The Monongah coal mine disaster

In West Virginia’s Marion County, an explosion in a network of mines owned by the Fairmont Coal Company in Monongah kills 361 coal miners. It was the worst mining disaster in American history.

In 1883, the creation of the Norfolk and Western Railway opened a gateway to the untapped coalfields of southwestern West Virginia. New towns sprung up in the region virtually overnight as European immigrants and African Americans from the south poured into southern West Virginia in pursuit of a livelihood from the new industry.

By the late 19th century, West Virginia, now a national leader in the production of coal, fell far behind other major coal-producing states in regulating mining conditions. In addition to poor economic conditions, West Virginia had a higher mine death rate than any other state. Nationwide, a total of 3,242 Americans were killed in mine accidents in 1907. In ensuing decades, the United Mine Workers of America labor union and sympathetic legislators forced safety regulations that brought a steady decline in death rates in West Virginia and elsewhere.

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The Great Halifax Explosion

At 9:05 a.m., in the harbor of Halifax in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, the most devastating manmade explosion in the pre-atomic age occurs when the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, explodes 20 minutes after colliding with another vessel.

As World War I raged in Europe, the port city of Halifax bustled with ships carrying troops, relief supplies, and munitions across the Atlantic Ocean. On the morning of December 6, the Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring in Halifax harbor for New York City. At the same time, the French freighter Mont Blanc, its cargo hold packed with highly explosive munitions–2,300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of high-octane gasoline, and 10 tons of gun cotton–was forging through the harbor’s narrows to join a military convoy that would escort it across the Atlantic.

At approximately 8:45 a.m., the two ships collided, setting the picric acid ablaze. The Mont Blanc was propelled toward the shore by its collision with the Imo, and the crew rapidly abandoned the ship, attempting without success to alert the harbor of the peril of the burning ship. Spectators gathered along the waterfront to witness the spectacle of the blazing ship, and minutes later it brushed by a harbor pier, setting it ablaze. The Halifax Fire Department responded quickly and was positioning its engine next to the nearest hydrant when the Mont Blanc exploded at 9:05 a.m. in a blinding white flash.

The massive explosion killed more than 1,800 people, injured another 9,000–including blinding 200–and destroyed almost the entire north end of the city of Halifax, including more than 1,600 homes. The resulting shock wave shattered windows 50 miles away, and the sound of the explosion could be heard hundreds of miles away.

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Passenger ferry, Estonia, sinks, killing 852

Year
1994
Month Day
September 28

On September 28, 1994, 852 people die in one of the worst maritime disasters of the century when the Estonia, a large car-and-passenger ferry, sinks in the Baltic Sea.

The German-built ship was traveling on an overnight cruise from Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, to Stockholm, Sweden, when it sank off the coast of Finland. Estonia, a former Soviet republic that gained its independence in 1991 (the last Russian troops left in 1994), was a popular and affordable travel destination for Swedes. The Estonia was a type of ferry known as a “ro-ro,” which featured a smorgasbord, live music, dancing and drinking and allowed people to drive vehicles onto one end of the ship and drive off on the other end.

After hitting stormy weather, with waves reaching an estimated 15 to 20 feet, the Estonia went down in the middle of the night. Many passengers were trapped inside the ship, while others, even some who managed to make it into lifeboats, later drowned in the frigid water or died from hypothermia. Helicopters were used to rescue most of the 137 survivors.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, a joint Swedish-Finnish-Estonian government committee ruled it an accident and blamed it on stormy weather that caused water to pour through an open bow door and into the Estonia’s car deck, destabilizing the ship and capsizing it in less than an hour. However, there were others, including some family and friends of the Estonia victims, who believed the sinking was the result of a pre-existing hole caused by a collision or explosion.

Two years after the sinking of the Estonia, the Bukoba, a passenger steamship, went down in Lake Victoria near Tanzania in May 1996, leaving an estimated 1,000 people dead. In September 2002, a Senegalese passenger ferry, the Joola, sank off the coast of Gambia, resulting in at least 1,800 casualties. By comparison, when the ocean liner Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg off of Newfoundland on its maiden voyage in April 1912, approximately 1,500 lives were lost.

