For most of us in this grand, 21st century world of ours, the world is a pleasant and happy place. We drive cars that look out for us even we are not doing so ourselves. We eat in fusion restaurants that offer up every conceivable cuisine from the whole world over. We listen to personalized music and watch movies and TV shows selected for our private tastes on our $500 headphone cocoons and many of us even get to “go” to work via laptops and webcams. When it comes to crises and tragedies, people freak out when they can’t pre-order an iPhone 8 immediately (like yesterday) or their Wifi goes down for five seconds. These are what are known as “First World Problems” and illustrate a trend of living that is both comforting (everything will be taken care of for you) and chilling (even the silliest, most unimportant issues become of paramount importance). In short, we are coddled and cuddled by our lifestyle and technology to the point where nothing bad ever seems to happen to us.
But what happens when the real world suddenly does intrude upon us? What happens when normal, average, everyday people become the victims or appalled bystanders of true tragedy? We tend to forget, in our comfortable numb lives, that the world is actually a big, dangerous place- one that can turn on us very quickly. Disaster can strike at any moment and when it does it might be intensely personal, like a terror attack, or it might be hugely impersonal, like a tornado. You just never know what might be out there, waiting to sweep you out of your quiet and safe everyday life.
The following 15 pictures show people just after tragedy struck, whether it was grand or small in scale. They are a chilling reminder that life is transient and none of us will ever truly know when our happiness will be snatched away from us.
15. The Kennedy Assassination
There’s not a single one of us who can really say how we will react when tragedy or disaster strikes. You and I probably think we will be brave, smart and heroic, but really, who knows? But can you imagine sitting with your husband, who just happens to be the President of the United States, in a limo in the middle of a parade when an unknown gunman shoots him? That’s exactly what happened to Jackie Kennedy in 1963 when JFK was gunned down in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. There are many chillingly iconic images of the tragedy but this one, of a terrified and distraught Jackie crawling out of the still moving car while secret service agents and spectators everywhere duck for cover, is about as horrible as it gets.
14. Venezuelan Priest & Dead Soldier
This photo was taken moments after the soldier in the picture was killed by sniper fire. It happened during a rebel uprising in Venezuela in 1962; an uprising that most observers felt then (and now) was completely unjustified and caused a senseless waste of human life. The priest in the picture, Father Luis Padillo, had been walking the streets of the town of Puerto Cabello, offering aid and Last Rites to wounded government soldiers. He was a navy chaplain but still acted incredibly bravely in helping the victims of this civil war. The photo itself was taken by Hector Rondon for the newspaper La Republica and won the Pulitzer Prize for photography. As a horribly ironic addition to this famously tragic image, you can see that the photo was taken in front of a “Carniceria.” Literally, a butcher’s shop.
13. Pearl Harbor
Like 9/11 almost 60 years later, the Japanese attack on American naval forces in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, came as a complete and utter shock to most Americans. When the attacks occurred on December 7, 1941, the vast majority of U.S. citizens were still on the fence about how much we should be involved in World War II. That was not so after waves of Japanese fighter, bomber and “kamikaze” planes destroyed the naval base at Pearl Harbor, the surrounding town, and killed over 1,500 Americans. Here is an example of how a tragedy can be both awful and mundane. In the picture some townsfolk seem stunned, unable to comprehend the disaster. Some are vainly trying to turn fire hoses on buildings that have already been destroyed. And some are simply standing around, apparently chatting as if it were a normal day. 1,500 people died in the span of a few hours and yet the most chilling feature is how banal and normal the tragedy seems.
