We told you before about some major disasters in human history that were swept under the rug by the powers that be in order to skirt responsibility or, in some cases, to “keep up morale.” But whatever the reason, there’s no shortage of instances where something terrible happened and those in power chose to pretend it didn’t.
10. The Hillsborough Cover Up
In 1989, 96 football (or soccer, for Americans) fans were killed in what came to be known as the Hillsborough Disaster. Fans of Liverpool were crushed to death in standing pens when crowds surged inside and there was simply no room for everyone in the space. In 2017, six police officers were charged for their roles in the deaths and subsequent coverup but were not convicted.
There was a crowd outside of the stadium just prior to the beginning of the game and police opened a gate to allow that crowd into the already full pen inside. Hundreds were injured in the crush of humanity in addition to the deaths and in 2021, a man who suffered severe brain damage at the time passed away and was added to the tally as the 97th victim.
After the incident, police actively sought to change the story, taking the blame off of themselves. They destroyed notes taken on the day and shifted blame to fans. Altered documents accused fans of attacking and urinating on police and pick pocketing the dead. They called the fans drunk and said they forced their way in, none of which was true.
In 2021, the police agreed to come to a settlement with 600 of the victims, though no details have since been released.
9. The USS Indianapolis Sinking was Blamed on the Captain
The story of the USS Indianapolis is not one often told, (except in Jaws) despite the fact it was the “greatest loss of life involving a ship at sea in US Navy history.” This is, in part, thanks to the efforts of the Navy to cover up what happened.
The Indianapolis had been carrying the parts of the bomb that was dropped at Hiroshima as part of a top secret mission. Obviously, that part succeeded. But on the way back, things went wrong. They were on route to the Philippines when a Japanese sub torpedoed the ship. Three hundred of the 1,197 crew died with the ship. Of those that remained, only 317 made it back home again.
The sinking was fast, so few lifeboats were deployed. Many in the water were burned and injured and couldn’t stay afloat. Swells reached 12 feet. Hypothermia claimed men at night. Dehydration during the day. And the blood attracted sharks. Hundreds of them.
The men stayed in the water for four days because the Navy didn’t acknowledge the boat was missing. Three SOS calls were made, and received, but the Navy ignored them, in one case because the officer was drunk. A random plane ended up spotting them.
The captain was put on trial for the sinking and court-martialed. For years he lived with the guilt, ultimately taking his own life, but was later exonerated after a sixth grader’s history project brought the truth that the captain wasn’t at fault to light.
8. The Ryongchon Disaster
Getting information out of North Korea is like getting blood from a stone, so it’s no wonder that the truth of the Ryongchon disaster is all a blur. One report says 150 people died and 10,000 homes were damaged. The Red Cross initially said 54 died while South Korean sources said 3,000. And the exact reason for all of it was just as sketchy.
Two fuel trains may have collided. But the Red Cross reported the trains were carrying explosives, not fuel. And one source said power lines were to blame when they fell on a train carrying munitions, not as a result of a collision. A former US ambassador to South Korea suggested it could have been an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-il, who had been in the area.
The country cut off the phone lines shortly after the incident, preventing any more info from getting out and the incident remains as clear as we’ve presented it.
7. The Battle of Orgreave
Call this Hillsborough 2.0, even though it happened first, as many of the same police were involved. This time it wasn’t football fans but miners. In 1984, 6,000 police clashed violently with striking miners. Ninety-five miners were arrested, but the legal cases fell apart due to lack of evidence. Police would later come forward claiming the police either manipulated or concealed evidence of the miners’ actions.
As far back as 1991, it was known police had used excessive force and prosecuted miners maliciously for doing essentially nothing wrong but picketing. Police accused them of rioting and £425,000 was paid to 39 of the miners for the malicious prosecution and assault, among other charges. Police never admitted wrongdoing, however.
Subsequent statements from police during the Hillsborough investigation indicated they were told not to write their own statements, instead just to sign pre-written accounts of events. Many of the officers lied at trial as well, doing the same thing they’d do 5 years later during the Hillsborough case.
6. The Windscale Meltdown
Nuclear disasters seem like the kinds of things no one could cover up but, as we saw with Chernobyl, people do try. The Windscale disaster in the UK was no different. In 1957, a fire broke out in the core of a reactor where plutonium was being manufactured. Everything was sealed and put under guard. The fire burned for 16 hours, releasing toxic smoke into the atmosphere. The government covered up the full extent of what happened, not even for the public’s supposed benefit, but because they feared it would jeopardize relations with the United States.
No cleanup was mounted because the technology to do it didn’t exist, so they waited 40 years. Robots were then sent under the water, which had flooded the area to retrieve and move the plutonium.
