5 Disasters That Came Down to Mishearing One Word
We’ve given up listening to one another. We don’t call each other on the phone — we text. We turn the subtitles on when we watch movies. Heck, we demand subtitles even to watch a 15-second video clip.
Good reasons justify this. Mainly, it's because you are going deaf and refuse to admit it. And when we rely on our ears, we sometimes mishear, and chaos ensues.
A Fight Sounded Like a Fire, and 115 People Died
Booker T. Washington spoke at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1902, and 3,000 people packed the place to hear him. The speech itself went fine. Then a couple people in the front started arguing over an empty seat, and an excited member of the choir called out, “There’s a fight!” Church is not a venue where people are primed for news on fights breaking out, so some people who heard this thought the singer was saying, “There’s a fire!”
As people rushed to the exit, a minster stood up to neutralize this hullaballoo. “Quiet, quiet!” he exclaimed. Unfortunately, this also sounded to people like the word “fire,” and people panicked all the more. One person now rang the fire alarm, and that settled matters. Clearly, the church was on fire, and people had to leave, even if it meant trampling the slower members of the congregation.
You know the old line about the dangers of shouting fire in a crowded theater? It’s a bad and void legal standard, but it spoke to a valid fear. The Shiloh Baptist Church stampede killed 115 people. Most of the dead were women — because they’re so prone to fainting, concluded accounts at the time.
It’s possible the congregants feared assassins had targeted the church, as there was a history of arsonists burning Black churches (such burnings would become much more common later, in the 1960s, and even more common in the mid-1990s). It’s also possible the Bible had instilled in everyone an unhealthy fear of hellfire.
The Tsunami Girl
Fire really is an unfortunate word, in that lots of different words sound like it. Maybe we should replace it with a much more complicated word, which can’t be mistaken for anything.
Wait, that’s a stupid idea. Also, longer words can lead to the exact same sort of misunderstanding. Consider what happened in Cebu in the Philippines in 2012. An earthquake struck 50 miles away, killing 100, and the news mentioned that people nationwide should look out for strange waves, which might mean a tsunami’s on the way. People were particularly sensitive to the idea of tsunamis after the massive one that had hit Japan the previous year.
Then on the beach in Cebu came a warning scream. “Tsunami!” shouted a woman. “Tsunami!” People fled to their vehicles to get as far from the coast as possible. Word spread, and businesses closed. If people had no way of leaving fast, they crowded on the highest points they could find, like on overpasses.
No tsunami was coming. That first woman had really never yelled “tsunami.” She had been yelling “Chona Mae,” which was the name of her daughter.
In fact, even if someone had yelled “tsunami,” people should have laughed it off. The strait next to Cebu (the body of water between it and the epicenter) doesn’t have enough water to produce a tsunami. Unless, say, a massive asteroid falls in it, in which case a tsunami might be the least of our problems.
The Kid Injected With Bird Blood
In 1931, an Illinois child named Lillian Fisher suffered from infantile paralysis, a disease which we today might know better as polio. Her physician consulted via phone a specialist in Chicago, who suggested a transfusion. “Use her parents’ blood,” said the specialist. The local doctor thought this was odd advice. He’d misheard the specialist, thinking he said, “Use her parrot’s blood,” which is not a traditional remedy for anything.
Lillian didn’t even own a parrot. But the doctor embarked on a quest to find someone who did, and he ferreted out a suitable pet owner willing to donate their bird. He anesthetized the parrot, extracted 5 milliliters of blood from its heart and injected this into Lillian’s muscles. That’s not a very large volume for a transfusion, but the doctor imagined the parrot’s blood to be more of a medicinal serum.
Despite the mix-up, the blood didn’t hurt Lilian. In fact, the girl got better. At the time, some interpreted that as evidence of bird blood’s possible curative properties, but looking back, we can say it was just a fortunate coincidence. Still, it’s possible the blood imbued Lillian with the powers of a parrot. Afterward, she was able to speak using a human voice.
A Cough Covered the Important Part of a Verdict
A man named Alan Rashid was on trial in Wales in 1999, accused of delivering violent threats. The jury considered the matter, and the foreman announced the verdict: not guilty. The only problem was, another juror coughed at the exact moment when the foreman said “not.” Judge Michael Gibbon figured the jury had found him guilty, and he sentenced the man to two years in prison.
This somewhat surprised the jury, but when the judge dismissed them, they filed out. Maybe he was sentencing him for some other crime. Judges are weird like that. Rashid himself, of course, felt very confused, and officers led him out of the courtroom, back to jail. Then one single juror asked an official why Rashid had been sentenced despite being innocent, and the judge called everyone back to sort things out.
Apparently, this meant Rashid wound up a free man, but some might object to this sort of leniency. The sentence had been passed. To the hangman he must go.
The Boy and the Chopped Hand
“Who here does not love the Prophet Muhammad?” asked a Pakistani cleric, Shabir Ahmed, in a mosque in 2016. It was an unusual question. He asked this during an event in which everyone sang songs praising Muhammad, so the question was the equivalent of a singer grabbing the mic and saying, “Hey there, Miami. Who here’s having no good time tonight?”
Anwar Ali, 15, misheard the question (perhaps thinking the cleric had asked who does love the Prophet Muhammad?), and he raised his hand. Everyone around him started shouting. The boy was a blasphemer, said Ahmed, “liable to be killed.” The boy now fled home, burdened with the real fear that his town may put him to death for blasphemy.
He needed to do something to prove his devotion. So, he looked at that hand he’d raised so recklessly, and then he looked at a scythe that his family used for gardening. He picked up the scythe and chopped off his hand. Then he returned to the mosque and gifted the severed hand to the cleric on a platter.
When news reached police a few days later, they took the step of arresting the cleric for inciting violence — inciting violence against the person who also committed the violence. The boy recovered (no one tried reattaching the hand) and went on to say he had no regrets, possibly out of lingering fear of reprisal. The boy’s father, meanwhile, said he was proud of Anwar’s actions. Maybe that means dad was a fanatic. Or, maybe it speaks to how dads will be proud of you regardless.