Ten ACTUAL disasters

53120210So, after a few days of speculation and misplaced optimism by some, it has been confirmed that Altfest has been cancelled. Yeah, Altfest, the festival they said was too good to be true, has turned out to be too good to be true. You’d expect that the cynicism would have made everyone involved check their figures more than twice, as well as those of the people advising them, but hey, what do I know. My greatest moment was booking the Bus Station Loonies to play the Ordnance in Woolwich.

Lots of hysteria and claims of disaster, so just to put everything in context, here’s ten of my favourite actual disasters of various kinds for your perusal, both actual and metaphorical, interesting for different reasons.

See you at Infest!

Kings Cross

KingsXfireThirty-one people died in this horrible disaster on the Tube in 1987, but if you’re into disasters, it’s a classic. Directly caused by stupidity and aggravated by a culture of lazy management and negligence, the Kings Cross fire was a major motivation for the tube improvements of the 1990s. Those of us old enough to remember the Tube of the 70s and 80s remember a dirty, neglected system staffed by lazy tossers, as evidenced by this video. The fire started underneath the escalators after a careless smoker dropped a match, which fell onto a highly flammable gunk of lubricant, rats’ hair, rubbish and lord knows what else that had built up beneath: under the escalators had reportedly never been cleaned down there since their installation in the 1930s. Tube bosses thought escalator fires were inevitable and called them “smoulderings”, and no-one was properly trained in fire precautions or evacuation procedures. No-one even went into the machinery room with a fire extinguisher before it flashed over. And that sort of thing, kiddies, is precisely why you should always be grateful for health and safety.

Robin Thicke Twitter Twat


So. Let’s imagine you’re a complete and utter wanker, and you’re mostly famous for singing a song about date rape and being a sleazy shitface. What could possibly go wrong with a Twitter Q and A?

140701212357-hashtag-askthicke-story-top Screen-Shot-2014-07-01-at-11.59.23-AM

Niki Lauda – triumph after disaster

The old Nürburgring was considered the most difficult track in the Formula One calendar. Five times longer than any other track, it was old and hard to marshal or bring up to safety standards, as it was narrow and bumpy in places and followed a course through mountains. Jackie Stewart had nicknamed it “the Green Hell”, and the other F1 drivers all had similar feelings. Racing in those days wasn’t just a dangerous business, it was a fatally dangerous business; and a track where cars frequently became airborne and where different sections had different  weather conditions was one of the riskiest of all. Two weeks prior to the 1976 Grand Prix, there had been a fatal crash, the 131st in less than 50 years. It had been decided that this was to be the last race on the Nürburgring in that form, but Niki Lauda was worried. The weather had made conditions treacherous, and he tried to organise a boycott of the race on safety grounds, but he was outvoted by other drivers. After qualifying, James Hunt was in pole and Lauda was second. After a few laps of the race, Lauda’s car spun off, hit a bank, and bounced back on the track again, burning. the next driver avoided it but two other hit the flaming car, and those three drivers rescued Niki. Rushed to a specialist burn unit, Lauda fought successfully for his life. He suffered extensive scarring from the burns to his head, losing most of his right ear as well as the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows and his eyelids. Yet he returned to racing just six weeks later, still bleeding, bandaged and without eyelids: by the end of the season, he lost the Championship by only one point to living rhyming slang James Hunt.

South Sea Bubble


An early effort at “public-private partnership”, it must have seemed almost plausible to invest in a company that had the monopoly on British trade with South America. On the other had, if it’s 1711, and your mortal enemy Spain actually controls most of South America, that might not be so clever. There was never really any chance it was going to make money, but the directors bought swanky offices and kept issuing stock and people bought it, as part of a wider investment fever. Naturally, it couldn’t last, and it all fell apart in 1720. In 1721, investigations into the deceit, corruption, and bribery behind the company led to the prosecution of both company and government officials – perhaps the very Chancellor of the Exchequer being imprisoned was some consolation to the people who had lost everything. Isaac Newton said of it all, “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men”.

