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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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11 Epic Technology Disasters

Nature and politics kill far more people than technological accidents but failures of machines still take a toll on both a personal and social level. Separating machine failures and negligent maintenance from unforeseeable circumstances isn't easy and no doubt there are some accidents worthy of mention that we've missed. In any event, these are the eleven worst tech-related disasters where mechanical or engineering failure played a significant role. And by "worst," we're considering death toll b




Seven people died with the Space Shutter Challenger flew apart in flight on January 28, 1986, including Christa McAuliffe the "first teacher in space." Like the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which also resulted in the deaths of seven crew members, Challenger's end shook the American psyche and marked the beginning of the decline of American's manned space program. The accident is blamed on the failure of an O-ring that sealed the shuttle's rocket booster. The failure of China's Intelsat 708 resulted in more deaths but information about the accident remains sketchy and the public impact was more limited.

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The sinking of the Titanic serves as a reminder of human hubris. Deemed to be virtually unsinkable, she sank nonetheless, despite engineering designed to keep the ship afloat. The presence of enough lifeboats to carry only about 1/3 of the people on board made ship's technical shortcomings deadly.

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Other hurricanes have killed more people, notably the 22,000 believed to have died in the Great Hurricane of 1780. But many of the more than 1,800 people killed as a result of Hurricane Katrina would have survived had the engineering of New Orleans' levees been better.

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In August 1975, the Banqiao dam on China's Ru River collapsed in under the heavy rain from Typhoon Nina, a failure foreseen by project critics and in part attributable to inadequate engineering. The death toll has been estimated to be 26,000 from flooding and 145,000 from subsequent hardships, though official statistics of such events in China are difficult to verify.

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Less than 60 deaths have been directly attributed to the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. Though various groups have made unverified claims that anywhere from 4,000 to more than 200,000 people have died as a result of radiation exposure in the years that followed, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), following decades of study, has concluded that apart from increased thyroid cancers, "there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident." However, the effects of the accident continue to be felt on a personal and environmental level, inside and outside of Ukraine. Though the extent to which human error versus design flaws contributed to the accident remains open to debate, there's a strong case for bad design.

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Death estimates range from about 4,000 to 30,000 for the 1984 release of poison gas at a Union Carbide Facility in Bhopal, India. But like Chernobyl, the health effects have lasted decades and continue to this day. A variety of equipment failures and design flaws are believed to have contributed to the accident. Eight Indian plant employees were convicted of negligence in June 2010, in Bhopal. An arrest warrant for former CEO Warren Anderson, now 90, was issued by Indian authorities last year but the U.S. will not extradite him.

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Before the Texas City disaster, there was the Port Chicago disaster in which 320 Navy sailors and civilians died from a munitions explosion. The explosion occurred on July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California. Most of the dead were African-Americans and the incident sparked a mutiny over the dangerous conditions. As World War II was underway, disciplinary action was harsh and the incident continues to be a racial sore point. Inadequate attention to safe munitions handling, in terms of tools and training, led to the disaster.

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Massive rains and flooding on August 11, 1979, resulted in a dam failure that led to the deaths of an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 people in and around the Indian town of Morvi, in the state of Gujarat. As with the levees that failed during Hurricane Katrina, unexpectedly severe weather gets the blame rather than underwhelming engineering. But dam engineers need to plan for the worst. Anything less is just gambling with people's lives.

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A fire that started on a ship in the port of Texas City, Texas on April 16, 1947, led to a massive explosion of ammonium nitrate (used fertilizer and bombs). Over 500 people were killed, and thousands more were injured in one of the worst industrial accidents in the U.S. A district court's findings of negligence in 1950 were overturned two years later, but clearly there were technical protections that could have been better.

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Over 1500 coal miners died in China on April 26, 1942. Most were Chinese and a few were Japanese, occupiers of China at the time. The tragedy appears to have been the result of poor working conditions and inadequate safety measures. It appears to have been made worse by callous containment measures.

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The deadliest single-aircraft accident to date occurred in 1985 with the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123. The cause of the accident has been attributed to improper repairs following damage to the tail of the 747SR-46 in 1978. A single metal plate with the a few more rivets could have saved 520 lives.

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