12. Rwandan Genocide
This child is a chilling reminder of what happens when civil war (or just genocide) rips a country apart. From April to July of 1994, which wasn’t all that long ago, Rwandan Hutus, the ethnic majority in that African country, slaughtered almost 1,000,000 Tutsi, the ethnic minority that had long been in power. To this day, both sides disagree over who really started the killing frenzy (the Rwandan president, a Hutu, had just lost his life when his plane was shot down). The picture above is of an orphaned child in a refugee camp in the Congo, immediately after the genocide had ended. What is most horrible and chilling about this picture is that the child is an ethnic Hutu, a member of the tribal group that supposedly started the whole nightmare. This poor innocent, lonely, afraid and starving, is just in the forefront in an image that captures how quickly and terribly lives can be ripped apart by politics and blood feuds.
11. Bosnian Genocide
In another example of genocide, this time one practiced against both an ethnic (Bosnian) and religious (Muslim) group, we see a most chilling example of how people react to pain, horror and death. These women have all lost family members in the genocide during the larger Bosnian War, which occurred after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Again, this wasn’t all that long ago folks, the early 90s, proving we are nowhere near as enlightened as we pretend to be. At least 100,000 people lost their lives as Bosnian Serbs and the former Yugoslavian army, effectively controlled by them, instigated a state-sponsored program of violence and killing. Hundreds of Serbs, including President Slobodan Milosevic, were later charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for their actions. Which did nothing at all to help these families. Perhaps most striking in this photo is the near-total absence of men; it’s all women and children, forced to face a horrible new world.
10. Hurricane Katrina
What happens when a nightmare of a hurricane strikes the Eastern Seaboard and, in particular, New Orleans? Well, in this picture, you can see that every day, average U.S. citizens find themselves stranded without food or shelter and subject to the elements on top of a roof. Did U.S. authorities do enough to rescue people like this in a timely fashion? The jury’s still somewhat out on that but the general consensus is “No, they did not.” Which is chilling, as these normal people are seen waving American flags and hoping (assuming, really) that they will be rescued. Which many, many of them were not. Even the richest, most powerful country in the world does not always know how to respond when the tragedy of natural disaster strikes.
The name Chernobyl is synonymous with nuclear disaster and rightly so. The nuclear power plant in that city suffered a huge accident in one of its reactors in 1986, spewing radioactive materials into the atmosphere for miles around. Every single firefighter who helped stop the fission “fire” in the broken power plant died soon after the accident from radiation poisoning. But what of the people after the tragedy, after the accident that drove almost everyone out of this city in the former Soviet Union? Well, chillingly enough, many survivors suffered from radiation sickness over time and, even worse, as we see in this photo, their children suffered from both birth defects and radiation poisoning, causing them to have additional health issues and defects as they grew. Nobody ever said tragedy had to be instantaneous to be horrible, did they? Because if they did, they were surely lying. Tragedy can be a generational thing too.
8. San Francisco Earthquake & Fire, 1906
Just because something happened a long time ago doesn’t mean we can’t be touched by its tragic element. A case in point is this picture of refugees fleeing San Francisco after the great earthquake & fire in 1906. First of all, American cities and refugees aren’t two ideas that typically go well together. Second, the outfits may be dated, but you can see that disaster, when it strikes, can hit even the most well off. A fire that sweeps through an entire city isn’t going to stop for a few gentlemen in fancy hats and nice carriages any more than it will for kitchen maids in their white uniforms or the hundreds of other people we can see trudging in the distance. It’s chilling just how many people are trying to get out of the city all at once, so much so that there even appears to be an accident with one of the wagons on the right of the picture. We can only imagine the fear and terror prevalent in all of these people’s minds as they fled.
7. John Lennon
John Lennon once said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. So it’s no surprise, then, that when Lennon was assassinated by Mark David Chapman for no good reason, thousands of people gathered outside his home in New York City to mourn the sudden and untimely death of the Rock & Roll and counter-culture icon. What’s particularly awful about this picture though is that all of those people in the shot are protesting handgun violence and waving peace signs. Lennon was shot in 1980. There were 4,331 shooting victims in the city of Chicago in 2016, 762 of those incidents were murders. Want to be chilled? Reflect upon this picture of a handgun assassination in 1980 and how far away we are from peace in our cities over 35 years later.
