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Top Ten Lesser-Known Tragic Disasters
Most people know the history of certain natural and man-made disasters such as Chernobyl, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Fire of London in 1666. Every day, the news covers various disasters—fires, earthquakes, fires, and oil spills—where thousands of people are affected, either directly or indirectly. But sometimes, these tragedies occur and are readily forgotten after a few news cycles. However, we should remember these tragic events, no matter how much time has passed.
Below is a list of ten lesser-known disasters that resulted in the deaths of many innocent people.
10 Skynliv Air Show Disaster
Imagine you are a spectator on the ground, watching military planes perform intricate maneuvers above you. Now imagine those planes barreling toward you. Unfortunately, that was the reality for those in attendance at the Skynliv Air Show near Lviv, Ukraine, on July 27, 2002.
In just moments, a beautiful day for the Ukrainian military to show their citizens the prowess of their air fleet turned into a fiery, blood-soaked nightmare. A Ukrainian Air Force Su-27 Flanker piloted by Volodymyr Toponar and Yuriy Yegorov was performing a risky maneuver when the left wing of the fighter jet clipped a tree before striking the ground. As the plane skidded across the ground, it took four barbed-wire fences with it. These fences, which at first served to prevent onlookers from accessing the tarmac, became a wall of death as the plane propelled the fences into a crowd of over 10,000 spectators. The plane then clipped another aircraft and tumbled end over end into the crowd before exploding.
One survivor who lost his wife and son in the accident was quoted as saying (of the concrete area), “[It] was covered in human meat.” In the aftermath, 77 people were dead, 28 of whom were children. Shockingly, the two pilots were able to eject safely and were blamed for the crash. Both received prison sentences between 8 and 14 years.
9 Lagos Armory Explosion
Typically, when there is a fire, water is the welcomed solution. That was not the case in the January 27, 2002, Ikeja Cantonment base explosion in Lagos, Nigeria. At the time of the blast, the military base was being used to store a large number of explosives and to house thousands of military members and their families. That fateful day, a fire broke out in an outdoor marketplace located next to the base. The fire quickly spread to the explosives being stored, and an explosion so powerful that it was felt 51 kilometers (32 miles) away resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people living on the base.
However, it wasn’t the explosion that killed hundreds more: it was a hidden canal. In the panic after the explosion, thousands of citizens scattered. In the darkness, the fleeing people could not see a canal filled with water, and over 600 hundred people, the majority of whom were children, drowned in the chaos. In the days following the explosion, over 1,000 bodies were recovered, with thousands of survivors left injured and homeless in the aftermath. Unsurprisingly, it took years for the city to recover from the tragedy.
8 Bath Consolidated School Explosion
It was on May 18, 1927, that Andrew Kehoe took the lives of 38 children in Bath Township, Michigan. Kehoe, who was thought to be angry at the town after losing an election for town clerk, murdered his wife in the home they shared before blowing it up.
Then, at 8:45 am, Kehoe detonated the huge stash of explosives he had been hiding under the elementary school, which immediately demolished an entire wing of the school and killed 36 children instantly, with one injured child dying a year later. Half an hour after the initial blast, Kehoe drove a truck loaded with explosives back to the school and blew himself up, taking a further three adults and one child with him. In total, Kehoe was responsible for the murder of 44 people.
7 Victoria Hall Disaster
The thought that numerous children could asphyxiate to death at a magic show is almost unbelievable. But on June 16, 1883, that exact scenario happened. It was a peaceful summer day at the Victoria Hall in North England’s port city of Sunderland. Over one thousand of the town’s children were attending a show being put on by the famous magician Alexander Fay. The show was about to end with Fay’s most delightful trick: pulling toys out of his hat.
Usually, when Fay would perform this stunt, he would throw the toys into the crowd, and the audience would leave bemused and with a prize to show their parents. Then Fay would greet his fans in a separate area. On this day, however, when Fay ended the show, there would be 183 children who would never make it home.
Because of how packed the audience was, when the hoard of children rushed down the hall’s main stairwell to meet their favorite magician, children stumbled due to the push of bodies. Further, because the door leading out of the stairwell swung in instead of out, the children at the bottom of the staircase were crushed against the door, with no means of escape. One survivor recalled, “I had not thought the affair was serious, and now I looked on spellbound as body after body was brought out and laid in a row upon the pavement.” Sadly, what began as a day filled with happiness ended with the deaths of 183 children.
6 Ohio State Penitentiary Fire
There is no denying that prisons are far from five-star hotels. From overcrowding to unhygienic living conditions, prison is not an ideal environment. That was especially true in the case of the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. Built in 1834 to house 1,500 inmates, the prison was notorious for overcrowding and poor living conditions. By 1930, the prison housed over 4,300 prisoners who were locked in small cells for the majority of the time, including, as it would turn out, when the prison was on fire.
