The Year in Disaster and Emergency History

16 Jan – In the Marcellus Flood, also known as the Grote Mandrenke (“great drowning”), up to 100,000 people died across the British Isles, the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Denmark (1362).

17 Jan – Kobe, Japan was demolished by a 7.2 (Richter scale) magnitude earthquake, resulting in almost 7000 deaths and 300,000 people left homeless (1996).

28 Jan – An O-ring on the Space Shuttle Challenger leaked during lift off, sending sparks towards the main liquid fuel tank and causing a massive explosion after 73 seconds that destroyed the vehicle. The seven person crew survived, until the cockpit impacted the Atlantic Ocean after falling 10.5 miles from space (1986).

30 Jan – In the worst maritime disaster in history, the German passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff carrying over 10,000 refuges was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea. 1236 people survived (1945).

31 Jan – A major North Sea storm raised water levels to 16 feet above normal, breaching dikes in Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium. Over 600,000 acres of farmland, 200,000 farm animals, and 2,000 people were destroyed (1953).

1 Feb – The Columbia Space Shuttle, having been damaged when some insulation penetrated the outer shell of the left wing on lift off (16 Jan), burned up on re-entry, immolating the seven astronauts on board (2003).

2 Feb – One of the greatest winter storms in history, the Groundhog Day gale hit the north Atlantic coast of the US and Canada (1976).

15 Feb – A devastating hurricane struck Hamburg, pushing record amounts of water up the Elbe River, breeching dikes and flooding large sections of the city. 340 Germans died (1962).

26 Feb – In the Buffalo Creek Flood, a dam holding coal slurry from the Pittston Coal Company burst, spilling 132,000,000 gallons of black waste water on to 16 villages, killing 125 and injuring 1100 (1972).

6 Mar – The roll-on roll-off ferry Herald of Free Enterprise, while traveling from Zeebrugge to Dover, hit a sand bar. Her cargo doors had inexplicably not been closed and so she filled with water, capsized and filled with water within minutes. The ferry held 459 passengers and 80 crew, but despite the fact that all of this happened in only 30 feet of water at the mouth of the harbor and rescue boats were nearby, 193 people still perished (1987).

10 Mar – 1099 miners in Northern France died as a result of a dust explosion in the Courrières mine disaster, the worst in European history (1906).

11 Mar – Islamic terrorists in Madrid bombed four commuter trains, killing 191 people and injuring over 2000 (2004).

11 Mar – A 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the north eastern coast of Japan caused a tsunami which inundated 433,000 square kilometers of land, killed over 11,000 people and caused serious damage to the nuclear reactors at Fukushima, which caused an atmospheric radiation release (2011).

16 Mar – The oil tanker Amoco cadiz lost rudder control and then hit a rock off the coast of France, spilling 230,000 tons of oil (1978).

18 Mar – The oil tanker Torry Canyon hit a reef off the coast of England, spilling 120,000 tons of oil into the Atlantic ocean (1967).

20 Mar – Members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo attacked the subway system in Tokyo sarin gas, a potent nerve agent, which killed 12 and sickened over 3,000 (1995).

24 Mar – A tractor-trailer caught fire in the Mount Blanc Tunnel between France and Italy, starting an inferno in the tunnel that claimed other vehicles and killed 29 people (1999).

27 Mar – A Boeing 747 operated by KLM and a jumbo jet operated by Pan Am collided on the ground on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, causing both planes to erupt in a fireball from which only 61/643 survived (1977).

3 Apr – In an event known as the Super Outbreak, 148 tornadoes hit Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, the entire Midwest, and New York, the South and Canada within 18 hours, leaving over 300 dead and causing over $3.5 billion in damages (1974).

14 Apr – The RMS Titanic, part of JP Morgan’s White Star Line and one of the most fabled ships in history, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, taking 1522 passengers to the bottom (1912).

18 Apr – An earthquake of 8.25 magnitude on the Richter scale hit San Francisco, followed by a four-day fire, which destroyed 25,000 buildings and killed 3,000 people (1906).

26 Apr – The worst mining accident in history occurred in Benxi, China, when coal dust exploded, trapping miners. The Japanese Army sealed the mine without allowing evacuation, and 1549 perished (1942).

26 Apr – During a routine test, the Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine, experienced a core meltdown, exploded, and released large amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere (1986).

1 May – A dust explosion in the winter quarters of Scofield Mine in Utah killed over 200 miners, one of the worst mining accidents in US history (1900).

