New York City Mid-air Collision – December 16, 1960

A United Airlines DC8 and a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation collided over New York and bodies and debris fell all over the downtown area.

On the morning of December 16, 1960, two airliners were approaching New York City, a United Airlines DC8 jet and a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation propeller plane. Suddenly there was silence from both planes as the controllers at La Guardia and Idlewild, now John F. Kennedy, airports tried to establish contact.

The two aircraft had collided a mile above the city and debris and bodies plunged to the ground. Many of the 134 passengers and crew who lost their lives on that snowy New York morning were students returning to the city for the holiday. On the ground, six people were killed by falling debris.

The TWA flight fell to the ground from a mile above Staten Island while the United continued on a trajectory towards Brooklyn. It was, at that time, the worst air disaster in U.S. history. The TWA flight was heading for La Guardia Airport while the United Airlines plane was about to land at Idlewild, now known as John F. Kennedy Airport. As it approached the city, the United jet was told to take a holding pattern at 5,000 feet over Preston, New Jersey, until it could be cleared for Idlewild.

The TWA plane was told to stay at 6,000 feet over Linden, New Jersey, until it was cleared for La Guardia. The planes would thus be several miles apart and separated by 1,000 feet of altitude. One of the air controllers at La Guardia suddenly called out to the TWA pilot that he had jet traffic nearby on his right. There was no response. At the same moment the United’s DC8 told Idlewild that it was at 5,000 feet. It was given landing instructions from the tower but there was no response. The DC8 crashed into a heavily populated district of Brooklyn, burying itself twenty feet into the ground and demolishing a church that stood there.

The DC8’s tailplane continued along a street, crushing cars and ending up a hundred yards away. Gas spilled all around and several buildings and a car caught fire. One eleven-year-old boy, Stephen Baltz, crawled out of the plane, his clothing on fire. Two policemen pulled him away from the flaming wreckage and rolled him in the snow. After a few hours, despite being badly burned and having a broken leg, he was able to sit up and talk at the Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. He died two days later.

He had breathed in lethal flames that seriously damaged his lungs and, although several doctors and nurses tried everything they could to save him, they were not able. In his short span of life after the crash he described the collision as an explosion after which the plane began to fall while people screamed. He held on to his seat as it came down

Emergency teams from the army, navy, and air force arrived and fought the fires, trying to prevent them spreading. Shops in the vicinity became temporary mortuaries. Everyone became involved. The church that was demolished by the DC8 was a gray three-story structure known as the Pillar of Fire Church. The ninety-year-old caretaker, Wallace E. Lewis, who lived on the third floor, was killed. Ten residential buildings along with the church were set ablaze. Part of a wing was caught in the torn roof of an apartment building while a thirty-foot section of the tail was sprawled across a street intersection. Firemen waded through water carrying body after body to temporary morgues in garages.

As dusk approached, the fire department switched on its emergency searchlights and firemen continued to search for bodies both from the plane’s wreckage and among buildings destroyed on the ground. They also collected as many personal items as they could to aid in identification of victims. The wet streets began to freeze and this added to the difficulties of the task. A further hindrance came with the hundreds of motorists, sightseers, and those homeward-bound from work stopping to witness the event. Red Cross and Salvation Army staff gave out hot soup, donuts, and coffee to the exhausted disaster workers.

TWA’s fuselage landed in three pieces on Staten Island across New York Bay from Brooklyn. The pilot tried to land the plane on Miller Field nearby but it broke up and exploded before it reached the ground. Wreckage was scattered all over the airfield. Bodies were seen falling into the water. Rescue boats searched for survivors. They found six but all died before they reached a hospital. Rescue work went on through the day. By evening friends and relatives of those who had been on the planes arrived seeking answers, often slowing down the rescue work. The inevitable questions soon arose. How could a disaster like this happen? Explanations began to come out when the Federal Aviation Administration released transcripts of the conversations between control officers at the two airports.