On the evening of April 27, 1930, a fire broke out on a construction scaffolding attached to a prison wall. The cell block closest to the fire housed 800 inmates who were locked in their cells. As the fire grew and smoke filled the block, the trapped men begged guards to unlock the doors, but they refused. Instead, two brave inmates took the guards’ keys by force and began to open as many cells as possible before the fire grew too large.
The fire subsequently caused part of the roof to collapse, and 160 inmates burned to death. To make matters worse, angry prisoners prevented firefighters from stopping the blaze, which killed another 160 men. While the tragedy was deemed to have been entirely preventable, no one was held accountable for the deaths of 320 men.
5 Al Salam Boccaccio 98 Ferry Disaster
Another tragedy ignited by a fire that took the lives of over one thousand people occurred on February 6, 2006, on the Red Sea near Duba, Saudi Arabia. A ferry carrying around 1,400 people and 220 cars caught on fire around 10:00 pm. Within 10 minutes, the ship would capsize due to the buildup of seawater that firefighters aboard the vessel were pumping into the hull to try to put out the blaze.
One surviving crew member said, “The firefighters essentially sank the ship when seawater they used to battle the fire collected in the hull because drainage pumps were not working.” Of the almost 1,400 people on board the ferry that fateful day, only 314 people survived, and only 185 bodies were recovered. While the owners of the sunken ship were charged with operating a defective vessel, they were ultimately acquitted, and no one was punished for sending hundreds of people to their watery graves.
4 Public University of El Alto Railing Collapse
Typically, college is a place for enjoying life with friends, not where you go to have your life cut short. Sadly, that was not the case for seven Bolivian university students in March of 2021. In a graphic video that was posted online, viewers can see that there are hundreds of students crowded on a balcony four floors above the ground. As students are shoving against each other, a fight breaks out, and the crowd surges against the metal railing of the balcony.
Within seconds, the railing breaks, and students tumble into the open atrium. Those who are still on the balcony desperately try to grab their falling classmates, but there is little they can do as seven fall four floors to their deaths. One student miraculously survives when he is thrown onto the balcony directly below the one that failed. While the police did contemplate charging the women who started the fight, there were ultimately no charges filed in the death of the seven students.
3 Chuknagar Massacre
As the world watches Russia commit war crimes against Ukraine, it reminds us of a horrific war crime the Pakistani Army committed in Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan) during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. The town of Chuknager had become a safe haven for people fleeing war-torn regions.
On May 20, 1971, thousands were gathered there when a Pakistani military unit raided the town. In just five hours, the group, composed of 10-30 soldiers, killed an estimated 10,000 civilians, some of whom drowned in a river as they tried to escape the hail of bullets. While the liberation was successful, the lives lost in the massacre devastated the country, and memorials were erected in towns and cities all over Bangladesh.
2 Yarnell Hill Fire
In the largest loss of life for U.S. fire services since the September 11, 2001, attacks, 19 members of an elite wildfire task force were killed battling a raging wildfire. The Granite Mountain Hotshots was a group of 20 men fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire that had broken out in Yarnell, Arizona, on June 30, 2013.
The fire, sparked by a lightning strike, spread to over 500 acres in only hours, with its path changing with the wind. The Hotshots were trying to head to a safe zone when the fire abruptly changed course, leaving the 19 men with only two minutes to deploy their fire shelters. Because of how little time they had before the 1,093°C (2,000°F) fire overcame them, many men could not deploy the tents, let alone get inside. An investigation after the tragedy found that even if the men had been able to get inside the shelters, the fire was too hot for the shelters to withstand. After a thorough investigation into the actions taken by all fire personnel that day, no wrongdoing was found. Sadly, only the Hotshot’s spotter survived that day.
1 Sinking of the MV Sewol
The last event on this list is incredibly difficult to stomach because of how much video of it exists online. The MV Sewol, a ferry carrying 476 passengers, began to sink after a series of operational errors on the morning of April 16, 2014. Of the 476 passengers, 304 died, with 250 of those deaths being students of Danwon High School in Anson City, South Korea.
Unlike many sinkings, where events happen so quickly that there is very little time to react, that was not the case in the sinking of the MV Sewol. Instead, passengers were ordered to stay in their rooms even as seawater quickly poured in. The Danwon High School students were told to stay in their cabins below deck, where hundreds of teens recorded the water rising as an automated message played in the background telling passengers to remain where they were. Sadly, the students are at first jovial and laughing among each other, not knowing the severity of the situation. As time wore on and the water rose higher in their bunks, frantic teenagers called their loved ones and begged for help. One video made by a rescuer shows teens banging on the glass, trying to break free.
After all was said and done, entire classrooms full of students were lost in the tragedy. Even more upsetting was the fact that the South Korean government hid the full extent of the tragedy from desperate family members, at first telling news outlets that everyone had been rescued. While the South Korean Prime Minister accepted responsibility for the tragedy and resigned, the entire country of South Korea still suffered from the loss of the MV Sewol.