We may call some catastrophes “accidents,” but in other cases decisions are made — by those ordinarily trusted to make the right call — that are so poor they become truly remarkable in their negligence. In this account, we profile 10 shocking disasters and significant crises that were brought about largely through some extraordinarily bad choices. Some of these are well known, others more obscure. But one thing is for certain: some truly horrendous decisions played huge roles in these terrible disasters…
10. Air France Air Show Crash (France)
A decision to involve an airliner carrying actual passengers in an air show seems like the epitome of a terribly bad idea. While disastrous, it is not so shocking, perhaps, that this decision led to a fatal crash of the said airliner. Remarkably, just three of the people onboard an ill-fated Air France Airbus A320 that joined a French air show exhibit died in the ensuing crash in a forest. On June 26, 1988, Air France Flight 296 crashed into the woods near the runway at Mulhouse-Habsheim Airport while flying in the Habsheim airshow and attempting a risky maneuver with passengers onboard.
The aircraft was recklessly showing off the Airbus A320’s fly-by-wire safety features and control systems, tempting fate by flying at a low altitude of just 100 feet in a low speed pass. The senseless decision to involve the airplane in the airshow combined three big no-nos. First, involving passengers in air show maneuvers; second, attempting to “test” safety features; and third, a lack of preparation. The pilots had not even been shown a map with the forest at the end of the runway, with which they collided. Three people died in the burning wreckage while many more escaped, some with significant injuries.
9. Vajont Dam Disaster (Italy)
The failure of a dam is a catastrophe that can cause extreme loss of life due to the overlap of settled lowland areas and valleys, with the low levels water will find when accidently and suddenly released. A classic example of terrible decision making with a horrendous cost in human lives was an enormous landslide from unstable mountain terrain into the new reservoir of the Vajont Dam, completed in Erto e Casso, a municipal jurisdiction north of Venice.
The result of the landslide was a disastrous water displacement that formed a human-caused tsunami that towered 820 feet in height as it roared over the top of the new dam, causing relatively little damage to the structure itself but sweeping 1,910 people away to their deaths as it obliterated multiple municipalities below. The poor decision? Ignoring expert advice. The geology of Monte Toc, the mountain in the area in which the gigantic dam was constructed, was known to be unstable as indicated by natural evidence and had discussed in reports. However, both the company that built the dam and the government of Italy failed to heed warnings, dismissing them until efforts to shore up the collapse were far too little, too late.
8. The Queen of the North Sinking (Canada)
British Columbia’s coastline is dotted with islands, including Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii as well as many smaller islands off the shore of Canada’s coast. The ferries traveling these routes are known as being very safe and strictly regulated by Transport Canada. However, a disastrous crash into Gil Island by the passenger ferry Queen of the North and its subsequent sinking on March 22, 2006 led to BC Ferries navigator Karl Lilgert being arrested and imprisoned for four years as a result of being found guilty of two counts of criminal negligence causing death, under Canada’s Criminal Code. While 99 of the 101 passengers onboard the ship survived the crash and sinking, one couple was lost at sea and their bodies were never found.
Supreme Court judge Sunni Stromberg-Stein pointed to personal interactions between the navigator and the quartermaster taking precedence of the duty to pilot the ship in convicting the defendant. Lilgert and quartermaster Karen Briker had previously ended a complicated and untidy love affair, and their time on the bridge was the first time they were together again since their relationship had ended. After heading at full speed into Gill Island, the boat sank to the sea floor, later being spotted by a submersible at a depth of 1,401 feet.
7. Chernobyl (Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Soviet Union)
The disastrous explosion of the Chernobyl plant is known worldwide for causing immediate deaths, and had health and environmental impacts that continue to the present day. But what caused that disaster, and why did it occur? The answer is poor engineering and operational negligence, a perfect storm that led to immense nuclear fallout. In April 1986, Pripyat, now a ghost town in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the Soviet Union, was rocked by the now notorious explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. While the disaster is well known, lesser known are the facts. The explosion was a world-changing disaster that became the first nuclear plant accident in history to cause human fatalities.
Substandard equipment making up the reactor meant that Chernobyl was prone to unstable operation and possible meltdowns if strict parameters were not met. This vulnerability was coupled with flagrant violation of rules based on technical specifications leading up to the overheating of the reactor, which was unstable at low temperatures. Workers ran the facility at a low temperature, acting without taking due care. The catastrophic explosion that followed left the reactor core exposed. Numerous deaths from radiation exposure have followed, while plans are in place for yet more entombment of the site to further mitigate radiation release.
6. Japan Airlines Flight 123 (Japan)
Aviation disasters are terrible enough when one bad decision gives rise to loss of life, but worse yet when a bad decision causes a disaster scenario where the rescue that follows is bungled with yet further bad decisions, leading to pointlessly increased deaths. The crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 was the deadliest single aircraft crash in aviation history, an accident involving just one plane, a gigantic Boing 747 “jumbo jet.” The disaster was caused in the first place by what has been called a poor repair job in the tail region of the aircraft by Boeing. After the explosive depressurization incident, the ill-fated Boeing 747 lost significant sections of tail surfaces and control function, crashing into a ridge near Mount Fuji. But what happened next was another terrible decision.
The US Air Force arrived in the vicinity of the crash within 20 minutes of impact, yet was ordered to leave. The choice was made by the Japanese government to reject US Air Force assistance, stating that the Japan National Self-Defense Force would handle the rescue themselves. After a shocking 14-hour delay, the Japanese forces finally reached the crash site. After combing the area, the rescuers found a total of four survivors. Tragically, many bodies were found exhibiting signs of having unnecessarily died while needlessly waiting for Japanese help, when American assistance had been readily available.
