Figuring out what caused a disaster is like solving a crime: investigators gather evidence, look for clues, run a bunch of tests, and of course, have cool Detective Music Montages.
The only difference between a run of the mill drive by shooting in Cleveland and a plane crash in Miami is that more people are investigating the plane crash. While you might have 3 or 4 detectives on a murder case, you have a whole team of 15-20 investigators and a ton of support staff to assist them. And organizations like the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Bureau, the government agency that investigates all major air, marine, highway, and railway accidents in the United states) don’t just hire any old schmuck from off the street either, these people have engineering degrees and years of experience. So, needless to say, it’s rather surprising to hear when these highly skilled individuals are unable to conclude why a disaster happened, like in these cases…
Hinton Train Collision
February 8, 1986. A peaceful day in the quaint province of Alberta, Canada, where people still took the train because trains are awesome.
The Canadian railway people were terribly shortsighted, because for vast stretches at a time, there was only one track that trains from both directions used. To combat the obvious problem of collisions, they built a series of sidings that trains from one direction were directed to while trains going the other direction passed through on the mainline. As long as everyone followed the rules of the rails, there wouldn’t be a problem.
So, imagine the surprise of the operators of a Via Rail Passenger train when a freight train coming the other direction suddenly turned onto their track, and headed for them at 60 MPH. In case anyone wanted to know what the ending of Unstoppable would have been like had the runaway train actually crashed, it…isn’t pretty.
23 people were killed, another 71 injured, and there was millions in damage to the two trains, the cargo, and the rail line. Inquiries into what the hell the freight train was doing on that line revealed several disturbing things about safety practices at CNR such as getting on and off a train without stopping it (taking it on the fly.) No one knows what exactly went on inside the cab of the engine of the freight train. It is speculated that the driver, a man with a history of health problems, may have been incapacitated by a heart attack, while the brakeman was overworked and may have fallen asleep. The dead man’s pedal, a fail safe device that automatically stops the train if the driver doesn’t have his foot on it, was considered uncomfortable and was known to be circumvented by putting an item like a lunch box on it.
What we do know is that the conductor in the caboose of the train was unable to raise the engineers on the radio as the train blew through three red lights and speeding onto the main line right into a passenger train. So, what happened to the two men at the front of the train? Heart attack/sleep? Peacemaker style hijack murder? Alien abduction? No one knows, and since the two men were both killed in the crash, it’s likely we’ll never know, that is, until we invent time travel.
The Koror-Babeldoab Bridge Collapse
The Pacific island nation of Palau is separated into two large islands: Koror and Babeldoab. Both islands need to stay connected because one island is the seat of government and major population center, while the other has the international airport and 70% of the country’s fresh water supply.
So it made sense that when a Japanese engineering firm came in to design a bridge between the two islands, they made goddamn sure it was structurally sound. For several years, the bridge performed well, with no major issues. Then one day, out of the blue in 1996, the bridge collapsed, killing two people and injuring 4.
But it was far more serious than simple loss of life. It cut off electricity and fresh water lines between the two islands, plunging the whole country into chaos and causing the government to declare a state of emergency.
No one could figure out why it had collapsed. The bridge had been declared safe and sound structurally a matter of months before hand, the day of the collapse was calm with no wind or weather issues, and there was hardly any traffic on the bridge at the time of the collapse. For some reason, a perfectly healthy bridge just gave up and fell into the ocean one day.
The Great Chicago Fire
On the night of October 8th, 1871, a fire started in Chicago. A variety of factors, including poor firefighting skills, strong winds, and wooden buildings, led to the fire spreading beyond control. It burned for three days before a rainstorm finally extinguished the flames. 300 people died, and over 100,000 people (a third of the city) was left homeless. Many had lost everything they owned. What caused the fire is still not known, but that hasn’t stopped people from speculating about it.
