The Deepwater Horizon was an offshore oil-drilling rig located in the Gulf of Mexico. On April 20, 2010 there was an uncontrollable blowout in the oil well that created an explosion. The explosion killed 11 workers on the rig and set off a fireball that was visible from 40 miles away. Recently, a movie starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, and John Malkovich and directed by Peter Berg, titled Deepwater Horizon, recounts the events of the explosion.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster, while deadly, is far from being the worst industrial accident that has occurred since the industrial revolution. Since humankind has harnessed technology for good, the law of unintended consequences has turned deadly numerous times. In many cases, Mother Nature has taken out her wrath and over-taken humanity and technology. However, many of the industrial disasters that have occurred were due to a combination of mechanical and human error.
Perhaps most astounding is the fact that many of these industrial accidents that caused loss of life could have been prevented. Time after time, poor safety and working conditions contributed to preventable accidents. Perhaps most appalling are those incidents where communication breakdowns and hubris caused the loss of thousands of innocent human lives. Here are 15 such industrial disasters that were actually worse than the Deepwater Horizon incident.
15 West Fertilizer Company Explosion – 15 Dead
On April 17, 2013 while firefighters were responding to a fire at the West Fertilizer Company, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred killing 15 people. At the time of the fire, the cause was unknown. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have since concluded that the fire was intentionally set.
The explosion occurred around 7:50 pm and it completely annihilated the plant. Along with 15 people dead, more than 150 others were hurt with over 150 buildings destroyed or damaged. Amongst these buildings were a middle school and a neighboring 2-storey, 50-unit apartment complex.
The investigation after the explosion found that the company had failed to store the chemicals that caused the explosion safely. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found that the company failed to undergo the necessary step to prevent the fire and the explosion. Furthermore, there were no regulations in place that keep ammonium nitrate storage facilities away from populated areas.
14 Great Molasses Flood – 21 Dead
In the north end of Boston, Massachusetts on January 15, 1919, a large storage tank containing molasses burst open and unleashed a huge wave that rushed the streets of Boston. The wave of molasses washed over the streets at approximately 35 miles per hour killing 21 people and injuring 150. Witnesses reported hearing a large rumble and thunder-like bang when it occurred. Many reported feeling the ground shake as the wave approached.
The wave of molasses reached a height of 25 feet at its peak. The wave damaged Boston’s elevated railway and even displaced a railcar from the tracks for a moment. In addition to the 150 people injured and 21 dead were also horses and dogs.
Molasses when fermented is used as a key ingredient in rum. Molasses is thick, viscous, and very sticky. The clean up took weeks as they tried to use sand to absorb the substance and saltwater to clean it. Boston harbor had a brown hue from the molasses flowing into it right up until the summer arrived.
13 Phillips Disaster of 1989 – 23 Dead
The Phillips plant in Pasadena, Texas exploded at 1:05 pm on October 23, 1989. About 10-15 minutes after the blast, a 20,000-gallon isobutane tank exploded and a chain reaction of 4 more explosions occurred. The explosions killed 23 people working at the plant and another 314 people were injured.
During routine maintenance, the air-connections were accidentally reversed on the valves. So, the valve in the control room would open while it would read as closed. This caused the formation of a vapor cloud that exploded once it met an ignition source. The initial explosion registered a 3.5 on the Richter scale and debris was found as far as 6 miles from the blast.
After the blast, it took over 10 hours to bring it under control. Many of the fire hydrants were sheered off from the explosion causing low water pressure from the remaining hydrants. A vast network of hoses to nearby plants and water cooling towers had to be put together to get sufficient water to extinguish the fire.
12 Enshede Fireworks Disaster – 23 Dead
On May 13, 2000 a fire at a fireworks factory in the Dutch city of Enshede set off an explosion that killed 23 people. The fire began in a central building and spread to 2 containers full of fireworks illegally stored outside of the building. Several subsequent blasts occurred with the biggest blast felt as far as 19 miles away.
The blast incinerated 15 streets, damaged 1,500 homes, and obliterated 400 homes. The explosions, in addition to killing 23 people, left 947 people injured and 1,250 people homeless. Fire crews from across the border in Germany had to be called in to aid in controlling the blaze.
When the SE fireworks warehouse was built in 1977, it was located away from the town. As the city grew, new, low-income housing surrounded the warehouse contributing to the destruction, injuries, and deaths. Many of the local residents had no idea they were living in such close proximity to a fireworks warehouse.