The captain of the DC8 was found to be at fault. At the time of the collision his plane was nine miles off course. Furthermore, he was flying at 346 mph instead of 207, the approved speed for a plane at 5,000 feet. Final death toll was 134 from the planes and 6 killed on the ground, for a total of 140. It was the worst air disaster up to that date and it happened on the fifty-seventh anniversary of the first flight in 1903.

Added to eight other accidents involving scheduled airlines in the United States in that same year, it would make 1960 the worst year ever in terms of deaths from airline accidents. Fortunately, the destruction to people and places on the ground was much less that might have been feared but the message to authorities from the tragedy was clear: a metropolitan area like New York must do everything in its power to ensure that a disaster like this never happens again.

While a tragedy like this one over a major city is an unusually disastrous one, the problem of air crashes involving human error remains as a continuing challenge. As the numbers of people traveling keep increasing there is a corresponding increase in accidents and in almost every one human error is found to be the cause of the accident. On July 17, 1996, TWA 800 left New York for Europe and as it gained altitude off Long Island it exploded and fell into the sea. There were no survivors. Later investigations showed that the cause of the accident was faulty wiring.

On October 31, 1999, Egyptair 990 left New York for Egypt but soon afterward crashed into the ocean off Long Island. Following extensive studies of possible causes the only possibility left was that the co-pilot decided to destroy the plane and everyone in it. On July 25, 2000, Concorde AF 4590 took off from Paris en route to New York. Within a few minutes it crashed in flames. No one survived. The cause of the accident was a piece of metal that someone had left on the runway. The metal had slashed a tire on one of the plane’s landing wheels and then cut into a fuel tank.

In 1960, the degree of sophistication in jet travel was at a very early stage. The many safety features of today had yet to be developed and installed and pilots needed exposure to various climatic conditions in order to learn how to cope with them. Thirty years later, by 1998, travel was still commonplace but jet airliners were fitted with numerous technical aids to make travel easier for both pilots and passengers. This was especially true for Swissair, an airline that frequently flew from New York to Switzerland and had an excellent safety record.

Pilot error, however, just as it had been in 1960, or perhaps pilot inability to cope with unusual emergencies, were still very much a danger to be considered as was found in Swissair flight 111 in 1998. It left New York’s JFK Airport between eight and nine in the evening of September 2, 1998, en route to Geneva, Switzerland. On board were people from the United Nations, scientists, and tourists.

The plane was into its flight for less than an hour and had almost reached its cruising altitude when smoke was detected in the cockpit. The route over the Atlantic lies along the coast of New England and eastern Canada and at the time of the smoke alarm Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada, was the nearest airport. Arrangements to land there were quickly made. It was then that a number of extraordinary things happened. With fire developing rapidly to the point that pilot and co-pilot had to wear oxygen masks, the captain began to follow a list of more than two hundred procedures to try and locate the source of the fire.

Swissair’s rules required him to do this. At the same time, convinced that the plane was too heavy to land, he circled the airport twice in order to dump fuel. All of this took time, far too much time as it turned out. Maybe the captain seriously underestimated the amount of time he had before the fire completely overwhelmed him. Maybe his training never prepared him for an event of this kind. The co-pilot urged him to land immediately but he refused.

As it turned out, it took less than fifteen minutes for the fire to grow into an inferno. Meanwhile passengers had put on their lifejackets as they expected the plane might have to land on water. The list of more than two hundred procedures involved checking all the electrical circuits one at a time and the captain made every effort to do this. Experts later concluded that this activity might have accelerated the fire by creating a surge of electricity. In any case, both the checking of electrical circuits and dumping fuel took too much time.

The fire cut off all power and at half past nine in the evening radio communication with Halifax was lost. A few minutes later Swissair 111 plummeted into the ocean forty miles east of Nova Scotia, off Peggy’s Cove, killing everyone aboard. This disaster, like so many others, had resulted from human failures whether deliberate or not. The wiring used in both TWA 800 in 1996 and Swissair 111 in 1998 was known to be faulty but had not yet been replaced.

