|"QUANTUM SHOT" #823 |
Link - article by M. Christian and Avi Abrams
Some of the Biggest Spills, Accidents, and - Often Terrifying - Boo-Boos In History
"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." -Oscar Wilde
What makes this quick look at ten big-time spills, accidents, and boo-boos especially scary is that they far too often involve stuff that you’d think we'd be taking extra-extra-extra special care with: industrial waste, nuclear weapons, molasses, and - more shocking than anything else - beer.
(The expanding fireball of the Trinity nuclear explosion, seen .025 seconds after detonation (U.S. Department of Defense), via)
Even though evolution has graced us homo sapiens with two of them, the briefest glances at the history of extremely large scale accidents is more than enough to make us wonder if we should be sporting nothing but thumbs.
10. The Demon Core
It seems as soon as mankind started splitting them, we've been letting atoms slip through our fingers. Even putting aside the sad irony of Marie Sklodowska-Curie dying by her own discovery of radioactivity, our earliest attempts to harness the power of atomic energy are filled with shuddering tales of glow-in-the-dark slip-ups.
(one of the first bombs to be built was a plutonium implosion device, referred to as the "Gadget" (U.S. Department of Defense) via)
Back in 1945, when the scientists of the Manhattan Project were first banging blocks of uranium together, there was a nightmarishly series of accidents involving what - very aptly - came to be called The Demon Core.
Basically just a little-less-then 15 pound ball of plutonium, in August 21, the core went first went demonic when Harry Daghlian accidentally dropped a brick of tungsten carbide into it. Heroically, Harry managed to pull the brick out - avoiding a supercritical reaction - but died shortly thereafter from radiation poisoning.
(right image: a plutonium sphere the size of this glass ball destroyed the city of Nagasaki.)
A few months later, on May 21st, Louis Slotin tried to – and if this doesn't make you shiver then nothing will - "tickle the dragon's tail' by basically pushing the core as far as they could ... his only safety feature being a carefully inserted screwdriver.
(Fermi and his team constructed the first nuclear reactor on December 2, 1942 - image via)
All it took was for that well thought-out safety feature to slip and the core went momentarily supercritical: as with Daghlian, Slotin managed to prevent a chain reaction, but fatally dosed himself - and exposed eight other people nearby with enough radiation to seriously shorten their lifespans.
(MK-17 hydrogen bomb on lift truck, seen in 1954 - image via)
9. The Kyshtym Disaster
American scientists weren't the only ones fumbling and bumbling with nuclear power. On the other side of the world, the Soviets were racing with mad abandon to catch up with their counterparts ... emphasis on the phrase "mad abandon."
In the closed science city of Ozyorsk, they built the vast plutonium manufacturing plant of Mayak. Unfortunately, they were more-than-a-bit fumbling in the dark when it came to nuclear power, and on September 29th, 1957 a radioactive waste tank exploded. While the blast itself was impressive - it tossed the tank's 160 ton lid completely off - the release of toxic materials contaminated the region, resulting in an estimated 8,000 deaths.
What's particularly surreal about the The Kyshtym Disaster is that it didn't officially exist: the Soviets simply erased not just the accent but the town itself. The name "Kyshtym Disaster" is used because Ozyorsk and Mayak were erased from all subsequent maps and Kyshtym just happened to be the closest landmark.
If that makes you shake your head, keep shaking: there are reports that while the Soviets made Ozyorsk and Mayak "go away" the CIA knew of the disaster but kept the information secret to protect the US's own nuclear power industry.
8. Castle Bravo
Back in the 60's nuclear weapons testing was at an all time high – to a point where it must have seemed like every country that could, did: mushrooms sprouting everywhere, for any reason... One of these tests was code-named Castle Bravo: a record-setting 15 megaton blast - which, tragically - led to a record-setting release of nuclear fallout.
Detonated on March 1, 1954, Castle Bravo's mushroom reached a staggering 130,000 feet - irradiating seven thousand square miles of the Pacific, as well as the islands of Utirik, Rongelap, and Rongerik.
