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10 Deadliest Engineering Disasters That Shocked the World

Engineering is responsible for almost every aspect of human life now. Engineering projects are fun and fascinating but when mistakes are made in engineering, these day to day structures turn into death traps in an equally shocking measure. The errors of one or two individuals have caused some of the worst disasters in the world despite advances in technology and safety procedures. The trial and error projects of early engineering projects such as the Vasa taught the new generation engineers to build more reliable structures, but even then, some catastrophic disasters are still linked to poor engineering. Let us take a look at these ten most shocking disasters caused by faulty engineering.

1. Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

Engineering Disasters - Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster is the perfect example of what happens when political pressure forces engineers to develop faulty structures to please diplomats. Chef Engineer Anatoly Daytlov and his fellow officials at the facility were accused of failing to put precautions in place and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The reactor exploded several times after the team finished a test on whether the reactor could run on its power if there were a power failure. As it turned out, the reactor could not withstand its own power, and it exploded killing up five people in the control room and 30 more in the days that followed. The core released 5% of radioactive material poisoning many parts of Europe. It is associated with thousands of deaths and cancer cases in the affected areas for decades now.

Despite the accusation, further research proved something else. The core reactor was poorly designed in what is considered a direct consequence of the cold war isolation of the Soviet Union. The strained relations saw lack of coordination between Soviet engineers and other engineers in America and Europe. The resulting design was not suitable for the volume of radioactive plutonium being fed in. The drill on April 26th, 1986 was only exposure of a looming disaster. This incident however opened up the world on the need for universal safety when handling Nuclear material. So sad that so many people had to die before engineers could learn to cooperate.[1][2]

2. The Charles De Gaulle Airport Collapse

The Charles De Gaulle Airport Collapse

Crash landings and failed take-offs are the most common accidents at airports, but the Charles de Gaulle incident was one of a kind. Imagine checking in for your next flight only to watch the airport come down. Ok! not the whole airport, but the main terminal. Either way, the results were catastrophic. On May 23rd, 2004, as passengers were waiting to take a flight to Prague, the roof of the terminal collapsed onto the boarding footway. The footway, in turn, gave in onto the airport vehicles parked below killing six people underneath. The passengers were yet to walk into the boarding footway. The first forensic analyst confirmed that poor design and use of weak reinforcements was the primary cause of the collapse. The engineers were accused of gross negligence and manslaughter.[3][4]

3. Titanic

Engineering Disasters - Titanic
The last known photo of the Titanic afloat. Photo taken on April 12, 1912.

It was a historic cruise from Southampton to New York in 1912 that has made so many historical headlines over the years except arrival news. It went down in history as the mighty “unbreakable and unsinkable” ship that broke apart after hitting an iceberg. The safety measures failed and forced quick catastrophic flooding and sinking of the ship killing over 1000 passengers. RMS Titanic was the largest ship ever built by man designed with the strongest material and meant to cruise the roughest of waters. However, the engineers of this magnificent vessel made some of the most significant maritime engineering mistakes of all time.

They used weak Iron rivets from low-quality iron which is associated with a cost-cutting mission that was not exposed to the passengers. Some mistakes are also associated with the engineers on board failing to advise and act accordingly. The ship was moving at high speed of 22.5 knots blindly through the icy waters. The Crew was supposed to be on the watch with binoculars, but for some reason, there were none, this was the peak of negligence by the engineers and the captain. The continued flooding despite shutting the 16 lower compartments is also due to the poor quality of the material used. However, after a century of blame, engineers have learned to build real unsinkable “Titanics.”[5]

4. The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

The 2010 summer turned into dark days for both humans and wildlife in the gulf when 1500 square miles of the coast were covered in oil. The BP Oil rig off the coast exploded spilling over five million barrels of oil onto the water surface. It turned into the most expensive industrial disaster in the oil industry as BP and her drilling partners were slapped with over $70bn in fines, penalties and clean up costs.

The cause of this event was, however, a series of engineering mistakes that could have been solved long before anyone had to die. The cement used to reinforce the gas chamber and the tank was way below the industrial recommendations. The valves that were supposed to close the pipes automatically were also not working at the time, and the rig was not fitted with gas alarms. The oil spilled for 50 minutes before the catastrophic explosion that killed 11 people 9 of whom were trying to save the lives of fellow employees. The loss of life on the surface from the poisoning wiped out so many marine animals too.[6][7]

5. The Challenger Space Shuttle Explosion

The Challenger Space Shuttle Explosion

It was the first mission carrying a civilian into space, but it turned into NASA’s first televised disaster. President Ronald Reagan was expected to give a speech an include this famous launch in it. It was meant to be one of NASA’s most significant ever missions, and it needed to work. The pressure, however, ended up televising a fireball in the launch that crippled NASA. Unlike the other disasters where the Engineers were complacent, in this case, the engineers tried to do something; they were however ignored in favor of diplomats.

