Massive Mistakes: Top 10 Most Tragic Accidents in History

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Posted on January 11th, 2008

Accidents happen. Whether it’s just a young girl choking on her hotdog or a major unintentional nuclear explosion, accidents have a way of sneaking up on people when we least expect them. All over the planet, countless accidents happen every minute. In fact, next to diseases and other health problems, it is the second leading cause of death throughout the world. It is also the top cause of death among people under 32 years old. Some accidents happen on the individual level, like a simple tripping on your toe. Others are so huge that they claim thousands of lives and create a significant impact on the society.

This is a list of the world’s most tragic accidents in history. Bear in mind that the items here are not sorted by death toll. Ultimately, these devastating moments in history affected the world and changed how we see and deal with our lives. Note that this list does not include events that were caused by deliberate violence or natural disasters.

10. The Bihar Train Disaster

Place and Year: Bihar, India, 1981

Casualties: 268 plus 300 missing

An old photo of a train
June 6, 1981 is an unforgettable day for the people of Bihar, India. On this day, a passenger train carrying more than 500 passengers and traveling between Saharsa and Mansi derailed and plunged into the Bagmati River. This is considered India’s most tragic railway disaster. The real cause of the accident is still uncertain, but many believe that it was a cyclone, flash flooding or, believe it or not, brake failure when avoiding hitting a water buffalo. Hundreds of lives lost for a water buffalo? Your reaction is probably just like everyone else’s.

Many people believe that the worst train tragedy in recorded history is the “Queen of the Sea” disaster in Sri Lanka, but since it was caused by a tsunami, which is a force of nature, it is intentionally excluded from the list.

9. The Tenerife Collision

Place and Year: Canary Islands, Spain, 1977

Casualties: 583

Traveling by plane is often considered the safest form of travel. Compared to road and maritime accidents, the death toll caused by plane crashes has barely reached 14,000 in the last century. Still, others argue that if we compare the ratio between air accidents and the total number of flights, the figures are still disturbing. The Tenerife collision is the worst plane accident since the plane was invented. At 17:06 (local time) of March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747 airliners (Pan American World Airways Flight 1763 and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Flight 4805) collided at Los Rodeos on the island of Tenerife, killing 583 people. KLM 4805 was taking off on the airport’s only runway when it crashed into Pan Am 1736, taxiing on the same runway. A massive explosion happened, followed by a huge ball of fire. The sound was heard throughout the island.

The two 747 planes crashing into each other

8. The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis

Place and Year: Philippine Sea, 1945

Casualties: 579 or more

USS Indianapolis
The USS Indianapolis

A few weeks before the end of World War II, the USS Indianapolis, a US Navy Portland-class heavy cruiser carrying 1,196 men, was en route to Leyte in the Philippines from Guam. They never made it to the Philippines. The cruiser sank completely 12 minutes after a torpedo from a Japanese submarine hit it.

You might be thinking that this should not be included on this list because war is definitely an act of deliberate violence; however, it is not the sinking per se. Only around 300 people were trapped in it; a total of 896 men were able to leave the ship. In fact, they were able to call for rescue a number of times, but it was denied because it was thought to be sent by a Japanese submarine setting them up for a trap. The poor sailors stayed floating in the middle of the ocean for more than four days. Without any food and water, some were tempted to drink seawater, which sentenced them to dehydration. Many perished because of this.

What was more terrifying was that the water was shark-infested. For four days, they were floating on the open sea, and every three to four hours, sharks would attack and prey on them. For four days, they were waiting to be rescued while silk sharks, blue sharks and oceanic whitetip sharks in groups of 120 to 150 would have a feast. Of the 896 who survived the sinking of the ship, only 317 were alive when they were finally rescued.

Although sharks played a significant part in this incredibly traumatic tragedy, it wouldn’t have happened had they not ignored the distress calls. It still boils down to human error, making it one of the most tragic accidents in naval history.

7. The Battle of Ramree

Place and Year: Ramree, Burma, 1945

Casualties: disputed

Saltwater Crocodile
A saltwater crocodile from Ramree, Burma
If a shark attack doesn’t give you the creeps, this one will. Another unbelievably disastrous event in military history is the Battle of Ramree Island in Burma. On February 19, 1945, while retreating from the Royal Navy, around 900 soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army crossed miles of mangrove swamps. According to Bruce Wright, one of the Royal Navy members who trapped the Japanese, of this number, only 20 were alive and captured. What happened to the rest of the troop? It is believed that they were attacked and eaten by saltwater crocodiles inhabiting the area. This claim is disputed, but the Guinness Book of World Records lists this event under the title “Greatest Disaster Suffered from Animals” nonetheless.

6. The Khodynka Tragedy

Place and Year: Moscow, Russia, 1896

Casualties: 1389

Khodynka Tragedy
The victims of the Khodynka stampede
On May 18, 1896, mass panic occurred on Khodynka Field in Moscow, Russia during the festivities following the coronation of Nicholas II, the last Russian emperor. Four days after Nicholas II was crowned Tsar of Russia, a banquet was to be held for the people. There had been rumors that the tsar would be giving away rich coronation gifts. On the eve of the celebration, people started to gather on the field in anticipation. Suddenly, a rumor that there would not be enough presents for everybody spread. A stampede took place. Several thousand people were caught in a catastrophic crush, leaving 1,389 trampled to death and about 1,300 injured. You might be curious about the supposedly expensive gifts. It turned out that the gifts were a bread roll, gingerbread, a piece of sausage and a mug.

