Worst Engineering Disasters in History – What Have We Learned?

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Engineers push the boundaries of scientific invention and exploration. They lead humanity to great achievements. But not all engineering experiments end up in a good thing. Sometimes, engineering projects can go wrong and we get to engineering disasters.

Engineering shows we are only human at the end of the day. We can make some blunders. Now, the problem with engineering mistakes is they can cause some serious damage.

Most of the time, engineering disasters arise from shortcuts in the design process. One shortcut can cause a huge disaster later on.

To put it simply, engineering is the science and technology used to meet the needs and demands of society. These demands can include buildings, vessels, computer software, and aircraft.

But as we said before, they do not always end up in a successful story. Today, we will take a look at some of the worst engineering mistakes and disasters.

Chernobyl Disaster

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There is probably not a single person alive who hasn’t heard about the worst nuclear disaster in human history. It is second only to the Fukushima reactor failure in magnitude.

The accident led to the destruction of the unit 4 reactor, taking place during a maintenance shutdown. It served as a perfect opportunity to conduct a test. Scientists wanted to see if, during a loss of power, the turbine would still provide energy to the system.

But because the test was carried out without enough safety precautions and risk assessment, operational errors set in motion caused catastrophic conditions.

The catastrophe resulted in a massive release of radiation into the atmosphere, spreading over a significant area of the western Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

To this day, people should not enter the site of Chernobyl. The devastating event caused many deaths and even more premature cancer deaths in the following years.

But the good news is that the event and its unexpected design failures helped us learn several lessons and apply them to safety standards in Western nuclear plants.

Hyatt Regency Hotel Collapse

kansas city hyatt collapse
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The Hyatt Regency Hotel suffered a structural collapse of two overhead walkways on July 17, 1981. Loaded with people partying, the concrete and glass platforms cascaded down, crashing onto a tea dance in the lobby.

The collapse killed 114 people and injured 216 more. The society was affected for years. The collapse resulted in billions of dollars in insurance claims and legal investigations.

Company owner and civil engineer of record Jack D. Gillum eventually claimed full responsibility for the collapse.

The Hyatt collapse remains the deadliest non-deliberate structural failure in American history. And it contributed to many reforms in engineering ethics and safety, as well as emergency management.

Hindenburg Disaster

Hindenburg Disaster
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This catastrophe put a halt to the era of passenger airships. Hindenburg was a German passenger airship that caught fire and got destroyed during an attempt to dock in Manchester Township, New Jersey.

The disaster caused 35 fatalities among the 97 passengers and crew on board and one fatality on the ground.

While it was the fourth-worst airship accident in terms of fatalities, the Hindenburg received lots of press attention.

The fire broke out due to electrostatic discharge, leading to the ignition of leaking hydrogen gas.

Bhopal’s Gas Disaster

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In 1984, toxic gas was released at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Reports showed sub-standard conditions and consistent violations of safety regulations.

It remains the worst industrial accident in history. The chain of events started when somehow water got into a methyl isocyanate tank, triggering an exothermic reaction. The reaction was then gravely worsened by many factors, including iron from corroding steel pipes.

Bad management of the crisis resulted in 2,259 immediate deaths and 11,000 more following the disaster. More than 30 years have passed since the accident, but the land around Bhopal remains harmful to animals and humans.

Quebec Bridge Collapse

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It is a rarity to see an engineering mistake repeat two times in the same place. But that is what happened here.

The Quebec Bridge in Canada has collapsed two times. The first time it occurred was in 1907, and then again in 1916.

The engineering failure happened because of rushing the project. At the time, it was the largest cantilever structure attempted. The bridge suddenly collapsed for the first time in August 1907, killing 75 of the 86 workers on the structure.