3 May – An earthquake, estimated at 7.1 on the surface magnitude scale, killed over 30,000 on the island of Rhodes, off the southwestern coast of modern Turkey (1481).

6 May – The German zeppelin the Hindenburg burst into flame as it was landing after a flight from Frankfurt Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey. 62 of 97 passengers escaped (1937).

7 May – The RMS Lusitania, a British passenger liner which also carried a cargo of war materials, was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat and sank in 18 minutes, taking 1200 people to the bottom of the Atlantic (1915).

17 May – British bombers attacked dams in the Ruhr Valley, destroying the Mohne and Eder Dams and releasing five billion cubic feet of water. 2,000 people, including over 700 from Eastern Europe in a forced labor camp, were killed (1943).

29 May – A tractor trailer crashed into a line of vehicles in the Tauern Tunnel in Austria, setting off a chain reaction which killed 12 (1999).

3 Jun – A high-speed Inter City Express (ICE) train with a faulty wheel hit a bridge piling near Eschede, Lower Saxony, in what was the greatest rail disaster in German history. 101 people were killed (1998).

15 Jun – Carrying 1300 passengers from the local German community in New York City, the paddle steamer General Slocum, named after a Union general, caught fire as it traveled up the East River. Paint which had been applied only a few days before ignited, covering the ship in flames, and preventing the lifeboats from being lowered. 1,021 people died (1904).

17 Jun – In Britain’s worst maritime disaster, German Luftwaffe aircraft attacked and sunk the RMS Lancastria, killing over 3,000, near Saint Nazaire, France (1940).

7 Jul – Muslim terrorists attacked the London subway and a double decker bus with bombs during rush hour, killing 56 and injuring over 700 (2005).

25 Jul – The Concorde, one of the world’s only supersonic passenger jets (with the Tupolev Tu-144LL), ran over a piece of titanium left on the runway by an earlier departing flight, which blew its tire and started a series of fires. Ultimately the Concorde crashed into a hotel, killing nine crew, 100 passengers, and four onlookers (2000).

28 Jul – In heavy fog, a B-25 accidentally flew into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building in New York City. The three man crew and 14 people on the ground died and 26 were injured (1945).

28 Jul – At least 250,000 people died when an 8.2 magnitude earthquake hit the Chinese city of Tangshan (1976).

6 and 8 Aug – Approximately 80,000 people in Hiroshima and 50,000 people in Nagasaki were killed in the only atomic weapon attacks in history (1945).

12 Aug – A torpedo failed to fire and then exploded in the forward section of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk during routine exercises, causing it to sink and killing all but 23 of 118 crew members. The survivors died within four hours (2000).

Aug – 195,000 acres of wildlands in Galicia, Spain were consumed by more than 2,000 forest fires, as much as 80% started by arson (2006).

22, 26, 27 Aug – Volcanic eruptions on the island of Krakatoa (near Indonesia) blasted 4 cubic miles of ash and rock up to 50 miles into the atmosphere and releasing the energy 10-100,000 Hiroshima-power atomic bombs (1883).

24 Aug – Mount Vesuvius erupted outside the Roman city of Pompeii, burying the city and the region in ash and killing an estimated 17,000 people (79).

11 Sep – 19 Muslim terrorists hijacked four US airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, killing 3,056 people. The fourth airliner was probably intended to hit the White House but passengers fought back and the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania (2001).

21 Sep – The German ship sailing ship Pamir, a trainer for the merchant marine, was delivering 4,000 tons of barley from Argentina to Germany when she encountered a hurricane, capsized and sank. Eighty crewmen perished, including many cadets (1957).

28 Sep – The automobile and passenger roll-on roll-off ferry Estonia, traveling from Talinin to Stockholm, sank in the frigid Baltic Sea after her forward doors broke in rough seas, killing 852 on board (1994).

4 Oct – A cargo laden Boeing 747-200 flown by the Israeli El Al Airlines crashed into an apartment complex in Amsterdam’s Bulmermeer district shortly after takeoff. The three man crew, one passenger and 39 residents in the buildings died (1992).

9 Oct – A landslide on Monte di Toc into the Vajont reservoir sent a massive surge of water over the top of the Vajont Dam, flooding the nearby villages of Erto, Casso, and Longarone in the Piave Valley and killing over 2,000 (1963).