The original suspect was Catherine O’Leary. The fire had, after all, started on her farm, and she was a woman, an immigrant, and a Catholic. The Chicago Tribune put forth the theory that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over a lantern, setting hay bales on fire. This was put to rest in 1893, when the man who wrote the story admitted he made the whole thing up because he thought it would be good copy. However, it remains a popular myth, even today.
A new theory was put forth that Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan was trying to steal milk from the O’Leary barn and inadvertently set hay on fire in the process. Sullivan was one of the first people on the scene of the fire, and claimed he saw smoke coming out of the sides of the barn and went to save the cows inside. But from his supposed vantage point, it wouldn’t have been possible for him to see the barn.
Another theory was written in a confession in the will of Louis Kohn. Kohn said that on the night of the fire, he was gambling in the barn with Sullivan and some other boys, including James O’Leary, when Mrs. O’Leary went to chase them out, a lantern was knocked over onto hay bales in the scramble.
A final, more bizarre explanation was that the fire was started by a meteor shower. Physicist Robert Wood suggested that the fire could have started when Biela’s Comet broke up and showered meteorites all over the Midwest. Eyewitnesses did report that they saw “balls of fire” raining down from the sky, and it would account for the fact that four major fires all occurred in the same general area on the same day. (See below) However, meteorites generally do not start fires, as they are cool to the touch when they hit the ground, so this theory is generally disregarded by the scientific community.
Perhaps even more mysteriously, on the same day, three more major fires occurred on the shores of Lake Michigan: The Peshtigo Fire, which burned an entire Wisconsin town to the ground and killed an estimated 2,000 people (still America’s deadliest fire,) The Great Michigan Fire burned Manistee Michigan to the ground and killed around 500, and the Port Huron Fire burned in Port Huron and killed another 50 people.
The Boston Molasses Flood
Quick, what’s the most ridiculous thing you can think of that’s fully capable of killing you while maintaining its status as a tasty treat. We’re betting most of you came up with the old standby:
However, the worst real life incident involving things with sugar in them occurred on January 15th, 1919, in Boston. At the Purity Distilling Facility stood a giant storage tank filled with molasses. Molasses is used in the production of non consumption Industrial Alcohol, which was still legal under the Prohibition laws. It was an unusually warm day for the middle of winter, temperatures in excess of 40 degrees. People were going about their day, doing whatever people did in 1919 Boston.
Then, out of nowhere, a tremendous explosion. Bostonians looked in the direction of the noise and couldn’t believe what they were seeing. A wall of brown liquid 12 feet high rushing towards them at 35 miles per hour. Stunned people were overtaken by the tidal wave, becoming trapped in the sticky shit and suffocating to death. The Molasses tank at Purity Distilling had collapsed, unleashing an estimated 2.3 million gallons of the stuff on the unsuspecting people of Boston. 21 people died, and more than 150 others were injured. Molasses ran into Boston Harbor, turning the water brown until July.
There are several theories as to why the tank burst, ranging from faulty manufacturing to a combination of warm temperatures fermenting the molasses inside causing the tank to burst from a build-up of carbon dioxide. The tank itself was destroyed in the collapse and resulting tidal wave, so we may never know what’s truly to blame for the sweetest disaster this side of Stay Puft.
South African Airways Flight 295
SAA 295 was a Boeing 747 with 159 people on board that suddenly crashed into the Indian Ocean on November 28, 1987. All perished. Recovery of the wreckage was difficult, since it was under 16,000 feet of water, but investigators were going to try, by George.
From what they did recover, they determined that a fire had started in the cargo area of the aircraft. This was most intriguing, since according to the cargo manifest, the aircraft was carrying nothing that could have started a fire. No one knows either what started the fire, or why precisely the aircraft crashed, although that was most likely due to either the crew passing out from the smoke, or the compromising of the airframe from the heat, causing a mid air breakup. This lack of a definitive cause has given birth to all manner of bizarre conspiracy theories, things like the South African government was smuggling munitions on board the aircraft because of an embargo imposed on them by the UN at the time.