.

After an investigation, it was found that the reason behind the disaster, as expected, was human error.

It was not a concrete engineering failure, but the events unfolded due to ignorance and carelessness of the engineers.

13. The Gas Explosion in Cleveland, East Ohio – Poisonous Gases Claiming Innocent Lives

On 20th October 1944, a gas explosion took place in Cleveland, Ohio. It happened when a storage tank consisting of Liquified Natural Gas leaked.

During that time, it was quite common to keep such storage tanks above the ground, and that was precisely the case here too. What happened next was a series of explosions and fires that claimed the lives of 130 people.

It happened when the liquefied gas leaked into the sewer lines and mixed with the sewer gas and air. Thereafter, it ignited and resulted in a catastrophe that caused a substantial dent on the natural gas industry. Later, industries started storing their tanks below the ground.

14. The Walkway Collapse in The Hyatt Regency Hotel – When the Sky Falls Down

Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse
Source: Dr. Lee Lowery, Jr., P.E./Wikimedia Commons

On 17th July 1981 in Kansas City, two vertical walkways collapsed in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The walkways fell down and claimed the lives of 114 people.

In 1981, this structural collapse was considered the deadliest in the history of America. On further investigation, they found pretty serious flaws in the designs of both the walkways.

Moreover, the engineers who had initially worked on designing the walkways and approving them were convicted of misconduct and gross negligence. They even lost their engineering license.

 15. The Disaster of Space Shuttle Columbia – Consequences of Neglecting the Challenges

The Space Shuttle Columbia killed a crew of 7 astronauts on 1st February 2003. It disintegrated when reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. On further investigation, it was deduced that during the launch of the space shuttle, a small piece of foam insulation had broken from the shuttle.

It had hit the left wing of the space shuttle and damaged the protective tiles that are responsible for protecting the shuttle during its reentry into the earth’s atmosphere from the massive onslaught of heat. 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 finally disintegrated the shuttle.

 16. The Pennsylvanian Johnstown Flood – One Mistake Can Cost You A Whole Town

 In 1889, Johnstown was a very prosperous town in Pennsylvania. It was popular for steel production. However, in the same year, heavy rains and a failure caused by the neglection of a dam resulted in a disaster.

This catastrophe almost completely wiped off Johnstown and a total of 2209 deaths were reported soon after. It was later found out that the South Fork Dam was quite poorly maintained and when there was a tremendous amount of pressure from Lake Conemaugh, the dam crumbled.

A massive flood ensued which is now referred to as the “Great Flood of 1889.” Not just this, but property damage of nearly $17 million was also estimated at that time.

 17. The Banqiao Dam Failure in China – The Unbreakable Breaks

In 1975, the Banqiao Dam in China failed and was considered as one of the worst engineering disasters that time. This dam is largely a forgotten legacy now, but in 1975, it was named the “iron dam” and was well-known as an unbreakable engineering wonder.

However, disaster struck and claimed the lives of an unprecedented 230,000 people in the calamity. Furthermore, at least 11 million people were forced to relocate post the catastrophe. This disaster also resulted in a staggering economic loss that cost the country $1.6 billion.

The reasons for the toppling of the dam can be attributed to poor design as well as maintenance, unsafe construction, the typhoon Nina and an excessive construction of dams in that region.

 18. The Bhopal Disaster – The Disaster That Still Continues

Bhopal Gas Tragedy
Source: Julian Nitzsche/Wikimedia Commons

The Bhopal gas tragedy took place in the year 1984 when toxic gas was released at a pesticide plant of Union Carbide in Bhopal, India. This disaster resulted in the immediate death of 2259 people, and more than 11,000 deaths followed after the catastrophe.

The disaster took place when more than 42 tons of Methyl Isocyanate got contaminated with water and caused an exothermic reaction. According to a government affidavit released in 2006, this tragedy resulted in 558,125 injuries from which 3900 people suffered from permanently disabling injuries.

Even 34 years after this horrific disaster took place, the lands in Bhopal are toxic to humans as well as animals.

 19. The Apollo 13 Disaster – Prepare for The Worst

Apollo 13 Disaster
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The Apollo 13 disaster is quite popular as it resulted in two iconic Hollywood films. This crippled flight to the moon took place in 1970. An oxygen tank on Apollo 13 exploded merely two days after its launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 11th April 1970.

This explosion caused massive hardship to the crew members as they suffered from limited power, lack of potable water, loss of cabin heat and much more. However, they managed to return to earth on 17th April safely.

 20. The Vasa Disaster – Overconfidence Kills

The Vasa Disaster
Source: Jorge Láscar/Wikimedia Commons

The Vasa was Sweden’s move to impress the world with its new ship in 1626. It boasted of 64 canons that could fire at least 650 pounds of ammunition just from one side, and the ship was 226 feet in length.

However, despite the bold statements and the bated breaths, Vasa did not even manage to escape from the Stockholm harbor the moment it sailed in 1628. It was awkward and top-heavy after encountering wind that was only a nautical mile from the port, it sank.

 21. The Apollo 1 Disaster in 1967 – Take Heed of The Warnings

Apollo 1 Disaster
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Three astronauts died when a fire broke out in the midst of a preflight test in 1967. The incident happened due to the neglect of the crew members who struck off possible signs of an impending catastrophe.

Several years after the failure, NASA even halted the program entirely. The command module of the craft ruptured as the fire created problems.

Had the astronauts taken heed of the warning signs such as the strange odor, the disaster could have been deflected.

22. The Disaster of Boston Molasses – Some Disasters Happen Without Signs

The Boston Molasses
Source: BPL/Wikimedia Commons

In Boston, a large tank of molasses collapsed at 529 Commercial Street. According to witnesses, they heard loud rumbling sounds, similar to that of a machine gun at the time of the collapse and the ground continually shook as if there were a train passing by.

The rivets were also reported to be shooting out of the tank. This wave of Molasses was so enormous that it could have lifted a train right off its tracks.

This disaster also resulted in the crushing of the foundations of the nearby buildings. It claimed 21 lives and 150 people were reported injured.

 23. The Skylab Disaster – When the Loss Is in Billions

Skylab that weighed 75 metric tons was launched on May 14th, 1973. It sustained severe damage during the launch, and one of the more severe damages was the loss of its primary solar panels and the micrometeoroid shield/sunshade of the station.

The matter was further complicated due to the debris of lost micrometeoroid shield. This resulted in pinning the rest of the solar panels to the station’s side.

This prevented the deployment of Skylab and caused an exorbitant cost of $3.6 billion to be incurred by the orbiting space station.

Bottom Line

The field of engineering has no doubt simplified our lives and created some unmistakable achievements in human history. However, there have also been plenty of engineering flaws that have caused unforgettable disasters due to carelessness, underestimations, negligence and insufficient knowledge.

Rest assured, all these unthinkable tragedies have left the new generation of engineers more cautious than ever!

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