The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History

Khalid Elhassan - March 15, 2023

Disaster is likely if somebody shouts “FIRE!” in a crowded theater – which is why that is frowned upon, to say the least. But what if the theater actually is on fire? In one nineteenth century incident, a theater caught fire, but the crew decided to lie to the audience that all was fine, and that they should stay in their seats. The results were tragic. Below are twenty five things about that disaster and other preventable catastrophes from history.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The Brooklyn Theatre’s Washington Street entrance. New York Public Library

A Nineteenth Century Theater Disaster

On the night of December 5th, 1876, about a thousand playgoers were crammed into the Brooklyn Theatre to enjoy The Two Orphans, one of the nineteenth century’s more successful melodramas. All was normal until the intermission between the fourth and fifth acts, around 11 PM. The curtain was down, and as the orchestra played, the actors and stage personnel prepared for the next act. As the theatergoers waited for the play to recommence, they heard shouts and what sounded like a brawl on the stage behind the lowered curtain. Little did they know that it was the start of a tragic disaster.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The Brooklyn Theatre on fire. Bowery Boys History

A lamp had set fire to some scenery offstage, and theater carpenters who first spotted the flames tried to beat out and smother it. That did not work, and the fire spread. As the curtains rose for the final act, backstage employees tried to bring the fire under control. At this point, the most common-sensical course of action would have been to tell the audience to exit the theater, since it was on fire and all. However, some folk overthought things. They figured that telling the theatergoers about the fire could cause a panicked rush to the exits, and lead to disaster. So they decided to downplay the danger – and brought about an even greater disaster.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The Brooklyn Theatre fire. Pinterest

Shouting “Fire!” in a Crowded Theater is Bad – Unless the Theater is Actually on Fire

As flames spread backstage in the Brooklyn Theatre, some crewmembers decided that the greater danger was not the fire, but panic among the audience. So the actors continued their performance, and downplayed the risk. As the fire spread, two actors urged the audience to stay in their seats. As the smoke and flames became obvious, a theatergoer yelled: “Fire! Fire! The house is on fire!” Lead actress Kate Claxton tried to calm things down, and stated: “There is no danger. The flames are part of the play“. No sooner had she said that, than a piece of burning wood fell at her feet, and she screamed in terror as she jumped back. The audience reacted with the very panic that the crew had sought to prevent. Those in the balcony stampeded for the stairs, and many were crushed in the process.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Aftermath of the Brooklyn Theatre fire. Bowery Boys History

The building did not have enough exits to swiftly evacuate a thousand panicked theatergoers. To relieve the pressure, an usher opened a rarely used backstage door. Some managed to escape that way, but it worsened the disaster: it increased the airflow to the stage and fed the fire, which swiftly grew in intensity. Those in the cheap seats highest up had it worst of all. They were trapped in dark foyers and difficult-to-navigate stairs. Backstage, some actors made it out, but others stopped at the dressing rooms to change, were trapped, and perished in the disaster. Many fell to their deaths from the balconies, were crushed, suffocated from the smoke, or were burned to death. The official tally of the disaster was 278 deaths, but some accounts reported more than 300 fatalities.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
German soldiers parade on the Champs Elysee past the Arc de Triomphe after they captured Paris. Bundesarchiv Bild

A French Disaster in 1940

France was traumatized by World War I and by the devastation suffered by the parts of the country that were fought over. So the French devised a plan to avoid a repetition: the Maginot Line, which would secure the Franco-German border to the south. The bulk of the mobile French army was stationed in the north, and would advance into Belgium soon as the Germans attacked, to fight as far forward and outside of France as possible. The French had adequately fortified the south, and amassed enough mobile forces in the north to keep the Germans out of France via that route. However, they ignored a stretch of wooded terrain in the center, the Ardennes Forrest. They deemed it impassable for tanks, and so kept it lightly defended.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Hitler posing in front of the Eiffel Tower after his troops captured Paris. Business Insider

The Germans figured the Ardennes was actually passable, so they massed most of their armor against that sector. When the Germans burst through the Ardennes and raced to the English Channel to sever France’s armies in the north from the rest of the country, the French were wrong footed. Their mobile forces were advancing into Belgium, and couldn’t be turned around in time to stop the Germans pouring out of the Ardennes. The French lacked adequate reserves to send in and plug what became a widening gap. Disaster and collapse quickly followed. Two decades earlier, France had fought the Germans for four bloody years and emerged victorious in WWI. It capitulated and signed a humiliating surrender after just 40 days’ combat in WWII.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
One of many Chinese dams built in the 1950s. Popular Mechanics

