Top 5 Bizarre Disasters

1. The St. Pierre Snake Invasion

Volcanic activity on the ‘bald mountain’ towering over St Pierre, Martinique, was usually so inconsequential that no one took seriously the fresh steaming vent-holes and earth tremors during April, 1902. By early May, however, ash began to rain down continuously, and the nauseating stench of sulphur filled the air. Their homes on the mountainside made uninhabitable, more than 100 fer-de-lance snakes slithered down and invaded the mulatto quarter of St Pierre. The 6-ft long serpents killed 50 people and innumerable animals before they were finally destroyed by the town’s giant street cats. But the annihilation had only begun. On May 5, a landslide of boiling mud spilled into the sea, followed by a tsunami that killed hundreds and, three days later, May 8, Mt Pelee finally exploded, sending a murderous avalanche of white-hot lava straight toward the town. Within three minutes St Pierre was completely obliterated. Of its 30,000 population, there were only two survivors.

2. The Shiloh Baptist Church Panic

Two thousand people, mostly black, jammed into the Shiloh Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 19, 1902, to hear an address by Booker T. Washington. The brick church was new. A steep flight of stairs, enclosed in brick, led from the entrance doors to the church proper. After Washington’s speech, there was an altercation over an unoccupied seat, and the word ‘fight’ was misunderstood as ‘fire’. The congregation rose as if on cue and stampeded for the stairs. Those who reached them first were pushed from behind and fell. Others fell on top of them until the entrance was completely blocked by a pile of screaming humanity 10 ft high. Efforts by Washington and the churchmen down in the front to induce calm were fruitless, and they stood by helplessly while their brothers and sisters, mostly the latter, were trampled or suffocated to death. There was neither fire – nor even a real fight – but 115 people died.

3. The Great Boston Molasses Flood

On January 15, 1919, the workers and residents of Boston’s North End, mostly Irish and Italian, were out enjoying the noontime sun of an unseasonably warm day. Suddenly, with only a low rumble of warning, the huge cast-iron tank of the Purity Distilling Company burst open and a great wave of raw black molasses, two storeys high, poured down Commercial Street and oozed into the adjacent waterfront area. Neither pedestrians nor horse-drawn wagons could outrun it. Two million gallons of molasses, originally destined for rum, engulfed scores of people – 21 men, women and children died of drowning or suffocation, while another 150 were injured. Buildings crumbled, and an elevated train track collapsed. Those horses not completely swallowed up were so trapped in the goo they had to be shot by the police. Sightseers who came to see the chaos couldn’t help but walk in the molasses. On their way home they spread the sticky substance throughout the city. Boston smelled of molasses for a week, and the harbour ran brown until summer.

4. The Pittsburg Gasometer Explosion

A huge cylindrical gasometer – the largest in the world at that time – located in the heart of the industrial centre of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, developed a leak. On the morning of November 14, 1927, repairmen set out to look for it – with an open-flame blowlamp. At about 10 o’clock they apparently found the leak. The tank, containing 5 million cu. ft of natural gas, rose in the air like a balloon and exploded. Chunks of metal, some weighing more than 100 lbs, were scattered great distances, and the combined effects of air pressure and fire left a square mile of devastation. Twenty-eight people were killed and hundreds were injured.

5. The Gillingham Fire Demonstration

Every year the firemen of Gillingham, in Kent, England, would construct a makeshift ‘house’ out of wood and canvas for the popular fire-fighting demonstration at the annual Gillingham Park fête. Every year, too, a few local boys were selected from many aspirants to take part in the charade. On July 11, 1929, nine boys – aged 10 to 14 – and six firemen costumed as if for a wedding party, climbed to the third floor of the ‘house’. The plan was to light a smoke fire on the first floor, rescue the ‘wedding party’ with ropes and ladders, and then set the empty house ablaze to demonstrate the use of the fire hoses. By some error, the real fire was lit first. The spectators, assuming the bodies they saw burning were dummies, cheered and clapped, while the firemen outside directed streams of water on what they knew to be a real catastrophe. All 15 people inside the house died.