13 Oct – A Uruguayan Air Force plane crashed in the Andes Mountains while carrying a rugby team to a match in Chile. 33/45 passengers survived the crash, but by the time they were rescued 72 days later, only 16 people still lived, many having eaten their dead companions to stay alive (1972).

24 Oct – A wastewater lagoon in Germany breeched its dikes, pouring 121 million gallons of watery muck into nearby iron mines and trapping fifty of 129 miners. Over the next two weeks, in a series of dramatic rescues, 21 more were rescued (1963).

24 Oct – Two tractor trailers collided head-on in the Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland, killing 11 people (2001).

1 Nov – On All Saints Day, an earthquake later estimated at 9 on the Richter scale devastated the wealthy and modern city of Lisbon, killing more than 60,000 of the 275,000 inhabitants. The severity of the chaos prompted what may be the first modern recovery and reconstruction plan, and helped future generations consider how to prepare for and respond to natural disasters (1755).

1 Nov – A chemical plant owned by the Sandoz company in Basal, Switzerland caught fire, and the water used to fight the fire was contaminated with toxic chemicals from the plant, contaminated the local drinking water supply and the Rhine River (1986).

24 Nov – A powerful snowstorm, known as the “Storm of the Century”, struck the northeastern US with subzero temperatures and winds over 100 mph. 353 people died as a result (1950).

25 Nov – Suffering from the single greatest number of November tornados in US history, 27 powerful tornados struck the Midwest on Thanksgiving Day, killing 76 and wounding 400 (1926).

28 Nov – A fire inexplicably started in the fashionable Boston nightclub, the Coconut Grove, rapidly growing into an inferno and killing 492 people of the over 1000 people in the overcrowded club (1942).

1 Dec – The Great Fire of Brisbane, Australia, destroyed 50-100 structures but caused no deaths (1864).

3 Dec – A Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked methyl isocyanate, killing 3800 immediately, 6000 within days, and injuring 150,000 more (1984).

5 Dec – Unusual climactic conditions including a cold fog cause air pollution to be concentrated close to the ground in London, causing “The Great Smog” and killing up to 12,000 people in subsequent months (1952).

7 Dec – “The Great Storm” leveled thousands of buildings and sank 700 ships in Southern England (1703).

7 Dec – The Spitak Earthquake in northwestern Armenia killed over 25,000 and injured hundreds of thousands more (1988).

21 Dec – Pan Am flight 103 disintegrated after a bomb planted by Islamic terrorists exploded in its luggage compartment, killing 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground (1988).

26 Dec – A 9.0 earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered a tsunami which hit coastal regions of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and East Africa, killing over 230,000 people (2004).

28 Dec – A hurricane destroyed the central bridge of the recently constructed bridge at the Firth of Tay, Scotland, plunging a six car mail train into the depths and leaving no survivors (1879).

30 Dec – In the deadliest theater fire in American history, at least 602 of an estimated 2200 patrons perished in the Iroquois Theater in Chicago when an arc light shorted and ignited a muslin curtain, rapidly expanding into an inferno (1903).

Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Epidemics, and other Misfortunes

Hurricane Sandy has just swept through the east coast of the US, killing at least 100, leaving six million without power and causing at least $3 billion dollars in damages. In March 2011, an earthquake (magnitude 9.3), tsunami and radiation accident in Japan killed 15,870 and caused $235 billion in damages. In January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Leogane in Haiti, killing at least 316,000. Disease epidemics relentlessly cycle through populations. Such catastrophes occur constantly somewhere in the world, and terrible suffering and loss is an inevitable result.

While similar disasters have occurred since the dawn of time, mankind’s response to them has changed over the centuries.  Historians identify two basic approaches, the Metaphysical Approach and the Rational Approach.  In the “metaphysical approach”, disasters are caused by direct divine action. In the “rational approach”, disasters are caused by specific natural phenomena, such as microorganisms, wind patterns, seismic activity, environmental contamination and the like. These labels, invented in the past two centuries, illustrate the dismissive attitudes of moderns towards their forebears who, not having the same depth of science and technology that we enjoy today, favored the metaphysical approach.