A “1000-Year Flood” That Came Earlier Than Expected

Mao Zedong announced The Great Leap Forward in the 1950s. It was an ambitious modernization plan to transform China from a peasant society into a global power. As part of that program, the Chinese, with the help of Soviet experts, built a series of dams to retain water and provide hydroelectric power. Little emphasis was put on flood control. A chief engineer blew the whistle on the danger, but he was ignored, accused of insufficient communist zeal, and banished to the back of beyond. One of the newly-built dams was at Banqiao, on the Ru River in Henan. 387 feet high, it had a storage capacity of 17.4 billion cubic feet. It was designed to withstand “a 1000-year flood”, that is a flood so severe the odds were that it would happen only once in a millennium.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The Banqiao dam. Imgur

Unfortunately, in early August, 1975, Typhoon Nina struck, and stalled over the Banqiao Dam area. It produced flooding double the anticipated 1000-year-level maximum. Even so, the resultant Banqiao Dam disaster might have been averted if not for incompetence and poor communications. On August 6th, 1975, as water levels rose in its reservoir because of Typhoon Nina, Banqiao’s officials sought permission to open the dam to relieve the pressyre. Their superiors turned down the request, because there was some flooding. The request was finally accepted the next day, the 7th. However, the telegram failed to reach Banqiao.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The Banqiao dam’s breach. Wikimedia

This Dam’s Breach Led to a Damn Disaster

Water crested a foot above the Banqiao dam’s wave protection wall in the early hours of August 8th, and it collapsed. It was one of 62 dams that collapsed because of Typhoon Nina – a disaster that released nearly 16 billion cubic meters of water. The result was a wave 6.2 miles wide and 10 – 23 feet high, that rushed downstream at 31 miles an hour. It left a swath of devastation 34 miles long and 9.3 miles wide. The Banqiao dam disaster was history’s deadliest structural failure. It unleashed the third deadliest flood ever, devastated 30 cities and counties, flooded million acres, and destroyed nearly 7 million houses.

The death toll might have been as high as 240,000, and all in all, more than 10 million people were impacted. The disaster took place at the tail end of Mao Zedong’s regime and his Cultural Revolution. The Chinese authorities did their best to hide the extent of the catastrophe. Solid information – or as solid as governmental information ever gets in China – did not emerge until the 1990s. The details were revealed for the first time when a former Minister of Water Resources described them in a preface for a book.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Hannibal’s ambush of the Romans at Lake Trasimene. Emerson Kent

A Rash Roman Pursuit

On June 24th, 217 BC, after he had goaded a Roman army’s commander into a rash pursuit, Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca lured him into a trap along the northern shore of Lake Trasimene. There, he sprang on his pursuers what is considered, in terms of the number of combatants involved, history’s largest tactical ambush. The prelude began when Hannibal defeated two Roman armies in northern Italy in 218 BC. Rome’s consuls for 217 BC were sent at the head of two armies to deal with him. One of the consuls, Gaius Flaminius, gathered the survivors of the earlier defeats. Reinforced by new recruits, he formed his men them into an army of about 30,000 men, and marched south to defend Rome. Hannibal followed him, and marched faster. The Carthaginian overtook and passed Flaminius, and got his own army between that of the Romans and their home city.

It was one of history’s earliest examples of a successful strategic turning movement, to get between a defender and his base. Hannibal sought to draw out Flaminius and goad him into battle. He began to devastate and burn the countryside as he marched south. Flaminius had to hurry his army to catch up with Hannibal before the Carthaginian reached Rome. As Hannibal continued his march southward, with Flaminius in hot pursuit, the Carthaginian came upon a suitable spot for an ambush at Lake Trasimene, about eighty miles north of Rome. There, a stretch of the road passed through a defile, hemmed in between the lake’s northern shore and forested hills. Hannibal set up his camp on the eastern end of the defile, so as to be within clear of sight of Flaminius when he got there. He a baited a hook, and Flaminius bit.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Roman soldiers assailed at the Battle of Lake Trasimene. Imgur

