The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History

Khalid Elhassan - March 15, 2023

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Contemporary coverage of the Hotel New World collapse. The Straits Times

Incompetent Architects’ Plans Led to Disaster

The Hotel New World disaster killed 33 people. Another 17 were pulled out of the debris. Subsequent investigation revealed that the collapse was caused by incompetent architectural design: the building lacked a foundation. Specifically, a dead load foundation. Building designs have to account for two “loads”. One is the live load: the weight of the people and furniture and other things inside a building. The other is the dead load: the weight of the building itself. The Hotel New World building design only accounted for the live load. As investigators discovered, the collapse was inevitable. The edifice was built in accordance with incompetent architectural designs. The building’s structural plans had been drawn up by unqualified draftsmen named Shum Cheong Heng and Leong Shui Lung.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Mr. Leon, the unqualified architect who drew the plans for the Hotel New World edifice. Take 5

The duo failed to account for the dead load – the weight of the actual building. Leong then took his incompetent plans, along with a recommendation for an architect, Ee Hoong Khoon, to Lian Yak Realty, which built the hotel. Khoon failed to spot – or ignored – the draftsmen’s basic design flaw. A flaw that was exacerbated by the addition on the roof of four commercial air conditioning condenser units, a water tank, two storage water heaters, and a cooling tower. Lian Yak Realty’s managing director, Ng Khoon Lim, personally managed the construction. He was among the dozens killed in the collapse. In the aftermath, Singapore tightened up inspections, and required proprietors to more rigorously review building plans, test structural materials, and supervise structural works.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Statue of Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest. Pinterest

A Romanized German’s Split Loyalties

Arminius (circa 18 BC – 19 AD) was a German leader of the Cherusci tribe who committed one of history’s most momentous betrayals. It transformed him into a Roman villain, and a German national hero. His gigantic statue and memorial, the Hermannsdenkmal, stands today near Detmold in Westphalia, close to the site of his double cross. Arminius was a Romanized German who rose to command an auxiliary cohort. He won the admiration and confidence of the Romans, who granted him their citizenship and high social status, and enrolled him in the equestrian, or knightly, class.

The Romanized German was posted to the Rhine, where he served under Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general related by marriage to Emperor Augustus. The emperor ordered Varus to complete the conquest of Germania up to the Elbe River. Varus was heavy handed however. On top of that, he imposed onerous taxes on the German tribes, which incited them to revolt. As seen below, that was when Arminius realized he was more loyal to his fellow Germans than to his Roman employers. The result was a major Roman disaster.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Annihilation of the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest. Imperium Romanus

A Roman Disaster in Ancient Germany

In 9 AD, Arminius acted as Varus’ guide, and lured him and his army into a massive ambush. Out of the blue, hidden Germans fell upon the Roman legions as they were strung out along narrow paths in dense forests. Known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, it was a Roman disaster that ended with the annihilation of three legions. Varus was forced to commit suicide to escape the ignominy of capture. The catastrophe shocked Rome, and in its aftermath, Augustus roamed his palace, banged his head against the walls, and wailed “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!

The disaster not only ruined the tranquility of Rome’s greatest emperor in his twilight years, but also halted Roman plans for expansion into Germania and Central Europe. The impact of Germania outside the Roman Empire went beyond its becoming a future springboard and highway for the waves of barbarians who eventually destroyed the empire. The region was never Latinized the way that Gaul was. The resultant cultural and political differences were reflected in centuries of antagonistic relations between the French and Germans, which played a significant role in shaping Europe to the present day.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Inauguration of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. Wikimedia

The Brooklyn Bridge Disaster

The Brooklyn Bridge over the East River, which connects Brooklyn to Manhattan, was opened in 1883. Still in use almost a century and a half later, it is a New York City icon, and a National Historic Landmark as the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge. Like many major infrastructure projects, particularly those of the nineteenth century, construction of the bridge, which began in 1869 and lasted for fourteen years, was no picnic. Workers toiled in poorly ventilated underwater chambers where many got decompression sickness, and some were outright paralyzed. However, the work went on, and when the bridge was finally completed and opened to the public on May 24th, 1883, it was a sensation, marked by fireworks and civic pride. Then disaster struck six days later, and ruined the good mood.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Disaster on the Brooklyn Bridge. Flickr

