A Skeptical Engineer
1928 Railroad tracks in southern California warp after flooding due to failure of the St Francis Dam

1928- Railroad tracks in southern California warp after flooding due to failure of the St. Francis Dam.

5 of History's Worst Engineering Disasters

1928- Railroad tracks in southern California warp after flooding due to failure of the St. Francis Dam.

While collecting this short list of engineering disasters, I decided that to qualify as a disaster, an event had to involve loss of life, and the larger the loss of life, the larger the disaster. This ruled out a couple of famous engineering snafus, such as the “swinging” Tacoma Narrows Bridge that suffered a wind-induced collapse in 1940 (as seen in this famous video). It also disqualified NASA’s loss of the $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999 that made it close to Mars before an engineering mistake in not converting pounds of force to newtons doomed it.

An engineering disaster also had to hinge on engineering. This ruled out catastrophes such as the 9/11 Twin Towers collapse caused by a terrorist attack and the building of the Panama Canal in which an estimated 30,000 workers were killed, most by disease.

So here’s my list (in reverse chronological order):

The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Explosion: Structurally unsound reactors failed, leading to a string of explosions and widespread radioactive fallout in 1986. Up to 64 people died during the event, and the resulting escaped radiation led to another 4,000 deaths and 30,000 more people suffering premature cancer deaths.

The Collapse of the Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway: A change in the original design of a series of walkways suspended above the lobby’s hotel led to walkways falling into the crowded lobby. 114 were killed and another 200 injured. Engineers who had approved the final drawings were convicted by the Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors and lost their engineering licenses.

The Banqiao Reservoir Dam Collapse: In 1975, a once-in-a-millennium flood came roaring down the River Ru in China. Engineers had not planned for such an event and the dam failed. Over 700 million cubic meters were released in six hours, killing at least 171,000 people and leaving 11 million people homeless.

The St. Francis Dam Disaster: To meet the needs of a rapidly expanding Los Angeles in the mid-1920s, the city hired William Mulholland to design and build a dam along the L.A. Aqueduct. Mulholland did the design work himself and oversaw construction. For two years after the dam was completed, he is said to have ignored warnings that the dam had developed cracks and was leaking. In 1928, just two hours after Mulholland himself inspected the dam, it burst, killing 450 people.

The explosion of the steamboat Sultana: In 1865, the captain of the passenger steamship Sultan ordered quick repairs to a leaking boiler. The person who did the repairs told the captain that the boiler shouldn’t be considered safe and it needed more inspections. But the ship’s chief engineer approved the repairs and the ship continued on the Mississippi River. Two of the ship’s three boilers soon exploded, setting the wooden boat on fire. 1,547 people lost their lives, more than were killed in the sinking of the Titanic.

What do you consider the world’s worst engineering disaster? Leave a comment or send us an email.

TAGS: Technologies
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