5 Morons Who Made Disasters Worse
In 1963, seven people shipwrecked on an uncharted Pacific island. That was bad. Then a robot parachuted on the island, and the survivors sent it to Hawaii with a message so they'd all get rescued. But one of the castaways stuffed his lucky rabbit's foot into the robot, demagnetizing its memory, erasing the message, and dooming them all.
That castaway's name was Gilligan, and he was downright competent compared with the morons we're going to tell you about today.
Someone Filled A Ship's Life Jackets With Metal
Some of you fans of super obscure history have heard of a ship known as the Titanic. Today, we're going to talk about a shipwreck that happened within a decade of the Titanic, the sinking of the PS General Slocum. More than a thousand people died when the Slocum sank, which isn't as quite many as on the Titanic, but then, the Slocum had fewer passengers total. And while many on the Titanic died because they were waiting in the freezing water for hours for rescue, the Slocum didn't have that exact issue.
The Slocum, you see, didn't sink in the open Atlantic. The Slocum was a steamboat, and it sank in New York's East River. When it caught fire on June 15, 1904, while taking a large church group to a picnic site on Long Island, it floated just a few hundred feet from shore. To put it another way, the distance from the ship to land that day was less than the distance from one end of the Titanic to the other. Less than half that distance, in fact.
But when a boy named Frank informed Captain William Van Schaick that a fire had broken out one deck below (among the oily rags, paint cans, and giant boxes labeled "flammable, lol"), the Captain didn't believe him. Little boys are notorious liars, you see. By the time other people went up to Van Schaick and said "How about that fire, eh, you doing something about that?" this ship had moved slightly ahead, and he thought steering to shore would strain the ship too much. Instead, he'd plow forward and beach the ship on an island a mile way.
Till then, the crew would try to put the fire out. This failed because they were really lousy firefighters; maybe they would have done a better job if they'd hooked the hose to some kind of water supply before pointing it at the blaze. But the real senseless disaster came when passengers put on life jackets and abandoned ship.
The Slocum had got its life jackets from the Kahnweiler life preserver company, who had bought the cork stuffing from a manufacturer in New Jersey. Cork, like most material, is sold by weight. The New Jersey company came up with a plan to save on high-quality cork: Someone stuck iron bars into the cork, so it took less cork to meet the weight requirement.
Heaviness, which is such a great quality when you're looking for something to tip the scales, is not at all a good quality when you're making buoyant safety equipment. Those slim but dense iron bars found their way into the life jackets, and passengers who wore these and jumped into the water didn't float. They sank. Sank like ... well, like they were weighed down with iron bars.
A Union Carbide Supervisor Really Wanted To Finish His Tea
Union Carbide's 1984 chemical spill in Bhopal, India, was the worst industrial accident in history. It killed thousands of people and injured hundreds of thousands. It was so bad that we're not even going to make any fart jokes about this "massive gas leak." Mainly because the gas in question was methyl isocyanate, which might sound like a derivative of methane, but fart gas is at no point used in the manufacture, we checked.
Many separate issues contributed to the disaster, including safety systems failing, malfunctioning equipment for grabbing bad gasses, storage tanks overflowing, and essential plant sections going down for maintenance without any redundancies. But if we have to point our finger at someone who needlessly made the whole thing worse, we'll single out Shakil Qureshi.
Shakil Qureshi was the supervisor devoted to methyl isocyanate. At 11:30pm, workers noticed a gas leak when their eyes started watering. They wore no eye protection, presumably so their eyes could function as effective methyl isocyanate detectors. An operator named V. N. Singh then discovered the dripping source of the leak (the methyl isocyanate was stored as liquid and only became gas after it escaped its tank) and informed Qureshi at 11:45. Qureshi said that he would address the issue ... would address it after he finished his tea.
He took just under an hour to finish that tea. That was enough time for the leak to progress significantly. Afterward, Qureshi said that when he'd heard the warning, he'd thought Singh meant a water leak, not a gas leak, which explains why he thought it was no big deal. But when your job title is officially "methyl isocyanate supervisor," you should be primed to think "gas leak" at the slightest suggestion. Like, we wouldn't be very sympathetic if the core supervisor at Chernobyl said, "Oh, a core meltdown? I assumed they were reporting a Twitter meltdown!"
Speaking of Chernobyl, the Bhopal disaster is absolutely ripe for a Chernobyl-style miniseries. And now that we look it up, it seems there was a Bhopal movie made within the past decade. It was Indian-produced but starred Martin Sheen, as the Union Carbine CEO who was charged with manslaughter and died a fugitive a month before the movie came out. Apparently, the movie had an worldwide box office take of ... $12,628. See, Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain never saw wide release (unlike the methyl isocyanate).
A Safety Inspector Unscrewed A Plane's Bolts Then Peaced Out
So, it's bad when a supervisor fails to address problems. It's worse when a safety inspector creates the problem. That occasionally happens, even outside sector 7G, such as with the crash of Flight 2574.
Britt Airways (which is not an affectionate form of British Airways but rather a domestic airline named after some people named Britt) was flying a little 30-seater plane from Laredo to Houston. The plane had 14 people total, with 11 passengers and three crew. Right at the end of the hour-long flight, just a few dozen miles out of Houston, the plane caught fire in midair then fell to the ground and exploded. Everyone aboard died.