May 30th, 1883, was a holiday. Crowds headed for the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge’s promenade – NYC’s highest vantage point back then. A pedestrian bottleneck formed on the Manhattan side. As the tightly packed crowd pressed forward, some people were pushed down a short flight of stairs. People screamed, and some jumped to the erroneous conclusion that the bridge was about to fall. The result was a panicked stampede. In the chaos, twelve people were crushed to death, and hundreds more were injured. Subsequent investigation pinned the disaster on a failure to place cops along the span, to keep the crowds dispersed and moving. It became standard practice thereafter for policemen on the bridge to keep people moving along.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser Youth Movement

When Gamal Abdel Nasser Invited Disaster Upon Himself

In the runup to the Six Day War (June 5th – 10th, 1967), tensions between Israel and her Arab neighbors climbed steadily. Raids from Palestinian guerrillas based in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, increased, and elicited massive Israeli reprisals. That put Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in a bind. He was the Arab world’s most popular politician, a hero of the masses for his defiance of Britain, France, and Israel in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Now, however, he was criticized for his failure to aid those Arab states against Israel. He was also accused of hiding behind a UN peacekeeping force stationed on the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Nasser knew that the Egyptian military was in no shape to fight Israel. However, he sought to regain his stature in the Arab world by bluster and bluff. He broadcast increasingly heated speeches that threatened Israel, and sought to convey his seriousness with demonstrations short of war. Nasser got carried away with his own rhetoric, however, and escalated the demonstrations beyond the point of prudence. He massed Egyptian forces in the Sinai. A few days later, he requested withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers who separated the Israeli and Egyptian forces. A few more days, and he closed to Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli ships. A week later, Jordan’s king arrived in Egypt to ink a mutual defense pact. The Iraqis did the same soon thereafter.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Egyptian prisoners captured in the Six Day War. Mint Press News

A War That Shaped the Modern Middle East

Unfortunately, what might have been intended as bluff seemed all too real from an Israeli perspective. Moreover, the Israelis, who actually were prepared for war, had long wanted an excuse to cut Nasser down to size. So on June 5th, 1967, they launched preemptive air strikes. The result was a disaster for the Egyptian Air Force, which lost ninety percent of its airplanes on ground. The Israelis wrecked the Syrian Air Force as well. Once they had secured aerial supremacy, the Israelis launched ground attacks that routed the Egyptians and seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula within three days. They routed the Jordanians and seized Jerusalem and the West Bank within two.

Egypt and Jordan accepted a UN ceasefire but the Syrians unwisely did not. So the Israelis attacked Syria on June 9th, and captured the Golan Heights within a day. The next day, Syria accepted a ceasefire. The war was humiliatingly lopsided. About 24,000 Arabs were killed vs 800 Israelis, with similarly disproportionate rates for wounded and equipment losses. The disaster seriously damaged Nasser’s prestige in the Arab world, which he had sought to burnish with warlike rhetoric and demonstrations short of war. It took a severe hit from which it never recovered.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Ming cannons. Wikimedia

A Mushroom Cloud in Seventeenth Century China

The image of mushroom clouds is commonly associated with the nuclear age. China, however, witnessed a mushroom cloud in the seventeenth century, because of a major factory mishap. Few industrial accidents were as major as that calamitous disaster in 1626: it wiped out half a city, and killed around 20,000 people. It is known as the Great Tianqi Explosion, after the Ming Dynasty Tianqi Emperor in whose reign it occurred, the Wanggongchang Explosion, the Wanggongchang Calamity, or the Beijing Explosive Incident in Late Ming. It was a catastrophic explosion at the Wanggongchang Armory, about two miles from the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.

