Weekly 10: The 10 Deadliest US Industrial Accidents
Most of us never think that our workplace could be the place of our own deaths. When death occurs in the work place it can have consequences that effect an entire industry, and even an entire country. Labor laws, unions, and workplace safety groups, such as OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), have their roots deeply embedded in tragic industrial accidents.
Industrial accidents are defined as mass disasters caused by industrial companies either by accident or negligence. In this week's Weekly 10, I bring you the 10 deadliest of these industrial accidents.
1. Texas City Explosion (c.550-600 deaths): The worst industrial disaster in US history took place on April 16, 1947 in the port city of Texas City, TX. Shortly after 8 a.m. workers preparing to resume loading the cargo ship, SS Grandcamp, with explosives grade ammonium nitrate discovered a fire in the engine room of the ship. An estimated 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate were already aboard the ship at 9:12 a.m. when the first of two explosions occurred. The initial explosion was so massive, the damage so great, and heat so intense that 16 hours later at 1:10 a.m. a second cargo ship, SS High Flyer, also carrying ammonium nitrate exploded violently.
The totality of the death and destruction from that day is best summed up by the official accident report from the Fire Prevention and Engineering Bureau of Texas: "The loss of life was high. All firemen and practically all spectators on their pier were killed as were many employees in the Monsanto Chemical Company and throughout the dock area. At this date, April 29, 1947, 433 bodies have been recovered and approximately 135 (many of whom were on the dock) are missing. Over 2000 suffered injuries in varying degrees, among whom were many school children injured by flying glass fragments and debris in school buildings located about 6000 feet distant."
2. Port Chicago Disaster (320 deaths): On the evening of July 17, 1944 the enlisted men and civilian employees of the Naval Ammunition Depot of Port Chicago, CA were busy hand loading two cargo ships with munitions destined for the Pacific Theater war effort. At the time of the incident the cargo vessel SS E.A. Bryan, after 4 days of loading, had an estimated 4,600 tons of explosives on board. The second cargo vessel, the SS Quinault Victory, which had just begun loading that evening was docked at the pier, which had 430 tons of bombs waiting to be loaded onto the ship. Adjacent to the pier was a train of 10 boxcars filled with munitions also waiting to be loaded onto the vessel.
At approximately 10:18 p.m. an explosion, of undetermined means, occurred at the depot. The explosion was so massive that it was reportedly heard some 200 miles away, and measured a 3.4 on the Richter scale recorded at the University of California at Berkeley. Chunks of debris and burning ordnance were flung over 9,000 feet into the air and the pier, along with its boxcars, locomotive, rails, cargo and men, were completely destroyed.
3. Piper Alpha (167 deaths): Though technically not on US soil, the 3rd largest industrial accident took place on an oil platform in the North Sea that was owned and operated by an American company. Los Angeles based, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, also has the dubious honor of having the largest oil platform accident in history. On July 16, 1988 an employee error resulted in an explosion and fire that claimed 167 lives.
4. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (146 deaths): On the afternoon of March 25, 1911 a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist company located in New York City. Fire rescue was quick to arrive to the scene but efforts to fight the blaze were hampered due to ladders not being able to reach higher than 6 stories.
By the time word of the fire made it to the 9th floor it was too late. With only 2 exits off the floor, workers found that the main stairwell was too engulfed in smoke and fire to exit. The 2nd exit door was locked trapping the workers and ensuring their deaths. Frightened workers not willing to succumb to the smoke and fire tried jumping out of the building to the sidewalk 9 stories below.
Prior to the terrorist attacks of 09/11, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was the largest mass casualty event in New York City history.
5. Pemberton Mill Disaster (145 deaths): Massachusetts' worst industrial accident (and 5 on or list) occurred on June 10, 1860 in the mill town of Lawrence, MA. Suddenly, and violently, at about 5:45 p.m. the 5 story mill building gave way with as many as 600 people inside. Rescue workers worked into the night freeing many of the trapped workers, until an overturned lantern set the rubble ablaze. Family and rescue workers are reported saying they could hear the screams of trapped survivors as they were overtaken by the fire.
A sister mill was built on the site of the disaster and still stands as a testament to the American industrial revolution, and a memorial to those who lost their lives on that tragic June evening.
6. Grover Shoe (58 deaths): March 20, 1905 brought disaster to the town of Brokton, Massachusetts. An overworked steam boiler exploded at the Grover Shoe factory setting the 5 story factory ablaze.
The explosion and subsequent fire trapped and killed 58 of the Grover Shoe employees, and completely destroyed the factory.
7. Little Rock AFB Titan Missile Silo (53 deaths): Like something straight out of a cold war novel, on August 9, 1965, 53 workers were killed in a fire at a Titan missile silo. The cause of the fire was determined to be a welding rod damaging a hydraulic hose which allowed hydraulic vapors to leak and spread throughout silo, which were then ignited by an open flame source.
8. Imperial Foods (25 deaths): North Carolina's worst industrial accident took place on September 3, 1991 at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet. A fire caused by a failure in a faulty modification to a hydraulic line resulted in 25 deaths at the facility.
So many people perished at Imperial Foods because many of the fire doors had been locked. In the 11 year history of the plant, a safety inspection was never conducted by the state. Had just one been done it is believed that the loss of life would have been significantly less.
9. Phillips Disaster (23 deaths): At approximately 1:00 p.m. on October 23, 1989 a massive explosions rocked the Phillips 66 chemical plant of Pasadena, TX. The initial explosion was so violent it register a 3.5 on the Richter scale and had a force of 2.4 tons of TNT. The subsequent fire took 10 hours to bring under control.
The explosion killed 23 people, all working in the plant, and according to the Huston Chronicle sent debris as far as 6 miles from the site.
10. Boston Molasses Disaster (21 deaths): Boston's north end was the scene of the January 15, 1919 disaster in which a tank holding approximately 2.5 million gallons of molasses burst saturating the entire area in the sweetener.
A wave as high as 15 feet and traveling as fast as 35mph quickly drowned 21 people and gave birth to the urban legend that even now on hot days the scent of molasses can still be smelled in the area.