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Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” die in a plane crash


Year
1959
Month Day
February 03

Rising American rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson are killed when their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza plane crashes in Iowa a few minutes after takeoff from Mason City on a flight headed for Moorehead, Minnesota. Investigators blamed the crash on bad weather and pilot error. Holly and his band, the Crickets, had just scored a No. 1 hit with “That’ll Be the Day.”

After mechanical difficulties with the tour bus, Holly had chartered a plane for his band to fly between stops on the Winter Dance Party Tour. However, Richardson, who had the flu, convinced Holly’s band member Waylon Jennings to give up his seat, and Ritchie Valens won a coin toss for another seat on the plane.

Holly, born Charles Holley in Lubbock, Texas, and just 22 when he died, began singing country music with high school friends before switching to rock and roll after opening for various performers, including Elvis Presley. By the mid-1950s, Holly and his band had a regular radio show and toured internationally, playing hits like “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy!,” “Maybe Baby” and “Early in the Morning.” Holly wrote all his own songs, many of which were released after his death and influenced such artists as Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney.

Another crash victim, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28, started out as a disk jockey in Texas and later began writing songs. Richardson’s most famous recording was the rockabilly “Chantilly Lace,” which made the Top 10. He developed a stage show based on his radio persona, “The Big Bopper.”

The third crash victim was Ritchie Valens, born Richard Valenzuela in a suburb of Los  Angeles, who was only 17 when the plane went down but had already scored hits with “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna” and “La Bamba,” an upbeat number based on a traditional Mexican wedding song (though Valens barely spoke Spanish). In 1987, Valens’ life was portrayed in the movie La Bamba, and the title song, performed by Los Lobos, became a No. 1 hit. Valens was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Singer Don McLean memorialized Holly, Valens and Richardson in the 1972 No. 1 hit “American Pie,” which refers to February 3, 1959 as “the day the music died.”

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Trapped Russian sub rescued

Year
2005
Month Day
August 07

On August 7, 2005, a Russian Priz AS-28 mini-submarine, with seven crew members on board, is rescued from deep in the Pacific Ocean. On August 4, the vessel had been taking part in training exercises in Beryozovaya Bay, off the coast of Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka peninsula, when its propellers became entangled in cables that were part of Russia’s coastal monitoring system. Unable to surface, the sub’s crew was stranded in the dark, freezing submarine for more than three days.

At 1 p.m. on August 4, the Priz, trapped at 190 meters below the ocean surface, issued a mayday call. The Russian navy soon began to organize a rescue mission, asking for help from the United Kingdom, United States and Japan. In the ensuing days, while the three countries mobilized rescue crews for the trip to eastern Russia, the Russian navy attempted to first lift the sub from the water and later to drag it to shallower water where it could be reached by divers. Both approaches were complicated by the 60-ton anchor attached to the cables that had ensnared the sub. Finally, with fears mounting that the trapped crew’s oxygen supply would soon run out, the six-man crew of a British-owned-and-operated Scorpio-45 rescue sub arrived and was able to cut the sub loose. All seven on board, which included six Russian navy seamen and one representative of the company that made the sub, survived the ordeal.

The Priz incident occurred just five years after the Kursk, a Russian nuclear submarine, sank, killing all 118 people on board. In that disaster, the Russian government had delayed asking for outside help for some 30 hours and was widely blamed for the sailors deaths. As the disaster unfolded, Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned the public by failing to address the nation and even refused to cut short his vacation in light of the tragedy.

Although Russians everywhere were relieved and happy that the Priz was successfully rescued, others could not believe that the Russian navy had not acquired its own rescue equipment in the five years since the Kursk tragedy. For many, the Priz incident highlighted the effect of a decade of decay on the once-mighty Russian military.

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Fire engulfs circus big top in Hartford, killing 167

Year
1944
Month Day
July 06

In Hartford, Connecticut, a fire breaks out under the big top of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus, killing 167 people and injuring 682. Two-thirds of those who perished were children. The cause of the fire was unknown, but it spread at incredible speed, racing up the canvas of the circus tent. Scarcely before the 8,000 spectators inside the big top could react, patches of burning canvas began falling on them from above, and a stampede for the exits began. Many were trapped under fallen canvas, but most were able to rip through it and escape. However, after the tent’s ropes burned and its poles gave way, the whole burning big top came crashing down, consuming those who remained inside. Within 10 minutes it was over, and some 100 children and 60 of their adult escorts were dead or dying.

