Reflections on Tragedy: 30 Facts about History’s Greatest Catastrophes and Their Aftermath

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1Vesuvius eruption

Vesuvius eruption

The heat from the Vesuvius eruption was so intense, the skulls of those caught in it literally exploded by the pressure of vaporizing brain tissue and boiling blood.

2. Palawan massacre occurred on 14 December 1944, during World War II, near the city of Puerto Princesa in the Philippine province of Palawan. Allied soldiers, imprisoned near the city, were killed by Imperial Japanese soldiers. American soldiers were lit on fire by sounding an air raid siren that led them to a trench filled with gasoline instead of an air-raid shelter. Of the 150 American POWs, only 11 survived and escaped to American lines.

3. Before the sinking of RMS Lusitania, the German Embassy in New York opted to put a warning in 50 newspapers advising passengers not to board the ship. They went anyway and 1198 people died. The ship was carrying undeclared ammunition as cargo, making it a legitimate military target just as the Germans had claimed. This incident was the deciding factor for USA to enter World War 1.

4. The Elixir Tragedy spurred Congress to empower the US Food and Drug Administration to monitor drug safety. 71 adults and 34 children died in the fall of 1937 after taking a drug called Elixir Sulfanilamide to treat a variety of ailments, from gonorrhea to sore throat.

5. Just a handful of people survived the mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978 where over 900 people took their lives, including a hearing-impaired man that didn’t hear the announcements over the loudspeaker, and an elderly woman who slept through the whole thing.

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6Cocoanut Grove fire

Cocoanut Grove fire

During the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, at least 300 people lost their lives because the doors opened inwards. This prompted the regulation that all doors in a public building must open outwards.

7. The Ocoee massacre was a white mob attack on African-American residents in northern Ocoee, Florida, which occurred in 1920 on the day of the U.S. presidential election. Over 50 to 60 African Americans were killed when one African American man attempted to vote.

8. After the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, there were too many bodies to bury so the corpses were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly thereafter the bodies began to wash back onshore and survivors constructed funeral pyres to burn the corpses. The fires burned day and night for weeks.

9. During the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903 over 602 people died. It gained a lot of attention as the victims were mainly women and children from an upper-middle-class background. The theatre had been falsely billed as “absolutely fireproof”, but lacked basic safety infrastructure. Public outrage caused lawsuits to be filed against the owners of the theatre and of the Mayor. In the end, the only person convicted was a tavern keeper charged with grave robbing.

10. Many who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945 were subsequently eaten by sharks as they bobbed in open waters for four days. Navy intelligence had ignored a message from the sub that had torpedoed it, thinking it was a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush.

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11Jallianwala Bagh massacre

Jallianwala Bagh massacre

Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place on in 1919, when Acting Brigadier-General Dyer ordered troops of the British Indian Army to fire their rifles into a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians, killing at least 379 people. It was a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India.

12. The Guatemalan government carried out a genocide in the 1980s known as the Silent Holocaust against the Mayan people. Throughout it, the US government under Ronald Reagan gave Guatemala military aid, helping the genocidaires commit their atrocities.

13. In 1975, a “once-in-2000-years” flood caused the failure of the Banqiao Dam in China, which killed 171,000 people and made nearly 6 million buildings collapse. This is the “largest known dam disaster in human history” and in spite of the devastation it caused, this disaster was hidden from the world until 2005.

14. In the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, a gang of Mormons banded up to attack a wagon train full of families in Southern Utah. The aggressors pretended to be Native Americans. When they feared discovery by the victims, they murdered about 120 people to avoid leaving witnesses to testify.

15. The 1902 Saint-Pierre Volcanic eruption killed all 35,000 people in the town except one man (Ludger Sylbaris) who survived because he was the worst prisoner on the island and therefore lived in a solitary confinement cell.

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16Brescia explosion

Brescia explosion

In 1769, the Bastion of San Nazaro in Brescia, Italy was struck by lightning. The resulting fire ignited 90 tonnes of gunpowder being stored there, and the subsequent explosion destroyed one-sixth of the city and killed 3,000 people.

17. The 1984 anti-Sikh riots, also known as the 1984 Sikh Massacre, was a series of organized pogroms against Sikhs in India following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The ruling Indian National Congress had been inactively complicit with the mob, as to the organization of the riots. Government estimates project that about 2,800 Sikhs were killed in Delhi and 3,350 nationwide, whilst independent sources estimate the number of deaths at about 8,000–17,000.

18. On March 25, 1990 a jealous ex-boyfriend torched a Bronx social club with gasoline to get revenge on his ex-girlfriend. He ended up killing 87 people in what would become the deadliest fire in New York City since the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that occurred 79 years before on the very same day.

19. During the Bodo League Massacre more than 100,000 suspected communists were killed by the South Korean government in 1950. US, Australian, and British officials witnessed and photographed the political genocide.

20. The 1815 Mount Tambora eruption killed 100,000 people and caused a volcanic winter and a massive famine around the world. To this day it is the most powerful recorded eruption ever. It is rated VEI 7 on the Volcano Explosivity Index. It is widely known as “The Year without a summer.”

21Wounded Knee Massacre

Wounded Knee Massacre

The Wounded Knee Massacre was a domestic massacre of 300 unarmed Lakota people by soldiers of US Army. 20 soldiers received Medals of Honor for the incident, including one for “conspicuous bravery in rounding up and bringing to the skirmish line a stampeded pack mule.”

22. A number of deaths in the Stardust Nightclub fire in Artane, Dublin, Ireland can be attributed to people mistaking the men's restroom for the main exit. 48 died and 214 were injured as a result of the fire.

23. During the 1972 Munich massacre, the German Police had no trained snipers. The army did, but the constitution did not permit the military to be used on German soil during peacetime, adding to the failure of the rescue operation.

24. During the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistani soldiers killed 3 million Bangladeshi in one of the worst genocides in history. The USA took Pakistan’s side which they regretted later.

25. In 1992, a prison riot broke out in Carandiru Penitentiary in Brazil. The police stormed the prison and 68 of the officers killed 102 inmates. Some inmates were executed after surrendering or when they were hiding in their cells. In 2013, 63 of the police officers were sentenced to 48 to 624 years in jail.

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