It happened on the morning of May 30th, 1626. The blast was so loud that it was heard beyond the Great Wall, about a hundred miles away, and produced a “mushroom shaped” cloud that hung over southwest Beijing. The Wanggongchang Armory was one of half a dozen factories in the Beijing area that produced weapons and ammunition. Administered by the Ministry of Public Works, the armories were vital to Beijing’s security, and to the defense and military readiness of Ming China. With a workforce of 70 to 80 people, Wanggonchang manufactured arrows, swords, spears, cannons, and gunpowder.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Ming artillerymen using cannons to defend the Great Wall against the Manchus. Pinterest

The Ming Authorities Invited Disaster in the Heart of the Imperial Capital

Gunpowder’s and cannons’ importance had grown in recent years, as Ming armies found themselves in an arms race with the Manchus of today’s Manchuria. Cannons and an ample supply of gunpowder were necessary in order to keep the Manchus out of China. To keep them from falling into enemy hands, those factories were built in Beijing, protected by the capital’s thick and powerful walls. Much thought had gone into using the city to protect the gunpowder factories. However, little thought seems to have gone into protecting the city from the gunpowder factories in case of mishap.

Sometime around 10 AM on the morning of May 30th, 1626, people in Beijing noticed that there was a plume of smoke above the Wanggongchang Armory. It was followed soon thereafter by an immense explosion. Witnesses over a mile away heard a loud roar and rumble headed their way. It was followed by a giant dust cloud and tremors that shook houses. Then came a flash of light, followed by an enormous bang that “shattered the sky and crumbled the earth“. As seen below, the disaster shocked not just the city of Beijing, but produced aftershocks that changed China’s history.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The Wanggongchang explosion devastated Beijing. Samim

An Industrial Disaster With Far-Reaching Consequences

Huge trees were uprooted in the Wanggongchang disaster, and flew into the air to land on the other side of Beijing. A three-ton stone lion sailed over the city walls. All that was left of the armory was a crater 21 feet deep, and all within one and a half square miles was obliterated. The streets were reduced to jumbles of debris and rubble, littered with bodies and body parts. The Tianqi Emperor barely escaped with his life, while the only guard who stayed by his side amidst the panic was killed by a falling tile. The seven-month-old Crown Prince Zhu Cijong, the emperor’s only heir, died from the blast’s shock. The Great Tianqi Explosion was a disaster whose consequences went far beyond the immediate devastation and loss of life, terrible as those were.

The Wanggongchang Armory was one of China’s biggest weapons factories, and held the country’s biggest arms and munitions stockpile. The Ming military, already under pressure from the Manchus, never recovered. The disaster came at a time when the Ming Dynasty was also struggling with domestic crises caused by widespread corruption, internal conflicts, and a series of natural calamities that triggered peasant rebellions. The dramatic Tianqi Explosion eclipsed those. In a superstitious era, it was seen as a sign of Heaven’s displeasure with the ruling Mings, and a punishment from above for the emperor’s incompetence. All those factors came together to speed up the Ming decline and cause the dynasty’s collapse just 18 years later, when it was defeated and replaced by the Manchu, or Qing Dynasty.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
British soldiers seizing an Afghan fortress during their occupation of Afghanistan. Wikimedia

Prelude to an Imperial Disaster in Afghanistan

For much of the nineteenth century, the British and Russians jockeyed for influence in Central Asia. The Russians pursued their version of “Manifest Destiny”, and expanded into the region. The British feared that the Russians coveted India, and sought to keep Tsarist borders as far away as possible from Britain’s most prized imperial possession. In the 1830s, an Afghan ruler became too friendly with Russia for Britain’s tastes. So the British invaded Afghanistan in 1839, and deposed its Russophile ruler. They replaced him in Kabul with a British puppet, and garrisoned the Afghan capital and key cities to keep their new pet ruler in power.

Things initially went well for the British. They made themselves comfortable in Afghanistan, and it seemed only a matter of time before the country was annexed to India. However, the Afghans proved obstreperous, and Britain’s puppet couldn’t control the country. By 1841, discontent had flared into open revolt as the Afghan tribes rebelled against the British and their pet ruler. As the countryside was lost and supply lines to India were cut off, British control shrank to the garrisoned cities. Soon, the British found themselves in control of little more than the grounds of their fortified garrisons.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The British Army in Afghanistan. Encyclopedia Britannica

Escape From Afghanistan

The British sought a face-saving measure to extricate themselves from what had become an untenable situation in Afghanistan. They removed their puppet ruler, and dusted off the ruler they had deposed in 1839. They reinstalled the old ruler, in exchange for his promise to control the Afghan tribes long enough for the British to evacuate Afghanistan and withdraw in peace. Whether the reinstalled ruler deliberately betrayed the British, or simply lacked the influence to control the tribesmen, things went sour. As snow fell, the British set out from Kabul on January 6th, 1842. Their column of 16,500 soldiers and civilians was barely a mile beyond the city before it began to take sniper fire from nearby hills.