An investigation revealed that the tent had undergone a treatment with flammable paraffin thinned with three parts of gasoline to make it waterproof. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus eventually agreed to pay $5 million in compensation, and several of the organizers were convicted on manslaughter charges. In 1950, in a late development in the case, Robert D. Segee of Circleville, Ohio, confessed to starting the Hartford circus fire. Segee claimed that he had been an arsonist since the age of six and that an apparition of an Indian on a flaming horse often visited him and urged him to set fires. In November 1950, Segee was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 22 years in prison, the maximum penalty in Ohio at the time.

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The Great Baltimore Fire begins


Year
1904
Month Day
February 07

In Baltimore, Maryland, a small fire in the business district is wind-whipped into an uncontrollable conflagration that engulfs a large portion of the city by evening. The fire is believed to have been started by a discarded cigarette in the basement of the Hurst Building. When the blaze finally burned down after 31 hours, an 80-block area of the downtown area, stretching from the waterfront to Mount Vernon on Charles Street, had been destroyed. More than 1,500 buildings were completely leveled, and some 1,000 severely damaged, bringing property loss from the disaster to an estimated $100 million. Miraculously, official reports said no homes or lives were lost—although some reports did say one African American man perished—and Baltimore’s domed City Hall, built in 1867, was preserved.

The Great Baltimore Fire was the most destructive fire in the United States since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed most of the city and caused an estimated $200 million in property damage.

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Ships collide off Nantucket

Year
1956
Month Day
July 25

At 11:10 p.m., 45 miles south of Nantucket Island, the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria and the Swedish ocean liner Stockholm collide in a heavy Atlantic fog. Fifty-one passengers and crew were killed in the collision, which ripped a great hole in the broad side of the Italian vessel. Miraculously, all 1,660 survivors on the Andrea Doria were rescued from the severely listing ship before it sunk late the next morning. Both ships were equipped with sophisticated radar systems, and authorities were puzzled as to the cause of the accident.

READ MORE: The Sinking of Andrea Doria

In the mid-1950s, more than 50 passenger liners steamed between Europe and America, exploiting a postwar boom in transatlantic ocean travel. The lavishly appointed Andrea Doria, put to sea in 1953, was the pride of the Italian line. It was built for luxury, not speed, and boasted extensive safety precautions, such as state-of-the-art radar systems and 11 watertight compartments in its hull. The Stockholm, which went into service in 1948, was a more modest ocean liner, less than half the tonnage and carrying 747 passengers and crew on its fateful voyage. The Andrea Doria held 1,706 passengers and crew in its final journey.

On the night of July 25, 1956, the Stockholm was just beginning its journey home to Sweden from New York, while the Andrea Doria was steaming in the opposite direction. The Italian liner had been in an intermittent fog since midafternoon, but Captain Piero Calami only slightly reduced his speed, relying on his ship’s radar to get him to his destination safely and on schedule. The Stockholm, meanwhile, was directed north of its recommended route by Captain H. Gunnar Nordenson, who risked encountering westbound vessels in the name of reducing travel time. The Stockholm also had radar and expected no difficulty in navigating past approaching vessels. It failed to anticipate, however, that a ship like the Andrea Doria could be hidden until the last few minutes by a fogbank.

At 10:45 p.m., the Stockholm showed up on the Doria‘s radar screens, at a distance of about 17 nautical miles. Soon after, the Italian ship showed up on the Stockholm‘s radar, about 12 miles away. What happened next has been subject to dispute, but it’s likely that the crews of both ships misread their radar sets. Captain Calami then exacerbated a dangerous situation by making a turn to port for an unconventional starboard-to-starboard passing, which he wrongly thought the other ship was attempting. About two miles away from each other, the ship’s lights came into view of each other. Third Officer Johan-Ernst Bogislaus Carstens, commanding the bridge of the Stockholm, then made a conventional turn to starboard.

Less than a mile away, Captain Calami realized he was on a collision course with the Stockholm and turned hard to the left, hoping to race past the bow of the Swedish ship. Both ships were too large and moving too fast to make a quick turn. At 11:10 p.m., the Stockholm‘s sharply angled bow, reinforced for breaking ice, smashed 30 feet into the starboard side of the Andrea Doria. For a moment, the smaller ship was lodged there like a cork in a bottle, but then the opposite momentum of the two ships pulled them apart, and the Stockholm‘s smashed bow screeched down the side of the Doria, showering sparks into the air.