Surely a bomb was the culprit, people reasoned. Planes don’t just rip apart without a bomb. As for why anyone would bother to attack this small plane on this most auspicious date of September 11, 1991, no one was sure. But maybe it had something to do with the million dollars' worth of diamonds that one passenger was carrying. "The half a million in diamonds had nothing to do with the crash," the NTSB soon announced. In fact, all $100,000 worth of diamonds had been swiftly recovered from the wreck. The authorities now had custody of the entire $50,000 trove, and they'd be returning all $25,000 in diamonds to the rightful owners.
In time, investigators released their conclusions. The plane hadn't been the victim of terrorism or of sabotage of any kind—at least, any kind of intentional sabotage. Instead, the problem came from the plane's last pit stop. Maintenance workers replaced one of the deicing boots, which are rubber membranes attached to the wings. The safety inspector, doing the other guys a solid, went ahead and removed all 43 screws from a second boot so that it would be easier to replace.
No one did the second half of that job, since there's nothing in the maintenance checklist about removing and replacing a boot that someone else has already unscrewed. So the plane went into the air with one deicing boot unsecured. The stabilizer flew off, and the plane went into a nosedive. Deicing is very important during flight. They teach you that on day one of Iron Man school.
Turns Out Wood Pulp Is Really Bad At Putting Out Fires
Let's quickly touch on the Titanic again. You know how the Titanic was said to be unsinkable, and then it sank, inviting us to point at the designers and laugh? The White Star Line weren't exactly the big liars we remember them as. For starters, they never really did widely insist the ship was unsinkable—historians trace that claim to a sentence vaguely saying multiple ships were "designed to be" unsinkable, a sentence from a single leaflet. And yet the Titanic really did feature some special engineering kinks to defend against sinking. They separated compartments so several could fill with water without risking the wider ship, and the iceberg unfortunately just happened to breach one compartment too many.
Now, compare that to the Iroquois Theatre. Chicago's Iroquois Theatre was the site of the worst building fire in US history. The blaze killed over 600 people. Before the fire, the theater had advertised itself as "absolutely fireproof." Unlike with the Titanic, absolutely nothing supported its claim.
The building was wooden and flammable. It had no sprinklers. It had no water. It had no alarms. It didn't even have a phone, so in the event of an emergency, someone would have to travel by foot to the fire station to inform them in person. It had a single exit. That meant if patrons fled the balcony, crowds from multiple directions would collide and crush each other. And though it might sound like we're approaching this with 21st-century hindsight, even at the time, inspectors toured the place and said, "Whoa. One spark, and everyone here's gonna die." Only, they said it using comical old-timey slang that would be incomprehensible to us today.
Then came December 30, 1903 (just six months before the Slocum disaster). During a matinee show, a broken light ignited the stage curtain. Like we said, the theater lacked many fire measures, and the measures that were in place failed. A few fire extinguishers stood ready, but "fire extinguisher" was just the name people back then used for buckets of baking soda. Theater employees flung the powder upward toward the source of the fire, but powder resists being thrown very high, so it just fell down on everyone's heads. And then there was the matter of the fire curtain.
A fire curtain, supposedly made of asbestos, hung above the stage, ready to be deployed. Asbestos has a bad reputation nowadays, thanks to the whole "lung shredding" thing, but asbestos is good at one thing and that's resisting fire. The fire curtain at the Iroquois Theatre, on the other hand? It was stuffed with wood pulp. Far from blocking the fire from spreading beyond the stage, it would just offer the flames more fuel.
Though, that turned out not to matter. The curtain caught on something and didn’t lower when they released it, so even if it were perfect, it never had a shot of doing any good.
Silk Merchants Unleashed A Plague
In 1720, the Grand Saint-Antoine sailed from Lebanon to France. It carried rich silks, which made it through the voyage just fine, and also passengers, who didn't fare so great. Nine people on the ship died, despite the ministrations of the ship doctor, who also died.
The ship finally made port at Marseille, which had protocols in place for arrivals of sick passengers, thanks to a few outbreaks of plague over the last few centuries. The ship would have to quarantine at an island. If the sick aboard recovered, then that was cool, and everyone could come ashore. If the sickness spread among them and killed them, or they succumbed to unrelated Island Madness, that wouldn't be so great for them, but France overall would be spared.
Then the silk merchants of Marseille approached the authorities and said, hey, you're putting all these people on a rock, we get that. But that doesn't mean all that precious silk has to stay locked up. After all, blankets can't transmit sickness, that's something that's never happened and never will happen. So thanks to that lobbying, the city bent the rules and unloaded the ship before sending it away. The result was the Great Plague of Marseille, which killed 100,000 people. This outbreak probably could have been avoided, considering that the continent managed to never have another outbreak of bubonic plague this big again.
We should give you a little context for that 100,000 figure. Probably, we should talk about how fewer people were alive back then than now, which makes the death toll even more horrific (at the epicenter, this plague killed 50 percent of the population). But mostly, we just want to remind you that any time up till, oh, the past two years, 100,000 was an unfathomably large number of deaths.
People used to say things like, "Yeah, the Iraq War killed a few thousand American soldiers, but the Vietnam War killed SIXTY THOUSAND American soldiers," and that would break our brains because that was a number just too big to understand. Or, we had the death toll for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, which was officially 64, but unofficially 3,000 based on excess deaths during the period, and people would think, "3,000? That's a nonsense number, let's go on calling it 64."
So, some of you, seeing that 100,000 stat, instinctively calculate how few days the 21st century's plague would take to kill that many, and will mentally dismiss the impact accordingly. But the time will again come when 100,000 feels like an impossible death toll to get from a single outbreak. For there is no greater measure of how secure we are as a people than fear of large numbers.
Top image: 32 Bit