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Welcome back to another episode of Remnant Stew! I’m your host Steve and today we are talking about Epic Disasters from explosions to huge storms, floods and train crashes.
Leah here, buckle your seatbelts and keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
You know, Leah, I haven’t ever personally been involved in an epic disaster. But I did come close one time when I was a teenager. My cousin, Melanie, was a barrel racer. For those of you who don’t know, barrel racing is an equestrian event in which several barrels are set out in a pattern. The horseback rider attempts to maneuver around the barrels as quickly as possible. It is a timed event. Well, my cousin needed to practice her barrel racing, but she was short one barrel. So she took me out into our pasture and said, “Stand right here!” I was too dumb to realize that I had just become the replacement barrel. So I stand where she told me to. She backed her horse up about thirty yards and then, to my horror, began charging right at me! Fortunately I was too terrified to run, so I stuck like glue to my spot. Quickly Melanie skillfully spun her horse in a tight neat little circle right around me and then went on to the next barrel. It’s a good thing that I didn’t move because it would have been an epic disaster if I had. However, I didn’t volunteer for any more practice sessions.
Listen if that is a disaster then I’ve been in more than my fair share and so have my kids. We have personally been guests at many of the local ER facilities. But Steve, we actually have experienced a few disasters. Living in Texas near the coast we have had many hurricanes and tropical storms that have resulted in historic floods. The last major one being Hurricane Ike that we’ll talk about a little later on. And while we weren’t in the path of Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans we know all too well the destruction it caused because of all the people that evacuated Louisiana and came here for shelter. Many didn’t have homes to return to.
Disasters come in many different types and forms. There are natural disasters of course and then there are disasters that result from human error, and then there are those which combine the two. But sometimes truly bizarre disasters just happen. The following comes from an article from Britanica.com called 7 Strange Disasters
THE TUNGUSKA EVENT of 1908
On June 30, 1908 a large and powerful explosion occurred in the stratosphere above the remote taiga near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in central Siberia. The blast, caused by the explosion of an incoming comet or meteorite above the site, leveled about 2,000 square miles of pine forest. That would be roughly an area 45 miles long and 45 miles wide. The force of the explosion was estimated to be roughly 1,000 times the power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Investigators who believe that the object was a comet point to records that describe the development of noctilucent clouds in the skies over Europe shortly after the blast—which might have been caused by the release of ice crystals into the upper atmosphere by a comet’s sudden vaporization. Other investigators argue that the object was a meteorite that might have been 300 feet in diameter.
I remember reading about that and how a 1927 Soviet Academy of Science Expedition discovered the area of trees broken at the bottom of their trunks laid out in a ring around one central point. The scientists were completely baffled by it and an investigation was started to compare historic records to the findings at the site to figure out what had happened.
THE GREAT MOLASSES FLOOD
January 15th 1919 in Boston began as any other ordinary day when suddenly a tidal wave of sweet gooey insanity sprang forth from a ruptured storage tank. This tank was holding fermented molasses which was to be incorporated into industrial alcohol and used in the production of military grade weapons. However, World War I had ended two months earlier, so the molasses was put on hold until a different purpose could be found for it. Evidently parked molasses can become volatile. In this case the expanding goo forced a rupture in the tank and sprang forth in a wave that was anywhere from 15 to 40 feet high and more than 150 feet wide, rushing down the street at more than 30 miles per hour. It toppled buildings and buried horses, automobiles, and pedestrians. The cold temperatures quickly thickened the molasses and in the process trapped many of those who were unfortunately in its way. Twenty-one people died and more than 150 were injured.
Can you imagine drowning in molasses? I also wondered just how big that tank had to have been to hold a tidal wave of molasses. I looked it up and it was over two million gallons. I’m thinking…maybe don’t hold that much in one tank.
I’ve heard—I don’t know if it’s true—that in the summer when things heat up you can still catch a whiff of molasses in the Boston area.