11 Fixborough Disaster — 28 Dead
A chemical production factory in Fixborough, England exploded killing 28 people on June 1, 1974. The plant produced chemicals that were passed through a series of 6 reactors. Two months before the explosion, a large crack was discovered in the number '5' reactor. A bypass using some pipes worked around the reactor 5 and at the end of May 1974 other reactors were depressurized to repair further leaks.
On June 1, 1974, a massive release of chemicals came from the bypass area of reactor 5. This resulted in the formation of a gas cloud that quickly ignited causing a massive explosion. Fires from the explosion lasted for 10 days and approximately 1,000 buildings were damaged within a 1-mile radius of the explosion.
10 Qinghe Special Steel Corporation Disaster – 32 Dead
On April 18, 2007, 32 people were killed and 6 injured when a ladle containing molten steel fell in the Qinghe Special Steel Corporation factory in China. Thirty tons of liquid steel at 1,500 degrees Celsius fell from an overhead iron rail. The liquid steel burst through doors and windows into an adjoining room where workers were gathered to change shifts.
Perhaps the most appalling fact discovered in the investigation after the disaster is that it could have been prevented. The direct cause of the incident was the inappropriate use of sub-standard equipment. The investigation concluded there were a number of safety failings and violations that contributed to the accident.
When emergency services got to the scene of the accident, they were set back by the pure heat of the molten steel unable to get to the victims. Once the molten steel cooled, they were able to enter the area and found the 32 dead. Amazingly, 6 people survived the accident, but with severe burns and were rushed to the hospital.
9 Lac-Megantic Rail Disaster – 47 Dead
In the eastern part of Quebec, Canada in the town of Lac-Megantic on July 6, 2013, a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed with several cars catching fire causing an explosion. Thirty buildings in the town’s center were destroyed along with all but 3 of the town’s remaining 37 buildings set for demolition because of petroleum contamination. 42 people were killed from the disaster along with 5 more people missing that are presumed dead.
The cause of the accident was set by a course of a series of mechanical malfunctions and human error. Firefighters put out a blaze on the train that was resting for the evening on the mainline. After the fire was extinguished and the firefighters left, the airbrakes failed and the train began rolling downhill on the tracks. The unmanned train traveling at 3 times the normal speed derailed at the main street in Lac-Megantic.
8 Sayano-Sushenskaya Power Plant Disaster – 75 Dead
The Sayano-Sushenskaya Power Plant located near Sayanogorsk, Russia on the Yensei river was the 6th largest hydroelectric power station in the world and the largest in Russia. At 8:13 am on August 17, 2009, turbine 2 in the power plant violently broke apart. The engine room and turbine hall flooded and when the ceiling of the turbine hall collapsed, 9 out of 10 turbines were destroyed or damaged. The entire output of electricity from the plant ceased and the disaster left 75 people dead.
Turbine 2 had been vibrating for a considerable amount of time and shortly before the failure, its output power had been reduced. The turbine cover broke open after several bolts failed and the spinning turbine destroyed the rotor and other parts of the generator. Pressurized water began to flood and the emergency doors took an inadequate time to close. It is speculated that automated self-closing locking doors could have stopped the flood and saved the plant from destruction and loss of lives.
7 Piper Alpha Disaster – 167 Dead
On July 6, 1988, a North Sea oil production platform named Piper Alpha was destroyed in an explosion. The disaster caused the deaths of 167 people including 2 members of a rescue vessel. It took 3 weeks to extinguish the fire despite 80 mph winds and 70-foot waves. A part of the rig that contained the galley on which 100 victims sought refuge was later found on the seabed in late 1988 where 87 bodies were also discovered.
On the day of the explosion, one of the 2 pumps had its pressure safety valve removed for maintenance. A hand-tightened disk was put in its place and as the day shift ended, the engineer failed to notify the night shift custodian of the change. When the pump was switched on, the hand-tightened disk could not withstand the pressure and within only minutes, an explosion occurred.
6 Binhai Tianjin Explosions – 170 Dead
On the night of August 12, 2015, two explosions erupted at a container storage site at the port of Tianjin. The explosions caused the deaths of 173 people, 797 injuries, and 8 people reported missing. The first blast was caused by an overheated container of dry nitrocellulose. Within 30 seconds of the initial blast, a second blast of ammonium nitrate occurred. The fires caused by the initial explosions lasted throughout the weekend resulting in an additional 8 explosions.