A General Who Caught an Elusive Enemy – and Regretted it

Hannibal formed his heavy infantry in front of the camp, faced down the road along which the Romans would arrive, to challenge them into battle. On the forested hills that skirted the road to the north, he concealed his cavalry, light infantry, Gaulish allies, and waited. When Flaminius arrived at the defile’s entrance on the morning of June 24th, he saw the Carthaginian camp with forces arrayed in front of it to offer battle. Flaminius was relieved to have finally caught up with his quarry, and did not want to give Hannibal an opportunity to slip away again. So he immediately marched in to get at the Carthaginians. In his eagerness, Flaminius did not scout the hills to the north of the road before he marched his army into the defile.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Roman soldiers pushed into and slaughtered in Lake Trasimene. Look and Learn

The result was a Roman disaster. The hidden Carthaginians’ concealment was further helped by a fortuitous fog that morning, which reduced visibility. Once the last Roman entered the defile, trumpets were blown and the trap was sprung. The concealed forces rushed down from the hills to fall on the flank and rear of the Romans, who suddenly found themselves surrounded on east, north, and west by the enemy, while the lake blocked them to the south. Flaminius’ army was wiped out. Out of the 30,000 men he took into battle that day, about half were killed or drowned, while the other half were taken prisoner.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The demilitarized Rhineland after World War I. Wikimedia

A Demilitarized Zone That Helped Keep the Peace in Europe

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles forbade the defeated Germans from stationing armed forces in the Rhineland – a region in western Germany that bordered France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The treaty expressly specified that a violation “in any manner whatsoever… shall be regarded as committing a hostile act“. The demilitarized Rhineland was the single greatest guarantor of peace in Europe. It made it impossible for Germany to attack her western neighbors. Simultaneously, because it left Germany defenseless on her western borders, it made it impossible to attack her eastern neighbors.

So long as the Rhineland was defenseless, if the Germans attacked their eastern neighbors, they would be open to attack from those eastern neighbors’ ally, France, on Germany’s unprotected west. While a demilitarized Rhineland was a positive for European peace, it was a humiliating negative for German pride. One of Hitler’s most popular campaign promises as the Nazis rose to power was to remilitarize the Rhineland. In 1936, he decided to send German soldiers into the Rhineland – a huge risk. In what turned out to be a disaster for the whole world, he was allowed to get away with it.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
German soldiers cross into the Rhineland on March 7th, 1936. The Article

How Weak Willed Allies Empowered Hitler

Hitler’s decision to remilitarize the Rhineland was a big gamble. Especially in light of the fact that the German military at the time was in no condition to do much if it faced opposition. The Germans at the time could have done nothing other than beat a humiliating retreat if the Western Allies had opposed the remilitarization with even minimal armed force. Hitler however was a gambler. He bet that while the Western Allies had the power to thwart him, they lacked the will to actually use that power.

On March 7th, 1936, against the advice of his generals, Hitler ordered 19 German battalions to occupy the Rhineland, in direct violation of the treaties of Versailles and Locarno. He won the gamble. The British and French protested, but neither took direct action to enforce the treaties’ terms. Once he had taken the measure of France and Britain, Hitler’s appetite was whetted for ever riskier gambles. He calculated that he could act more and more egregiously, secure in the knowledge that the Western Allies would strongly protest and vehemently condemn, but stop short of direct action. He continued to escalate until his invasion of Poland in 1939. He was stunned that Britain and France had finally had enough, and declared war against Germany.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Shi Lang. Wikimedia

A Betrayal that Destroyed a Dynasty

Shi Lang, Marquis Jinghai (1621 – 1696) was a Chinese admiral who served the Ming Dynasty. Then he switched sides, turned against his people, and defected to help the Manchus conquer China. He was instrumental in the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty, and its replacement with the Manchu Qing Dynasty which ruled China until the early twentieth century. Shi Lang was born into a prominent family in Fujian, studied the military arts, and gained an expertise in naval warfare. He joined the Ming navy, which was led by the powerful Zheng family. He distinguished himself, and rapidly rose to command a powerful contingent by his mid-twenties. A quarrel with a scion of the Zhengs led Shi Lang to defect to the rising Manchus in 1646. In retaliation, the Zhengs slaughtered the family he left behind as traitors, and killed Shi Lang’s father, brother, and son.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Manchus attacking China. Teach War

