Visit 5 Deadly Disasters You’ve Probably Never Heard Of!
The Silver Memorial Bridge that links Point Pleasant, West Virginia with Ohio seems to go on and on, over the wide Ohio River. This bridge replaced the doomed one from the infamous 1967 deadly disaster (#3).
“If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short
and there is no time for hate.”
— Sandy Dahl, wife of (9/11) Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl
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Deadly Disasters All Around You:
Each of these deadly disasters occurred in the US, but every country is scarred by tragedy. Each have an unlikely tale, echoes of tremendous loss & pain. Lives cut brutally short, families shattered forever. But they often birth heroism, too. These are 5 deadly disasters you’ve probably never heard of. The victims who lived it and those who died should not be forgotten. Several of these are recent enough history that families and survivors are still alive and mourn. Markers are available on site, at each, to honor those who lost their lives. You can see the landscape, envision what those horrifying moments might have been like, and remember those who lived them. Remember these spots are hallowed ground when you visit them to pay your respects. There are, also, plenty of other interesting sites to see and do, nearby.
The Great Molasses Flood of Boston was the 1st of its kind. No one sensed the danger lurking just feet from the busy sidewalk. No one expects to drown in molasses. But, it was not the only molasses spill. In 1990, there was another container leak, but it reached only ankle-depth in Loveland, Colorado.
1. The Great Molasses Flood of 1919, Boston (Massachusetts), North end (Little Italy)
Little kids playing on the sidewalk. A neighborhood packed with people. No idea this day would make terrible history and may be their last. The normal day was shattered with a roar as a 50 foot holding tank exploded. Nearly 2 ½ million gallons of molasses were unleashed. A 15 to 40 foot deadly wave of molasses traveled down the street at 35 miles an hour. That’s 12 mph faster than the fastest human can run away. There was no escape. The sticky, sweet, black blob blotted out the sun. It swallowed up people, horses, and cars. It twisted elevated train tracks, crumbled buildings, and flowed through the neighborhood for ½ a mile. It injured 150 and killed 21. The survivors were left suffocating and glued to the ground under a coating of the sticky, syrupy sludge.
The oozing muck covered everything for blocks. The molasses was hardening in the January cold. Rescuers waded waist-deep, as if walking through wet cement. Syrupy blobs struggled on the ground under the thick, hardening glaze, like flies on a sticky strip. The rescuers couldn’t tell which blobs were human or animal. Some had the strength to frantically swipe at the molasses clogging their throats and nose, choking them. Survivors were left sucking for air like beached fish from an oil spill.
They recovered bodies, sometimes just parts of them. The final body wasn’t recovered from the wharf for 4 months. Even after that disastrous January day, Boston Harbor remained stained brown until summer. The city of Boston smelled like molasses for decades. The marker and location of the deadly disaster, the Great Molasses Flood, is at 529 Commercial Street. Facing the harbor, posted in the low stone wall across from Copp’s Hill is the green sign. It’s on the corner wall at the entrance to Andrew J Puopolo Junior Athletic fields, right before the bocce ball courts and Langone park. The tank was located where today’s Langone baseball diamond is. Renovation for improvements to the parks began in July 2019. Construction fencing is currently blocks the wall.
An interesting note is that a treasure hunter and construction crews found a treasure key under home plate at Langone field. It is one of a dozen treasure locations from a 1982 book, The Secret. The hidden treasure keys are turned in for a jewel. This was only the 3rd of the 12 to ever be discovered. The Discovery Channel featured the story and unveiling on their tv show, Expedition Unknown.
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Buffalo Creek Disaster site and memorial. This creek gushed over with a mountain tsunami of coal mining waste water. The black tide killed over 100 people in minutes.
2. Buffalo Creek Flood in West Virginia, 1972
An hour & 20 minutes South of Charleston, one of the worst floods in US history happened in early winter of 1972. Just over 3 1/2 inches of rain brought a coal black tsunami of death through the mountains. A dam of coal mine waste water broke, unleashing over 130 million gallons of the sooty water. The black wave destroyed 17 small towns along the creek. Killed 125 people in minutes. Left entire families dead. Over a 1000 injured and thousands more homeless. Whole towns were washed from the face of the earth.
The Buffalo Creek Flood Memorial is located in the tiny town of Man, WV. The roadside marker is along Buffalo Creek on Main St (aka Buffalo Creek Road/ Memorial Highway/ Cty Rte 16). It’s just north of the Ball Park Street bridge. About 1/4 mile north of the marker, on the left, is a small memorial park dedicated to the victims killed in the flood. A stone monument is engraved with their many names. Families still keep flowers at the memorial. The loss and memories of the flood still painfully linger.
