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14 Worst Engineering Disasters of All Time

8. The Skylab crash on Western Australia’s south-east coast in 1979 was a calamity of America’s first-ever space station and became a worldwide sensation.

Worst engineering disasters: The Skylab crashes back to earth in 1979.
Image credits: NASA on The Commons/Flickr

NASA launched the US space station in 1973. It was the world’s first successful space station. Skylab collected huge amounts of data including 175,000 solar images. It also gathered useful information on the biological impact of living in space for a prolonged time period.

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NASA abandoned the space station in 1974. Five years later, Skylab’s orbit started deteriorating towards the earth. On 11 June 1979, the empty Skylab broke up in the atmosphere and showered fiery debris onto Australia and the Indian Ocean.

Skylab was reportedly designed to go up but not land back to earth. The orbit deterioration started far earlier than NASA had anticipated, and they were not able to control it. Reportedly, solar activity caused the Earth’s atmosphere to expand and the space station faced an increasing drag from the Earth. In addition, the cost of the project of building a single unit was an astounding $2.2 billion.(1,2)

9. The Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway collapse of 1971 in Missouri, USA. The mishap reportedly killed 114 people and injured at least 216 more. It is among the deadliest engineering disasters in U.S. history.

Investigations after the collapse of the Hyatt Regency hotel walkway.
Image credits: Dr. Lee Lowery, Jr., P.E./Wikipedia

The disaster took place at the hotel Hyatt Regency Kansas City in Missouri. On 17th July 1981, two adjacent walkways collapsed directly on the hotel’s lobby.  At that time, the hotel held a tea dance party and over 1600 people gathered in the lobby.  Reportedly, 114 people died and more than 216 were injured. Furthermore, the resulting property loss was in the range of several million dollars.

Apparently, the constructors found a design flaw during the hotel construction. They decided to fix it in a manner that resulted in the two walkways of second and fourth floors to be adjacent, causing double loading on the atrium’s roof.  In fact, the walkways weighed a staggering 64,000 lbs.  The connections failed spectacularly. Further investigations revealed that the tie rod designs were faulty and there was a critical error in how the walkways’ suspension system from the atrium.

The catastrophe proved to be a result of failed engineering, too many design changes, poor communication, and general negligence.(source)

10. The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in Madhya Pradesh, India. It is the worst industrial disaster in history. The immediate official death count was 3,787. However, it is the long-term impacts that were devastating, causing injuries, disabilities, and ailments to over an estimated 5 million.

Engineering catastrophes: UCIL- The site of Bhopal Gas Tragedy, followed by protests in Bhopal.
Image credits: Julian Nitzsche, CC-BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia , Bhopal Medical Appeal/Flickr

The mishap occurred at the pesticide industry Union Carbide India Limited in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Post-midnight on 3rd December 1984, there was a leak of methyl isocyanate (highly toxic) gas from the factory when the country was sleeping. The gas leak killed thousands of people within a few hours of the incident. Reportedly, about 558,000 people were injured, of which 3,900 were cases of permanent-disabling injuries.

The accident cost the UCIL owners in excess of $520 million.

Investigations revealed that the gas tank leaked over 40 tonnes of toxic gases to the city of Bhopal.  There was a large volume of water in the MIC gas tank. It caused a toxic chemical reaction which forced open the pressure release valve, allowing the gas to leak.

Such was the extent of the disaster that Bhopal’s third generation, born 34 years after the tragedy still suffers from various ailments.(source)

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11. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. All 7 crew members died during the catastrophe. Economic losses incurred: $56 billion unit cost + $130 million mission cost +  $500 million investigation cost + $7.7 million compensation to victim’s families.

Worst engineering catastrophes: 7 crew members including 1 teacher died when space shuttle Challenger exploded right after the launch.
Image credits: NASA on The Commons/Flickr1 , 2

NASA’s space shuttle Challenger exploded during its tenth flight merely 73 seconds after the liftoff. The disaster occurred on 28th January 1986. The crew comprised of five astronauts and a couple of payload specialists. Noone survived the disaster.