5. Rana Plaza Collapse (Bangladesh)
Unsatisfactory working conditions in what are termed sweatshops have raised significant concerns. One of the most unsettling disasters stemming from a combination of terrible choices and workmanship was the collapse of the Rana Plaza, close to Dhaka in Bangladesh. The worst industrial accident in the history of Bangladesh led to 1,100 worker deaths, with 2,500 survivors, many of whom suffered devastating injuries. Why did this happen? Terrible decisions were made, bad enough to be prosecuted as criminal offenses.
Building owner Sohel Rana was charged with multiple criminal offenses, murder among them, while 37 additional people faced charges including murder. What exactly did they do wrong that could lead to so many deaths? Well, adding three additional levels to the building (against the provisions of the applicable building code) and then packing the building with equipment was too much for the building structure to hold. Sohel, plus 17 individuals, were specifically charged with building code violations. Stress led to a loss of structural integrity as evidenced by cracks. The disaster did not occur without any warning, however, further aggravating the negligence characterizing the case. When the building showed signs of structural failure, employees expressing concern were told to ignore the problem and enter the structure.
4. Sampoong Department Store Collapse (South Korea)
The June 29, 1995 collapse of the Sampoong Department Store, an enormous luxury shopping destination in Seoul, South Korea, killed 502 people in what was one of the most protracted and horrific disasters in the history of commercial buildings. The tragedy was not just caused by a single poor decision; it was the culmination of a series of very poor decisions with serious elements of criminal negligence and misconduct. Started on a former garbage dump site, the enormous building was initially constructed as an apartment building, but owner Lee Joon changed the plans to instead become a commercial project. This resulted in critical support structures in the building being knocked out to make way for elevators, plus installation of an additional floor with a heavy pool.
When construction workers expressed their disapproval, citing the risks, they were fired and traded in for a “cooperative” crew. Next, cheap concrete and an inadequate number of steel support rods were used, all to save money. Finally, bribes were used to get past inspections, with 12 inspectors later being convicted for accepting the cash. The building enjoyed great commercial success, with 40,000 daily visitors. When a gas leak occurred, Lee Joon would not close the store. As collapse indicators appeared two days later, merchandise of value was moved and executives left early. When the ceiling fell, the whole building collapsed.
3. The Halifax Explosion (Canada)
World War I involved significant efforts by multiple countries to contribute a strong war effort in a hurry. War effort measures may be intended to bring a war to an end and limit deaths, but war is no excuse for excess haste that results in undue loosening of adherence to laws required to keep civilians safe. The French vessel SS Mont Blanc, loaded with a highly explosive cargo consisting of TNT, picric acid, gun cotton, and benzol, was hit by the Norwegian ship SS Imo on December 6, 1917 off Halifax in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. The ensuing blast, the Halifax Explosion, remains the worst explosion in Canadian history and the largest explosion in the world prior to nuclear weapon development.
Nearly 2,000 deaths resulted, while 9,000 people were injured — many permanently disabled with injuries including loss of sight. The devastation was extraordinary in its scale. In addition to the obliterative impact of the blast itself, a tsunami was created by the explosion which, together with the blast, destroyed the north portion of Halifax. Why did the collision occur? The French vessel had right of way, but the Norwegian ship was hastily and carelessly rushing to leave with war supplies. Further proceedings led the French vessel to receive blame for the accident, as well. Despite the dangerous cargo carried by the SS Mont Blanc, there was no protocol in place to mandate safety procedures.
2. Herald of Free Enterprise Sinking (Belgium)
Disasters caused by cheapness and carelessness are some of the most infuriating to occur. The combination of extreme penny pinching and gross negligence, with an extraordinary case of passing the buck, is simply a recipe for disaster. The sinking of the British ferry Herald of Free Enterprise on March 6, 1987 was a horrendous maritime disaster that killed 193 people onboard. Rushed departures in a bid to speed up service times were a practice that led to ferry doors being shut after departures, and not before. If someone forgot to shut the door, the results could be disastrous, and that is exactly what happened.
The assistant boatswain, Mark Stanley, failed in his duty to shut the ferry’s doors and was instead sleeping in his cabin, while other crew either assumed he would shut them or already had. The first officer, Leslie Sabel, claimed to have believed he’d seen the assistant boatswain coming to close the doors. The defense of boatswain Terence Ayling was to say that it “was not his job” to shut the doors. The captain assumed they had been closed. Worse yet, the head of Townsend Thoresen (the company that owned and operated the ferry) had refused to spend a measly £5 on a warning device that would indicate if the doors had been shut.
1. Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse (United States)
Engineering standards in the United States are known to be rigorous, and for good reason. Public safety depends on properly constructed buildings. But one of the grisliest accidents in the history of building failure occurred on July 17, 1981 when Kansas City saw the worst building collapse prior to the World Trade Center. A total of 114 deaths resulted, with many ghastly injuries becoming apparent as trapped victims were freed. Great difficulty was encountered in removing debris pinning down survivors. One unfortunate individual even had their leg amputated by a surgeon using a chainsaw in the desperate emergency conditions.
The disaster remains a textbook case of engineering negligence. Tie rod installations supporting the walkway were found to be in violation of city building codes, and negligence including approving changes by phone were pinned on the engineering company responsible. The company lost its engineering licence, while all the engineers involved were stripped of their professional standing and licenses. The loads placed on the tie rods, stemming from a design change performed without proper calculations, led to not only the fourth floor being supported by the inadequate rods but also the second floor hanging beneath it. The tie rods were also positioned in a weak spot.