6. Hurricane Matthew, Haiti
Some places in this world seem to get hit really hard when it comes to disaster. Part of this is due to governmental and social infrastructures that barely qualify at Third World levels, like in Haiti. Part of it is due to geographical positioning which puts some areas directly in the path of horrible weather systems. Again, like Haiti. In the most recent tragedy to strike that island nation, Hurricane Matthew knocked out the entire northwest of the country in October 2016. That meant no harvest, no fishing industry and no shelter. Running water and drinkable water were among the first services to go, as shown by this chilling photo of a young girl gathering water for her entire family’s use. Haiti has been called a “humanitarian disaster’ and pictures like this show why in the worst possible way.
5. 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic
Nowadays we are used to being frightened of the next terrible flu that’s going to get us all. In recent years Swine Flu, SARS and Avian Flu have all touched the public imagination as well as a host of others. But what about the flu that really did kill off 5% of the world’s population, well over 50 million people? That would be the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, which occurred right after World War I and, as you see in this photo, shocked the world with its swift advance. At first glance you might have thought these were all deathbeds, but no- they are people with the disease in quarantine, while caregivers look on from above, most likely horribly frustrated that soon many of their wards will be dead. A chilling sight of disease run rampant and tragedy running its course.
4. Space Shuttle Challenger
Anyone who was alive in 1986 probably remembers where they were when the Challenger exploded. America in the 80s was a place with great confidence in itself- those were the Reagan years, when the country seemed to kick butt every time it did anything. The space shuttle program was no different, until that fateful January 28 when, 73 seconds after it took off, the Challenger exploded right before everyone’s very eyes. Not only did the entire NASA team of professional astronauts die, but also onboard was a grade school teacher, Christa McAuliffe of New Hampshire, who had carried the hopes and dreams of civilians everywhere with her inclusion on the crew. As you can see in this chilling photo, eyewitnesses were struck with intense, unexpected terror and even fear of the unknown awfulness of it all as the tragedy unfolded.
Nuclear weapons have only ever been used by one country, the United States of America, and only one time in a conflict. That of course was the dropping of the two bombs “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. These two bombs brought about the final end to hostilities in World War II. Primarily because the incredible path of destruction they wrought was so unbelievably huge that the Japanese government unequivocally surrendered. Here we have a picture of a person after the tragedy on Hiroshima. Quite literally, as this chilling image shows only the burnt-out “atomic shadow” of where a living person had been standing immediately before the tragic unleashing of the bomb. Yes, there was a person there and then there wasn’t. That’s what nuclear bombs do to people unfortunate enough to come into contact with them. Even in 1945.
2. The Holocaust
We’ve already talked about genocide in this article but here’s an image sure to chill even the most hardened of hearts. This is a picture of survivors from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Germany. The camp was liberated by allied soldiers on May 5, 1945. There are even worse pictures out there but you can see the starvation rampant upon the frail, thin bodies and faces of these prisoners. The Holocaust claimed the lives of over six million Jews during World War II. It was the most “successful” attempt ever at organized genocide, a nightmarish testament to the evils of the German Nazi reign. This picture isn’t of people right after a sudden and shocking tragedy but worse, one of people who were subjected to the worst kind of systemic brutality and murder.
1. 9/11 First Responder
This picture probably needs no introduction for you to figure out what’s going on. September 11, 2001, like Pearl Harbor before it, is a day that will forever “live in infamy” for the American people. On that day, terrorists from Al-Qaeda, an Islamic extremist group, hijacked and crashed jet airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City, as well as the Pentagon. It was a truly horrible and tragic day that united our country but also caused an unbelievable amount of pain and grief. This firefighter, one of the “First Responders” to the disaster, is plainly dealing with a lot. Sorrow and fatigue and even fear, most likely, have all combined to cause him to take a respite from the horrors he has seen over the course of what was probably the worst professional and personal day of his career.