Link -- Article by M. Christian of "Meine Kleine Fabrik" and Avi Abrams

Dreadful Highlights in the History of Blasts

For most of us BOOM, KABLAM, KABLOOIE mean a mushroom cloud and a cute little animated turtle talking about ducking and covering – as well as the possible End Of All Life As We Know It.

But not every monstrous explosion began with J. Robert Oppenheimer saying "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"... Even putting aside natural blasts such as the eruption of Krakatoa (which was so massive the sound of it was heard as far away as London), the Earth has still to be rocked by more than its fair share of man-made, non-atomic BOOMs.

Ship with 3,000 tons of munitions collides with pier loaded with explosives

One of the more terrifying non-nuclear explosions ever to occur was in 1917 up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Back in December of that year the Mont-Blanc plowed into another ship, the Imo, starting a ferocious fire. Ten minutes later the Mont-Blanc went up, creating what is commonly considered to be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in earth history.

The Mont-Blanc was a big ship carrying a lot of extremely dangerous cargo -- almost 3,000 tons of munitions bound for the war that was then tearing Europe apart. What happened that morning, which lead to the blast and the nightmarish loss of life, reads like a textbook example of whatever could go wrong, did.

(image credit: Mysteries of Canada)

To avoid being torpedoed, the Mont-Blanc wasn’t flying any dangerous cargo flags, so no one except for her crew knew her cargo was so dangerous. When the fire got out of control, the Mont-Blanc’s crew tried to warn as many people as possible – but they only spoke French and the language of Halifax was English. Not realizing the danger, crowds began to form to watch the blaze. The Mont-Blanc, on fire, also began to drift toward a nearby pier … that was also packed with munitions bound for the war.

When everything finally came together – the criminal negligence, the miscommunication, and worst of all the fire and the explosives – the blast was roughly equal to 3 kilotons of TNT. The fireball roared up above the town and the shockwave utterly destroyed the town and everything within one mile of the epicenter. Metal and wreckage fell as far away as 80 miles from the blast and the sound of the detonation was heard more than 225 miles away. The explosion was so huge it generated a tsunami that roared away from the epicenter and then back into the harbor again, adding to the death and destruction.

It wasn’t until days later that the true horror of what had happened was realized: Halifax was completely gone, erased from the face of the earth, along with every ship in the harbor and most of the nearby town of Dartmouth. Approximately 2,000 people died from the explosion and another 9,000 were injured.

Unfortunately Halifax wasn’t the first such explosives-related accident in 1917. Unbelievably, before the Mont-Blanc destroyed the town, 73 people were killed in the explosion of a munitions factory in Silvertown in West Ham, Essex. The sound was heard as far away as 100 miles. A year earlier, the Johnson Barge No.17 went up Jersey City. Although only a few people were killed, the explosion managed to damage not only Ellis Island but also the Statue of Liberty. There were many other blasts as well, but these are only a few of the more dreadful highlights.

"Trident" missile goes into a spiral - image by CNN, via

"A U.S. Navy "Trident" missile goes awry shortly after a test launch from a submarine off the coast of Cape Canaveral several years ago. The missile exploded shortly after this photo was taken. There was no injury to the submarine or its crew... The submarine captain, watching the test through the sub's periscope, was reported to have been mesmerized for several hours."

Other massive explosive accidents

You’d think after these nightmarish explosions, caution about things that go BOOM would have sunk in a bit, but the Second World War also saw more than its fair share of explosive accidents. In 1944, for instance, the SS Fort Stikine went up while docked in Bombay, India. When her cargo went up, the blast killed 800 men and injured 3,000. The fire that followed took more than three days to control.

Also in 1944, the UK experienced what is commonly considered the largest blast ever to occur on British soil when 3,700 tons of high explosives were accidentally detonated in an underground munitions store in Fauld, Staffordshire. The explosion was so massive it formed a crater three quarters of a mile across and more than 400 feet deep -- and destroyed not only the base but a nearby reservoir (and all the water in it).

Explosion of 2 tons of ammonium nitrate, commonly used in demolition. (image via)

One of the largest non-nuclear, man-made, blasts in the history of the world

But one of the biggest blasts – aside from the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan – was also one of the largest in human history, and one of the most tragic.

Once again in 1944, on July 17 to be specific, munitions being loaded onto a ship in Port Chicago, California, (very close to San Francisco) detonated. No one knows what exactly caused the blast, but the damage was biblical. All in all, more than 5,000 tons of high explosives, plus whatever else was in the stores on the base and on any ships docked, was involved. The explosion was so massive it was felt as far away as Las Vegas (500 miles distant) and people were injured all over the Bay Area when windows were shattered by the immense pressure wave.

