Fire is one of nature’s toughest elements. As the flames scorch the earth and consume everything they touch, it cleanses the lands built and destroyed by humans. Whatever the flames leave behind, the deadly smoke-filled with carbon monoxide finishes off, sucking the remaining life away. History is full of fires sweeping through and destroying entire forests, towns, and cities. Most fires burn slow enough to escape if seen coming, however, too many fires are deadly for at least a few people. Several dozen of history’s recorded fires have resulted in mass casualties.
How and where a fire starts is important. Fires can be a result of nature, such as lightning strikes. Nature can indirectly lead to large-scale fires after earthquakes and tornadoes from broken gas lines, downed power lines, or even winds blowing hot ash onto wooden structures. A number of fires are the result of humans’ own mistakes. Mining is dangerous for many reasons; fires sparked by coal dust explosions caused several deadly accidents in the twenty-first century. The number of fire casualties vary, either because of different records, a lack of records, and even deception. Disasters involving workplaces (mines), ships, and military have more accurate and detailed records of casualties. After the flames are out, any remains left are unidentifiable. If the fire burns at more than 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, human bones also turn to dust.
The thousands lost to fires over the past few centuries have helped save the lives of millions since. Organized fire departments still save countless lives today. People around the world learn about fire prevention and safety. Learning techniques such as “Stop, Drop, and Roll,” family escape plans, and staying low to the ground because of smoke also assist firefighters in saving lives during a fire. City planners understand the importance of fire detectors, fire alarms, and fire-resistant construction. Emergency exits are in bright so anyone can see them in a smoke-filled room.
10. Salang Tunnel, Afghanistan 1982
Once marveled as an engineering feat, the Salang Tunnel snakes 1.6 miles through the Hindu Kush Mountains, connecting Northern Afghanistan to the country’s capital, Kabul. Built by the Soviet Union in 1964, the tunnel is in need of major repairs after 50 years of neglect. The dangerous tunnel kills an average of five travelers per year to accidents and avalanches. The worst accident occurred during the Afghan-Russian War in 1982. The regular one-lane access through the Salang Pass was open with two barely-passible lanes. A fuel truck exploded, possibly due to colliding with another vehicle. Reports anywhere from a few hundred to over 1,000 died in the explosion. Most of the dead were Soviet soldiers. Today, the tunnel’s traffic is more than double of what it was in 1982 and is in worse condition. Many worry a similar disaster is coming with a lot bigger number of casualties.
9. Benxihu Mine, China 1942
Coalmines are a series of dangerous tunnels. During the Sino-Japanese War from 1927-1945, Japan controlled the Benxihu Mine in China’s Liaoning province. On April 26, 1942, one of the worst mining accidents in history occurred at the coalmine near Benxi Lake, killing 1,549 miners. An explosion caused by coal dust rocked the mine, sending flames throughout the mine that exited the mine’s entrance. To extinguish the fire the mine’s operator closed the pithead to starve the fire of oxygen. While this puts out the fire, anyone inside that survived the blast and fire, suffocated. It took ten days for workers to remove all the bodies, most of which were burned beyond recognition.
8. Courrieres Mine, France 1906
Before the Benxihu Mine explosion in 1942, the Courrieres Mine disaster in France held the record for mass casualties from a coalmine explosion. On March 10, 1906, coal dust sparked by an underground fire exploded leaving 1,099 miners dead. Like in Benxihu, mine operators sealed the tunnel to confine the fire and remove the oxygen. Those trapped inside experienced horrible deaths, many burned alive, suffocated on poisonous gasses, or if lucky, they were spared a long, painful death and were crushed in the explosion. About 600 miners survived the disaster, but most suffered burns, broken bones, and other non-life threatening injuries. Among the mangled mass of human bodies, were 97 horses. However, the horror didn’t end, 21 days after the disaster, 13 survivors crawled out of the mines. They survived by drinking their own urine, stagnant water in the mines, eating bugs, and scavenging the dead bodies deep inside the mine.
7. Peshtigo, Wisconsin 1871
On the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, October 8, 1871, a forest fire swept through Northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Consuming 2,400 square miles of the two states, the fire took the lives of an estimated 1,200 to 2,400 lives. Flames reported 200 feet tall burned two billion trees. With temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, trees exploded. Residents of Peshtigo, Wisconsin had no warning of the fire, 200 people in a tavern died instantly. Some jumped into the nearby river, only to drown. Through six counties, the fire leveled the towns of Peshtigo and Brussels. Three people that jumped in a water tank to escape the flames were boiled alive.