Sampoong department store collapse


In 1995, a department store in Seoul collapsed, killing 502 people and injuring nearly a thousand more. The building’s owners had added another floor to the design while under construction, and when their contractors refused to do it, they just found someone else who would. The owners then stuck a heavy air conditioning system on the roof. The building lasted six years before major cracks started to appear, but even when it was obvious even to an idiot that the building was going to collapse, the owners refused to close the store: the executives, however, did leave the building. Two days after the collapse, the rescue services said anyone still trapped would be dead, because of the hot weather. In reality, many were still alive, but died awaiting rescue. The last survivor, Park Seung-hyun, was pulled out after 16 days buried in the rubble – one of three survivors pulled out in the third week.

The Streisand Effect

Streisand Estate

The lovely house in this picture belongs to Barbara Streisand, and it’s in Malibu. I know this because in 2003, photographer Kenneth Adelman was taking around 12,000 aerial shots of the California coastline to document erosion, and posted the pictures on a website. Actually, no, of course I don’t know it for that reason. I have no interest in Californian coastline erosion; I’m barely interested in it when it happens here, so I would never have seen this lovely photo in the normal run of things. Neither would most people. Initially there were only six downloads of the picture, of which two were Streisand’s attorneys, who then launched a $50million lawsuit to get the photo taken down. Publicity around the case meant that over 420,000 people downloaded the photo in the next month alone, and the case failed. Still, it’s nice to have something named after you, isn’t it? A shame for Ryan Giggs and Jeremy Clarkson that they didn’t know about the effect when it came to their superinjunctions.


The 1977 Tenerife crash between two fully loaded 747 jumbo jets (one Pan Am and one KLM) remains the worst disaster in aviation history. 583 people died in an accident that perhaps best proves the truth of “disasters don’t just happen, they’re a chain of critical events.” Firstly, a small bomb went off at the main airport on Gran Canaria, and the jumbos were diverted to Tenerife North, a small airport not really equipped to deal with the number of large jet airliners that were sent there. The KLM pilot decided to have his plane refuelled while they were waiting, to avoid further delays due to working time regulations. When they were finally able to leave, the refuelling was not quite finished, causing delay to the Pan Am and other planes stuck behind it with no room to squeeze past. As they were finally able to depart, a thick fog developed. Due to lack of space on the taxiways, the large planes had to taxi up the runway. KLM went first, turning round at the top and getting  ready to depart; Captain van Zanten was raring to go. The Pan Am plane was taxiing behind, and missed the turning it was meant to take to depart – a turning they found hard to believe was the one they were meant to take anyway, since it was narrow and awkward. The KLM captain began his take off roll without proper clearance, and due to the fog, neither plane saw the other before it was too late. Not quite at rotate speed, the Dutch captain attempted to take off over the Pan Am. The extra weight caused by the refuelling made this impossible. The KLM 747 collided with the Pan Am, which was attempting to turn off, having seen the other jet approaching. The KLM was completely destroyed but miraculously, 61 people survived on the Pan Am jet, including the crew. While ultimately the blame lies with Captain van Zanten for taking off without proper clearance, the number of seemingly small variables involved that could have stopped the disaster from happening show that disasters are, indeed, the opposite of miracles, and when there’s a lot at stake, you really do have to sweat the small stuff.


Cleopatra posterOne of the most expensive films ever made, Cleopatra managed to be the highest grossing film of 1963 but still made a huge loss. Had The Sound of Music not been such a success a couple of years later, it’s likely that 20th Century Fox would have gone bankrupt. The original budget of $2million rose to over $40million (in old money – not adjusted!). The original director departed and when his replacement Joseph L. Mankiewicz took over, the film was already millions over budget with nothing to show for it. Sets were built in London and filming commenced, only to be abandoned and everything rebuilt and started again in Rome after the weather proved detrimental both to sets and star Elizabeth Taylor, who had been rushed to hospital and had to have a tracheotomy to save her life (the British sets were later reused for Carry on Cleo). Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton began onset and the scandal didn’t help – both were married. The initial cut of the film six hours long, and the studio pooh-poohed Manckiewicz’s request that it be split into two movies, wanting to capitalise on the scandal. Although the film did win four Academy awards for the production, it received mixed reviews from critics and even star Taylor described it as “vulgar”.