The Rescue Coordination Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had been alerted about a possible accident. Within minutes of the crash it sprang into action. Planes scoured the Swissair’s last known location and ships began the surface search aided by flares. For some time it was not known how the plane had come down so search and rescue was the order of the day. The largest hospital in the area, the Queen Elizabeth Two Health Sciences Center, cleared its emergency rooms and prepared for a flood of casualties. Ambulances and fire trucks took up positions as near as possible to the shore.

All through the night the search for life went on. By morning it was obvious to all that everyone on board had died. The airline’s head office in Zurich issued a statement saying that there were no survivors. The plane had gone down at a steep angle so both bodies and wreckage were concentrated in a small two-hundred-foot-deep area.

One of the top authorities on aviation commented after the crash that the plane could have descended from 33,000 feet when seventy miles from Halifax, and landed with minimum risk. Swissair 111’s triple-engine MD- 11, similar to the DC 10, was well below its maximum load when it left New York. Many other experts said that even if the MD-11 been only thirty miles away from Halifax and cruising at 33,000 feet it could still have landed safely. So convincing was the evidence against Swissair that the first insurance settlement of damages on behalf of one passenger was reached in the fall of 1999, long before a final decision was made on the cause of the accident. Other claims followed but three years after the crash there was little progress on the sixteen billion dollars of claims that had been assembled.

All kinds of valuables came down with the plane. They included diamonds, jewels, millions of dollars in cash, and a Picasso painting worth more than a million dollars. The last-named was probably destroyed in the crash, as it had not been packaged to withstand a serious accident. The initial focus of the rescuers was on human remains and aircraft parts, not on these treasures. First priority was to discover the cause of the disaster. Later a search for the valuables was made. The U.S. salvage ship Grapple was brought in at once to help with the recovery work off Peggy’s Cove. The two black boxes, which contained flight data and cockpit conversations, were the first things to be taken from the water.

The remains of only one of the 229 passengers and crew could be identified visually. The rest depended on dental and medical records and samples of DNA. The plane and its contents had been shattered because of the sharp angle of impact with the water. There were 15,000 body parts recovered and over a million pieces of the plane. One outcome of the accident was a new ruling by Swissair that the huge checklist should never be a top priority for a captain in any future similar event.

The captain, said Swissair officials, must always have the freedom to use his best judgment in such circumstances. Swiss investigators finally concluded that the Swissair Flight 111 crash was caused by a fire that was thought to have started when a spark from a damaged wire ignited insulation material in the in-flight entertainment system. The final report of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board in 2003, at a cost of $30 million, the largest and most complex that the Board ever undertook, came to a similar conclusion. These entertainment systems draw large amounts of electric power.


Titanic Iceberg Tragedy – April 15, 1912

The unsinkable Titanic was suddenly sunk as it collided with an iceberg. Through a variety of failures, the Titanic was sunk by an iceberg and, due to an equally tragic series of failures in terms of sufficient lifeboats, 1,490 lost their lives.

Their regulations had been written in 1894 and they stipulated that every ship over 10,000 tons must carry sixteen lifeboats. The ship’s designers knew that the Titanic could stay afloat if four of its sixteen watertight compartments were flooded, but it could not survive if five were flooded. No one ever suspected that as many as four would be flooded at one time and this fact may have given rise to the idea that the ship was unsinkable. On April 10, 1912, the Titanic left Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York. Next day the ship received radio messages telling of large icebergs that were much farther south than usual. Captain Smith accordingly altered course toward the south, maintained speed at twenty-two knots and gave instructions to lookouts to be especially vigilant.

Titanic, on its first transatlantic voyage from Southampton to New York, was eight hundred miles east of Halifax, Canada, on April 15, 1912, when it hit an iceberg. Within a minute or two, a 300-foot gash was cut in the ship’s steel side and about an hour later the Titanic was listing seriously. The captain ordered everyone to take to the lifeboats and two hours later the ship sank. Of the 2,227 passengers aboard 1,490 lost their lives.