Logan county, where the deadly disaster occurred, was also where the Hatfields lived and feuded with the McCoys 82 years earlier. Several descendants of both the Hatfields & McCoys died in the Buffalo Creek mine flood. ‘Devil’ Anse Hatfield’s grave memorial & cemetery is a half hour away. A Hatfield & McCoy feud driving tour and many feud sites are an hour & 20 minutes away in Pikeville, Kentucky where the McCoys lived. A future post about our Hatfield & McCoy visit will come!
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The deadly Silver Bridge collapse was highlighted in The Mothman Prophecies movie with Richard Gere & Laura Linney. The railway bridge in the background has a similar look to the fateful Silver Bridge. The bridges are a long series over the wide river. I can’t imagine the terror they felt on it that day in 1967, 10 days before Christmas.
3. The Silver Bridge Collapse in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 1967:
The Silver Bridge spanned extra long across the wide Ohio River to connect Point Pleasant, West Virginia to Ohio. 4000 vehicles drove over it a day. But, the bridge was built 40 years earlier, in 1928, when cars were far fewer and much lighter. It was the 1st of it’s kind with an eyebar link design. Over time, as vehicles and traffic grew, a tiny, microscopic pit in one single link spidered into hair-line fractures. The weight of yet another rush hour traffic finally broke the microscopically flawed link. 10 days before Christmas in 1967, a bridge jammed with rush hour traffic and holiday shoppers collapsed out from under them. That one broken link sent more than 31 vehicles plunging into the icy cold, murky Ohio River. The deck turned upside down 1st, dumping cars and 67 people, some of them babies, some entire families, into the river. The water was just 43 degrees. The bridge fell next, crushing down into the river, right on top of them.
The bridge screamed and groaned as the steel twisted. It collapsed “like a deck of cards” and was underwater within seconds. Onlookers saw a carload of people trapped inside as they floated away with the current. They were screaming and beating on their car windows, even as the river swallowed them under. Sunset fell just minutes later, leaving bystanders and rescuers to hear the sounds. Screaming, cries, moaning, desperate splashing. The ones who were lucky enough to escape their cars. The few whose cars weren’t pinned to the river bottom by the tangled wreckage of bridge on top of them. The survivors found floating objects to grab onto. The water had quickly turned their limbs hypothermic and they couldn’t move their legs to swim. It was a long way down to the river, so bystanders were helpless. Standing in horror while the victims had to wait in the freezing water for rescue boats. 21 made it out, 9 were injured, 46 were dead, and 2 bodies were never recovered.
The Silver Bridge Disaster shook the nation. As a result of the Silver Bridge collapse, the 1st national bridge inspection program of bridges with state & federal highways was created. Their lives were heartbreakingly gone, lost in a moment of terror. As a result, countless lives were saved when they tore down similar bridges and began inspecting thousands of others. It remains the 2nd deadliest bridge disaster in US history. The 1st deadliest lost 1 person more (Mobile, Alabama, 1993). Other bridge collapses overseas have killed in the thousands in a single disaster.
Songs and books have been written about the Silver Bridge collapse. A 2002 movie, The Mothman Prophecies (very good!) starred Richard Gere and Laura Linney. It features the Silver Bridge collapse and speculation by some that the disaster was related to the Mothman sightings in the area. I’ll have a future post on that story and our visit to the Mothman sites.
The Point Pleasant Riverfront Park has a series of flood wall murals memorializing the town’s rich history. From native Americans to pre-Revolutionary battles, one of the murals is dedicated to the Silver Bridge collapse. In the park, there is a simple stone memorial at the river’s edge near the site of the bridge collapse. You can see its replacement spanning the river, to the right. 2 years to the day after the deadly disaster, the bridge was replaced with the Silver Memorial Bridge in 1969. You drive over it today to reach Ohio. There is another memorial and plaque at the corner of Main & Sixth St, with the names of each victim engraved in the bricks. The town often holds memorial services December 15th, on the anniversary of the disaster. Survivors are still alive, families still mourn, and the town still remembers that horrifying tragedy. I, myself, can’t cross a river bridge, now, without a little chill in their memory. My mom was never able to ride across a steel bridge, again, without closing her eyes with a shudder.
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Photo credit for the photo on the left goes to our awesome niece, Morgan Dugger. For the beautiful pic of the memorial plaque on the right, my friend and great guy, Scott Watson, who frequently captures Chicago’s beauty in photos.