5. The Bethnal Green Disaster
The largest civilian loss of life in the UK during WWII happened in 1943. Residents heard an air raid siren and rushed for the Bethnal Green tube station as they had many times before. This was part of a routine now, and most people knew what to do. But this time was different. New anti-aircraft guns were being fired and people thought they were bombs falling. Only one door to the station was open and people panicked, pushing their way in and trampling others underfoot. In total, 173 people were crushed in the fray. Nearly all were women and children, and most died of asphyxiation.
Early reports suggested the tube station had taken enemy fire. Officials had thought the raid would go as all others but the new guns being tested caused panic. The truth remained hidden for 34 years.
4. The Battle of May Island
You’d think an incident in which over 100 sailors died in the First World War would be well known, but that’s not the case of the Battle of May Island, an event which wasn’t a battle at all but a series of accidents, and which was erased from history for many years.
Australian and Royal Navy vessels were doing exercises near the Isle of May. Mist reduced visibility and communications breakdowns resulted in numerous ships losing track of each other. No one knew minesweepers were in the area and the minesweepers didn’t know the exercise was taking place. By the time it was all over, eight ships were involved in five collisions. Some sank, leaving no survivors, others lost large portions of the crew. In total, 105 men died.
All records were sealed during the war but afterward they remained sealed until 1994, when surveyors found the wrecks of two vessels and the incident had to be addressed.
3. The NFL Tried to Cover Up Brain Injuries
It’s fairly well known now that there’s a link between football players and head injuries. Upwards of 40% of retired players were found to have brain injuries in one study. There are 140 concussions per season. This seems like a big deal, and it is, but for years the NFL went out of its way to make sure no one knew about it.
The doctor who first linked football to chronic traumatic encephalopathy after performing an autopsy on a player was attacked by the league, his work accused of being bad science. They published their own studies with flawed data, downplaying the severity of injuries, knowingly ignoring the risk to their own players. The New York Times found that the league had omitted data from 100 concussions from its reports.
When the league couldn’t make the information go away, they donated millions to the National Institutes of Health brain research to save face but then were promptly accused of trying to influence the research. The NIH rejected a $16 million donation as a result. They then invested millions more into medical and equipment research. That said, in 2017, a study on the autopsies of 111 dead NFL players revealed 110 of them had chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
2. The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
It’s rare that history is covered up so thoroughly that we only learn about it through comic books, but that’s the sad legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre. If not for HBO’s adaptation of the Watchmen, most people never would have realized it was an actual event. The show depicted the events which caused a number of articles to be published after the fact, pointing out that yes, this really happened.
In 1921, a massive riot in Tulsa was spurned on by the presence of the Ku Klux Klan and the trial of a 19-year-old Black man accused of trying to sexually assault a 17-year-old white girl. Soon, crowds of white men were burning down Black owned businesses and shooting Black citizens indiscriminately. An estimated 300 Black citizens were killed.
Afterwards, the records of what happened vanished. The National Guard had been called in, but there were no records of it. Police confiscated photo evidence. Local papers ignored it for decades and as late as the 1970s, anyone trying to research it was threatened. Even the language was sanitized, as it was referred to as a “riot” for years, rather than the massacre it was.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, when the Oklahoma City Bombing brought reporters to the area and the oral history of the people started to be recorded, that word began to spread again about what happened.
1. Santa Susana Had Several Nuclear Accidents and Leaks
Most people can name only a handful of nuclear accidents off the top of their head. It’s not like there have been hundreds of them, but the well known ones include Fukushima, Three Mile Island and, of course, Chernobyl. But would you include Santa Susana on your list? Most people wouldn’t, but they should since the Santa Susana Field Lab was a massive experimental research facility located awfully close to Los Angeles that experienced its own nuclear disaster all the way back in 1959.
Word of the accident didn’t even become public until 1979 and even then, most people paid no attention because the coverage was very minimal. A reactor core had overheated and began venting radioactive gasses. It did this for 10 days before anyone shut it down. Temperatures reached 1,465 degrees Fahrenheit. Three other reactors also had accidents at different times. And none of them had containment structures.
A physicist who worked at the site witnessed the release of nuclear materials. Worse, he watched people dump nuclear waste into open air pits to burn it. But for years, officials lied about what had happened even as developments were built on nearby land that could have been contaminated. Numerous people who live nearby have health problems that may have been caused by the contamination.
The site has still not been cleaned up, even though an agreement was reached back in 2010 to have it done by 2017. The Department of Energy, NASA and Boeing, who all conducted research there, have contended the site isn’t that dangerous and it’s too complex to clean up.