In the years before World War I there was heavy sea traffic between Europe and North America. Immigration from Europe to the United States was at a peak and the growing industrialization of the United States was a magnet for European businessmen. Ships competed for both economy and luxury travel. Speed of travel was also in demand and some ship owners concentrated on that. In 1907, the British White Star Line decided to build ships that would focus on luxury, size, comfort, and safety, rather than speed. On May 31, 1911, four years later, the first of these ships, the Titanic, was launched. From its moment of launch it was known as a “safe” ship compared with all other vessels of that time.

The Titanic weighed more than 46,000 tons, stood eleven stories high and four city blocks long, was divided into sixteen watertight compartments for safety, and carried twenty lifeboats. This was four more lifeboats than the Board of Trade regulations required. The Titanic’s reputation of being unsinkable created an atmosphere of complacency, almost arrogant indifference, from the captain all the way down to the least deck hand.

So widespread was this outlook that when the call to abandon ship was made a large number of passengers refused to believe what they were told. There was a casual approach to safety in the minds of the ship’s officers as evidenced by the things that were not done. No formal boat drill was arranged for passengers, a normal procedure to ensure orderly behavior in an emergency. There were lifeboats for only one-third of the passengers, legally correct but hardly responsible, and there was little concern over the danger of icebergs.

Radio was a fairly new thing in 1912 and large numbers of passengers used it to send messages to friends in Europe and the United States, describing life aboard the Titanic. The ship’s radio operator was so heavily engaged in sending these private communications that he paid little attention to the warning signals about icebergs from other ships. Some urgent messages about icebergs that arrived at noon did not reach the navigation officer until 7:00 P.M.

Even a drop in the outside air temperature around the ship, a clear indication of proximity to an iceberg, from forty-three degrees to freezing in the course of one day was ignored by those in command. Sunday, April 14, 1912, was cold but visibility was good. Messages kept arriving from other ships warning of the presence of icebergs in the main shipping lanes. The Titanic’s Captain Smith still seemed indifferent to these warnings.

It was well known that most of an iceberg’s bulk floats below the surface so it was always important to keep a safe distance from the part one could see above water. Captain Smith may have been more concerned with the hope of gaining a new crossing record because, instead of slowing down to make sure that the ship kept well clear of icebergs, he maintained a speed of twenty-two knots, about 25 mph, a high speed for ships at that time.

Shortly before ten o’clock in the evening the seventh ice warning of the day arrived, telling of a huge mass of ice less than eighty miles directly ahead. An hour later an urgent message was sent to all ships in the area from a ship, the Californian, twenty miles away, which had stopped its engines because of an eighty-mile stretch of ice directly ahead. At the same time, the Californian’s radio operator tried to call the Titanic but, finding that he was met with a blunt “Keep out” response, decided to retire for the night.

Close to midnight, as the Titanic pushed ahead, lookouts in the crow’s nest, high up on the foremost mast, spotted an iceberg off the right side of the ship, almost directly ahead and towering sixty feet above the water. The warning signal was triggered. The engine room was ordered to stop the ship and then go full speed astern, but the warning came too late. Even as it began to swing away toward its left side, the ship hit the iceberg below the surface. The crew felt a bump and heard a scraping sound. They concluded that nothing serious had happened but the first officer as a precaution decided to close all the watertight doors below the waterline. The elapsed time from the moment of sighting until the watertight doors were closed was about half a minute.