The Manchus lacked a seafaring tradition and capable naval commanders. They warmly welcomed Shi Lang for his naval talents and network of contacts throughout East Asia’s port cities. In 1656, he helped the Manchus conquer his native province of Fujian. In 1663, he conducted a successful campaign against the Zheng family, in cooperation with a naval contingent from the Dutch East India Company. In 1681, he led the Manchu invasion of the Ming Dynasty’s last bastion in Taiwan. He had the satisfaction of once again defeating the Zheng family. He crushed their chief admiral in a sea battle off the Pescadores, and forced the final surrender of his old enemies. After he conquered Taiwan for the Manchus, Shi Lang was given the hereditary rank of marquis, and granted the title of “General Who Maintains Peace on the Seas”.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
William the Aetheling. Wikimedia

A Spoiled Aristo “Destined to be Food for the Fire

William the Aetheling (1103 – 1120) was the heir and sole legitimate son of King Henry I of England. He was also the Duke of Normandy in his own right. William was spoiled rotten, and a contemporary chronicler wrote that he was pampered so much, that it was clear he was “destined to be food for the fire“. That indulgence led to disaster, when the young prince got himself and hundreds of others killed in a stupid accident. It was a disaster not just for himself and those around him, but for England as a whole. It occurred in November, 1120, after a diplomatic visit to France, when a fleet was assembled to transport the royal party across the English Channel back to England.

Seventeen-year-old Prince William planned to cross in the White Ship, the English navy’s proudest and fastest ship. He and his companions turned the affair into a wild party, and postponed their voyage across the Channel, while they got three sheets to the wind drunk on shore with the ship’s crew. Then, in a state of extreme inebriation, the prince and his entourage, which numbered about 300 people, boarded the White Ship to cross the Channel at night. King Henry had sailed hours earlier, and without anyone to tell him “no”, the spoiled prince had – and carried out – a catastrophically dumb idea.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The wrecking of the White Ship. Normandy Then and Now

A Drunk Race that Led to Disaster

The drunk Prince William and his friends challenged the White Ship’s captain and crew to make a race of it and catch King Henry’s ship. His Majesty had sailed hours earlier, but the prince and his buddies wanted to see if they could pass his ship before it reached England. Captain and crew, confident of their ship’s speed, accepted the challenge. The crew, just as drunk as their passengers, rowed furiously while they were cheered and urged on by the intoxicated prince and his friends. They set a good pace, but in their plastered state, the crew failed to keep a good lookout and rowed into a hazardous stretch. There, they struck a partially submerged rock.

The White Ship was holed and quickly sank. Hundreds drowned in the disaster, including the prince. William was his father’s only legitimate male issue, and his death caused a succession crisis. King Henry failed to sire another son, and so sought to designate his daughter, Matilda, as his heir. His barons reluctantly agreed, but reneged when Henry died in 1135. Most of England’s aristocrats backed the deceased king’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, when he claimed and seized the crown as the eldest male royal relative. The result was a civil war that tore England apart for decades.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The Hotel New World. YouTube

A Sudden Hotel Collapse

In 1969, the Lian Yak Realty Company began construction of a six floor edifice at the corner of Serangoon Road and Owen Road in Singapore. It was completed in 1971, and housed the New Serangoon Hotel. The new establishment had an inauspicious start. In 1975, the hotel made headlines when 35 guests were knocked out and had to be hospitalized because of a toxic carbon monoxide leak. Despite the bad press, the hotel recovered, changed names, and resumed operations. By the 1980s, the building housed a branch of the Industrial & Commercial Branch on the first floor, and a night club on the second floor. The other four floors were occupied by the 67-room New World Hotel.

All began routine on March 15th, 1986, until 11:25 AM. Then, out of the blue, in less than a minute, the entire edifice collapsed. Not a single wall or column were left standing, and the entire structure was reduced to rubble. The cause was an incompetent architect and incompetent engineers who had screwed up basic design and construction calculations. The Hotel New World failure was one of the worst disasters in post-WWII Singapore. Initial rescue efforts were hampered by the fact that Singapore’s government lacked personnel trained or equipped to deal with such a situation. Fortunately, some foreign tunneling experts were building a subway at the time, and they were sent in to spearhead the rescue.

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