The Assumed View in the Past

Modern commentators often assume that in most of human history disasters were attributed to the direct action of God (or gods) more so than natural phenomena. The Hebrews at Jericho thanked Jehovah for the collapse of the walls and the conquest of the city (Joshua 6), while present day observers would more likely credit an earthquake, especially since Jericho was located at the northern end of the Great Rift Valley, a seismically active area.  Later they praised God for their victory over the heavily armored infantry and chariots of the Canaanites (Judges 4:15), even though the physical mechanism was a sudden thunderstorm and flash flood (Judges 5:19-22). Centuries later Sennacherib and his Assyrian army were defeated by the angel of the Lord (2 Kings 19:35) in an episode that looks suspiciously like pneumonic plague. Time and time again ancient writers give the gods credit for events that today we would attribute to purely natural processes.

Nonetheless, the ancients knew that natural causes played a role. Hippocrates (460-370 BC) wrote “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is more divine or sacred than any other disease, but on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.[1]”  Many ancients noted that diseases tended to occur in low lying, highly humid areas near bodies of water.  Diseases also congregated in areas of great pollution.  Physicians from the past reasoned that since the air seemed different (often more fetid) in such areas, and since people in those areas shared the same air, the air must be the cause of their disease.  This is called the miasma (Greek – “pollution”) theory of disease.  It was prevalent throughout the Eurasian continent until the coming of the germ theory, made possible by improvements in biology, chemistry, physics, and in optics, such as Antoine van Leeuwenhoek’s (1632-1723) microscope.

This dual understanding of events is well illustrated in the eastern Mediterranean. Homer and the Bible often attribute events to divine action, although the Bible recognizes the contribution of natural events. Thucydides and Tacitus, for example, explain events with a natural focus – geography, economics, psychology, society, and technology – while attributing nothing to the work of the gods.[2] Thus the ancients, those that moderns often denounce as “primitive”, understood natural and supernatural aspects of happenings in the world.

The View in the Present

Today disasters and other natural phenomena people are seen primarily in “rationalistic” or natural terms, and people are mocked for suggesting that God may have had any part.  Earthquakes are caused by natural seismic activity, and epidemics are caused by complex strings of events that invite but also defy comprehensive analysis.  Hurricanes develop from changes in temperature and pressure over bodies of water, and we are told that it is foolish to search for the hand of the divine in them. When an American preacher suggested that the 2010 Haiti earthquake might be part of the judgment of God against the Haitians for the violent slave rebellion of 1791, he was derided without mercy.  Right or wrong, this would not have happened in a culture that understood natural disaster as primarily a metaphysical event, or a culture that acknowledged natural and supernatural causes to each circumstance.

This change in thought developed over the past three centuries, but a catalyst was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  On All Saints Day (1 November 1755), a very holy day in the Roman Catholic Church, a devastating earthquake, tsunami and fire struck Lisbon.  It killed an estimated 50,000 people in Portugal and the neighboring countries, and destroyed nearly every church and religious building in the city. The red-light district, however, was essentially unharmed.  Philosophers from Voltaire to Rousseau pondered this event and concluded that the disaster could not have been punishment for sin; the churches suffered the most and the “most sinful” were left unpunished.  Rather they explained this event as purely natural; no god played any role at all.  Even if someone insisted that God was involved, it could not have been the God of the Bible, because such a catastrophe in a faithful Catholic country seemed inconsistent with the idea that a benevolent and all-powerful God watched over His creation, and especially those who served Him. The new paradigm has stuck; now to say that God caused any natural event or is even involved in any event, at least in the West, is to invite ridicule and even persecution.

Problems with the Metaphysical Approach

The main difficulty with seeing disasters through purely metaphysical eyes is that it limits one’s ability to understand, respond to and prevent them.  Assuming that earthquakes are nothing more than the will of a god discourages trying to find ways to predict them and mitigate their damage.  Seeing only the anger of demons and deities in an epidemic prevents discovering the microorganisms that cause and the environmental and social conditions that define the epidemic.  Unless we know those, we cannot decrease the suffering and death that the epidemic causes.  Humans have made nearly miraculous strides in our understanding of disasters and other natural phenomena and our lives are much safer as a result.

Problems with the Rational Approach

The difficulties with seeing disasters through a singularly metaphysical paradigm are so obvious that we fail to notice the drawbacks of seeing disasters through a singularly rational paradigm. Indeed, while the ancients used both a metaphysical and a rational approach to understanding disasters and other events, modern man seems to be trying to disregard the metaphysical portion entirely.  We post-Enlightenment thinkers thus limit our ability to understand the world, or at least the world as understood by those who do not share our views.