THE RED SLUDGE OF HUNGARY 2010
On October 4, 2010, a retaining wall gave way at the Ajkai Timföldgyar aluminum oxide plant in Ajkai, Hungary. The retaining wall held back a part of a waste reservoir containing a tremendous volume of red caustic sludge. Several million cubic feet of the toxic material was released after part of the wall failed. The sludge moved downhill, covering low-lying villages in Hungary’s Marcal River valley. At least 10 people were killed, with more than 120 others injured after they made contact with the sludge, which burned their skin and caused eye irritation. The wave of sludge made it into local rivers and streams, killing many plants and animals along the way.
DONORA DEATH FOG 1948
Donora, Pennsylvania sits in the normally picturesque Monongahela River Valley in the western part of the state. In late October 1948, however, Donora was visited by the Fog of Death. For four days weather conditions trapped fluoride fumes and other emissions (such as carbon monoxide, hydrofluoric acid, and sulfur dioxide) from the region’s steel smelting plants and zinc works. The stagnant air failed to move, and the high concentrations of airborne pollutants built up near the ground. Nearly 5,000 people suffered from the effects of this pollution episode, with many people developing fluorine poisoning.. Twenty-two people died, and some 50 additional fog-attributed deaths occurred within a few months. For the next 10 years the town’s mortality rate surpassed those of its neighbors. Many of the survivors had permanent respiratory damage. The story of this Donora Death Fog was recounted as evidence supporting the development and passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act.
THE LONDON PARTICULAR OF 1952
Just four years after the Donora incident a similar situation played out in a much larger area and with significantly more deadly results. London is well known for its continuous fog and mist. Since the late 1800s as industrialization has developed in the city, the naturally foggy conditions have often mixed with factory emissions and coal fire smoke to create a dreary dense smog. In December of 1952 a combination of coal driven furnace smoke, fog, and cold conditions created one of the deadliest smog events in history. For four days the thick smog killed between 4,000 and 12,000 people. Most of the deaths were the result of severe bronchial asthma and pneumonia. The Netflix series The Crown devoted one whole episode to what became known as the London Particular.
THE ALASKA / HAWAII TIDAL WAVE
This was no April Fool’s joke. On April 1, 1946 a 7.4 magnitude earthquake occurred just off of the coast of Alaska’s Uminak Island. The quake created a gigantic wave that shattered a lighthouse on the island, killing five people in the process. The lighthouse, by the way was sitting on a point that was 30 feet above sea level. After leaving Uminak the wave hit the open sea and headed south.
Four and a half hours later the wave reached Hawaii which is 2,400 miles away. Do the math, this wave was traveling over 500 MPH.
As the first wave came in and receded, the water in Hawaii’s Hilo Bay seemed to disappear. Boats were left on the sea floor next to flopping fish. Then, the massive tsunami struck. In the city of Hilo, a 32-foot wave devastated the town, completely destroying almost a third of the city. The bridge crossing the Wailuku River was picked up by the wave and pushed 300 feet away. In Hilo, 96 people lost their lives. In other parts of Hawaii, waves reached as high as 60 feet. A schoolhouse in Laupahoehoe was crushed by the tsunami, killing the teacher and 25 students inside.
This tsunami prompted the U.S. to establish the Seismic SeaWave Warning System two years later. The system, now known as the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, uses undersea buoys throughout the ocean, in combination with seismic-activity detectors, to find possible killer waves
THE 1980 HEAT WAVE
The summer of 1980 was one of the hottest on record, especially in the south. Temperatures in Texas and Tennessee stayed in the triple digits for more than 40 days straight. In Dallas/Fort Worth, the temperature soared to 113 degrees—and stayed there for three consecutive days. The heat wave claimed at least 1,700 lives (elderly people living without access to air conditioning are most at risk during heat waves) and caused more than $20 billion in agricultural damage as the heat wave was accompanied by a prolonged drought.
What I remember about that Heat Wave was that wild animals were coming in to towns and cities looking for water. I had an interesting encounter with a skunk, another personal near disaster.