(image credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph)

320 were killed immediately and almost 400 were seriously injured, but that’s not the real tragedy. Most of these men were African American and this single disaster accounted for almost 15% of African American casualties during that war.

Still fearing for their safety, the remaining men, who had just spent three weeks pulling the bodies of their fellow sailors from the wreckage, refused to load any further munitions. The Army, in a characteristic show of support, considered this an act of mutiny and court-martialed 208 sailors, sending an additional 50 to jail for 8 to 15 years.

Fortunately, the ‘mutineers’ were given clemency after Thurgood Marshall fought for them, though the final member only received justice in 1999 in the form of a Presidential pardon by President Bill Clinton. Today in Port Chicago there’s a marker on the spot and it states that the event was a step toward "racial justice and equality."

And all it took was one of the largest non-nuclear, man-made, blasts in the history of the world -- and the deaths of 320 sailors.

Here is an addition to the Delta rocket explosion we published recently:

(image credit: USAF Photo, via)

"A Titan IV-A rocket explodes on the morning of August 12, 1998, loaded with a billion-dollar, top-secret "Mercury" spy satellite. The explosion occurred 40 seconds after launch at an altitude of about 20,000 feet and was loud enough to set off car alarms 20 miles away."

Navy Blasts its Way to Victory

(images credit: US Navy Photos)

Fireball at the "Burning Man" event in 2007:

(original unknown)

Also Read:
Thermonuclear OOPS! List
The Biggest Guns in Human History

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Blogger Unknown said...

Don't forget about Texas City, Texas, home of two major disasters in 60 years.


April 16, 1947 saw the ignition of 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate loaded on board the french-registered vessel SS Grandcamp. it is considered the worst industrial accident in US history with a death toll of 567.

58 years later, as insult to injury the BP refinery there exploded do to a running truck.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another huge explosion occured in Siberia, 1982.

A Soviet gas pipeline system exploded after the CIA modified the firmware in a shipment of pipeline control chips.

The resulting 3 kiloton (approx) explosion was seen from space.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You also missed the PEPCON disaster http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PEPCON_disaster

The two explosions, measuring 3 and 3.5 on the Richter scale respectively, left a crater 15 feet deep.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Closer to us, in 2001 (10 days after 9/11), 300 tons of ammonium nitrate ignited in a fertilizer factory in the middle of the Toulouse, France. It was a 100 kiloton blast that killed 30 people, injured 3000 and made 40000 people homeless for several days.

The factory next door produces rocket fuel and uses phosgen (mustard gas). Miraculously, there were no deadly leaks, or else the death toll would have been between 50 and 100000 deaths.

Blogger owr084 said...

A picture of the Fauld, Staffordshire crater can be seen here http://www.gearthhacks.com/dlfile27084/RAF-Fauld-Explosion-near-Tutbury,-Burton-upon-Trent-in-Staffordshire.htm

Also, regarding the anonymous comment about the Toulouse blast - there is no way 300 tons of ammonium nitrate can produce an equivalent blast of 100 kilotons. One ton of ammonium nitrate does not have the explosive force of 333.3 tons of TNT...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 1921 IG Farben (later BASF) used dynamite to break up a mixture of Ammonium Sulphate and Ammonium Nitrate that was stored in a warehouse. This was a process that they had reportedly followed numerous times previously.

On 21 September they learned empirically that the mixture was explosive. 500 people died.

A report: http://www.corporate.basf.com/en/ueberuns/profil/geschichte/1902-1924.htm?id=V00-QdITSDCGVbcp0-D

A picture of the blast damage: http://www.bufata-chemie.de/reader/ig_farben/pics/1-4-3_01_oppau-big.jpg

DRB is a compulsory daily read. Thanks for the interesting site.

Andrew J. Winks
Cape Town, South Africa

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enschede, Netherlands

A local firework factory blows up:


Blogger alvarhillo said...

When I was a kid I read at Readers Digest about the Mont Blanc explosion and I remember a question. The anchor of the Mont Blanc it was found two milles far.

Blogger Pastorius said...