The ice had gashed a series of openings in the steel side of the ship and water was pouring in. Within ten minutes, fourteen feet of water filled the forward part of the ship. All five compartments were flooded and, after another ten minutes, water rose to twenty-four feet above the keel. Captain Smith and the managing-director of the shipyard that built the ship, Thomas Andrews, were by now on the bridge assessing the damage. Andrews knew that the ship could only stay afloat for a little more than one hour if five compartments were flooded and he told Smith so. Distress signals were immediately sent out and preparations made for abandoning ship. The bow area was already sinking. Twenty-five minutes after the first sighting of the iceberg, Captain Smith gave orders that the lifeboats be made ready.

The captain knew that the lifeboats could only carry 1,178 out of the 2,227 on board even if every boat was filled to capacity, and he was anxious to avoid panic. Rockets were fired aloft and the Californian, which was still nearby, saw the rockets but the ship’s operator had retired for the night soon after getting the earlier rejection from the Titanic. He had been at his station for sixteen hours. The Californian tried to make contact using light signals but, when that failed, it made no further attempts. Several other ships received the radio signals but they were all some distance away.

About an hour after hitting the iceberg the first lifeboat was launched, but inadequate planning together with passenger apathy saw it leave with twenty-eight people instead of its capacity load of sixty-five. Even as this boat was being lowered into the water many passengers felt it was safer to stay on the ship. They refused to believe that the Titanic would sink despite the abandon ship order. Other lifeboats too left with partial loads, one with forty-two, a second with thirty-two, and a third with thirty-nine. Much later, when the tally of survivors was examined, there were questions. Why did one boat leave with seven, two members of the crew and five who were mostly from first-class cabins? Was it impossible for passengers from down below to reach the boats in time because of the barriers that separated third from first class sections of the ship?

Approximately two hours after it had hit the iceberg the Titanic was listing heavily to port, its bow close to the water. People found it hard to keep their balance and panic was setting in. As one of the last boats was being launched and was already almost full, a group of passengers tried to jump in. An officer in the boat had to fire two warning shots to hold them back. As another boat was being loaded the crew linked arms and formed a chain around the boat, allowing only women and children to get on board. Captain Smith walked around, thanking various ones for the work done then headed for the bridge to go down with his ship, a long-standing maritime tradition. In the final moments many jumped off the ship. By hanging on to pieces of wreckage or, in a few cases, by being taken on board a lifeboat, some of these survived.

The Carpathia, a ship that was sixty miles away, received the distress messages and headed for the location of the Titanic, arriving shortly after 4:00 A.M. long after the Titanic had completely disappeared. For several hours the Carpathia took on board those in lifeboats as well as survivors from the sea, thus succeeding in rescuing 711 who were taken to New York. One thousand four hundred and ninety lives were lost, the worst ever tragedy at sea. Many were lost because they were unable to cope with the near zero temperatures. Ships from Halifax, Canada, were dispatched to pick up bodies. One hundred and ninety were recovered and these were interred in Halifax. Many years later, in 2001, some of these remains were exhumed in attempts at identification, using DNA techniques.

A British public inquiry was conducted as soon as the survivors were able to attend. They were delayed for some time in order to answer questions from the U.S. Senate. The inquiry was held in London and it centered on possible navigational negligence on the night of the disaster. Was the ship traveling too fast? Were officers attentive to the various warnings of ice? Why was it that the total number of survivors was far less than the total capacity of all the lifeboats? Were the third class passengers held back and locked below decks in order to allow those in second and first class to escape? The inquiry exonerated the captain and crew in words like the following: while the collision with an iceberg could have been avoided it was not a direct result of negligence on the part of either Captain Smith or any member of his crew.

Captain Rostron, Carpathia’s skipper, was commended by members of both U.S. and British authorities for his courageous efforts to reach the Titanic in time to save her passengers. In pushing his ship to its limits and dashing through treacherous waters he was seen as a true hero. The captain of the liner Californian, on the other hand, was regarded as almost a villain because he did not do all he could to save lives. Almost immediately after the public inquiries were completed dramatic changes were made in the rules regarding icebergs and lifeboats. The International Ice Patrol was instituted, ensuring constant watch on errant icebergs, and winter shipping lanes were moved farther south. Twenty-four-hour radio watch was required for all ships and sufficient lifeboats to accommodate everyone became mandatory.