Millennium Bug – an averted disaster

It was as early as the late 50s that someone first considered that there might be a computer issue when we ticked over into the year 2000, but it was only in the run up to the year itself, of course, that the problem began to be taken seriously, by which time the programming quirk that would cause the “Y2k bug” was embedded in electronic and computing devices all over the place. Computers stored dates as two digits, a hangover from the days when they were only able to store a few bits of data on punched cards. The consequences of all those computers thinking it was 1900 or 19100 instead of 2000 were unknown, but of course, this led to widespread speculation that disasters would occur if the problem wasn’t fixed, like planes falling out of the sky and your fridge not working. This would all have been terrible, and so the problem was largely fixed, keeping a lot of programmers, especially those of older languages underpinning many systems, in work in the late 90s. The total cost of sorting it all out was estimated at $300 billion. Some systems did fail – the U.S. Naval Observatory, which runs the master clock that keeps the country’s official time, gave the date on its website as 1 Jan., 19100. Bus ticket machines in two Australian states failed. The saddest consequence I can find was in Sheffield, where incorrect Down Syndrome test results were sent out to 154 women and two of them opted to have an abortion on the basis of those results.

Space disasters (and corporate negligence)

Aviation as an industry cleaned its act up in the 80s following some horrific disasters in the 70s. Previous to Tenerife, the worst aviation disaster was the Ermenonville Douglas DC-10 crash in 1974, which had been caused by lazy engineering of cargo doors and wilful corporate negligence in rectifying that problem, the investigation into which made the aviation a lot safer, enforcing accountability and listening to concerns raised by engineers and subcontractors. In some areas, however, the old standards still applied, and sadly space exploration was one of them. NASA still worked as it had back in the day, with little accountability and a drive to get the shuttles up in the air even if it was a risky business. Like Douglas, NASA ignored the concerns of one of its subcontractors, and there was no real safety culture at the agency when Challenger was launched for the 25th space shuttle flight in 1986. All of us who grew up in the 80s remember the disaster, caused by cold temperatures and lack of a proper fail-safe systems in certain critical areas. After the shuttles were grounded and the investigation looked at the causes, NASA promised to change and introduced the kinds of systems that were, by then, the norm in aviation and other industries where people’s lives were at stake. Unfortunately, when Columbia burned up on re-entry in 2003, it was discovered that many of these systems were not properly introduced or followed, and many of the same people who had been in charge in the days of Challenger were still in post and had the same old attitude. The Columbia crew’s seatbelts didn’t even work properly. Another shuttle, Atlantis, was being prepared for her next mission and could well have been used to rescue Columbia‘s crew had NASA decided not to risk re-entry of a vehicle known to be damaged and at risk. But instead they decided to risk re-entry, and largely kept the crew in the dark about the dangers.

Oh, and in 1989, nine passengers died on a Boeing 747 after the cargo door blew out, caused by bad design. It seems that one should be a bit cynical when people tell you that lessons have been learned.

Ten Other Mysterious Aviation Disappearances

It turns out that vanishing aeroplanes are not as rare as I imagined: apparently we lose an average of 1.2 planes per year. Often wreckage is discovered many years or even decades after the disappearances, as in the case of the Star Dust or perhaps even Amelia Earhart, but there are still plenty of unsolved aviation disappearances, including my chosen ten below.

