March 15, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Worst Man-Made Disasters in U.S. History


The Worst Man-Made Disasters in America

The U.S. has a long line of man-made disasters and industrial accidents, resulting in an unimaginable number of fatalities, and billions of dollars in clean ups and fines.

These are 10 of the worst man-made disasters in U.S. history.

Factory and Mark Wahlberg Split image

Catastrophic Disasters in America

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. averages 150 catastrophic chemical-related incidents each year.

workplace accidentDale A Stork, Shutterstock

Costly Consequences

Aside from the devastating loss of lives, many of these disasters result in extremely costly clean ups, which include fines and lawsuits.

The exact numbers are difficult to determine as clean up and restorations can take many years.

Health, safety and environment (HSE) workers contracted by BP clean up oil on a beach in Port FourchonPO3 Patrick Kelley, Wikimedia Commons

Inspiration for Change

The following man-made disasters were extreme in many ways, and all of them sparked some sort of change afterward.

Whether it be policies and safety regulations, or completely new laws, America has learned some hard lessons from these ones.

policiesDin Mohd Yaman, Shutterstock

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Monongah Coal Mine Explosion: West Virginia, 1907

On December 6, 1907, the nation’s deadliest mine disaster occurred.

A train had malfunctioned, igniting highly-flammable coal dust causing powerful explosions in two Monongah, Virginia coal mines.

Artistic view of the explosion at the No. 8 mine. of the The Monongah mining disasterUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Monongah Coal Mine Explosion: Fatalities

The department of labor places the fatalities at over 400, though that number is expected to be much higher due to a large number of off-the-books workers present at the time.

Monongah Mine Disaster Memorial, Monongah, West VirginiaAndre Carrotflower, CC BY-SA 4.0,Wikimedia Commons

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: New York, 1911

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the upper floor of a lower Manhattan garment factory. The place was cramped with people, and unfortunately, the response was an absolute disaster.

Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25 1911Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Locked Inside

Earlier that day the factory’s owner had apparently locked the door to a stairwell to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks—trapping them all inside.

Horse-drawn fire engines in street, on their way to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, New York CityGeorge Grantham Bain Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: The Only Way Out

To make matters worse, the fire escape collapsed under the pressure of all the people attempting to flee at once, and the firefighters’ ladders and safety nets were ineffective.

Negative print showing the street in front of the Asch Building, where the Triangle Waist Company fire burnedKheel Center, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Fatalities

Many of the workers jumped or fell from the upper floors. The fatalities were numbered at 146, with numerous other serious injuries—making it one of the nation’s worst workplace tragedies.

Firefighters Spray Water On The Asch Building Trying To Put Out The Triangle Factory Fire Blaze, March 25, 1911 (5279335917)Kheel Center, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Dutchman’s Curve Wreck: Tennessee, 1918

On July 9, 1918, two passenger trains—who were both apparently behind schedule—collided head-on at extreme speeds.

Grayscale Photo of the Great train wreck of 1918 occurred on July 9, in Nashville, TennesseeUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Dutchman’s Curve Wreck: Fatalities

Most of the passengers on the train were African Americans, many of them farmers or laborers. The fatalities reached 101 with several others injured.

This tragedy still remains the country’s deadliest train wreck.

Dutchman's curve is the location of the deadliest train wreck in U.S. history, and it happened in NashvilleBrent Moore, Flickr

Malbone Street Rapid Transit Disaster: New York, 1918

On November 1, 1918, an overly fatigued train driver sped through a curve in Brooklyn, causing a massive derailment.

Wrecked car with wood splinters and glass shards from the Malbone Street wreckNew York Transit Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Malbone Street Rapid Transit Disaster: Fatalities

About 93 passengers lost their lives, and over 250 were severely injured—making it one of the nation’s deadliest transit disasters in history.

Remains of The Malbone Street wreck, also known as the Brighton Beach Line accidentUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Texas City Industrial Disaster: Texas, 1947

On April 16, 1947, a cargo ship called the S.S. Grandcamp was docked in Texas City while being loaded with ammonia nitrate fertilizer, when disaster struck.

The SS High Flyer or SS Wilson B. Keene, three days after the 1947 Texas City disaster explosionUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Texas City Industrial Disaster: The Initial Fire

A fire broke out on the ship, and the crew avoided using water to put it out as they were not willing to risk the delicate cargo.

Unfortunately, the fire was not completely put out by whatever method they chose—and things got so much worse.

A five-storey rubber factory beside slip after The 1947 Texas City disasterUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

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Texas City Industrial Disaster: The Explosion

Not long later, the ship—still docked—exploded, destroying hundreds of buildings and properties with damage estimates reaching a whopping $100 million at the time (equivalent to $1.3 billion today).

Texas City disaster. Parking lot 1/4 of a mile away from the explosionUniversity of Houston Digital Library, Wikimedia Commons

Texas City Industrial Disaster: Fatalities

On top of property damage, upwards of 550 people lost their lives with hundreds more severely injured.

