Natural disasters are a part of life, and we have to adjust and adapt to them as best we can. But what few people have ever been able to prepare for is a food-based disaster. And not the kind you might think, like a famine or a bad case of food poisoning. Turns out there have been some seriously destructive food disasters over the years.
10. The London Beer Flood
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a flood of beer would be cool or fun in some way. It seems like a joke custom made for Homer Simpson and, if it happened in real life, how bad could it possibly be? The answer is bad. Very bad.
On October 17, 1814, 320,000 gallons of beer erupted from a massive fermentation tank at the Horse Shoe Brewery. The 22-foot high tank held the equivalent of 3,500 barrels of beer. When one of the iron rings on the tank gave way, the whole thing burst. And it didn’t just crack open and spill out, it exploded with enough force to destroy the back wall of the building.
The neighborhood that the Horse Shoe Brewery was located in was something of a slum. This was a poor part of town where people were packed in like sardines. Houses were cheap, and cheaply made. When the flood of beer hit the streets it was in the form of a 15 foot high wave. Keep in mind that the beer managed to pick up all the debris and refuse on the streets, so when it finally reached people it was both alcoholic and cluttered.
Two houses collapsed when the wave hit them and a mother and daughter were killed in one of them. At the next house there was a wake being held for a two-year-old boy, and all the attendees were killed in the beer flood as well. By the time the brew had subsided, eight people in total had died from the chaos and damage. And then there was at least one unconfirmed report of a ninth death caused by someone drinking their fill of the river of beer until alcohol poisoning set in.
9. Poisoned Grain Disaster
Although famine definitely is one way that food can kill, sometimes the attempted cure for a famine backfires horribly as well. Back in 1971 there was a serious drought affecting the country of Iraq and much of the Middle East. Iraq brokered a deal with Mexico for a kind of high-yielding wheat that the Mexican government had developed, expecting that it might be able to grow in the desert climate of the country. They purchased 0.1 million tons of it and had it shipped across the ocean.
In order to prevent the wheat from germinating in the humid conditions on its long voyage across the sea it was treated with a fungicide that was made from mercury. Now, obviously, mercury is a toxic substance and you should never eat it, but this wheat was never meant to be consumed. It was supposed to be planted and the fungicide would not contaminate the plant as it grew. Sadly, the instructions that detail this were written in English and Spanish, which were not known to those who received the shipment in Iraq.
The wheat arrived too late to be planted, so there wasn’t really anything to be done with it. Farmers, even though they had been warned not to consume it, didn’t trust the warning. After feeding it to livestock they began to make bread and other foods out of the contaminated wheat. Within weeks, thousands of people were in the hospital with mercury poisoning and hundreds of them had died.
The government tried to recall the wheat, with mixed results. Many farmers had thrown out the contaminated wheat, which caused it to pollute the local environment, including rivers. By the time it was all over, a full-on ecological disaster had occurred and 459 people had died while thousands more suffered permanent brain damage.
8. Washburn Mill Explosion
Not everyone is aware of just how dangerous a mill can be. Flour seems like it might be the safest and most innocent substance in the world, but flour dust packs an unfortunate punch.
Back in 1878, Minneapolis was home to the largest flower mill in the entire world. The city was taking in 100 box cars of wheat daily, and turning it into flour. And the biggest mill in the city, the Washburn mill, was making 2,000 barrels of flour every single day.
While most people were probably concerned with the machinery in the mill being dangerous, because there were a number of accidents related to mechanical problems, the biggest issue was the dust produced by the flour itself. Any sparks in the building could cause the extremely fine particles in the air to ignite. The safety regulations that exist today were unheard of back then and the method of dealing with these problems had yet to be even conceived of.
When a pair of millstones overheated and started shooting off sparks on May 2, 1878 there was little to be done about what happened next. Dust in the chimney flues caught on fire which created a massive buildup of pressure. Essentially the entire building became a bomb. The explosion that it produced was heard 10 miles away in the city of St. Paul.
Fourteen mill workers died in the explosion and the fire that it created ended up burning down every building in the area, taking out five other mills.
7. Douglas Starch Works
The destructive power of tiny food particles really can’t be underestimated. However bad you think it can get, it can probably be worse. Case in point, the Douglas Starch Works explosion of 1919. The destructive force of tiny particles of cornstarch floating in the air was so powerful that it blew out windows all the way across the town of Cedar Rapids. Houses shook as if an earthquake had hit.
In total, 43 workers at the starch plant died in the explosion. Walls of the factory were blown out completely and 30 more people were injured in the devastation. So powerful was the blast that, on the other side of the river that the plant was situated next to, a child was blown backwards off of a couch and died as a result.
All told, 200 homes across Cedar Rapids were damaged. The cause? A small fire that had ignited, causing the cornstarch particles to ignite and rapidly expand in a massive explosion.