I remember this! I was a kid living in Louisville, KY and you know we didn’t have air conditioning. I remember the adults talking about the heat wave and the more they talked the hotter I got! I specifically remember that temps were in the upper 90s and I wanted to never forget that because it was historically hot! A few years later I moved to Texas and we still didn’t have AC. In fact, my parents didn’t get AC or a dishwasher until I moved away from home. I remember thinking how much of a wimp I was for thinking that 90 degree temps were so unbearable.
THE GREAT BLIZZARD OF 1888
Northeast cities are no strangers to winter weather. But every so often a blizzard comes through that catch even the most prepared cities off guard. The Great Blizzard of 1888, often referred to as the most severe—and deadliest—blizzard to hit the United States, was one of those. The so-called Great White Hurricane dumped between 10 and 58 inches of snow in cities from Maryland to Maine and brought 45-mile-per-hour winds as well. More than 400 people died as a result of the unusual March storm. One New York politician, who died of pneumonia shortly after the storm, wrote to a friend that he climbed “over drifts so high that my head bumped against the signs.”
THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT ST. HELENS
Also in 1980 was the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Most people know about this, but if you weren’t alive during the 1980 eruption, it can be hard to fully understand the destruction. On the morning of May 18, an earthquake caused the north face of Washington State’s infamous volcano to slide away. That allowed the high-pressure gas inside to explode, causing an 80,000-foot eruption column that carried volcanic ash to 11 states. Fifty-seven people were killed, and the eruption caused more than a billion dollars in damage.
Now I lived in the Seattle area during much of the 1990s and at that time they opened an observation viewing area within the blast zone. They purposed to allow the landscape to regenerate itself naturally. Today, there are new trees and plants growing throughout the area.
When Mount St. Helens was threatening to erupt photographer Robert Landsberg set up his camera a few miles away to record the event. When the eruption occurred though he realized that he was doomed. He was just too close to escape the ash cloud that was hurtling toward him. So what did he do? He kept taking pictures for as long as he could then did his best to protect the film…with his own body.
He rewound the film back into its case, put everything into his backpack and then lay down on top of it to protect its contents. Seventeen days later his body was discovered buried in the ash with his backpack underneath him. The film was intact and has provided valuable information for geologists studying the eruption.
Landsberg’s photos were published in the January 1981 issue of National Geographic
THE GREAT STORM OF 1900
The Great Galveston Storm came ashore the night of Sept 8, 1900, with an estimated strength of a Category 4 hurricane. It remains the deadliest natural disaster and the worst hurricane in U.S. history. Between 6,000 to 12,000 people died on Galveston Island and the nearby mainland. Texas' most advanced city was nearly destroyed. Some 10,000 people were left homeless as thousands of homes and businesses were demolished by the wind and waves.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Galveston was the grandest city in Texas. It could boast the biggest port, the most millionaires, the swankiest mansions, the first telephones, and the first electric lights. After the 1900 storm, she would never regain her status. Now if you go to Galveston today you can see some lovely old homes that did manage to survive the storm. They all bear a plaque stating such.
Galveston has a museum dedicated to the great storm with a video showing photos of the destruction and telling stories of the inhabitants of the island. I read the book “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson. In it he describes the science of meteorology that was just gaining ground at that time and a lot of the politics that went on within it. The storm predictions from other countries to the south were ignored because of the arrogance of American meteorologists. Isaac Cline was the resident meterologist of Galveston Island at the time and he was convinced that a hurricane would never enter the gulf. He felt that all the earlier reports of hurricane type storms were just people being dramatic.
It’s also very interesting to read about the stories of the individuals and the families that went through the hurricane. Like the Sisters of Charity Orphanage. As the water began to rise the nuns and the children kept moving up the stories of the building until they were forced to the roof. The nuns realized that they were all likely to be swept away so they took rope and tied around themselves and each of the children. The flood waters washed them away and later during clean up efforts the workers would find a body then pull on the rope to uncover another body, and another, and another. Ten sisters and 90 children lost their lives to the storm.
In fact the loss of life was so high and the survivors so few that men were held at gunpoint to be forced to work clearing the devastation and the decomposing bodies. Anyone found with severed fingers or ears in their pockets were shot on sight as they were looters gathering jewelry from the dead.
