Top 10 Notorious Christmas Tragedies

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For most of us, Christmas is meant to be a time of peace, happiness and goodwill. However, it doesn’t always work out like that. For all we like to think we’ll pass Christmas in comparative comfort, occasionally fate likes to intervene in a deeply unpleasant way. Here are ten Christmases that were transformed by a single incident into the stuff of nightmares:

10. The Lawson Family Christmas

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The 1929 Christmas Day murders of the Lawson family in rural North Carolina remain one of the darkest chapters in the state’s history. On that day, 43-year old Charlie Lawson quietly snapped, picked up a shotgun, and systematically murdered his wife and children. He shot five of them at close range and then bludgeoned his 4-month old daughter to death. He then laid their bodies outside the house, hands crossed across their chests, walked into a nearby patch of woodland, and blew his own brains out.

The murders were an inexplicable tragedy, made all the worse by the lack of motive. No one knew why Lawson would slaughter his family, or why he had sent his eldest son Arthur away on an errand before he started shooting. But perhaps the strangest aspect to our modern sensibilities is the behavior of Charlie’s brother, Marion. No sooner was the family buried than Marion opened the house as a tourist attraction, charging visitors to come see where seven of his relatives had died in terror and agony.

9. JonBenét Ramsey’s Last Christmas

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The story of JonBenét Ramsey makes for some grim reading. A six-year-old beauty queen, she disappeared on Christmas Day in 1996. Eight hours later, her body was found in the basement of her home, gagged and hidden beneath a white blanket. There were no signs of sexual assault, no incriminating scraps of evidence, and nothing to indicate the murderer or murderers had forced their way inside. It was an utterly perplexing case, and we still haven’t gotten around to solving it.

For a long time, everyone suspected her parents or brother of the murder, but no supporting evidence was ever found. DNA samples taken from her body didn’t match family members. There was no obvious motive. In the end, it simply got marked down as a mystery; meaning her killer is still at large, almost certainly hiding in plain sight, untroubled by his violent past. Will the Christmas murder of JonBenét ever be solved? Who knows?

8. The Christmas Hijacking

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On Christmas Eve 1994, Air France Flight 8969 from Algeria was boarded by four men armed with machine guns, dynamite and homemade grenades. What followed was a two-day stand-off that saw three people executed and the fate of 220 others hang in the balance. The hijackers were members of a violent militant Islamic sect, pushing for the establishment of a sharia state in Algeria.

At first, authorities assumed they had taken hostages in order to negotiate. In fact, the foursome were planning to fly the plane to Paris and explode it directly above the Eiffel Tower, killing everyone on board and potentially hundreds more in the streets below. They didn’t want anything in return; they just wanted to kill. The plan was an eerie foreshadowing of 9/11, and a large-scale tragedy was only averted by French Special Forces storming the grounded plane. All four militants were killed, but the death toll could have been so much higher.

7. The Italian Hall Disaster

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Most of us have heard of the famous question regarding free speech: “is it ever OK to falsely shout ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded theater?” But what we probably don’t know is that such a scenario has really happened. In 1913, striking mine workers and their families were attending a Christmas party when someone – likely a stooge employed by the callous pit-owner – screamed “fire!” The effect was instantaneous. The hundreds of people assembled all began a stampede for the door, a tiny opening located at the foot of a steep flight of stairs. All in all, 73 people were trampled to death, 59 of them children. Many many more were badly injured. It was a tragedy on an epic scale, one that sent shockwaves through the local community.

To add insult to severe injury, the stooge who sparked the panic was never caught. To this day no one is quite sure who he was, or even what his motives were. Whatever reason he had for being there, his actions that day destroyed Christmas for 200+ families.

6. The Christmas Cyclone

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When Cyclone Tracy made landfall in the early hours of Christmas Day 1974, no-one suspected the full extent of damage it would wreak. The city of Darwin, Australia had survived several cyclones already in recent years, with the result being that almost nobody bothered to evacuate or even prepare their homes.

The consequences of this almost-insane level of laziness would be devastating. In under half a day, Darwin went from being a bustling post-war reconstructed city of around 47,000 people, to teetering on the brink of extinction. 80 percent of all homes were destroyed, 70 percent of all buildings collapsed, and 41,000 people were left homeless and stranded in a storm-ravaged wasteland. Incredibly, only 71 people were actually killed, but the psychological devastation was unbelievable. Darwin was wiped out more thoroughly than it had been during the Japanese air-raids of WWII. In the course of a single Christmas, an entire city had all but vanished.

