5 Three Mile Island
This disaster has the distinction of not killing anyone, which is good. But it did lead to the release of tens of thousands of gallons of radioactive liquid waste into waterways and millions of curies (a measure of radioactive gas – look this one up if you want to know more than that!) of radioactive gasses into the atmosphere. The March 28, 1978 partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant could have been a much worse disaster than it was had disaster response teams not mobilized so quickly. The incident still caused many Americans (and many worldwide) to question the use of nuclear power. The Chernobyl disaster a few years later led to a much more vocal outcry.
4 The Deepwater Horizon Blast and Spill
Most people think about the recent BP/Haliburton/Macondo debacle, AKA America’s largest oil spill, as mostly an ecological and environmental disaster. But let us not forget that on the evening of April 20, 2010, 11 men lost their lives and many more were injured when pressurized methane gas caught fire and then blew apart much of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. We are still dealing with both the legal and environmental fallout today.
3 Boston Molasses Disaster
Drowning sucks. Drowning in molasses sucks even more. But that’s what happened to many of the 21 people who died on January 15, 1919, when a huge storage tank filled with molasses ruptured, dumping more than two million gallons of the sticky stuff out into the Purity Distilling Company factory and then out into the streets beyond it. The mess also killed many horses, which were still relatively common in urban settings then.
2 The Port Chicago Disaster
Military munitions are carefully designed to explode with maximum lethality. That’s their whole point. But ideally they do so in proximity to the enemy (well, ideally they never do so at all, actually) and not near your own countrymen, no less civilians. On July 17, 1944, at the height of WWII, though, a whole lot of munitions killed a whole lot of American sailors and civilians when a cargo ship exploded in Port Chicago, CA. Three hundred twenty people died, and another 400 or so were injured. Some conspiracy theory minded folks have opined that the blast was a secret nuclear test, but we’re going to go ahead and say … it wasn’t.
1 The Texas City Disaster
On the 16th of April, 1947, an explosion rocked the port city of Texas City, TX, leaving nearly 600 people dead and injuring thousands more. It remains the highest casualty count from any industrial accident in this country’s history. And it was caused by exploding fertilizer, the same stuff that blew up recently in West, TX (and the same stuff used in the deadly Oklahoma City bombing in the 1990s). A cargo ship laden with more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire while moored in the Texas City harbor, and when its cargo combusted, the explosion was so large it approached the scale of nuclear blast, consuming much of the port itself, as well as myriad buildings further inland, including several chemical factories that turned into separate conflagrations.