By that first day’s end, emboldened parties of Afghan tribesmen had begun to dash in and out of the column to loot the supply train and butcher whoever they could lay their hands on. That night, many froze to death as the column encamped in the open without tents. The following day, some Afghan leaders arrived and demanded that the British halt while they tried to ensure the safety of the route ahead. They requested a large sum of money, negotiated a British agreement to withdraw immediately from all of Afghanistan, and demanded that they be given officers as hostages. The British agreed to those extortionate demands. As seen below, it did not save them from disaster.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Afghans attack the retreating British. Wikimedia

Britain’s Most Humiliating Colonial Disaster

The day after they struck a deal with the Afghans to let them go in peace, the British resumed their march from Kabul. By then, many of the soldiers had become too debilitated by the cold to fight. As they entered a narrow pass, the column was fired upon by tribesmen ensconced on the rocks above, and suffered 3000 casualties. Over the following days, the British were shaken down for more money and more hostages in exchange for empty promises to rein in the tribesmen. On January 11th, the British commander and his deputy were forced to surrender in exchange for yet another promise of safe passage.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Remnants of an Army’, by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival at Jalalabad on January 13th, 1842, of Dr. William Brydon, the sole survivor of the British retreat from Kabul. Art Fix Daily

Soon thereafter, the British found their path barred, this time for good, by entrenched Afghans who had blocked and fortified a pass. A desperate charge was made to try and break through, but it was beaten back. On January 13th, a week after they had set out from Kabul, the last group of survivors formed a tiny square and made a last stand. They were wiped out. Later that afternoon, British sentries in Jellalabad, on the lookout for the arrival of the Kabul garrison, saw a single rider approaching. It was a Dr. Brydon, the sole survivor of the British retreat from Kabul.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Bagnall, Nigel – The Punic Wars (1990)

British Battles – Battle of Kabul and the Retreat to Gandamak

Brooklyn Eagle, December 20th, 1876 – The Inquest: How Three Hundred People Met Their Death

China Project – A 17th Century Mushroom Cloud: The Wanggongchang Explosion

Cracked – 5 Old-Timey Disasters America Could Have Easily Avoided

Darlymple, William – Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (2013)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Arminius, German Leader

Geni – Wreck of the White Ship

Goody Feed – 5 Facts About 1986’s Hotel New World Collapse that S’Poreans Probably Didn’t Know Of

Herzog, Chaim – The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East From the 1948 War of Independence to the Present (2005)

History Collection – 20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made

Jackson, Julian – The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 (2003)

Kershaw, Ian – Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (1998)

Lazenby, John – Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War (1998)

Library of Congress Research Guides – Brooklyn Theater Fire (1876): Topics in Chronicling America

Macgowan, John – The Imperial History of China (1906)

Middle East Review of International Affairs, Volume 9, No. 2, Article 2, June 2005 – Nasser and His Enemies: Foreign Policy Decision Making in Egypt on the Eve of the Six Day War

Modern Asian Studies, Volume 53, Issue 5, September 2019 – Hero or Villain? The Evolving Legacy of Shi Lang in China and Taiwan

Murdoch, Adrian – Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre at the Teutoburg Forrest (2008)

New York Tribune, May 31st, 1883 – Fatal Panic on the Bridge

Oren, Michael – Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2002)

Popular Mechanics – The Fatal Engineering Flaws Behind the Deadliest Dam Failure in History

Shirer, William – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (1990 Edition)

Singapore Infopedia – Hotel New World Collapse

Spencer, Charles – The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream (2020)

Timeline – The Deadliest Structural Failure in History Might Have Killed 170,000, and China Tried to Cover it Up

ThoughtCo – The Brooklyn Bridge Disaster

World of Chinese – The Blast That Nearly Destroyed Beijing