6 Tiny Mistakes That Caused Apocalyptic Explosions
Does anything improve a hard day at work like hearing about a huge mistake that wasn't your fault?
Maybe that's why we love telling you about things like tiny math errors that led to huge disasters and other minor mistakes that led to even bigger catastrophes. So settle in and celebrate the fact that no matter how badly you've screwed up at work, you've probably never caused an explosion that destroyed half of a city. Unlike ...
The Loose Bolt That Destroyed a Moon Rocket
Anyone who's ever assembled Ikea furniture knows that screwing in bolts is no walk in the park. You've got to turn and turn and turn, and sometimes you just want to say "Eh, good enough" and take a nap (on the floor, of course, since your furniture probably isn't safe for sleeping).
At some point in the mid-1960s, a Soviet comrade with a tired arm had the same feeling. The only difference was that he wasn't assembling economical yet sleek furniture -- he was assembling an N1 rocket for the Soviet space program.
Those are people in the lower right. What's one little bolt mean to that monster?
You know where this is going.
We've talked about Russian space missions before, always with a little tear streaming down our face, because they were so damn sad. The poor suckers didn't have enough money or time or know-how to get to the moon, but by gosh did they try. And the N1 rocket was supposed to get them there.
It did not.
Four test launches were scheduled, and four test launches failed spectacularly. This particular failure, the one doomed by the stray bolt, occurred on July 3, 1969, only a few weeks before the Apollo hit the moon for real.
At liftoff, that single loose bolt was sucked into a fuel pump, which then stopped cold. Because the fuel pump wasn't working, the automatic engine control shut down 29 of the rocket's 30 engines.
Which is sort of like asking Fred Flintstone to take over for your 18-wheeler's engine while it barrels down the interstate.
So, 20 seconds into its flight, the whole rocket stalled. Which was very, very bad, because that rocket booster was full of rocket fuel as it plunged back down to Earth. The resulting explosion was huge, yet the Soviets somehow managed to keep the whole disaster a secret until the fall of communism. And that was when we got a hold of this footage:
Yep. We're thinking this should be in every single workplace training video in the world. This:
The largest explosion in the history of rocketry ...
... was the result of one freaking loose bolt. One. Yet that blast was minor compared to what's coming.
The Lazy Contractor Who Blew Up a City
This is the story of how tiny little holes like this ...
Oh, that's not so b-
... turned a city into freaking this:
-holy what the hell!
It started with the sort of project that you wouldn't think could lead to an explosion no matter how badly you screwed it up. In the 1980s, a contract worker was tasked with a pretty straightforward job -- lay down some water lines so the good people of Guadalajara, Mexico, could enjoy continued access to city water.
It was an easy job, too, because space had already been dug for a separate set of lines (for gasoline), so it was as simple as laying his water lines in the same trench. There's no way that can start an apocalyptic wave of destruction across the entire city, right?
Surely if it could, the Joker would have thought of it already.
Fast forward a few years. On April 19, 1992, residents of the city noticed that their water smelled like gas. Local officials heard one complaint after another about smelly toilets and drains, and then someone noticed gas vapors coming out of the manholes.
Within two days, those vapors morphed into full-on smoke columns. And since the Guadalajarans weren't living in the "Thriller" video, this was a pretty alarming development. What if Ninja Turtles were real and they were in danger underground? Or worse, what if Ninja Turtles weren't real, and something else was going on?
"No, all I see is darkness and shit. Does that mean I'm a goth?"
Well, that gassy smell in the water? Turns out that was gas. Highly combustible natural gas. The city's water was so explosive that something as small as a lit cigarette or a particularly hard finger snap could ignite it. And remember, these pipes were running under the town, so it's like everybody was suddenly living on top of a gigantic landmine. And before anyone could figure out how the gas got there or what to do about it, the first explosion hit.
It was the one time in history that "my toilet smells like shit" actually meant something important.
We say "the first" because 10 more followed.
Each blast erupted under the busy streets of the downtown district. And we're not talking about little pops, either. One actually sent a bus flying. In fact, some of the blasts registered as high as 7.1 on the Richter scale recorded in Mexico City, hundreds of miles away. When all was said and done, 6 miles of sewer lines were destroyed and the city looked like post-blitzkrieg London.
We've never seen a semi truck writhing in agony before.
Eventually, investigators discovered that the whole shebang came back to that anonymous contractor who placed the city's water pipe over the state-owned gas company's pipe. It turns out that the water pipes were made of zinc-coated iron, and the gas pipes were made of steel. Put them together and you get a reaction that leads to corrosion. After a few years of water dripping down onto the gas pipe, holes formed, gas started to leak and somebody learned a horrific lesson in not cutting goddamned corners.
The Stockpile of Rocket Fuel Stashed in Plastic Drums
We don't care how neat and organized you are, shit has a way of piling up. Take a peek inside anybody's garage or basement or, hell, their refrigerator, and you'll see a large collection of unwanted stuff to be dealt with at some unspecified point in the future.
So what happens when your company makes rocket fuel and finds itself with way, way too much of it? It gets stacked in containers and crammed out of the way. And then, eventually, this happens:
Note the distinct lack of rocket at the other end of those plumes.
The company in this case was PEPCON, whose job was producing a particular compound that was pretty much used exclusively as space shuttle fuel. But by 1988, the space shuttle program had been frozen for over two years, thanks to the Challenger disaster. The product this company was producing was temporarily obsolete, like Jason Bateman between the years 1991 and 2003. By all rights PEPCON should have stopped and just made guest appearances on The Love Boat and Hollywood Squares for a while.
"Well, OK, but don't let it sit next to Charles Nelson Reilly. You're just asking for trouble."
Instead, for two years PEPCON kept making this fuel that no one needed. Piles and piles of the stuff. And then, because no one was buying it, they ran out of places to put it. They were like the hoarders of the chemical company world, but instead of dead cats and used diapers piled to the ceiling, they had 4,000 tons of amazingly combustible rocket fuel, which they eventually stored in plastic bins.
Now, we're not rocket scientists, but if we were, we'd probably know that these particular plastic bins were oil-based, and that this particular rocket fuel compound was an oxidizer. And that one welding spark could set off a pretty big explosion. Here's video of what that looked like:
On May 4, 1988, their stockpile of fuel went off in an explosion that was the equivalent of 2.7 kilotons of TNT. It left a crater 200 feet wide and 15 feet deep. It killed two people and caused $100 million worth of damage.
So, you know, the lesson here is you should store your rocket fuel in good, sturdy containers. Did you really need us to tell you that?
Maybe something like this -- though we admit, we don't know anything about rocket fuel.
The Late Delivery That Created the World's Loudest Crash
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.
The Butterfingers in a Fireworks Factory
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 ...
The Explosive Mistake in a Nuclear Bomb Recipe
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.