4. The SS Eastland Disaster in Chicago, Illinois, 1915:
It killed more than the sinkings of the Titanic or the Lusitania. Hundreds more died in the SS Eastland Disaster than in all the Chicago fire. Still today, it’s considered the deadliest shipwreck in Great Lakes history and one of the worst in US maritime history. The Eastland Disaster has been mentioned in poems, books, theater, and tv. But for many outside Chicago, the tragedy remains unknown.
It was 1915. In the narrow channel of the Chicago River, downtown, 850 men, women and children lost their lives. Merely a mile off Lake Michigan where the cruise was bound. In just 20 feet of water. Water so ‘shallow’ that the ship was barely over halfway submerged.
It was chartered along with 4 others to carry blue collar workers, their wives, and kids for a day trip to the (electric) company picnic. 2,573 passengers and crew were crowded onto the passenger ship. Just 73 over its license to carry 2500. It was cool and drizzling rain outside, driving women and their kids below deck. A band played inside for happy dancers. It looked like it might be one of the most exciting, pampering days of their lives. They were dressed in their Sunday best, ready for their company picnic and a lake cruise to Michigan City, Indiana. There had been no time for dancing. They hadn’t even made it out onto the lake. Less than a ½ hour after boarding, nearly a 1000 would lose their lives. Still tied to the dock just 20 feet from the river’s edge. Just a few yards off the city sidewalks where thousands stood by in horror.
By the time guests realized something was wrong, pianos, refrigerators and other furniture were sliding across the floor to pin, batter, or crush people. Water was pouring through the porthole windows. Mothers grabbed their children. Bystanders jumped in to help, nearby boats came, too. But they were trapped. And you only have so many seconds of breath before rescue comes too late. Less than 2 minutes after listing to the side, the ship rolled completely onto her side. People on the upper deck walked off easily, including the captain and many crew.
But the rest… Parents drowned clutching their kids and babies. The screams were non-stop and heard from blocks away. Local hospitals were overwhelmed. They ran out of stretchers and ambulances. There were not enough hearses or grave diggers in the coming days. 850 dead. The vast majority under 25 years old. 22 entire families were lost. A child remained unclaimed and unidentified for days because his whole family also lie dead in a morgue.
The irony is that after the Titanic disaster 3 years before, new laws were passed in a movement of ‘lifeboats for all’. So they doubled the lifeboats, rafts & lifejackets, which added thousands of pounds of weight. They were stored on the top deck, making it dangerously top heavy. Years before with previous owners, it had swayed heavily to the side on 2 occasions.
Civil lawsuits looking to find fault dragged on for 24 years. The chief engineer died while waiting and they laid blame with him. No one else was found responsible, not the captain, crew, or ship owners even though negligence seemed strong. The victims weren’t the rich and fabulous that had occupied the Titanic. They were working class families, mostly of Czech, Polish, and Hungarian descent. The ship was raised and, incredibly, sold to the US Navy and even carried President FDR. It was restored and repurposed as a gunboat and a training vessel, before sold for scrap in 1946.
The deadly disaster occurred between the Clark and LaSalle street bridges. The original memorial plaque marker from the 1990s was stolen in 2000, but has since been replaced. The memorial plaque dedicated to the victims overlooks the site of the horrific sinking. It occurred directly across the water from the Reid Murdoch building, a 7 story brick building with a large clock tower. The plaque is at the corner of West Wacker Drive and the North LaSalle street bridge. Chicagoans still place flowers at the memorial. A larger memorial exhibit is planned in the future. Witnesses and survivors are now gone and their story is unknown by many. But you can’t escape the heartbreak and chill when you overlook this spot in downtown Chicago.
A monument is also at the Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago, as well as many Eastland Disaster victims’ graves. More victims (143) are buried in this cemetery than any other. It is a ½ hour North of the disaster site at 5255 N Pulaski Rd, Chicago.
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Inside the Indiana Farmers Coliseum (today) where the 1963 disaster took place on Halloween night. A memorial plaque to honor the victims hangs in the front lobby, just outside the arena where many lost their lives. Families walked through these doors, happy and excited for the holiday show. Just a couple hours later, they fled or were carried out to escape mayhem and death, inside.
5. Indianapolis (Indiana) Coliseum Explosion, 1963
What started out as a great, family fun night ended deadly on Halloween, 1963. Families were there for a Holiday on Ice skating show. Something the kids and families had looked forward to for weeks. They got through almost all of it. Almost to safety. But, in the last 3 minutes of the show’s finale, an explosion changed their lives forever, and for many of them, ended it completely. Newspapers claimed, rightly, that death itself was the horrid finale.