The explosions caused an enormous crater at the blast site. A vast quantity of container stacks were thrown and toppled by the blasts. Thousands of cars from Toyota, Renault, Volkswagen, Kia, and Hyundai were irreparably damaged. 7,533 containers, 12,428 cars, and 304 buildings were either destroyed or damaged. Aside from the death and destruction, the interruption to global supply-chains cost $9 billion.
5 Val Di Stava Dam Disaster — 268 Dead
In northern Italy above the village of Stava, the Val Di Stava Dam collapsed on July 19, 1985. The collapse destroyed 8 bridges, 63 buildings, and killed 268 people. After the disaster, an investigation found poor maintenance and a small margin of operational safety.
In the upper of the two dams, a pipe used to drain water began sagging because of the weight of sediment making drainage less effective. Water continued to be pumped into the reservoir behind the dam and the damaged pipe caused the pressure on the bank of the upper dam to build. Water began penetrating the bank and the soil liquefied into mud and weakened the bank until it finally failed. The water and sediment from the upper dam flowed into the lower dam, which failed 30 seconds later.
4 Nambija Mine Disaster – 300 Dead
By the 1990s Nambija, mining settlement located in southeastern Ecuador had a reputation as being a violent environment. The town is so remote it can only be reached after a three-hour trip on a rough gravel road that was only built in 1986. The mountain is riddled with holes from mining, the air is damp and filled with chemicals, and toxic fumes from the mine and refining process.
On May 9, 1993, a large part of the mountain at the end of the valley collapsed and a landslide killed an estimated 300 people. 10,000 people lived in the settlement of about 1 square mile. Most of the town’s houses were built right at tunnel entrances to the mine. Almost every family had a mine of their own and mine shafts were hitting other mine shafts. Experts long warned the mountain was virtually hollow. They cautioned further mining would result in a landslide, and after several days of torrential rains the soil softened as predicted.
3 Texas City Disaster – 581 Dead
In the port of Texas City on April 16, 1947 the deadliest industrial accident in American history occurred. The French vessel Grandcamp with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded. In one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions, the first blast and chain reaction blasts, including a nearby oil-storage facility, killed 581 people. The explosions even killed all but 1 of the members of the Texas City fire department.
The explosion was caused because of the ingredients used in the manufacturing process and packaging used to store the ammonium nitrate. The ammonium nitrate was loaded onto the ship and the heat from the climate caused a fire of the flammable substance began in the cargo hold. Firefighters tried (albeit in vane) to extinguish the fire in the cargo hold. The yellow/orange smoke created an attraction for spectators, which contributed to the deaths.
2 Bhopal Disaster – 2,259-16,000 Dead
On the night of December 2, 1984, 500,000 people were exposed to a toxic gas from the Union Carbide India Limited Pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. The area surrounding the factory was filled with shantytowns and extreme poverty. The first government release reported 2,259 deaths. Other estimates later reported 8,000 people died within 2 weeks of the disaster and 8,000 have since died from gas-related diseases.
The cause of the disaster is unclear and remains under controversy. The government and locals contend poor management and improper maintenance caused a situation where a back flow of water entered a tank triggering the disaster. The Union Carbide Corporation argues that the water came into the tank through an intentional act of sabotage. What is clear is that 558,125 people sustained injuries from the gas and another 3,700-16,000 lost their lives.
1 Banqiao Dam Failure – 171,000 Dead
In August 1975 in western China, a catastrophic failure of a dam occurred during a typhoon killing an estimated 171,000 people. The dam was built in the 1950s to produce electricity and prevent floods. Engineers designed the dam to withstand up to a 1,000-year flood.
During the fateful days in early August 1975, typhoon Nina produced floods at once in 2,000-year levels. The first day of the typhoon, it produced 40 inches of rain that surpassed the total yearly precipitation for the area in just one day. After days of more heavy rain, the dam finally failed on August 8.
The collapse caused a wave 33 feet high, 7 miles wide, and travelled at 30 miles per hour. A total of 61 dams and additional reservoirs were obliterated because of the Banqiao dam failure. The flood caused 5,960,000 buildings to collapse with 26,000 people immediately killed and an additional 145,000 dying as result of famine and epidemics from the disaster.