But the Canadian government decided they have to complete the project to establish the rail link for the railway system. So, they continued construction in 1913. By September 1916, the bridge was almost finished, except for the work of hoisting the center span and connecting it to the cantilever arms. But during that process, the span tore away from its lifts and fell into the river, killing 13 people in the process.


titanic photo
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The mega-ship remains one of the biggest engineering disasters in history. At over 800 feet in length and weighing more than 46,000 tons, the Titanic was the largest ship ever built in 1912.

The design impressed the masses aesthetically, but many factors and engineering mistakes contributed to the rapid sinking.

Because of the material failures and design flaws, researchers nowadays believe that safety was not probably the primary focus during the construction of the ship.

For example, constructors removed one row of safety boats from the original design to allow more space and a better view for passengers with a first-class berth.

Reduction of the height of the bulkheads for better accommodation caused five of the watertight compartments to get completely flooded. The high content of sulfur in the steel and low-temperature water caused the hull’s steel and rivets to drastically compromise the ability of the compartments to contain the flooding. This only accelerated the sinking of the ship.

But thanks to Titanic and its natural disaster, all of these considerations are now applied to the construction of large ships as part of the cautionary measures and safety regulations.

Ponte Morandi Collapse

ponte bridge
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During a torrential rainstorm on August 14, 2018, a section of Ponte Morandi collapsed. Centered on the westernmost cable-stayed pillar, pillar 9, the collapse crossed the Polcevera river and the industrial area of Sampierdarena.

According to eyewitnesses, the bridge was hit by lightning before it collapsed. Between 30 and 35 cars, as well as 3 trucks, fell from the bridge.

The initial hypotheses were that a structural weakness or a landslide caused the collapse of the bridge. According to reports, the bridge was undergoing maintenance at the time of the collapse. The disaster caused a major political controversy about the poor state of infrastructure in Italy.

Challenger Space Shuttle

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On January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds after its launch, the space shuttle broke apart in a fiery explosion. The Challenger disaster killed all seven crew members.

Ronald Reagan, the president of the US at the time, established the Rogers Commission for the investigation of the accident.

The investigation returned results a few weeks after. The severe cold wave in Central Florida, it caused the resilience of two rubber O-rings to be significantly reduced. These O-rings sealed the joint between the two segments of the right-hand rocket booster.

As a response to the disaster, NASA added several checkpoints for later space shuttle administration, including a new NASA safety office and shuttle safety advisory panel for risk assessment.

Charles de Gaulle Airport Terminal Collapse

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Inaugurated in May 2004, the Charles de Gaulle airport quickly experienced a disaster. Soon after the inauguration, a huge portion of the roof of Terminal 2E collapsed. The event killed four people and caused severe injuries to a few more.

The official investigation report concluded that the structure had failed due to a lack of detailed feasibility analysis and several engineering design flaws.

Some of the design flaws included poorly placed reinforcing steel, weak outer steel struts, weak concrete support beams, and low resistance to temperature fluctuations.

Cleveland East Ohio Gas Explosion

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The disaster occurred in October 1944 and caused 130 fatalities due to an explosion and resulting fires. Approximately a one square mile area was destroyed in the city of Cleveland.

The natural disaster happened when surface tank number 4, containing liquefied natural gas started releasing a vapor from a defective weld bead on the side of the poorly structured tank.

The incident left a lasting mark and change on the natural gas industry. Prior to the incident, the use of surface natural gas tanks was the standard. But after the disaster, companies started to question the safety of natural gas storage systems.

So, the new underground natural gas storage became the new standard.

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

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Probably the worst engineering disaster and nuclear accident since Chernobyl and it happened in 2011. This event was given Level 7 classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the only one to receive such marking after Chernobyl.

The disaster happened following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Because of the earthquake, the fission reactors in the nuclear plant were shut down. But engineering design problems and electricity supply failure, caused the reactors’ cores to fail to receive any coolant.

And then the tsunami hit, destroying all emergency generators. The end result was three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and the release of masses of radioactive contamination.

It remains a devastating engineering disaster that destroyed large natural and populated areas.

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