We've all been there. Some jackhole is late getting you a report, or updating a spreadsheet, or approving your lap band surgery. So you're the one who gets yelled at by the boss or has to sit through another MTV Spring Break with your shirt on. In either case, someone else's error put you in a bind. But no matter how bad your situation was, you've got nothing on the victims of the Halifax explosion.
"On the upside, we still have a bitterly cold winter to look forward to."
On December 6, 1917, a Norwegian ship called the SS Imo arrived in the Halifax Harbor in Nova Scotia, Canada. The ship was there for a simple mission: get some relief supplies for war victims in Belgium, turn around, go home. The problem was that their coal, aka ship juice, was late. For two days the ship sat in the harbor, waiting. Late deliveries happen every day, though. Hell, we bet this very article is making someone somewhere late for something.
Remember that children's book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? Of course you do, because the ending was unforgettable. If you give a mouse a cookie, that mouse will fuck your wife. And if you're late delivering a coal shipment, a ship is going to get delayed. If a ship gets delayed, it's going to find itself stuck in traffic. And then it's going to collide with a French ship carrying war ammunition.
Illustrated by Satan.
The actual disaster was a little more complicated, but not by much. When the SS Imo finally got refueled, the harbor was logjammed with typical wartime traffic -- and the Imo wasn't piloted by the most patient of captains. On one side of the narrow channel conveniently called "The Narrows" was the Imo, which picked up speed to pass dawdling ships. In the oncoming "lane" was the Mont-Blanc, a ship loaded with explosives on its way to France. And even though the Mont-Blanc had the right of way, there was nowhere for the Imo to go -- the space was too narrow. As a last ditch attempt to avoid the collision, the Mont-Blanc made a hard left and the Imo reversed its engines. If only one ship had made a move, things might have worked out alright. Unfortunately, it didn't.
Between the TNT, the picric acid, the guncotton and the straight-up oil on board, the Mont-Blanc didn't stand a chance. Neither did anyone else in the harbor or surrounding city. The Halifax explosion would go down as the largest unintentional man-made explosion ever -- and that record still holds.
The explosion was felt and heard up to 220 miles away.
You've dropped something before, right? A slippery plate, a heavy box of books, a baby. At worst, you break something valuable; at best, you laugh it off and jump on the bar and do a little dance, on account of the all the whiskey you've been drinking.
Surely there's never been an occasion when one slip of the fingers killed people, or destroyed property, or delivered an explosion that damaged 2,107 buildings.
Photos can be hypothetical, right?
Apparently, there was. On November 3, 2004, two employees at the N.P. Johnsens Fyrverkerifabrik fireworks factory in Denmark dropped a box. In that box were fireworks. And somehow, some way, the simple friction that resulted from the drop ignited the fireworks in the box and a fire started. A fire in a fireworks factory.
Which isn't so much pretty as it is goddamn apocalyptic.
Every explosive in that factory erupted, one after another, in the most spectacularly horrific spectacle that you can possibly imagine. Yes, people were injured, one person died, homes were destroyed and the whole thing was a terrible, awful tragedy. But holy shit, wait until you see the video of what the explosion looked like:
As far as spectacular accidents go, you're not going to top that. Not unless it was, like, a nuclear bomb or something ...
Have you ever tried to whip up a gourmet meal, but discovered that you didn't quite have all the ingredients, so you did a little improvising? Maybe the lasagna called for ricotta cheese, but you're not a Rockefeller so you just substituted cottage cheese instead?
That's kind of what happened in 1954, when the guys in charge of testing the hydrogen nuclear bomb slapped together their bomb juice and they had to make a call -- which kind of lithium to use? We could go into the technicalities of what different types of lithium do to a dry fuel thermonuclear hydrogen bomb, but really, unless you're a supervillain, those details aren't important. What is important is that one type was thought to be inert (and thus would just act as filler) and it wasn't. So it was kind of like if they accidentally made a whole cannon out of gunpowder.
About half a second in, everything looks good so f- OH, HOLY SHIT!
But, it's just a hydrogen-bomb test. What could possibly go wrong?
So they're ready to test their bomb at the Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. The scientists are at a safe distance to observe an explosion that they figured would be in the neighborhood of 4 to 6 megatons (equivalent to 4 to 6 million tons of TNT).
So they lit the fuse and realized how totally wrong their math was.
"Do you think anyone saw?"
They watched as a fireball 50,000 feet tall erupted in front of them, and kept growing. The explosion formed into a mushroom cloud 130,000 feet tall -- almost 25 miles straight up, the height of 90 freaking Empire State Buildings stacked on top of one another.
The stem part of the mushroom cloud was over 4 miles wide, which looked tiny compared to the 62-mile width of the cap.
When it was all done, the eggheads calculated that the final yield was actually 15 megatons; two and a half times more than the expected 6. Within an hour, radiation levels at the forward observation posts were high enough that the scientists in charge had to evacuate to an emergency bunker.
The islanders who actually lived in the area didn't have that bunker-hiding luxury. They eventually returned to the islands, only to find out decades later that the radioactive soil was poisoning everything they grew.
"Oh, no, this is all perfectly fine. Well, goodbye forever!"
There was one tiny bright spot out of the whole screw-up. A Japanese fishing boat was exposed to the fallout as well (that's not the bright spot, by the way) and outrage over America's recklessness inspired someone in Japan to spin the whole horror story into a real horror story: a little one called Godzilla.
For more large impressions from tiny sources, check out 5 Tiny Mistakes That Led To Huge Catastrophes and 7 Bullshit Rumors That Caused Real World Catastrophes.