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).

Taking Intelligence Threats Seriously

The Joint Task Force National Capital Medicine (JTF Cap Med) recently completed medical support for the 57th Presidential Inauguration, involving hundreds of medical professionals providing health care and preventive services to thousands of military and civilian participants and hundreds of thousands of onlookers. Since the president, key members of government, and Washington DC itself are high profile targets, planners developed a careful intelligence estimate for the event. Military personnel in combat service support roles such as quartermaster, finance, chaplain and medical sometimes do not understand the importance of such estimates. In other cases we do not consider the breadth of threats to military operations such as the Inauguration.

Army Field Manual (FM) 2.0 (March 2010), titled Intelligence, described intelligence as “the product resulting from the collection, processing, integration, evaluation, analysis, and interpretation of available information concerning foreign nations, hostile or potentially hostile forces or elements, or areas of actual or potential operations.” Threat can be globally defined as “the intention to inflict pain, injury, damage or some other hostile action.”

Leaders in every realm must be aware of the world around them, because they must lead their organization in their current environment to accomplish their mission. Medical personnel, attuned to the most subtle changes in their patients, are sometimes surprisingly naïve about changes in their environment, and slow to change their actions as a result. Military medical leaders, just as leaders in other areas, must be aware of the various types of threats and must help defeat them.

1. Cyber Threat – As electronic health records and other media grow more important in the practice of medicine, and as privacy concerns mount, military medical personnel must take personal responsibility for the information security of their staff and patients and the integrity of their part of the information network.

2. Foreign Intelligence and Security Services Threat – Intelligence services from adversaries such as Iran, Russia and China routinely try to gain information from US computer networks. Robert Hanssen was an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation but spied for the Soviet Union and Russia from 1979-2001. His treachery resulted in the deaths of many in the USSR. However even intelligence services from friendly nations such as Israel try to gain access to US secrets. Jonathan Pollard worked for US Navy intelligence but clandestinely spied for Israel.

3. Domestic Threat – Americans can be just as dangerous to Americans as foreigners. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in the bombing in Oklahoma City in April 1995. In December 2012 Adam Lanza massacred 20 kindergarteners and six staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an American Islamist radical, killed 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas in 2009.

4. Criminal Threat – Criminal threats and domestic threats such as those mentioned above can overlap markedly, but even lesser criminal threats can cause great mischief. Computers containing patient information have been stolen from the cars of government workers, compromising both the workers and the system as a whole.

5. International Terrorist Threat – Lone actors such as Lanza and Hasan can cause great harm, but organized terrorists such as the Al Qaeda network, infamous for the attacks of 11 September 2001, can cause widespread catastrophes. Groups such as the Kurdistan Workers Party and Hamas are other examples.

6. Medical Threat – Diseases such as influenza comprise a major threat to any military operation. Arguably disease, even more than the actions of armies, has shaped world history. Had the Plague of Justinian (541-750 AD) not destroyed half of the population of the Iberian Peninsula between 707 and 709 AD, the Muslim Arabs may never have been able to conquer it. There is ample historical evidence of the impact of European diseases on Native Americans in the 15th through 18th centuries.

7. Natural Hazards – Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and other natural events have changed the course of history as well. Kublai Khan’s Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 were dispersed by typhoons, thus saving the islands and giving rise to the name Kamikaze (“God wind”) of World War II infamy. Many Biblical battles, such as the fall of Jericho, cite natural events in explaining the outcome.

8. Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Threats (CBRN) – Chemical weapons have been around since Achilles was killed by poison on a Trojan arrow. Biological agents such as anthrax and smallpox, chemical agents such as Soman and Tabun, and nuclear weapons are capable of vast harm.

9. Lawful Demonstrations – Demonstrations are not necessarily bad; soldiers fight every day for American’s right to peaceful protest, but they can cause harm to people and damage to the military mission. Protests can become violent, and service members, representing the “Establishment”, are too often targets.

Military medical personnel, just like chaplains, lawyers, and other warriors who don’t perceive themselves to be immediately in harm’s way, can often underestimate or even ignore the wide variety of threats that they face. Though an Army doctor with the rank of lieutenant colonel may see himself as a doctor, enemies of the US see him as a high ranking soldier and a high value target. As such, every warrior, no matter what branch, must take intelligence threats seriously. Leaders must do so, and must ensure that those they lead do as well.