6. Mont-Blanc, Halifax Harbor 1863
The coal-fired steam freighter built in Middleborough, England in 1899 met with disaster in the Halifax Harbor on December 6, 1917. In a blast so great, Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer studied it while developing the atomic bomb. Purchased by a French company, it was transporting nearly 3,000 tons of explosives for the fighting in Europe during World War I. The SS Imo struck the SS Mont-Blanc’s starboard side and within minutes flames erupted from the collision. About 20 minutes after the accident, the flames ignited the explosives on the Mont-Blanc, causing an explosion that leveled everything within a half-mile radius of the blast. In the end, an estimated 2,000 were dead, thousands injured, and half of Halifax destroyed.
5. Church of Santiago, Chile 1863
Once a Jesuit Church in Santiago, the capital of Chile, it became the final resting place for 2,500 worshipers, most of whom were women and children. A few minutes before 7 pm on December 8, 1863 during service, a burning oil lamp behind the priest, on the high alter set a painting of the crescent moon ablaze. The flames spread to the ceilings before many noticed the fire and by then it was too late. The overcrowded building’s doors were closed to prevent interruptions in the mass, panic set in as burning pieces of the ceiling fell on the crowds, catching their hair and clothing on fire. In the end, 500 people escaped, including the priests who rushed out a side door as the fire broke out. It took 10 days to remove the bodies, unidentifiable; mourners buried them in a mass grave in the General Cemetery of Santiago.
4. The Great San Francisco Earthquake, 1906
A tragic case of a natural disaster and modern utilities led to at least 3,000 casualties including the Fire Chief Dennis T. Sullivan during the first few seconds of the quake. Still on duty following a three-alarm fire before the earthquake, Sullivan died when the Dome of the Great California Theater crashed into the Bush Street Fire Station. Lasting only 28 seconds, it left over 250,000 Americans homeless, over half of the city’s population. The fire alarm system broke during the quake, leaving no departments to be notified when 52 fires erupted throughout the city. The remaining fire crews had little to work with, roads were broken, water pipes busted, and the closest water reserve 20 miles outside the city. They used all the water from the sewers, but it wasn’t enough to stop the fire. Before it burned out, 4.7 square miles burned, over 500 city blocks. The city built refugee camps to house the homeless, while the city rebuilt.
3. The Great Fire of Southwark, London 1212
The oldest fire on the list, nonetheless, it’s the deadliest recorded in London’s history and marks the second time the London Bridge burned. The previous bridge, built of wood, burned in 1135. When residents rebuilt the bridge, they used stone for the base, but still used wood for the floor. On July 12, 1212, after the flames gutted Borough High Street, the burning ashes carried by a steady wind set the bridge ablaze. Most of those who died saw the fire first from the river’s north bank and ran onto the burning bridge to help fight the fire. Both sides caught fire, trapping the would-be rescuers on the bridge. An estimated 3,000 people died that day.
2. Dona Paz, Philippines 1987
The tragedy of the Dona Paz is two-fold, one, the number of deaths, over 4,000 people, including 1,000 children. The second is the year of the accident, 1987. The casualties are estimates because the ferry was carrying double its maximum capacity. This collision and explosion shouldn’t have happened, but because of corruption, it did. On December 20, the overcrowded Filipino passenger ferry Dona Paz, collided with the MT Vector, a fuel tanker carrying 8,000 barrels of petroleum. A fire spread quickly through the tanker and spread to the Dona Paz. Only 24 passengers survived the 24-hour voyage between the country’s thousands of islands. Without a surviving captain, the question of why the ships didn’t see each other in the clear, moonlit night will remain unknown.
1. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923
Residents of Japan are not strangers to tragedies from nature. On September 1, 1923, an 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck in the Sagami Bay, near Oshima Island. Along with fires caused by the noontime quake, a 60-foot tsunami crashed into the coastline. At the end of the day, 143,000 people died from the disaster. Although the tsunami snuffed out several fires, others burned out of control when fire crews couldn’t reach them. When the fires burned themselves out on September 3, they burned through 80 percent of Yokohama and 60 percent of Tokyo. An Australian cruise ship saved a few thousand fleeing the fires, The Empress carried as many people as it could out to sea, away from the flames, aftershocks, and noxious gasses that killed 30,000 taking cover in a park near the Sumida River.
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