These outcomes from the U.S. and British formal inquiries concentrated on the shipping errors and loss of life, but beneath all of these and only lightly touched on by the investigators lay some serious social issues. Not least of these was a tradition of class distinction when filling lifeboats. While the owners of the Titanic denied that any such practice existed, it was well known among other ships of that time. When the liner Republic went down, four years earlier, the captain told the passengers as they approached the lifeboats, remember women and children first, then first class passengers followed by all the rest. Whatever might have been the unspoken rules on the Titanic, the reality was blatant discrimination.

Out of the first class women passengers, 3 percent lost their lives, while 16 percent of second class women drowned, and in steerage, the lowest class, 45 percent of the women died. The barriers set up to keep the different classes of passengers from mixing became death traps. Steerage passengers were seen climbing out on whatever protrusions they could access on the sides of the ship in order to reach a deck above the water. When the last lifeboat was launched and the ship’s officers were convinced that all women had been accounted for, dozens suddenly appeared from steerage sections. Such was the pathetic lack of organization for coping with an emergency. Two women from steerage were stopped as they walked toward one of the boats on the first class deck and ordered to go down to their own deck to board there, something that was quite impossible at that stage.

This traditional class distinction appeared again in New York as the Carpathia brought survivors ashore. Survivors’ stories became headlines in newspapers but they were almost all from first class passengers. The horror of more children from steerage being drowned than men from first class was hardly noted. Investigators from both members of Congress and the British authorities ignored the steerage passengers. It was a similar story among the media representatives, at least for a time. Then questions began to surface about how some important men survived while a hundred women were lost. By exposing so many of these habits of class distinctions, the Titanic put an end to many of them. It destroyed much of an era of privilege that looked inappropriate, even indecent, in the light of the unfair treatment accorded people on that night of April 15, 1912.

Seventy-three years later, Robert Ballard and his team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Boston, discovered and photographed the wreck of the Titanic as it lay on the seabed at a depth of two miles, three hundred miles south of Newfoundland. Ballard’s wish was that all who followed him would respect the site and not interfere with it. He felt it was a gravesite that ought to be left undisturbed. Interest in the wreck, however, was too strong for others to accept that recommendation. Two years after Ballard’s discovery, a French expedition, backed by money from the United States, went to the site and recovered artifacts. The French submersible Nautile, used by the expedition, dived more than thirty times and spent about two hundred hours on the ocean floor.

Approximately nine hundred artifacts were discovered, many of them objects that no one knew had been aboard the ship. New light was cast on the Titanic and the condition of the wreck. There was a cache of Spode china with blue and gold patterns that caught historians of the Titanic by surprise. A bag stuffed with jewelry, U.S. banknotes and gold coins was also recovered. Some of the important navigational and communication instruments were also salvaged, such as the ship’s telegraph, operated by a system of wires and pulleys. There were many other interesting objects including sterling silver knives, forks, and spoons, cut-glass carafes, white ceramic egg dishes, a bottle of champagne, a teapot, and a jar of skin cream.


The Sinking of the Estonia – 1994

On September 27 1994 the ferry Estonia set sail on a night voyage across the Baltic Sea from the port of Tallin in Estonia to Stockholm. She departed at 19.00 carrying 989 passengers and crew, as well as vehicles, and was due to dock at 09.30 the following morning, Tragically, the Estonia never arrived.

The weather was typically stormy for the time of year but, like all the other scheduled ferries on that day, the Estonia set off as usual.

At roughly 01:00 a worrying sound of screeching metal was heard, but an immediate inspection of the bow visor showed nothing untoward. The ship suddenly listed 15 minutes later and soon alarms were sounding, including the lifeboat alarm. Shortly afterwards the Estonia rolled drastically to starboard. Those who had reached the decks had a chance of survival but those who had not were doomed as the angled corridors had become death traps. A Mayday signal was sent but power failure meant the ship’s position was given imprecisely. The Estonia disappeared from the responding ships’ radar screens at about 01:50.