To end this story on a lighter note, the seawall project that was deemed to lofty and expensive a project before the storm was heartily embraced after the storm. The more populated east end of the island was raised 17 feet in elevation and a wall was constructed to help prevent floods from future hurricanes. There’s no way to estimate the number of lives it has saved since.
THE TEXAS CITY EXPLOSION OF 1947
As if the Galveston area hadn’t suffered enough, this article from Britanica.com details a major disaster that occurred there in 1947. On the morning of April 16, the French-owned ship Grandcamp was preparing to finish loading a consignment of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at the port of Texas City, just across the bay from Galveston. Around 8:00 AM crew members noticed smoke in the cargo area, where 2,300 tons of the fertilizer had already been stowed. In order to keep the cargo intact, the crew decided not to use water to extinguish the fire; they instead tried, unsuccessfully, to snuff out the flames. Shortly after 9:00 AM the temperature inside the cargo area had risen enough to spark a massive explosion that was heard as far as 150 miles away. The resulting fire destroyed the dock area and engulfed the nearby Monsanto Chemical Company plant. A mushroom cloud rose 2,000 feet into the air, and two small planes passing above were destroyed. Burning shrapnel was sent flying, with much of it landing in industrial areas, setting fires or causing other damage. A nearby ship, the SS High Flyer, which was carrying huge amounts of sulfur, also caught fire and exploded, and crude oil tankers near the site burned for days, consuming massive amounts of petroleum. An enormous wave that was triggered by the blast flattened numerous buildings leaving as many as 2,000 people homeless. The fact that the initial explosion had killed many of the town’s fire crew and ruined its firefighting equipment exacerbated the devastation.
THE CRASH AT CRUSH
“Crush, Texas” was a fictitious town 15 miles north of Waco set up specifically for a one-day publicity stunt. According to Wikipedia, the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad had first reached the Crush area in the 1880s, during the construction of a route between Dallas and Houston. As the railroad expanded, the Katy replaced its 30-ton steam engines with newer, more powerful 60-ton engines, and subsequently a stockpile of the older units that were no longer in use, began to accumulate.
William George Crush was a passenger agent for the Katy railroad. He got the bright idea that a staged train wreck would generate much-needed publicity for the railroad during a time of national economic downturn. What could go wrong? He even managed to convince his superiors it would be a great idea.
So the event was set for September 15th, 1896 and the temporary town of Crush, named for the agent was set up with two water wells, a circus tent borrowed from Ringling Brothers, a grandstand, three speakers' stands, a platform for reporters, two telegraph offices, and a special train depot, over which a giant sign proclaimed the new town as "Crush, Texas". The plans for the day included lemonade stands, carnival games, medicine shows and other sideshow attractions. The event was highly publicized and anticipated.
A separate four-mile segment of track was built for the event alongside the Katy railroad so that there was no chance a runaway train could end up on the main line; each end of the track was situated atop a low hill on opposite sides of a bowl-shaped valley in which the trains would meet. The locomotives to be used were two 35-short-ton decommissioned Baldwin engines, No. 999 and No. 1001. There was no admission charged for the event, proceeds were instead made on the train tickets sold to people traveling to the see the spectacle.
There were safety precautions. On the day before the exhibition, railroad officials staged a test of the engines to pinpoint the exact location of the collision. Crush was assured by railroad engineers that this was idea of his was a safe one stating that the boilers on the steam engines had been designed to resist ruptures and that, even in a very high-speed crash, they were unlikely to explode. Each engine had six boxcars to pull and because the couplers used to link the cars were considered unreliable in a crash, the cars were chained together to prevent them from coming apart during the impact.
Crush also insisted on keeping the crowd a minimum of 200 yards (180 m) away from the track but allowed members of the press to be as close as within 100 yards. Officials expected a showing of about 20,000 to 25,000 spectators but the crowd swelled to over 40,000.