Bob Ebeling, head of the engineering team raised concerns about the launch due to rubber O rings that were known to turn brittle at temperatures below freezing. The exact temperature prediction for the day was 18 degrees which posed a clear threat. The failed rings caused a collision between the hydrogen and oxygen tank incinerating the shuttle with the seven passengers in it. After years of investigation, the presidential commission arrived at the same conclusion as the engineering team before, the “boom” was inevitable at that temperature, and the management knew it.[8][9]

6. The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster

The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster

After the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA was expected to put more safety measures on their subsequent space missions. However, as the former Nasa chairman confirmed, the Bush administration put pressure on NASA to deliver more missions with less funding. Safety became the first victim of the budget cuts. From the landing on the discovery shuttle in December 1999, engineers learned of cracks on the wings of the space shuttles so deep that the soft material was exposed. No one reacted because most missions were successful with the cracks anyway. A sturdy on Columbia which was the oldest shuttle at the time also showed more than 4000 faults including brittle wiring due to old age.

The foam Insulator for the shuttle fell off after launch sealing the fate of Columbia and its seven passengers for good. After 16 days in space on a doomed mission, the shuttle re-entered earth’s atmosphere. But the landing was not comfortable. The cracks allowed ionized air to enter and ignite within the left wing ripping the whole shuttle apart. Pieces of what used to be Columbia were spread across Southern USA. All the seven astronauts on board perished in the incident. Only 40% of the shuttle was recovered in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.[10][11]

7. St Francis Dam Disaster

St Francis Dam Disaster

Chief Engineer William Mulholland had just given the dam a clean bill of health after concerns regarding the mud leaks when it burst and swept the rubble half a mile downstream. He was trusted because he had headed construction of the LA Aqueduct in 1913, the largest in the world at the time. However, this time, he was 600 lives and 1200 buildings short of correct. This disaster is still recognized as the worst civil engineering failure in California history.

The dam constructed from 1924 to 1926 was only two years old when it started leaking. On a fateful night, Tony Harnischfeger the dam keeper summoned the engineer to observe the increased leaks, he became one of the first victims alongside his 6-year-old son and 450 other people that night. The avalanche was the height of a 10-story building carrying everything in the town westwards. Bodies floated offshore as far as San Diego, and the losses were just too devastating for California.[12]

8. Cleveland Ohio Gas Explosion

Cleveland Ohio Gas Explosion

As World War II was coming to a close on October 20, Ohio gas Co was fighting a different war. The company’s above-the-ground storage tanks had set the 61st and 62nd street near St. Clair on fire. The leaks were sending explosions throughout the whole town. The liquid gas had leaked into the sewers and manholes around the town causing explosions in homes and along the streets. As the fire burnt, company employees tried to contain the situation leading to 55 deaths.

Civilian deaths reached 131, turning it into one of Ohio’s worst-ever disasters. The initial cause of the leak was not known but two engineering faults were immediately evident, storing interconnected tanks above the ground without proper emergency measures and keeping liquid gas in unmanned tanks. The company still controls the most extensive underground gas storage tanks in North America, but they learned from the disaster. All gas tanks are now kept underground and operated by valves in case any tank leaks. At least the town will never have to deal with street-wide fireballs again.[13][14]

9. Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway Collapse

Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway Collapse

On July 20th, 1981, a happy tea dance at the hotel turned chaotic when spectators were sandwiched between two collapsing walkways that sent them down into a crowd of 1500 people. There was no time for a warning as the hotel was only one year in operation and the suspended walkways were entirely new with no recorded faults. There were hundreds of people on both walkways as they collapsed in what would later be confirmed as a major violation of engineering recommendations.

The fabricator had decided to use a two-rod system instead of one as designed by the engineer. By the time of the collapse, the connecting bars were too overloaded to bear their weight leave alone that of the spectators. Of the three skywalks connecting the 4-story lobby to the 40-story hotel building, two walkways collapsed while one held with minor cracks. The collapse killed 116 people injuring 226 others. Most of the people in the lobby were old and unable to move in time.[15][16]

10. Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse

Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse

Tacoma Narrows bridge was established to link Tacoma to Gig Harbor in what the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce described as the best solution to the expensive ferry system. Apart from a carpenter that fell to death during construction, no mortality was recorded on the bridge even during its collapse on July first, 1940. At 2800ft, this was the longest suspension bridge in the world by then. Well, it also became the first to sink from 60Km/h winds. Concerns on the ability of the bridge were raised just one month after the construction started. The errors are attributed to budget cutting which forced engineers to divert from an $11 million plan to the new $7-million project. The material used could not withstand the oscillations at winds as low as 40km/h. The accident was an eye-opener though, engineers are now making more stable suspension bridges.[17]

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