As the night of excitement was culminating, a rusty, 100 lb propane tank had been slowly leaking. The gas filled the concessions area below the family-filled stadium seats. Ignited by an electric popcorn machine, the propane gas exploded into a fireball of 40 foot high flames. The blast ripped through thick concrete walls and left behind a giant crater. It blasted the seats and the crowd along with them high into the air. People were blown through the arena, some of them to bits, before crashing to the ice below or into the hellish crater that spawned the fiery explosion. Some were crushed by falling concrete slabs that rained down onto the crowd. Many of them completely buried by the explosion of huge concrete rubble. Pools of blood and torn bodies, and scraps of their bloodied clothing littered the ice below. One witness said it was the worst he’d seen since live combat in WWII. Hoards of survivors raced over bodies for the exit doors. The scene was mayhem. The deadly gas explosion injured more than 400 and killed 74. 54 were killed on site and 20 more died of horrific injuries. Many of them were children.
The 4-H cattle barn was used as a field hospital for the critically injured and the ice arena became a makeshift morgue. Family members came through the doors to identify their dead. Every hospital in Indy and surrounding counties cared for the wounded. Medical and nursing students were called on to help. Nothing would ever be the same again for anyone touched by that awful Halloween night. Haunting anyone who even hears of it because it could have happened anywhere. All the places we’ve been it might have happened, but by fate we were spared. Tragedy goes where it will. Sometimes despite best efforts. There’s often no foreseeing it. And no stopping it once it comes.
Today, a large, black and gold memorial plaque is in the front lobby. It’s on the back wall, to the far right, next to the entrance doors. It lists the names of all the victims of the Coliseum explosion. You’ll notice many pairs with the same last name where family members were killed together. It is still one of the worst tragedies in Indiana history. The Coliseum has, since, been restored and thousands of great shows and happy events have happened there in the years, since. The Indiana Farmers Coliseum and the Indiana State Fair is at 1202 E 38th St, Indianapolis. Thankfully, it has far more good memories in it than bad.
The Beatles performed at the Coliseum the following year in 1964, their only Indiana performance. I participated in the Indiana State Fair Queen contest there, many years ago! Today, the Coliseum is home to the Indy Fuel hockey team and the NCAA IUPUI Jaguars, and many great events. The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is consistently voted one of the top ones in the US. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nearby and many other tourist sites and museums are close.
The Coliseum also directly overlooks the site of another recent tragedy at state fairgrounds. A stage collapse during the state fair in 2011. Concertgoers for the band Sugarland were caught up in 60+ mph winds that moved in with an approaching storm. The winds caused a sudden roof collapse of the temporary stage that killed 7 and injured 58.
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Every major city and most small ones have a pile of tragedies buried in their past. Indianapolis and the Indiana State Fair, West Virginia, Chicago, and Boston all have many positive, great things there and nearby for travelers to see and do, too. I recommend seeing these sites, if you’re interested, to honor the victims. But, stay awhile and see the many great things these areas have to offer, today. Each one of these trips were visited while we were on family vacations. They were part of a packed-full itinerary of fun and interesting things to do. It’s really important to remember, honor, and respect the past and what people went through. Those sites, tragedies and events are a great reminder that life is incredibly fragile, we’re not always in control. Crazy things go wrong and today is not promised. Seize the day, explore as much as you can, and live every day as if it’s your last because we never know which one really is. There is much to be grateful for. Go out and live, love, be kind, and explore!
Top Books & Movies about These 5 Deadly Disasters:
- Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo
- The Great Molasses Flood: Boston, 1919 by Deborah Kops
- There is also a fictionalized kid’s version about the Great Molasses flood by Lauren Tarshis. It’s a kids historical fiction, early chapter book series that our twins enjoyed- I Survived The Great Molasses Flood, 1919
- Everything in its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood by Kai Erikson
- The Buffalo Creek Disaster: How the Survivors of One of the Worst Disasters in Coal-Mining History Brought Suit Against the Coal Company- and Won by Gerald M Stern
- The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967 (Images of America book)
- The Mothman Prophecies book by John Keel
- The Silver Bridge Tragedy: George Dudding
- Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck That Shook America by Michael McCarthy
- The Eastland Disaster (Images of America book)
- The Sinking of the Eastland: America’s Forgotten Tragedy by Jay Bonansinga
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