4 pm was showtime and the steam engines and their boxcar trains were set in motion hurtling toward each other at speeds of up to 60 mph, their steam whistles screaming. The trains collided with a huge roar of splintering timbers, wrenching metal and billowing black smoke. Some accounts say the engines reared up against each other before falling over on their sides. The collision came to an end and silence fell for a moment before both boilers exploded sending hot shrapnel through the crowd. The event that was supposed to be harmless killed three people and maimed many others.
In an article for TexasCoopPower.com Martha Deeringer reports that “teenager Ernest Darnall, who watched the spectacle from his perch in a mesquite tree died instantly when a heavy hook on the end of a wrecking chain hit him between the eyes and split his skull. Several dozen people were injured, including those scalded by steam and burned by jagged, hot shrapnel. A flying bolt ripped out the right eye of official event photographer Jervis Deane, who was on a stand less than 100 feet from the track.”
The spectators stood stunned as they took stock of the serious injuries inflicted by the crash. Doctors quickly started tending to those that were wounded, some as from as far as a mile away. Then there was a rush forward by those who were not hurt to snatch up as many souvenirs from the morbid disaster as they could carry.
William Crush was immediately fired. A few days later it was discovered that the crash had accomplished its purpose. The story was repeated in headlines around the world and business for the Katy Railroad boomed. Crush was quietly rehired.
There was a song written about the crash by Scott Joplin the famous ragtime composer who was speculated to have been in the attendance at Crush. The song was called “The Great Crush Collision March”
The injured and the family of the deceased were compensated by the railroad. Deane, the photographer injured by a flying bolt was one of those that received a settlement…and a lifetime pass for the Katy Railroad.
THE PORT CHICAGO DISASTER
You know, Leah, I have been teaching history for over forty years, yet I had never heard of this incident until I began researching for this show. Unfortunately, it is not a particularly proud moment in our nation’s history. The Port Chicago Disaster didn’t occur in Chicago, Illinois, but rather in a small Navy town called Port Chicago, California. This port consisted of a very long pier which angled out into the ocean and was equipped with train rails. Ships could be loaded with supplies brought by rail to either side of the pier. This was a very busy port during World War II as ships came here from all over the Pacific Theatre to be re-supplied. And the main supply that was provided at this particular port was munitions. Munitions transported through this port included bombs, shells, Naval mines, torpedoes and small arms ammunition. However, none of the sailors or officers at the facility had any training or experience in the handling or loading of explosives. Making matters worse, the sailors at Port Chicago were all African American and the officers were all Caucasian. This appeared to hamper communication between the sailors and the officers and many of the workers concerns were not passed up the chain of command. Making matter even worse, the base commander established competitions between different barracks to encourage the men to load the ships faster.
The Liberty ship SS E. A. Bryan docked at the inboard, landward side of Port Chicago's pier at 8:15 a.m. on July 13, 1944. The ship arrived at the dock with empty cargo holds but was carrying a full load of 5,292 barrels of heavy fuel oil for its intended trip across the Pacific Ocean. At 10 a.m. that same day, seamen from the ordnance battalion began loading the ship with munitions. After four days of around-the-clock loading, about 4,600 tons of explosives had been stored in its holds. The ship was about 95% full by the evening of July 17. On the opposite side of the pier, the SS Quinault was being prepared for loading. It’s holds were empty, but it’s fuel tanks were about half full. A boxcar delivery containing a new airborne anti-submarine depth charges was being loaded into No. 2 hold of the Bryan. These charges were more sensitive than TNT to external shock and container dents. On July 17 at 10:18 p.m., witnesses reported hearing a noise described as "a metallic sound and rending timbers, such as made by a falling boom." Immediately afterward, an explosion occurred on the pier and a fire started. Five to seven seconds later a more powerful explosion took place as the majority of the ordnance within and near the SS E. A. Bryan detonated in a fireball seen for miles. An Army Air Forces pilot flying in the area reported that the fireball was 3 miles in diameter. Chunks of glowing hot metal and burning ordnance were flung over 12,000 ft. into the air. The E. A. Bryan was completely destroyed and the Quinault was blown out of the water, torn into sections and thrown in several directions; the stern landed upside down in the water 500 ft away. A Coast Guard fire boat was thrown 600 ft. up the Sacramento river, where it sank. The pier, along with its boxcars, locomotive, rails, cargo, and men, was blasted into pieces. 320 Sailors and civilians were killed and 390 more were injured.