Amundsen in fur skins

Roald Amundsen

This legendary explorer, who beat Scott to the South Pole in 1911 and led the first expedition to indisputably reach the North Pole, volunteered to assist in the rescue efforts to find an airship that had itself disappeared while surveying the North Pole in 1928. Unfortunately he and the crew were all lost when their plane disappeared, and although a couple of parts were found some time later, neither the wreckage nor bodies have ever been found, despite continuing searches.


The American Nurse

The first plane to cross the Pacific non-stop was called Miss Veedol and it achieved this record in 1931. Less than a year later, now called The American Nurse, it was being used for medical experiments to study the effects of long-distance flights. Last sighted by the SS France when over the Atlantic, 400 miles from its destination, the plane and its occupants were never seen again.

L-8 blimp

The Disappearing Crew of Blimp L-8

Submarine warfare was a genuine threat to the US during WW2, and a watch needed to be kept. Dirigibles were perfect for this task, and on 16th August 1942 L-8 and crew set out on patrol. After radioing that they were investigating an oil slick, no further contact was made. Later that morning L-8 drifted ashore and came to rest in Daly City. Emergency parachutes and life rafts were still aboard, as were confidential documents, but the crew had vanished and no trace of them was ever found.

Glen miller

Glenn Miller

Desperate to do something for the war effort but considered too old (at 38) to fight, Miller joined the Army anyway and travelled to entertain the troops. Flying from England to Paris, his plane disappeared without trace. Although friendly fire seems the most likely explanation, it’s also been suggested that Miller reached Paris and died in the arms of a prostitute, which was then covered up.

Bermuda Triangle

Probably Not the Bermuda Triangle

In 1948, a Douglas DC-3 flying from Puerto Rico to Miami with 29 passengers and 3 crew aboard vanished, and no wreckage was ever found. The pilot’s last transmission was that he was 50 miles south of Miami, though strangely this was not picked up by Miami and had to be relayed by New Orleans. Often claimed as a victim of the Bermuda Triangle, wreckage of a similar plane was spotted by divers exploring in that area, though it was not possible to definitely identify it.

B47E in flight

They lost WHAT?

In 1956, a Boeing B-47 Stratojet took off from its base in Florida to fly non-stop to Morocco. It refueled (in the air) for the first time on schedule, but as it descended through cloud to meet the tanker for its second refuelling it vanished without trace. No trace of wreckage or the three crew members was ever found, and neither was the cargo: two cases of nuclear weapons material.

Martin XPBM-1 Mariner in flight c1939

Martin Mariner

En route from Lisbon to Madeira, a worrying final transmission of, “I am forced to land immediately” was made by the crew an hour into the flight before it disappeared without trace. Although it was broad daylight, there was nowhere for the crew to land apart from the Atlantic. 30 passengers and 6 crew were killed and no wreckage was ever found in the worst accident to befall this type of plane.

Hale Boggs (D–LA)

The Election of Missing Congressmen

In 1972, two US congressmen were travelling on a fundraising trip in Alaska but disappeared between Juneau and Alaska. Both were re-elected in the vote later that year, as neither had yet been declared legally dead. One of the victims, Hale Boggs, was a dissenting member of the Warren commission who did not support the “single bullet” theory of JFK’s assassination. In 1979, Robert Ludlum wrote a novel in which Boggs was killed to stop his investigations into the assassination.

Vaso de Flores (1952)

Lost Art

In 1979, a Boeing 707 cargo plane travelling from Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro with six crew aboard vanished 30 minutes after takeoff. Despite no wreckage being found, the cause of the accident was concluded to be cabin depressurisation. The cargo included 153 paintings by Manabu Mabe, a Japanese-Brazilian artist, worth $1.24 million.

Boeing 727-223 of American Airlines Chicago O'Hare

Stolen 727

In May 2003, after being grounded for over a year and accruing $4million in unpaid airport fees, a Boeing 727 was stolen from Luanda airport in Angola. It just taxiied down the runway and took off, having turned off the transponder. Despite a worldwide search led by the CIA and FBI, the plane was never found, and the man believed to be the pilot was never seen again. His family believe he was kidnapped.