Five crewmen of the Stockholm were killed in the collision. On the Andrea Doria, the carnage was much worse. The bow of the Swedish ship crashed through passenger cabins, and 46 passengers and crew were killed. One man watched as his wife was dragged away forever by the retreating bow of the Stockholm. Fourteen-year-old Linda Morgan was asleep on the Doria when the impact somehow catapulted her out of bed and onto the Stockholm’s crushed bow. She was later dubbed “the miracle girl” by the press.

With seven of its 10 decks open to the Atlantic waters, the Andrea Doria listed more than 20 degrees to port in minutes, and its watertight compartments were compromised. A lifeboat evacuation began on the doomed ship. The evacuation initially went far from smoothly. The port side could not be used because the ship was listing too much, which left 1,044 lifeboat seats for the 1,706 on board. Passengers in the lower cabins fought their way through darkened hallways filling up with ocean water and leaking oil. The first lifeboat was not deployed until an hour after the collision, and it held more crew than passengers.

Fortunately, the Stockholm, which had suffered a nonfatal blow, was able to lend its lifeboats to the evacuation effort. Several ships heard the Doria‘s mayday and came to assist. At 2:00 a.m. on July 26, the Ile de France, another great ocean liner, arrived and took charge of the rescue effort. It was the greatest civilian maritime rescue in history, and 1,660 lives were saved. The Stockholm limped back to New York.

At 10:09 a.m. on July 26, the Andrea Doria sank into the Atlantic. Almost immediately, the wreck, located at a depth of 240 feet of water, became a popular scuba diving destination. However, because of the extreme depth, the presence of sharks, and unpredictable currents, the Doria is known as the “Mount Everest” of diving locations.

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Test triggers nuclear disaster at Chernobyl

Year
1986
Month Day
April 26

On April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident occurs at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Soviet Union. Thirty-two people died and dozens more suffered radiation burns in the opening days of the crisis, but only after Swedish authorities reported the fallout did Soviet authorities reluctantly admit that an accident had occurred.

The Chernobyl station was situated at the settlement of Pripyat, about 65 miles north of Kiev in the Ukraine. Built in the late 1970s on the banks of the Pripyat River, Chernobyl had four reactors, each capable of producing 1,000 megawatts of electric power. On the evening of April 25, 1986, a group of engineers began an electrical-engineering experiment on the Number 4 reactor. The engineers, who had little knowledge of reactor physics, wanted to see if the reactor’s turbine could run emergency water pumps on inertial power.

As part of their poorly designed experiment, the engineers disconnected the reactor’s emergency safety systems and its power-regulating system. Next, they compounded this recklessness with a series of mistakes: They ran the reactor at a power level so low that the reaction became unstable, and then removed too many of the reactor’s control rods in an attempt to power it up again. The reactor’s output rose to more than 200 megawatts but was proving increasingly difficult to control. Nevertheless, at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, the engineers continued with their experiment and shut down the turbine engine to see if its inertial spinning would power the reactor’s water pumps. In fact, it did not adequately power the water pumps, and without cooling water the power level in the reactor surged.

READ MORE: Chernobyl Disaster: The Meltdown by the Minute

To prevent meltdown, the operators reinserted all the 200-some control rods into the reactor at once. The control rods were meant to reduce the reaction but had a design flaw: graphite tips. So, before the control rod’s five meters of absorbent material could penetrate the core, 200 graphite tips simultaneously entered, thus facilitating the reaction and causing an explosion that blew off the heavy steel and concrete lid of the reactor. It was not a nuclear explosion, as nuclear power plants are incapable of producing such a reaction, but was chemical, driven by the ignition of gases and steam that were generated by the runaway reaction. In the explosion and ensuing fire, more than 50 tons of radioactive material were released into the atmosphere, where it was carried by air currents.

On April 27, Soviet authorities began an evacuation of the 30,000 inhabitants of Pripyat. A cover-up was attempted, but on April 28 Swedish radiation monitoring stations, more than 800 miles to the northwest of Chernobyl, reported radiation levels 40 percent higher than normal. Later that day, the Soviet news agency acknowledged that a major nuclear accident had occurred at Chernobyl.