About a week after the incident the remaining officers rounded up the surviving sailors who were not in the hospital and bussed them to their next assignment. To their shock, the new assignment was just down the coast at the Mare Island Navy Port, and their new job was loading more munitions on ships. Some fifty of the men refused to follow orders and were court marshalled for mutiny. They spent the rest of the war in prison and were issued dishonorable discharges. In the 1990s one of the sailors Freddie Meeks petitioned President Clinton for and received a pardon, but none of the other 49 have been pardoned. They have all passed away by now, but there are efforts to grant them all a pardon as well.
In the investigation after the Port Chicago Disaster, it was determined that segregation of the ranks had been a contributing factor in the blast. The following spring, the Navy became the first military branch to begin integration.
We’ve talked a lot of chaos and destruction so I want to leave you with some things that will give you a laugh….
Steve, have you ever heard of the WAFFLE HOUSE INDEX?
Well you know that the Waffle House is a chain of greasy spoon like diners that stay open 24 hours to serve all meals but their specialty is breakfast hence the name Waffle House.
Well since these little diners stay open 24/7 the various organizations that monitor disaster areas (like FEMA and the Red Cross) tend to look at the Waffle Houses to see how they are faring. They’ve found that it’s a pretty good indication of how the area is dealing with a disaster. For example, the index has three levels,
GREEN: full menu – restaurant has power and damage is limited or no damage at all.
YELLOW: limited menu – no power or only power from a generator, or food supplies may be low.
RED: the restaurant is closed – indicating severe damage, severe flooding, or a pandemic.
This index was developed by FEMA because they know that the restaurant along with stores like Home Depot and Walmart do a lot of business when disaster strikes and so they, compared to other businesses, have more organized risk management and disaster preparedness.
THE 1970 WHALE EXPLOSION
On November 12th, 1970 the carcass of a large sperm whale was spotted on the beach in Florence, Oregon. The whale was 45 feet long and weighed an estimated eight tons. That’s a huge rotting, stinky, problem, and someone had to do something to remove it. At the time, the Oregon Highway Division (now called the Oregon Department of Transportation) had jurisdiction over beaches and decided to dispose of the whale the same way they would clear a large boulder from a highway construction project. They would blow it up using dynamite. What could go wrong?
There is video! Reporter Paul Linnman opens by saying, “The Oregon State Highway Division not only had a whale of a problem on their hands, it had a stinking whale of a problem.” The cameras rolled and Linnman continued to report on the endeavor as workmen loaded the whale with explosives and the surrounding sand dunes filled up with spectators. There was the expected countdown but when the blast occurred the humorous situation turned into a run-for-cover situation as chunks of rotting blubber rained downed over a very large area. Linnman went on record as actually saying, “The sand dunes there were covered with spectators and landlubber newsmen, shortly to become land-blubber newsmen. For the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.”
Surprisingly, no one was hurt but a large chunk-o-whale fell on a car parked about a quarter of a mile away and crushed the passenger side of the roof in.
In 2015 over 40 years after the whale explosion Paul Linnman was interviewed about that day. When asked about that famous—or infamous—line about how the “blast blasted blubber” he laughed and said, “You know, I’ve had my grown sons repeat that to me so many times I’m sick to death of it.” And went on to state that it has been reported that that clip was the single most television news story in history.
I sourced this information from TheExplodingWhale.com because yes, this incident has its own domain name and website over 50 years later.
Remnant Stew is created by me, Leah Lamp. Dr. Steven Meeker and I research, write and host each episode. Audio is produced by Phillip Sinquefield. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod with voiceover by Morgan Hughes. Special thanks to Judy Meeker and Harbin Gould for helping out as well.
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