Do you ever feel like your engineering or construction job is unimportant?  Overrated?  Let me convince you otherwise by presenting just a handful of the disasters caused by industrial and civil engineering failures in American history.  These disasters prove just how life-saving your profession can be. 

1) Hindenburg

On May 6, 1937, after an initial year of transglobal flight, the German passenger airship Hindenburg was attempting to dock with its mooring mast at a naval base in New Jersey. The hydrogen-filled airship exploded into flames and was destroyed, with 36 fatalities out of the original 97 crew and passengers.

Even nearly 80 years later, it’s unclear what triggered the explosion. While theories vary from sabotage to electric sparks to engine malfunction, all that’s known for sure is that some of the surviving passengers reported hearing a muffled explosion and others felt a jolt prior to the flames enveloping the airship.

The disaster likely could have been prevented if the airship has used non-flammable helium instead of highly flammable hydrogen. However, at the time only the United States could reliably produce the quantity of helium gas needed. Due to the American wariness of Nazi Germany’s intentions, an embargo was in place to prevent the sale of helium to Germany. So the Germans used hydrogen instead. It turned out to be a costly mistake—both in terms of loss of human life and in loss of airships as a viable transportation option in the mid-twentieth century.

2) I-35W Mississippi River Bridge

On August 1, 2007, the 1964-built eight-lane, steel truss bridge near Minneapolis that crossed the Mississippi River collapsed without warning. Thirteen people died and almost 150 were injured. The bridge had been the fifth busiest in Minnesota, with 140,000 vehicles a day crossing it.

The subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the likely reason was a design flaw. Specifically, based on the failure analysis of the steel gussets, the NTSB concluded that the gussets were undersized. A gusset is a thick steel plate that connects the beams and girders of a steel bridge to the columns or truss members of the bridge. A subsequent finding indicated that Minnesota should not have added two inches of concrete onto the bridge after the initial construction. Finally, additional weight was added due to extensive construction ongoing when the collapse occurred.

It’s difficult to know whether a more robust inspection program would have provided officials enough information to realize collapse was imminent. However, a robust inspection and maintenance program, coupled with more oversight on when adding additional weight to the bridge, may have prevented the collapse.

3) Hurricane Katrina and the Levee System

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana. It flooded New Orleans and caused over 1800 deaths. It is the costliest natural disaster in American history.

Since New Orleans is below sea level, the Corps of Engineers levee system was crucial to protecting the city. Subsequent studies by the American Society of Civil Engineers determined that the levees failed because of inadequate design and construction by the Corps of Engineers.  If the levees had been higher, the transitions between levees had been strengthened, and a better preventive maintenance plan had been in place, perhaps the disaster could have been prevented or at least minimized.

4) The Boston Molasses Disaster

On January 15, 1919, a huge tank (50 feet tall and 90-ft in diameter) containing as much as 2,300,000 gallons of molasses collapsed in the North End neighborhood of Boston. Witnesses stated that as it collapsed there was a loud rumbling sound like a machine gun as the rivets shot out of the tank and that the ground shook as if a train were passing by. The collapse unleashed a huge wave of molasses between 8 and 15 feet high, moving at 35 mph. The molasses wave was of sufficient force to break the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway’s Atlantic Avenue structure and lift a train off the tracks. Nearby, buildings were swept off their foundations and crushed. 21 people were killed and 150 were injured.  300 people contributed to the lengthy cleanup effort.

Several factors contributed to this disaster.  The tank was poorly constructed, tested, and maintained.  The fermentation occurring within the tank may have actually raised the internal air pressure.  There was also an abrupt rise in temperatures 24 hours before the disaster, which may have contributed to the rise in internal pressure.

Conclusion

There are many well-known construction disasters that I didn’t have space for in this post including the sinking of the Titanic, the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident, and the Tacoma Washington Bridge collapse.  These construction engineering disasters serve to remind us just how important good engineers are and how proper design, funding, and maintenance can make the difference between a miracle of construction and a lethal disaster.

Did I miss your favorite disaster?  Tell me what it is in the comments section below.

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