6. Imperial Foods Fire
Sometimes a foodborne disaster can come from the unlikeliest of places. Obviously anytime someone’s building a factory they tried to consider all the potential problems that could arise, but life often proves that there’s no way to prepare for the worst.
In 1991, the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in North Carolina experienced a catastrophic accident. A hydraulic line ruptured right above a fryer. The plant filled with smoke and flames almost immediately. Ninety people were working in the plant at the time the fire started, and they should have all been able to escape, but did not. The reason? The fire exits had all been chained shut from the outside.
It turns out that the owner of the plant, Emmett J. Roe, had ordered all the doors locked from the outside to prevent employees from stealing chickens. In total, 25 workers died in the fire and another 56 were injured. There’s no way to know how many would have survived had the door actually been functional, but it’s safe to say there would have been fewer deaths had they been able to escape.
5. The Dublin Whiskey Fire
A flood of booze can be dangerous as we’ve already seen. But there’s one thing to remember about certain kinds of alcohol that can make it even more dangerous. With a high enough alcohol content, a flood could potentially be flammable as well. And that’s exactly what happened back in 1875 in Dublin Ireland when a flood of flaming whiskey blazed its way through town.
Two buildings caught on fire, Reid’s Malt House and Malone’s Bonded Warehouse. Between the two of them they housed £2,000 worth of malt liquor and somewhere around $900,000 of whiskey. The booze ignited and flooded through the streets, sending every living thing in a panic.
Firefighters couldn’t use water to try to put the fires out for fear it would just exacerbate the problem. Instead, they had to use shovels of sand and manure to try to block the path of the flow. Inexplicably nobody died as a direct result of the flaming alcohol however there were still some casualties. Word is that somewhere between four and 10 people suffered some serious injuries as a result of trying to drink the whiskey despite the fact that it was still on fire.
4. Lucknow Ketchup Disaster
According to apocryphal data on the internet, Americans eat about 71 pounds of ketchup per year on average. That seems like a lot, but some people do seem to want it on everything. That definitely was not the case in Lucknow, India.
Six workers met an untimely end at the Akanksha food products plant when they were exposed to the fumes produced by fermenting ketchup. The first victim had entered the massive ketchup fermentation vat with the intention of cleaning out old vegetable pulp. However, the fumes produced by the vegetation overwhelmed her and caused her to fall unconscious. She eventually died from suffocation, and five other co-workers went to her aid, but each one suffered the exact same fate as the one before. There were two others who attempted to rescue the victims and managed to survive the incident although they did end up passing out as well and had to be taken to the hospital.
3. The DeBruce Grain Elevator
The DeBruce grain elevator in Wichita, Kansas blew up in 1998 as a result of a complete breakdown in the safety precautions needed to keep the building running properly. Dust was allowed to build up to unsafe levels and the control systems had become overwhelmed and clogged so that they couldn’t maintain their jobs any longer. The building wasn’t cleaned on a regular schedule and the initial spark that started the fire was the result of a faulty bearing that no one had bothered to replace. In fact, the bearing that caused this particular explosion had started a fire days earlier that didn’t lead to such a massive explosion, but it simply wasn’t repaired in the interim either.
The destruction took seven lives and injured another 10. The elevator, a massive complex in and of itself, suffered profound damage as a result.
2. The Imperial Sugar Explosion
If you’ve ever burned yourself with something made of sugar you know just how painful this can be. You can make napalm out of sugar, if you’re so inclined. It burns hot, and it sticks which makes it extra dangerous. And that’s part of the reason the explosion at the Imperial Sugar Factory in Port Wentworth, Georgia was so absolutely nightmarish. Any industrial explosion is tragic, but first responders to this explosion reported seeing victims who had their skin completely burned off, and others off of whom it was dripping.
Fourteen people died in the explosion and another 40 were injured. At least 17 were placed in medically-induced comas as a result of the severity of their injuries.
As with the grain explosions, the cause of the disaster here was dust in the air. Sugary dust was ignited by faulty equipment and a lack of proper safety protocols led to the massive explosion. The fire burned for more than seven days because molten sugar is nearly impossible to extinguish.
1. Pont-Saint-Esprit Bread Poisoning
Usually when bread goes bad it’s going to taste stale or it’ll have some mold on it. In Pont-Saint-Esprit, France, back in 1951, bad bread took on a whole new meaning. Over 250 people suffered intense and mind-boggling hallucinations. A man allegedly believed he was an airplane and jumped from a second-story window. Others saw themselves being eaten alive by animals. An 11-year-old boy tried to strangle his mother to death. And the cause was bread. Bad bread.
The popular belief these days is that grain infected with ergot fungus was the source of the problem. Ergot poisoning is a very serious kind of food poisoning that can lead to vomiting, fever and, in the worst cases, hallucinations and death.
Local doctors were quickly overwhelmed. Some patients had to be tied to their beds just to keep them from hurting themselves or anyone else. When they ran out of rope, they use the reins from horses. Seven residents of the town ended up dying and at least one more was confined to a psychiatric facility for months afterwards.