READ MORE: 7 People Who Played a Crucial Role in the World’s Worst Nuclear Disaster

In the opening days of the crisis, 32 people died at Chernobyl and dozens more suffered radiation burns. The radiation that escaped into the atmosphere, which was several times that produced by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was spread by the wind over Northern and Eastern Europe, contaminating millions of acres of forest and farmland. An estimated 5,000 Soviet citizens eventually died from cancer and other radiation-induced illnesses caused by their exposure to the Chernobyl radiation, and millions more had their health adversely affected. In 2000, the last working reactors at Chernobyl were shut down and the plant was officially closed.

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Great Fire of London begins

Year
1666
Month Day
September 02

In the early morning hours, the Great Fire of London breaks out in the house of King Charles II’s baker on Pudding Lane near London Bridge. It soon spread to Thames Street, where warehouses filled with combustibles and a strong easterly wind transformed the blaze into an inferno. When the Great Fire finally was extinguished on September 6, more than four-fifths of London was destroyed. Miraculously, only 16 people were known to have died.

The Great Fire of London was a disaster waiting to happen. London of 1666 was a city of medieval houses made mostly of oak timber. Some of the poorer houses had walls covered with tar, which kept out the rain but made the structures more vulnerable to fire. Streets were narrow, houses were crowded together, and the firefighting methods of the day consisted of neighborhood bucket brigades armed with pails of water and primitive hand pumps. Citizens were instructed to check their homes for possible dangers, but there were many instances of carelessness.

So it was on the evening of September 1, 1666, when Thomas Farrinor, the king’s baker, failed to properly extinguish his oven. He went to bed, and sometime around midnight sparks from the smoldering embers ignited firewood lying beside the oven. Before long, his house was in flames. Farrinor managed to escape with his family and a servant out an upstairs window, but a bakery assistant died in the flames–the first victim.

READ MORE: When London Burned: 1666’s Great Fire

Sparks from Farrinor’s bakery leapt across the street and set fire to straw and fodder in the stables of the Star Inn. From the Inn, the fire spread to Thames Street, where riverfront warehouses were packed full with flammable materials such as tallow for candles, lamp oil, spirits, and coal. These stores lit aflame or exploded, transforming the fire into an uncontrollable blaze. Bucket-bearing locals abandoned their futile efforts at firefighting and rushed home to evacuate their families and save their valuables.

It had been a hot, dry summer, and a strong wind further encouraged the flames. As the conflagration grew, city authorities struggled to tear down buildings and create a firebreak, but the flames repeatedly overtook them before they could complete their work. People fled into the Thames River dragging their possessions, and the homeless took refuge in the hills on the outskirts of London. Light from the Great Fire could be seen 30 miles away. On September 5, the fire slackened, and on September 6 it was brought under control. That evening, flames again burst forth in the Temple (the legal district), but the explosion of buildings with gunpowder extinguished the flames.

The Great Fire of London engulfed 13,000 houses, nearly 90 churches, and scores of public buildings. The old St. Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed, as were many other historic landmarks. As estimated 100,000 people were left homeless. Within days, King Charles II set about rebuilding his capital. The great architect Sir Christopher Wren designed a new St. Paul’s Cathedral with dozens of smaller new churches ranged around it like satellites. To prevent future fires, most new houses were built of brick or stone and separated by thicker walls. Narrow alleyways were forbidden and streets were made wider. Permanent fire departments, however, did not become a fixture in London until well into the 18th century.

In the 1670s, a memorial column commemorating the Great Fire of London was erected near the source of the calamity. Known as the Memorial, it was probably designed by the architect Robert Hooke, though some sources credit Christopher Wren. The column stands 202 feet above the pavement and features sculpture and engravings that tell the story of the conflagration. Even though an official inquiry into the Great Fire concluded that “the hand of God, a great wind, and a very dry season” caused it, an inscription on the Memorial (removed in 1830) blamed the disaster on the “treachery and malice of the Popish faction.”

In 1986, London’s bakers finally apologized to the lord mayor for setting fire to the city. Members of the Worshipful Company of Bakers gathered on Pudding Lane and unveiled a plaque acknowledging that one of their own, Thomas Farrinor, was guilty of causing the Great Fire of 1666.

READ MORE: When London Faced a Pandemic—And a Devastating Fire 

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