5. The 1990 Hajj

Place and Year: Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 1990

Casualties: 1426

Pilgrims of the Hajj
Another remarkable stampede was the 1990 Hajj tragedy in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The annual sacred Muslim Hajj is attended by millions of pilgrims. Sometimes, even when authorities think they have done everything to avoid stampedes and other disasters, things still go wrong and deadly. Stampedes in Mecca are not unusual. Hundreds of pilgrims are killed in a mad rush of the crowd, especially during the Stoning of the Devil ceremony. The most tragic documented peace-time stampede in history occurred at the 1990 Hajj when more than 1,400 pilgrims died in a pedestrian tunnel.

4. The Halifax Explosion

Place and Year: Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1917

Casualties: 1,950

Halifax Explosion
The mushroom cloud after the explosion at Halifax
On December 6, 1917, the people of Halifax in Canada were shocked to hear the sound of an explosion. Others did not have enough time to be shocked because they were literally blown away by the blast. The city was devastated when Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship that was loaded with wartime explosives, accidentally collided with the Norwegian ship Imo in “The Narows” section of the city harbor. The initial blast left almost 2,000 people dead, most by fires, debris and collapsed buildings. Later deaths pushed the number up over 2,000, while more than 9,000 people were injured. This is considered the largest man-made, non-nuclear explosion even up to today. Approximately two square kilometers of the city was obliterated and wiped out. The neighboring communities of Dartmouth and Richmond were also affected. The tsunami caused a pressure wave of air, snapping trees, demolishing buildings and grounded vessels, and blowing fragments kilometers from the explosion site.

3. The MV Doña Paz Tragedy

Place and Year: Tablas Strait, Philippines, 1987

Casualties: 4,375

sinking ship
A sinking ship
On December 20, 1987, the Philippines was the center of the world’s attention once again, but not in a good way. Tragedy struck when MV Doña Paz, an overcrowded passenger ferry, sank after crashing into the oil tanker Vector loaded with 8,800 barrels of petroleum. The ferry was on its way to Manila from Catbalogan, Samar. Within minutes, the ferry sank, giving the victims no time to launch the lifeboats. Initially, official reports claimed that 1,565 people were killed, but others insisted that the death toll was more than 4,000. The licensed maximum capacity of the ferry was 1,518, but there were 1,568 people listed on the manifest, so a large fraction of the passengers were not on the manifest. It is the most tragic documented peace-time maritime accident in history.

2. The Chernobyl Accident

Place and Year: Chernobyl, Soviet Union (now in modern Ukraine)

Casualties: over 4,000

Chernobyl Disaster
An image of Chernobyl after the disaster
The worst nuclear power plant accident in the world occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union, on April 26, 1986. The place had four reactors, and each could produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity. On the eve of the accident, a team of engineers started an experiment on one of the reactors. Having little knowledge of reactor physics, the experiment went from a bit sketchy to downright deadly. Errors were made worse by more errors, which eventually resulted in a nuclear meltdown and in an explosion the next day. The blast blew off the reactor’s heavy steel lid. Contrary to what was initially suggested, the explosion wasn’t nuclear but chemical, ensuing fire and releasing over 50 tons of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. In the early days of the crisis, 56 people died and dozens more suffered severely from radiation burns. But the casuallties grew higher and higher as people were exposed to radiation. Eventually, approximately 4,000 Soviet citizens lost their lives to cancer and other illnesses induced by radiation. The health of millions of people was also adversely affected.

1. The Bhopal Disaster

Place and year: Bhopal, India, 1984

Casualties: over 20,000

The top spot in this list goes to a train accident in India. This South Asian country also caps off the list with the worst accident in history. In the morning of December 3, 1984, the people of Bhopal in the state of Madhya Pradesh woke up to an abominable day. Others did not wake up at all. A holding tank of a Union Carbide chemical plant leaked out 40 tonnes of toxic gas (methyl isocyanate) that rolled on the ground through several surrounding residential streets. The residents who breathed in the poisonous gas in their sleep died instantly. Others were able to run away. About 500,000 people were exposed to the fatal gas. Of this number, 2,500 to 5,000 died immediately after the inhalation. To this date, approximately 20,000 are believed to have died from complications caused by the leak. It is said that on average, one person dies from the effects every day. Today, over 120,000 are still suffering from cancer, blindness, serious birth defects, breathing difficulties and other health complications caused by the accident. This certainly secures India a place on the map of tragic accidents because up to this day, the Bhopal disaster is considered the world’s most tragic industrial accident in history.

Images from the Bhopal Disaster

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Indeed, accidents happen. This is why utmost care is very, very important. We should all be careful with what we do because we have a responsibility to ourselves and to the people around us. Yes, people make mistakes because, hey, we’re just people. However, mistakes as tragic as the ten accidents mentioned above are, in fact, avoidable. If this article thrilled you, reading 5 ways to survive a devastating hurricane will help you in a pending disaster.

Accidents like these, tragic as they may be, were things that no one wanted. But if the carnage you want is the kind that is twisted and premeditated, then look no further than our list of Top Ten Most Horrifying and Gruesome Murders and our TopTen Torture Methods and Devices.

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