9 Lessons Learned from Some of the World's Biggest Engineering Disasters

Here are some of the biggest world engineering disasters from around the world that really taught us all a lesson.
Christopher McFadden
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We all make mistakes, but when major engineering projects fail, the consequences can actually be very, very serious. Here are but some of the worst engineering disasters from around the world that really taught us all a lesson.


What are some major lessons we have learned from the world's biggest engineering disasters?

And so, without further ado, here are some of the main lessons engineers have learned from some of the world's biggest engineering disasters. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The Hyatt Regency walkway collapse engineering disaster taught us some important lessons 

The famous Hyatt Regency walkway collapse disaster in 1981 was one of the world's worst engineering disasters of all time. The hotel, when it opened in 1980, featured a series of suspended walkways across its multistory atrium.

In July 1981, the hotel hosted a major dancing event, but the evening turned into a tragedy. During the evening, the linked walkways crashed onto the dancefloor, killing 114 people and injuring hundreds more. 

Following an investigation, it was found that the original designs were flawed, and the engineers in charge blamed the issue on a breakdown in communication. Whatever the case, this disaster is a textbook lesson in the importance of ethics in engineering.

2. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was another serious lesson

The tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 is another example of one of the world's worst engineering disasters. It was supposed to be the 25th flight of the shuttle, but the mission lasted for just over 70 seconds

Shortly after blastoff, smoke began to appear from the right rocket booster followed by flames. The shuttle and its launch vehicle soon exploded in a giant fireball for all to see. 

Her crew of seven were killed instantaneously. 

The following investigation found the problem to be with the O-rings used to seal joints in the rockets. It also found that engineers had warned of the potential issue but were overruled. 

3. The 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster was a wake-up call

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was the world's third-longest suspension bridge prior to 1940. Just a few months after opening, high winds caused the bridge to spectacularly fail and collapse.

It was later found that although the design was ambitious, the designers were a little too overconfident in their abilities. The bridge was lighter, thinner, and very flexible compared to other bridges of the time, but its design had not factored in the dangers that high winds can pose to such structures. 

4. The Ocean Ranger rig disaster was another important lesson

Back in 1982, an oil rig called the "Ocean Ranger" capsized and sank off Newfoundland during a fierce winter storm. Once the world's largest of its kind, the rig went down with her entire complement of 84 crew members in a matter of moments.

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While the rig did have safety features intended for just such an issue, the control room had become flooded during the storm shorting all electrical circuits after waves smashed through its porthole window. This disaster reminded the world of the importance of shutting watertight storm hatches over glass windows.

It also showed the importance of supplying insulated survival suits for such a rig's crew. 

5. The Johnstown Flood was another lesson in engineering

The 1889 Johnstown Flood was another wake-up call for engineers around the world. In May of that year, the South Form Dam broke, unleashing tens of millions of tons of water downstream. 

The nearby city of Johnstown in Pennsylvania was decimated, resulting in the loss of over 2,200 lives. It was later discovered that the owners of the dam failed to maintain it properly, leading to a massively tragic loss of life.

6. The Ford Pinto was another major engineering disaster

The Ford Pinto was marketed as a low-cost, high-performance subcompact car during the 1970s. But the designers of the vehicle knew the car's safety features weren't all they were cracked up to be.

For example, its fuel tank was easily punctured by nearby bolts during rear-end collisions. A decision had been made weighing up the cost benefits of spending money on making the car safe versus potential losses from lawsuits.

As a result, an estimated 27 to 180 lives were lost from just this exact Achilles heel of the car. 

In 1977, new legal standards for car safety were introduced, forcing Ford's hand to make the changes needed. 

7. Chernobyl was completely avoidable

The disastrous explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was another of the world's worst engineering disasters. Despite being warned about some very serious flaws with the reactor control rods by engineers, central planners in the Soviet Union decided to both ignore and cover up the findings rather than correct them.

This enormous error of judgment led to one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. We may never really know the final death toll from the fallout. 

8. Serious lessons were learned from the New Orleans Levees disaster

In the Summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina completely devastated New Orleans. This terrible natural disaster killed hundreds of people and displaced thousands more.

After a lengthy investigation by engineers from various prestigious US universities, serious flaws were found in the defensive flood levees that were supposed to protect the area. Various problems included poor protection of embankments and weak points where different sections met.

The tragic loss of life could probably have been avoided if the levees had been designed and maintained properly. 

9. "Love Canal" was yet another engineering disaster that taught us a thing or two

And finally, the "Love Canal" disaster was another of the world's worst engineering disasters. Between 1942 and 1952, a 3.2-kilometer ditch was dug as the intended beginnings of a new canal system. 

This plan was abandoned, and the ditch was filled with hazardous waste in the early 1950s before being covered over. Years later, houses and a school were built on the surrounding land.

It was later discovered that poor management of the site led to the surrounding area becoming gradually contaminated. Initially, residents had to deal with noxious odors, but more serious issues began to arise as cancer rates rose dramatically. 

This resulted in far more stringent laws being implemented to prevent similar issues in the future.

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