Ironically, the ill-advised decision to set off the bomb in the presence of high winds was made by Dr. Alvin C. Graves - who just happened to have been exposed to a high dose of radiation himself when Dr. Slotin had been tinkering with the Demon Core.
Because of the unexpected fallout, there was a lot of political fallout as well, led by the discovery of the fatal exposure of a Japanese fishing trawler. Because of Castle Bravo, Nevil Shute penned On the Beach, which became a rallying cry against nuclear proliferation.
7. Where, Or Where, Has That Nuclear Bomb Gone?
Fallout is bad – hell, radioactivity itself isn't great - but when you have an accident involving an actual, weaponized bomb ... well, that's the stuff of nightmares.
But if you think that's bad what about two? In 1958 a B-47 bomber smacked into a F-86 Sabre. Luckily, the jet pilot, as well as the bomber crew, managed to eject (former) and land (latter) but not before the B-47 crew had to drop its nuclear egg:
While there have been far too many incidents like this - far too many to list, in fact - that makes this one so interesting is that the bomb, which was dropped in Wassaw Sound, Georgia, was never recovered. Oh, a lot of people have looked for it but so far haven't found it.
(images courtesy of the Douglas Keeney collections - more info)
"A hydrogen bomb was believed to have been lost after being jettisoned from a B-47 Stratojet such as the one pictured here. The weapon was reported dropped in the waters of Wassaw Sound near Tybee Island, Ga., in 1958." - more info.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick...
6. Titan-II Pops Its Nuclear Top
Before we leave the work of splitting - and dropping - atoms, we have to make a quick stop to Little Rock Air Force Base in 1980. What makes this little detour isn't fallout, or fatal doses of radioactivity but what could have happened - or, better to say, what could have happened after what happened.
(a Titan missile stands 103 feet tall - image credit: James Marshall / Getty Images, via)
In 1980 a workman repairing a nuclear-armed Titan-II missile dropped a socket wrench. Not a big deal, right? Well, the wrench pinged and banged its way all the way down the silo, in the process punching a hole in the Titan's fuel tank.
The silo was evacuated: which was a very good thing as shortly thereafter the missile exploded - throwing the nuclear warhead 100 feet straight up. Tragically, a serviceman was killed but, luckily, the warhead remained intact.
Still, one was to wonder if all that took was one dropped wrench ... there are a lot of nuclear missiles out there, even more wrenches, and a whole lot of possibly butter-fingered mechanics...
5. The Aberfan Disaster
While the world of atomic power has a (shudder) lot more slippages, spillages, accidents and boo-boos there are lots of other historical incidents of equally nightmarish devastation with much more ... almost mundane materials.
Coal, for instance. Not to dismiss the thousands - if not millions - who have had their lives shortened by working in the mines, in 1966 twenty-eight adults and, tragically, 116 children were killed when a mountain of coal tailings thundered down into the town of Aberfan, Wales.
Aberfan was a disaster in many other ways as well: the media was thumped for insensitivity and sensationalism; untrained – though enthusiastic - early responders were criticized for possibly impeding professional emergency services; and Lord Robens, the Chairman of the British National Coal Board, made every mistake he could possibly make (even claiming the slide was not the fault of the mine) and was soon out of a job.
4. The Bhopal Disaster
While the coal - as well as the nuclear world, both civilian and military - certainly have had their moments of horrifying recklessness, one of the benchmarks of corporate irresponsibility has to be Union Cardbide's role in The Bhopal Disaster.
In 1984 the Union Carbide pesticide factory near the town of Bhopal, India, released some 30 metric tons of extremely toxic methyl isocyanate into the environment.
Exposure to methyl isocyanate results in vomiting, coughing, and suffocation - though many others were also killed in the panic that followed the release.
The area around Bhopal quickly became a chemical hell-on-earth: trees lost their leaves, animals died by the thousands, and while the total impact of the disaster is a matter of debate, Indian authories have said that over 700,000 people were affected - and of those 3,000 to 8,000 died.
(right image credit: Andrew North, via)
It shouldn't have to be mentioned but - yeah - Union Carbide denied responsibility for the accident, going as far as to claim sabotage. In the end, Union Carbide was penalized $470 million, plus a promise to create and fund a hospital for the victims.
