People often say it’s the little things that mean the most.  That’s especially true when dealing with things that tend to cause death when they fail.  Here are five situations where failing to pay close attention to detail led to absolute disaster…

Minneapolis I-35W Bridge Collapse


What Happened:

Ok, so there is this bridge, The Mississippi River Bridge, that carries Interstate 35W across it, and up to 140,000 cars caress its elegantly crafted pavement every day. Oops, did I say elegant? I meant subpar Chinese-knockoff quality. On August 1, 2007, the bridge collapsed during rush hour traffic. Parts of the bridge fell up to 81 feet to the river below, up to 100 cars were totaled, and 13 people died in the ensuing madness. Some people took the collapse as a sign of divine intervention. Was this God cruelly punishing the people of Minneapolis for not sacrificing enough lambs? No, actually, it was because of a bunch of engineers and their “let’s get this stupid bridge done so we can pound out a quickie at the bowling alley” attitude. Thanks, fellas.

The Fatal Design Flaw:

When designing a bridge of such proportions, you’re going to need a lot of support. Enter the gusset plate, the little slab of metal that connects the steal beams to the truss bridge and lets soccer moms reach their boy-toys in the other town while the kids are at school. The gusset plate is the heart and soul of the entire bridge! Well it seems the Mississippi River bridge suffered a heart attack, as it was discovered that the essential gusset plates were half the thickness they should have been; this means the bridge couldn’t support the amount of weight that it should have been able to. Turns out that the engineers working on the bridge lost their original calculations, so they made them up on the spot. Thorough!

Bhopal Chemical Leak

What Happened:

On the fateful night of December 3, 1984, a pesticide plant  in Bhopal, India, let out a burst of highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) and a host of other poisonous gases that have been estimated to have caused the deaths of over 10,000 people in surrounding areas; Bhopal’s water supply is still believed to be contaminated with poisons released from the 1984 leak even to this day.

The Fatal Design Flaw:

This one is simple. The plant’s designer, Union Carbide, acknowledged that MIC leaks were possible, but they didn’t work on any preventive measures in case of a leak. It’s like they left a match in front of a pool of gasoline and determined that it was possible for the gas to ignite, and then just left it at that. The plant’s safety systems were essentially programmed to do nothing if a MIC leak was detected. Corporate safety at its finest.

Space Shuttle Challenger

What Happened:

The Challenger disaster was perhaps the worst space-related failure in American history, at least until we inevitably wage war on aliens. On January 28, 1986, the Challenger became engulfed in a giant plume of smoke a little after one minute into flight, causing the immediate deaths of all 7 of its crew members. How could it get worse, you ask? Well, the Challenger housed the first teacher astronaut as a part of the Teachers in Space project. That was big news back in 1986, and as a result, millions of Americans tuned in to the launch, and an estimated 85% of the entire American population viewed the explosion within an hour of the initial disaster.

The Fatal Design Flaw:

There are a number of theories as to why the Challenger blew up, but the most widely-accepted reason can be broken into two core flaws: The fuel wasn’t packed properly and there was no exit procedure built in. We’re going to tackle the second one first here: NASA, are you kidding? You didn’t include a possible way for the crew members to escape safely if something went wrong? News flash, this is rocket science, and you were so confident that nothing would go wrong that you decided to forego being responsible? That’s like saying the Titanic was unsinkable, except this is in space, so it’s a hundred times more significant.

Additionally, the conclusion was drawn that the fuel casings weren’t sturdy enough to keep the rocket fuel in one place. In fact, the casings were two entire tons lighter than casings used in previous missions. Once the rocket fuel was unleashed into high velocity levels and an incredibly pressurized environment, it met its maker. The fuel ignited and all of the shuttle crew members were killed.

Kansas City Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse

What Happened:

On July 17, 1981, a fourth floor walkway at the Hyatt Regency building in Kansas City completely collapsed on itself, taking the third, second, and ground floors with it, along with the lives of 114 guests.

The Fatal Design Flaw:

The details are awfully technical, but in layman’s terms, on the 4th floor structure there were double the amount of support-rods needed to maintain a structurally sound design. Now, that might seem like a good thing, having twice as many support structures, right? Wrong.  Since there were only half as many box-beams (the thing the support rods connect to), half of the support rods were lying in the structure of the floor, essentially acting as filler. With increased activity (a dance was being hosted on the fourth floor at the time), the rods got shifted around and managed to dislodge the other support rods.  This left the structure with absolutely no support, causing it to collapse.

Chernobyl

What Happened:

Chernobyl was a nuclear power plant in Ukraine that suffered a catastrophic meltdown. On April 26, 1986, one of the reactors underwent rapid overheating, leading to a meltdown that released an enormous cloud of radioactive fallout, simultaneously endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in surrounding areas. Since the disaster, over 4,000 people have died due to cancer from the radiation. As it stands today, Chernobyl has a 17-mile radius “Exclusion Zone” which is considered too hazardous to live safely in. This places Chernobyl second on Time Magazine’s list of Least Livable Places, just behind Detroit. To inject some optimism into this bleak picture, scientists estimate that Chernobyl will become fully safe to inhabit – in 20,000 years.

The Fatal Design Flaw:

At the time of Chernobyl’s terrifying meltdown, the plant housed four 1,000 megawatt power reactors. Reactor number four was especially unstable, so instead of powering down when it detected it was running low on coolant, it did the exact opposite and rapidly overheated. Next, the Soviets hired engineers with no knowledge of nuclear physics to lead the task force. So instead of building a safe power-supply system, the dumbfounded employees just decided to pump a ton of electricity into the already-proven-to-be-fatally-unstable reactor. I’m no nuclear engineer, but if I was put to the task of designing a reactor that could kill thousands if it wasn’t safe enough, I wouldn’t go down the “let’s hire some kindergarten teachers to wire electric power to a potentially mass-scale fissile reactor”.  Way to go, Ukraine. It took you the honor of housing the worst nuclear disaster in human history to learn that you should probably hire dudes with degrees.