The space shuttle shattered in the air and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, near the coast of Florida in the USA. The catastrophe began when one of the joints in the solid rocket booster (SRB) failed right at the liftoff.

Several investigations proceeded following the disaster. They revealed that two of the O-rubber rings designed to separate the rocket booster’s sections failed due to cold temperatures during the launch. Furthermore, the tragedy prompted NASA to temporarily withdraw from all of its space shuttle missions.(source)

12. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 in Pripyat, Ukraine. Reportedly, 62 people died immediately after the explosion. The long-term death count is an estimated 4,000 – 9,000 people. Moreover, the economic loss incurred over the next 30 years is around $235 billion, making it one of the costliest disasters in history.

Chernobyl disaster in 1986 - Before and After
Image credits: Tiia Monto/Wikimedia, Pixabay

On 26th April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power station of the Soviet Union witnessed the world’s most catastrophic nuclear accident.

The technicians at the reactor Unit-4 conducted a poorly planned experiment. They switched off the reactor’s power-regulating system along with its emergency safety systems. The workers removed too many control rods from the core and allowed the reactor to run. Eventually, at night the core’s chain reaction became uncontrollable and it triggered a series of explosions. The graphite reactor core lit up in flames and released a tremendous amount of radioactive material directly into the atmosphere.

Around 30,000 Pripyat dwellers evacuated the next day. But the disaster had done most of its damage. People contracted severe radiation illness. Moreover, several thousands of people died due to radiation sickness and radioactive cancer.

The International Nuclear Event Scales rates the Chernobyl disaster as a level 7 event, the maximum level.(source)

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13. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, USA. The reported casualties are 11 deaths and 17 injuries. However, the oil spill caused deaths of staggering numbers of flora and fauna underwater, including the endangered species. It is the largest marine oil spill ever.

Engineering disasters: The rescue teams arrive at the Deepwater Horizon.
Image credits: Wikipedia

The industrial disaster started on 20th April 2010. Pressurized methane gas expanded from the well into the drilling riser and rose into the oil rig. The gas caught fire and exploded, and the Deepwater Horizon sank during the early hours of 22nd April.

Several reports have cited that the massive oil spill killed or harmed over 102,000 birds, 6,165 sea-turtles, 25,900 sea mammals, and a billion of newly hatched fish. The gulf was home to over 8332 species. Also, the total property damage was estimated to be $61.60 billion.

The investigations that proceeded revealed that the major cause of the disaster was a poorly planned well. The well did not have sufficient cement between the seven-inch production casing and a nearly ten-inch protection casing. Another reason was the faulty Blow-Out Preventer (BOP) which failed to do its job of sealing and controlling the gas well.

Furthermore, the government declared the well sealed on 19th September, but later reports revealed that the well site had still been leaking.(source)

14. The Rana Plaza Collapse of 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh is the worst industrial disaster in recent times. The calamity claimed an estimated 1,134 lives and injured at least 2,500 more.

Engineering failures: Rana Plaza, the Savar building crashes to ground.
Image credits: rijans/Flickr

The Rana Plaza was a five-story commercial building in the Savar Upazila of Dhaka District in Bangladesh. It comprised of a bank, clothing factories, several apartments, and numerous shops.

The structural failure occurred on 24 April 2013. The site abruptly collapsed with only the ground floor remaining intact, killing more than 1,134 people as per the final reports. Most of the victims were women and young children.

There were several glaring reasons behind the fall of the Rana Plaza. First of all, the building was built on a filled-in pond, and that compromised the structural integrity. It had three floors more than the original permit, and the construction material was substandard at best. Moreover, the manufacturers’ negligence was astounding and all the factors pointed to an inevitable collapse of the commercial site. The disaster prompted the site owners to compensate the victim’s families with a sum totaling $40 million.(source)

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