5. The Christmas Race War

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In late-December of 1896, the white citizens of Mayfield, Kentucky made the mistake of lynching one too many black men. Completely fed up, the black community got together and launched what was nearly the largest race war the state had ever seen. Black and white citizens alike armed themselves, with the whites barricading themselves into their homes while the black citizens marched on the town. Between December 23rd and 24th, the streets became a localized war zone. Hundreds of bullets were fired. Windows were smashed, houses were shot to pieces, and several people were gunned down.

It was only a timely intervention by people on both sides willing to negotiate that stopped the fight from ballooning into a mass-tragedy, but still plenty died that day. As befitting a significantly more callous age, the New York Times reported the whole thing with undisguised glee.

4. The Christmas Train Crash

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The Tangiwai disaster was New Zealand’s worst-ever train crash, a 1951 rail accident that constituted a most horrific Christmas gift for hundreds of families. At about 10:30 on Christmas Eve, an express passenger train carrying some 285 people passed onto a bridge above the Whangaehu River. Unbeknownst to anyone onboard, a flash flood had washed away the bridge’s supports only a few minutes prior. As the train rolled out across the rushing water, the bridge simply gave way, plunging all five second-class carriages, and one first-class carriage, into the river.

In all, 151 people were killed. twenty of these people were simply swept away, their bodies never to be recovered. Only minutes from home and less than two hours from Christmas, their lives were unexpectedly destroyed by a culmination of events so unfair it seems like a giant middle finger from God.

3. The Bam Earthquake

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Remember the fate of Darwin up there, wiped out in a matter of hours by a devastating cyclone? Well, it has nothing on that of the Iranian city of Bam. Around two in the morning on December 26th, 2003, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake stuck the sleeping city. It lasted a mere 8 seconds. In that short time, enough damage was done to kill 26,271 people – most of whom were crushed as they slept – and destroy around 90% of the city’s buildings. 100,000 people were left homeless, 30,000 of whom were seriously injured on top of that. It was one of the single biggest earthquake disasters in history, and one of the largest even in earthquake-prone Iran.

2. The Asian Tsunami

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The fatal tsunami of December 26th, 2004 was triggered by an earthquake that, according to National Geographic, contained the same amount of energy as 23,000 atomic bombs; in other words, it was big. But it was the following wave that really did the damage. All across the Indian Ocean and as far away as Africa, towns, cities, and villages were deluged with water. In some places, this took the form of waves over 50 feet high. In others, the ocean simply surged into the town, causing the same sort of damage as a sudden flood. Over 230,000 people were ultimately reported dead or missing, with millions more left homeless. Tourists on Christmas vacation, Indonesian locals, entire Thai cities, and Indian beach resorts were simply washed away, never to return.

It’s one of the very worst natural disasters in recorded history, and yet it’s only #2? What could possibly be worse than this? Buddy, you’re going to wish you hadn’t asked.

1. The Congo Christmas Massacres

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Tsunamis and earthquakes are horrible, but those are also natural disasters that we ultimately can’t do much about it. When humanity is the cause of its own devastation however, the effect is far worse, even if the body count is lower. That’s because, unlike a force of nature, there’s absolutely no good reason for human atrocities to happen, especially on Christmas.

There’s no real way to justify the 2008 Congo Christmas massacres by members of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army. Starting on Christmas Day, the Army began going from church to church and village to village, slaughtering anyone they could find. Reports from the time indicate they hacked their victims to death with machetes, or mutilated them by cutting off their lips and ears. Others were forced at knifepoint to walk into burning buildings and be cooked to death, while children from the targeted villages were dragged away to be sold into sex slavery or used as soldiers.

Entire villages were destroyed and a minimum of 400 civilians died, though some put the number as high as 620. It was one of the most brutal, immoral, and evil acts ever committed on Christmas, and few of those involved were ever brought to justice. So this year, while you’re tucking into your Christmas dinner and relaxing in the warm, join us in sparing a thought for all the victims of Christmas tragedies past.


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