5 Deadliest Engineering Disasters In History

Trying to save money or taking shortcuts for the completion of a project without giving due consideration to basic principles of civil engineering can cause fatal engineering failures when making structures like dams, bridge and tall buildings. Here is a brief description of 5 deadly engineering disasters in recent history. Cause of such collapses is often debatable. Was it due to bad engineering, human error or inefficient communication among personnel deployed on the job?

Deadly Engineering Collapses

Below are 5 deadly engineering disasters that shake the world.

1. SS Sultana (1865) – A maritime engineering disaster recorded as the worst in the history of United States occurred on April26, 1865. That night, passenger steamboat named SS Sultana exploded on the river Mississippi resulting to the death of 1547 people, exceeding the number of deaths due to sinking of the Titanic. The Sultana was overcrowded because of an exchange of prisoners nearing the end of American Civil War. The overcrowding significantly contributed to the number of deaths. Another contributory factor was that the steamer was mostly made using wood, which was reportedly entirely engulfed in flames within minutes after the explosion. A leak reportedly detected on the boiler could not be repaired properly by boilermaker RG Taylor because of Captain J. Cass Mason’s orders due to constraints of time.

sultana disaster - illustration
sultana disaster – illustration 


2. Columbia disaster – The tragedy of space shuttle Columbia happened on February 1, 2003 as it was reentering earth’s atmosphere.  The shuttle fell into pieces without any notice, causing the death of all seven astronauts on board. Subsequently, it was realized that the cause of failure was the loss of a piece of foam insulation on an external tank at the time of launching.  It is worthwhile to add that this particular piece did not break for the first time. It had already been reported six times. On reentering the atmosphere of earth at a speed of the 23 Mach, wings of the shuttle experience temperature of 2800°F. An investigation team of NASA located smelted aluminum on thermal tiles plus the internal edges of the left wing of the spacecraft, supporting the idea that the Columbia’s destruction was because of hot gases that pierced through the damaged part of the wing. An unfortunate engineering disaster of modern times!

Columbia disaster
Columbia disaster


3. The Hyatt Regency hotel walkway collapse – A collapse happened at the Hyatt Regency Kansas City in Kansas CityMissourithe United States on Friday, July 17, 1981. Two vertically adjacent walkways buckled over an ongoing dance competition in the lobby of the hotel.  It caused the death of 114 and injuries to 216 people. The failure is attributed to a flawed design that doubled the load on the link between the support beams of the fourth floor and the tie rods that carried the weight of two walkways. The link failed and the fourth floor along with its crowd fell on top of the second-floor walkway. Consequently, both the walkways fell in the lobby floor. The third-floor walkway was offset some meters away from the rest.

Hyatt Regency hotel walkway collapse
Hyatt Regency hotel walkway collapse


4. Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse – The third longest suspension bridge of the world at that time, Tacoma Narrows Bridge had been in operation for just more than five months before it crashed into the Puget Sound of Washington on November 7th, 1940. It had already earned the nickname of ‘Galloping Gertie’ because it would move vertically whenever there were strong winds. Measures taken to stop its movement proved ineffective and finally, its main span collapsed under winds blowing at 40 miles per hour.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse
Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse

This engineering collapse encouraged the study of aerodynamics-aeroelastics which influenced the construction of all the long span bridges of the world thereafter. The new bridge installed at the same location made use of the tower pedestals and cable anchorage of the old bridge.


5. The Collapse of the St. Francis Dam – The worst engineering disaster took place on March 12, 1928 as a dam built to fulfill the growing water requirement of Los Angels burst. Located forty miles away from Los Angeles, the dam burst to claim lives of about 600 people and created a total bedlam across Ventura County. The reason was the appointment of a self-taught civil engineer named William Mulholland to head the construction of St. Francis Dam as he was reputed for completing project cheap and quickly. Cracks had started appearing at the foot of the dam soon after the completion of the dam. On the morning of the tragedy, a leak was detected by the dam keeper but William and his team declared the dam safe and returned to LA. You can check this article for world-famous dams.

The Collapse of the St. Francis Dam (Day after failure)
The Collapse of the St. Francis Dam (1 day after failure)


Deadliest Building Collapse in Bangladesh: On 24 April 2013, 8-storied garments factory building named “Rana Plaza” collapsed in Bangladesh which is considered to be one of the deadliest building collapses in world history. Over 1100 people died, mostly workers. 2500+ people were wounded in that disaster.

Bangladesh Building collapse
Bangladesh Building Collapse

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