The true disaster, though, has to be that Union Carbide legally tap-danced its way out of any criminal proceedings: the Supreme Court of the United States even refused to hear about the possibility of UC executives being extradited to India. In the end, token two year sentences were given to UC's Indian Staffers - quite of few of them in their 70s.
3. Niigata Minamata Disease
Coal is black and nasty – in and out of the ground, atoms can make mushroom clouds or deadly cancer, methyl isocyanate is nightmarishly toxic, but in 1965 Japan tragically realized that mercury can be a true - and lasting - horror.
At first Niigata Minamata Disease was a complete mystery. In 1956 all Japanese doctors knew was that it was a terror: cats usually were the first to show symptoms ("dancing cat fever") but for it was also seen in humans, usually those who lived or worked near the Shiranui Sea and Minamata Bay.
Spasms; difficulty speaking, hearing, seeing - coma and then death, Niigata Minamata was a terrifying puzzle ... until 1959 when the finger was finally pointed at heavy metal poisoning, specifically from industrial run-off from a factory owned and operated by the Chisso Corporation.
Chisso - ah, but no doubt you can see this coming - denied responsibility while secretly changing it's discharging of toxic mercery from the Bay to the nearby Minamata River - resulting in a brand new outbreak of mercury posioning among a whole new part of the country.
Eventually Chisso was called on it's environmental recklessness – though only after what is called "ten years of silence," where it avoided seriously addressing the issue while placating some of the victims with "sympathy money."
The real tragedy, though, is that mercury is a particularly nasty element and getting it out of an environment is tremendously difficult - just about as difficult as getting the Japanese government to do anything about it. It wasn't until 1968 that the Japanese government officially recognized that mercury poisoning was the cause of Niigata Minamata Disease ... after 2,265 suffered its affects, and 1,784 of those were fatal.
2. London Beer Flood
Sit, down, put your feet up, have a beverage, for here's a tale of ale that is - to put it mildly - unique: in 1814, London to be specific, a fermentation vat belonging to the Meux and Company Brewery burst, causing several others to burst as well.
The result was a tidal wave of frothy terror - 323,000 gallons to be precise - that smashed into, and wiped out, not just two nearby houses but also the local pub. In the end eight people drowned in the flood...
Ironically, in the end responsibility was given not to the brewer but to "an act of God" – and, today, you can raise a pint to the all-mighty as the new local tavern has begun the tradition of brewing a special brew in celebration of the famous beer flood.
1. Boston Molasses Disaster
While not as directly alcoholic, the top of this odd disaster list does owe a lot to booze - or, to be specific - a main ingredient in the making of it.
In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company of Boston was working full-tilt ... or, very possibily, more-than-full-tilt because on the morning the 15th one of their molasses vats exploded.
The causes of what became known as the Great Molasses Flood have been debated and debated and debated but what is known is the vat contained 2,300,000 gallons and when it went - and, boy it went - it roared down into Boston: a sticky brown liquid nightmare 15 feet high and moving at 35 miles per hour.
The molasses wave knocked houses off their foundations, adding bricks and mortar to the mix, knocked a railcar over, and even took down a section of the Boston Elevated Railway.
In the end, 150 were hurt by the molasses wave, and 21 killed. It's reported that it was almost impossible to even find some of the dead as they'd become entombed in the sticky mass.
In the end, it took over two weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston - and longer still to repair the damage the spill had caused. It's reported that Boston harbor was brown from the spillage for months, and that the city reeked of the smell for far longer than that.
The topper, though - and a good conclusion to this exploration of spills, accidents, and boo-boos - is when that vast tank of molasses bubbled, gurgled, and churned its way into Boston, and history.
For, contrary to popular belief, molasses really does run in January.
Article by M. Christian and Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend. M. Christian is also the author of "Welcome to Weirdsville": a wonderful compendium of interesting subjects and fascinating topics. This is a highly recommended book for all lovers of weird & wonderful this side of the Universe; order the Kindle edition here.
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Also Read: "Biochemical Oops! List" ->