Reports over the past week on the thirtieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster remind us of the terrible consequences of industrial disasters. Since the industrial revolution of the 19th century, millions of people have lost their lives or been maimed, either as a result of horrific events produced by negligence, carelessness, incompetence and occasionally, just pure bad luck.
The costs for some of the worst catastrophes are not only measured in the numbers killed, but the devastation caused to infrastructure and entire areas. The extreme impact of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986, for example, is estimated to have cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the nearly three decades since. The following 11 industrial disasters are some of the most horrific on record.
11. Halifax Explosion
Two ships collided with each other on the morning of December 6, 1917, in the bay at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Unfortunately for the residents, this was no ordinary collision. The Mont-Blanc was a large cargo ship which had been called into service to transport munitions to Europe for World War I, and the impact caused it to produce the largest man-made explosion in history. An estimated 1,600 people were killed instantly by the blast, and a further 9,000 suffered injuries. The damage throughout the town was extensive, with 12,000 buildings flattened. It was said that hardly a single pain of glass remained intact.
10. Minamata Catastrophe
Unlike all of the other disasters on this list, the Minamata catastrophe occurred over a period of 37 years, beginning in 1932. It was then that Chisso Corporation began the manufacture of acetaldehyde, which is used in the production of plastics. The production process caused mercury to spill into Minamata Bay, where the local population obtained a large percentage of their diet of fish and shellfish. The mercury became part of an organic compound, capable of making its way in to the food chain. The consequences took some time to become apparent, first affecting cats and fish. But by 1956, an epidemic broke out in the town. The condition caused individuals to lose control of their motor skills and exhibit unorthodox behaviors. Shortly after the epidemic, researchers found a link between the disease and eating fish from the bay, putting the condition down to heavy metal poisoning. The disease continued to spread, and baby’s were born with it, thousands were crippled and hundreds died. In 1963, its source was finally traced to Chisso’s operations.
9. Benxihu Colliery Explosion
A fatal explosion of coal dust and gas hit the Honkeiko coal mine at the Benxihu colliery, on April 26, 1942. The tragedy resulted in the deaths of 1,549 people, making it the worst mining disaster ever. A fire broke out underground and exploded out of the mine shaft. The mine was operated by forced labor under the Japanese occupation during World War II. A later investigation found that most deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning when the mine shaft was sealed to deprive the fire of oxygen. An electric fence was also erected around the site, to prevent relatives searching for dead miners.
8. Failure Of Banqiao Dam
Poor construction caused the failure of the Banqiao dam in China, in early August of 1975, after heavy rainfall. Three huge downpours struck Henan province from August 5th to August 7th, resulting in approximately a meter of precipitation. The dam disintegrated at 1 am on August 9th, producing a wall of water measuring 6 meters high and 12 kilometers wide, which was followed by 600 million cubic meters of water. A total of 62 dams and all of the flood defenses gave way on the Ru river. Over 85,000 people died due to the dam failure and 11 million were severely impacted. Cracks in the dam and the sluice gates were identified as early as 1961, pointing to the serious flaws in its original design.
Generally regarded as the worst industrial disaster in history, the leaking of toxic chemicals from a pesticide plant in the Indian city during the night of December 2nd, 1984, led to the deaths of an estimated 5,000-6,000 people. Winds blew the toxic cloud of gases over the city in the hours that followed, widening the impact of the leakage. The American company involved, Union Carbide, was widely perceived to have been negligent and has faced sustained protests ever since, for its failure to take responsibility for the subsequent damage. On top of the initial death toll, many thousands more have died from disease in the following years, and more still continue to live with respiratory problems and other health conditions.
Attempts to conduct a test on one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant got out of control in April 1986. The resultant explosion and release of radioactive steam into the atmosphere marked the worst nuclear catastrophe in history. The direct incident itself killed 31 people, but it is known that around 50,000 workers had to battle to keep from any contamination. At least 350,000 people have been evacuated from regions in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, which have become uninhabitable since 1986. According to Forbes Magazine, the Ukrainian government still spends between 5 and 7 percent of its total budget on restoration work linked to the disaster.
5. Piper Alpha
The Piper Alpha oil extraction platform in the North Sea caught fire and exploded on July 6th, 1988. It was the worst ever offshore disaster, with a total death toll of 167. A further 59 workers on board of the oil rig survived with injuries, bringing the total casualties to 226. The platform collapsed within two hours of the explosion, and the fire was so intense that floating oil on the sea burned, forcing rescue services to keep their distance. The platform first began operating in 1976, and was for a time, the world’s largest oil producer. It churned out 317,000 barrels a day. But by 1988, its condition was deteriorating. There were signs that there were growing problems with the ageing facility, particularly following a mini explosion in 1984, that led to hundreds of evacuations.
4. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
The spilling of millions of gallons of oil into the ocean off the Alaskan coast produced the worst environmental catastrophe in history. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds, fish and other sea creatures were killed, and many more suffered stunted growth or died later as a result of contaminated food. The disaster itself was caused by extreme incompetence on the part of the company, which was aware that the captain of the ship, William Hazlewood, was a recovering alcoholic who had recently relapsed. Witnesses told court proceedings that he was drunk when the ship left port in April 1989. Although $5 billion was initially awarded in damages, a Supreme Court ruling reduced this to just $507 million, for 32,000 affected parties.
3. Time Toy Factory Fire
A fire at a toy factory on the outskirts of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, broke out in May, 1993. The reported number of deaths was 188, and 469 were injured, making it the worst industrial fire in history. The three buildings affected were built extremely poorly, with no fire extinguishers, alarms or exits. Even the ground floor exits from the building were found to be blocked by hundreds of workers who sought to escape the inferno. Walkways linking the buildings that could have potentially offered a means of escape were either locked or used to store produce. The factory was used by several large companies to manufacture products at cut prices for sale on the world market.
2. Deep Water Horizon
BP’s oil platform, Deepwater Horizon, exploded in April 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 oil workers and spreading vast quantities of oil into the sea. Accounts from workers suggest that the threat of such an event had been demonstrated in the weeks leading up to the disaster, when quantities of gas made their way onto the rig through the drilling pipes on several occasions. The subsequent damage was worsened by the failure to plug the oil well for several months, allowing millions of gallons of oil to escape into the sea. Severe damage was caused to wildlife and ecosystems, and fishing and tourism operations on the Louisiana coast were destroyed.
1. Rana Plaza Building Collapse
The eight-floor building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed on April 24th, 2012, killing over 1,100 people. Casualties were likely far higher, given that around 3,000 workers were based in the building which housed five factories. Cracks had been observed in the building’s walls a day prior to the collapse and operations were halted. But the owner insisted that the structure was sound and factory owners were forced to return to the job on the day of the catastrophe. Several people were pulled from the rubble in the days that followed, including a 19-year-old woman who survived on dried food in the basement for 17 days before being found alive.