I think the biggest non-nuclear explosion ever was the "Tunguska Event"


The Tunguska Event, or Tunguska explosion, was a powerful explosion that occurred near the Podkamennaya (Lower Stony) Tunguska River in what is now Krasnoyarsk Krai of Russia, at around 7:14 a.m.[1] (0:14 UT, 7:02 a.m. local solar time[2]) on June 30, 1908 (June 17 in the Julian calendar, in use locally at the time).[2]
Although the cause is the subject of some debate, the explosion was most likely caused by the air burst of a large meteoroid or comet fragment at an altitude of 5–10 kilometres (3–6 miles) above Earth's surface. Different studies have yielded varying estimates for the object's size, with general agreement that it was a few tens of metres across.[3]
Although the meteor or comet burst in the air rather than directly hitting the surface, this event is still referred to as an impact. Estimates of the energy of the blast range from 5 megatons[4] to as high as 30 megatons[5] of TNT, with 10–15 megatons the most likely[5] - roughly equal to the United States' Castle Bravo thermonuclear explosion set off in late February 1954, about 1,000 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan and about one third the power of the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.[6] The explosion knocked over an estimated 80 million trees over 2,150 square kilometres (830 square miles). It is estimated that the earthquake from the blast would have measured 5.0 on the Richter scale, which was not yet developed at the time. An explosion of this magnitude is capable of destroying a large metropolitan area.[7] This possibility has helped to spark discussion of asteroid deflection strategies.
Although the Tunguska event is believed to be the largest impact event on land in Earth's recent history,[8] impacts of similar size in remote ocean areas would have gone unnoticed before the advent of global satellite monitoring in the 1960s and 1970s.

Blogger elve said...

Januar 12, 1807 a ship loaded with 17 tons of black powder exploded in the cite of Leiden blasting away a great part of the inner citty and killing 150 people.


dutch wikipedia with some images:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about the even BIGGER explosions of stars? National Geographic has a photo gallery:

Blogger Unknown said...

The Fauld crater appears to be more like 200m across, not 3/4 of a mile.

The depth may have changed, but the crater width would remain unchanged.

If you look at the detailed google map of the area, it is easy to see the dimensions have "grown" with time....

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should look up the SS Richard Montgomery, its still loaded with thousands of tons of ammunition from WW2 sunk in the Thames estuary, read that if it goes up it will be the biggest non nuclear detonation, I have fished from a boat next to it a few times, worst fishing spot on the planet I imagine.

Blogger Purple Avenger said...

1800's - fertilizer plant in Opau Germany blew up. Flattened half the town.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is also a big explosion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nC0FetkeqA , a fireworks safety test(The tiny thing in the middle is the shipping container).
Great site you have btw, one of my favourites :).

Blogger Unknown said...

Its looking more and more like I don't want to live near harbors nor anywhere having anything to do with bulk fertilizer.

Blogger Unknown said...

"..300 tons of ammonium nitrate ignited in a fertilizer factory in the middle of the Toulouse, France. It was a 100 kiloton blast.."

Just to clarify, 300 tons of ammonium nitrate cannot ever equal 100 kilotons of TNT. For example, the fission weapon "Little Boy" detonated over Hiroshima produced a 13 to 16 kiloton blast. Ammonium Nitrate in a blast prepared slurry also containing nitromethane - not just stored fertilizer - has a TNT equivalency of 1.6, IE: 1 ton ANNM is equal to 1.6 tons of TNT.

Comparatively, the most common fission nuclear warhead in the US arsenal is the B61 which has a disclosed yield up to 350 kilotons

Better living through chemistry, eh?


Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Thank you everybody for really explosive information... will go into the next part. Fantastic info.

Blogger Jono said...

Ripple Rock--I believe it is supposed to be one of the largest intentional man-made non-nuclear explosions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

For another in humanity's long running attempts at self-immolation see:
A tale of Russia executing the largest intentional non-nuclear explosion in our sorry history of blowing things up, intentional or otherwise.

Blogger Unknown said...

1769 The city of Brescia, Italy is devastated when the Church of San Nazaro, near Venice, is struck by lightning. The resulting fire ignites 200,000 lb (90,000 kg) of gunpowder being stored there, causing a massive explosion which destroys 1/6 of the city and kills 3,000 people.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot the man made explosion in WW1. A whole line of trench was mined and filled with explosives. It obliterated everything. Second four of the sites are still active. (One exploded recently creating football long hole.) I believe this is the battle; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Messines

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hercules Powder in Kenvil, NJ

September 12, 1940

Approximately 1500 tons of smokeless powder detonated in the explosion. 51 dead, over 200 wounded. The death toll would've almost certainly been much higher but for the fact that the plant was located in a fairly isolated area of rural New Jersey


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I`m missing the Heligoland blast or 'British bang'. On 18th of april 1947, the british royal Navy detonated approx. 6700 tonnes of explosives in order to destroy german fortifications on the island.


Anonymous Greg Jenkins said...

I live quite close to Fauld in Staffordshire and a few months ago we managed to get into the remaining tunnels, there is still a vast underground network of tunnels down there, we even got behind a wall into the old section which has blast damage and roof falls. See the full report on it here http://www.ukurbex.co.uk/raf-fauld-high-explosives-tunnels-staffordshire/


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