This is a problem, because if there is a Creator God, He would certainly use His creation to accomplish His will. 21st century man certainly has the scientific and technological edge on 1st century man, but identifying a naturalistic cause for disasters does not automatically eliminate a metaphysical cause. For example, it is entirely possible that a tornado, while generated and sustained by physical elements and the laws of nature, still does the work of God. The Bible certainly teaches this. If man considers himself somehow more than the sum of his atomic particles, he must at least consider that the rest of the universe could be more than the sum of its atomic particles. If man has more than just a rational, mechanistic side, the universe probably does too.

One unintended consequence of viewing disasters in a purely natural and mechanistic means is that these disasters become meaningless.  The forces of nature seem random, or at least they are not looking out for us in the way that a compassionate God would.  Mother Nature has no interest in whether an individual human, or even the human race, lives or dies.  Random subatomic movement has no plan and no concern for its consequences.  Impersonal forces are not interested in punishing us, protecting us, developing us, or doing anything that people typically say that God is doing through hardship such as disasters.

We intuitively understand this, and yet we crave to find meaning in disasters and the inevitable suffering that they bring.  While a man in the mountains of Colorado may be scorned for saying that God allowed Hurricane Sandy to devastate New York City to accomplish His purposes, a man sitting atop his flooded house in South Queens will almost invariably seek meaning in his loss.  Perhaps he will attribute it to punishment for some specific sin or lifestyle, or perhaps he will simply affirm that God is making him stronger.

The Apostle Paul suffered from a “thorn in the flesh” which he believed was given by the Lord to keep him humble (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). After the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on 26 January 1986, killing all aboard, President Reagan did not speak of the technical reasons for the disaster.  Rather he focused on the metaphysical meaning of the astronauts’ work and their untimely demise, concluding that in a way they had not anticipated before the accident, they had “slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.”  In reality, the heart of man has changed very little – he needs both rational and metaphysical explanations for whatever befalls him. When we are not touched by a tragedy, a rational explanation will do.  When we are, the rational explanation is useful, but what we really need is a metaphysical one.

Some may argue that while we still use both metaphysical and rational explanations for natural disasters and their consequent suffering, modern metaphysical arguments seek meaning from the individual, not from God. Each man must assign his own meaning to tragedies.  This attitude fits well with our tendency to deify man, but it quickly evaporates in the face of real suffering and death.  The harder we try to make ourselves, individually and collectively, the center of all things, the more we fail.

The End of the Matter

What, then, is the meaning of the suffering that inevitably accompanies disasters and many other natural phenomena?  In some cases, misfortune is the direct result of an individual’s sin.  Gehazi coveted the wealth of Naaman and contracted leprosy as a result (2 Kings 5:25-27). In other cases, one person’s sin causes suffering to other people.  David’s disobedience to God brought pestilence to his people (2 Samuel 24:15-17). The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah brought destruction upon themselves (Genesis 19:1-29). Most earlier commentators believed that natural disasters were the direct punishment of God on sinners.  The work Four Anonymous Sermons on the Plague from the Toledo Homiliary certainly suggests such.[3] However, during Jesus’ ministry He stated in no uncertain terms that you cannot necessarily draw a causal link between individual sin and natural disasters (Luke 13:1-5). In the Bible, Job was broken by the loss of his family, his wealth, and his health, and even when God restored him, Job never learned why he suffered. Usually it is impossible to know why God allows misfortune to affect people.

Why did God send (or at least allow) Hurricane Sandy, the Japanese tsunami and the Haitian earthquake to wreak such havoc?  The most Christian answer is that we do not know. Hurricane Sandy, the Japanese tsunami, and the Haitian earthquake were terrible tragedies; the suffering they caused cannot be fathomed.  However, neither can they be robbed of meaning with purely naturalistic explanations.  The Bible believing Christian has but one option; to understand that God works through natural processes that He has made to accomplish His perfect purposes.  We often do not know what the final purpose is, but we know that God has a purpose infinitely greater and more beautiful than our own.  His kingdom will benefit, and so will we.

[1]  Stathakopolous D, Crime and Punishment, Plaque in the Byzantine Empire, Little LK (ed), Plague and the End of Antiquity, Cambridge Press, 2007, p106

[2] Luttwak, E. The Missing Dimension, in Johnston D. Sampson C. (eds), Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1994, 8

[3] Stathakopolous D, Crime and Punishment, Plaque in the Byzantine Empire, Little LK (ed), Plague and the End of Antiquity, Cambridge Press, 2007, p160-170