Shipping Channel Huge Oil & Chemical Refinery after The 1947 Texas City disasterDon...The UpNorth Memories Guy... Harrison, Flickr

Love Canal: New York, 1978

Over the course of nine years, from 1943 to 1952, Hooker Electrochemical Company (now Occidental Chemical Corporation) used an unfinished canal near Niagara Falls, New York, as the dumping ground for thousands of tons of hazardous chemicals.

Grayscale Photo of Love Canal residents discuss revitalizing their contaminated neighborhoodUSEPA Environmental-Protection-Agency, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Love Canal: School

After they were done with the dump site, they covered it in soil to create a landfill, and the following year the Niagara Falls Board of Education built a school in the area.

Love Canal a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, United States landfill that became the site of an environmental disasterAdam Moss, Flickr

Love Canal: Homes

In addition to the school, a developer also bought some of the land and built homes right over top of the hazardous waste dumpsite.

Love Canal a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, United StatesJasonParis, Flickr

Love Canal: Consequences

By the 1970s, local officials realized their mistake as residents started to show signs of exposure to carcinogens, and birth defects and miscarriages increased—resulting in an immediate need for attention.

A protest by Love Canal residents, ca. 1978.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

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Love Canal: Evacuation

By the end of the 1970s, the federal government evacuated roughly 950 families from the area, and had a long list of compensations to hand out.

Abandoned Streets in Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, United StatesBuffalutheran, Wikimedia Commons

Three Mile Island: Pennsylvania, 1979

On March 28, 1979, a nuclear reactor near Middletown, Pennsylvania, partially melted down, releasing radioactive material into the surrounding areas.

Color photograph of the Three Mile Island nuclear generating station, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979United States Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons

Three Mile Island: Evacuation

Immediate evacuation ensued and although some claims report few long-term health effects, many residents contest that claim.

President Jimmy Carter’s motorcade leaves Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Station after the accident on April 1, 1979Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Flickr

Three Mile Island: Change

Though this disaster averted a crisis, it was a close call that sparked big changes. An anti-nuclear power movement started resulting in no nuclear power plants constructed in the U.S. for the next 30 years.

Photo of the Three Mile Island plant site from above.Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Flickr

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Alaska, 1989

On march 24, 1989, The Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker, struck a coral reef and released about 260,000 barrels of oil.

The Exxon Valdez a few hours after she ran agroundNOAA's National Ocean Service, Wikimedia Commons

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The Cleanup

Fortunately, there were no fatalities in this incident. But the cleanup cost over $900 million and environmental impacts were severe.

Workers using high-pressure, hot-water washing to clean an oiled shoreline after the Exxon Valdez oil spillUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Marine Life

It is said that even two-and-a-half decades later, the presence of whales and various other marine species are no longer sighted in the area since the incident.

Oily tocks glisten in the sun - Green lsland after the Exxon Valdez oil spillARLIS Reference, Flickr

Martin County Coal Slurry Spill: Kentucky, 2000

On October 11, 2000, a coal slurry impoundment pond (where coal waste is stored) in Inez, Kentucky, leaked underground into two coal mines.

Wolf Creek - the Martin County Coal Slurry SpillFlashdark, Wikimedia Commons

Martin County Coal Slurry Spill: The Severity

An estimated 250 million gallons of coal slurry–a toxic liquid–spilled into the primary water sources of Martin County, Kentucky, and traveled 75 miles downstream to rivers in neighboring West Virginia.

Front and western side of the Martin County Government Center Martin County KentuckyNyttend, Wikimedia Commons

Martin County Coal Slurry Spill: Cleanup

The extent of this situation was extreme, and clean up was estimated at over $30 million, which included several fines against Massey Energy, the mining company.

Susan Rosenberg and Dr. James Hansen were arrested today at the gates of Massey Energy-operated Goals Coal ComapnyRAN Field Photography, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Martin County Coal Slurry Spill: Lasting Consequences

The water systems have not been the same since, with many residents still experiencing unclean and unsafe water conditions.

Tug Fork River in Kentucky The community of Lovely, Martin County, Kentucky is in the foreground on the left of the river.U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wikimedia Commons

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Louisiana, 2010

On April 20, 2010, an offshore oil rig owned by British energy company BP exploded, taking the lives of 11 workers.

But it doesn’t end there.

Deepwater HorizonHandout, Getty Images

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Catastrophic Consequences

Over the next 87 days, more than 4 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, making it the largest oil spill in American history.

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill approaches the coast of Mobile, AlabamaPetty Officer, Wikimedia Commons

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Devastation

This disaster devastated the fishing and tourism industry, and many of the Gulf’s mammals, particularly dolphins, have still not returned, according to National Geographic.

Oil SpillLouisiana GOHSEP, CC BY-SA 2.0

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Clean up

Cleanup took years to even make a dent, and costs were estimated at an unimaginable $61.6 billion, which included a $20 billion settlement between BP and the five Gulf states affected.

BP Oil Spill, Deepwater HorizonSean Gardner / Stringer, Getty Images

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