The Marietta arrived at the scene at 02:12 and the first helicopter at 03:05. Of the 138 people rescued alive, one died later in hospital.

Of the 310 people who had reached the decks, almost a third died of hypothermia. The final death toll was shockingly high – more than 850 people.

An official inquiry found that failure of the locks on the bow visor, which broke away under the punishing waves, caused water to flood the car deck and quickly capsize the ship. The report also noted a lack of action, delay in sounding the alarm, lack of guidance from the bridge and a failure to light distress flares.

When was the Sinking of the Estonia: September 28 1994

Where was the Sinking of the Estonia: Near the Turku Archipelago, in the Baltic Sea

What was the Sinking of the Estonia death toll: 852 passengers and crew

You should know: The sinking of the Estonia was Europe’s worst postwar maritime disaster.


The Marchioness Disaster – 1989

Many people living in Great Britain still remember learning of the appalling disaster that befell a leisure cruiser on the River Thames in the early hours of the morning of August 20 1989.

Photographers’ agent Jonathan Phang had put considerable effort into organizing the perfect 26th birthday party for his best friend, merchant banker Antonio de Vasconcellos. The evening began with dinner for eight, followed by champagne and birthday cake for 30. Jonathan had booked a River Thames pleasure cruiser for the party itself, collecting canapes, balloons and party poppers on the way. The Marchioness, packed with guests, finally set off after midnight.

Just 15 minutes later, near Cannon Street railway bridge, the Marchioness was holed through her side by the aggregate dredger Bowbelle. The Marchioness rolled, filling with water, the blow forcing her into the path of the Bowbelle, which ran straight over her. There were 131 people on board that night, including crew and party-goers. Most of those who survived the experience had been on the upper decks and were flung into the river by the collision. Like the birthday boy, many of the guests were only in their twenties – friends from student days, friends from the fashion industry and family. Of the eight who attended the dinner party, only Jonathan and Antonio’s brother survived. Antonio himself did not.

The investigation found fault with both captains: no clear instructions were issued to the look-out of the Bowbelle, visibility from both wheelhouses was poor, and both vessels were in the center of the river. Captain Henderson of the Bowbelle, who had downed six pints of beer during the course of that afternoon, was tried for failing to keep a proper look-out, but was acquitted by two separate juries.

When was the Marchioness Disaster: August 20 1989

Where was the Marchioness Disaster: The River Thames, London, UK

What was the Marchioness Disaster death toll: 51

You should know: In 1995, the jury returned verdicts of unlawful killing on those who drowned. For a decade, the action group founded by several survivors and their families pushed for an investigation. Bizarrely, Captain Henderson was allowed to retain his Master’s certificate despite the highly critical report that eventually appeared in 2001. As a result of the Marchioness tragedy many new safety measures were put into place on the Thames, including lifeboat rescue stations that have since proved their worth many times over.


Ufa Train Explosion – 1989

As Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev struggled to push through his radical reform program while at the same time holding together the Soviet Union and maintaining the Communist Party’s commanding role, his nation was beset in the late 1980s by a series of disasters which brought home just how antiquated was the state of the country’s infrastructure and ailing public services. Hungary had already started dismantling its border fences with Austria (the first step in a process which led to the collapse of the Soviet fiefdoms in Eastern Europe) when in early June 1989 Gorbachev’s attention was suddenly drawn to events closer to home, albeit many hundreds of miles from Moscow.

As two busy trains were passing one another on a stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway east of the city of Ufa near the Ural Mountains, a huge explosion ripped both trains apart. Seven carriages were reduced to ash by the blast, while both locomotives and the remaining 37 carriages were destroyed. There were some 1,300 passengers on board the trains which were travelling between Novosibirsk and the Black Sea resort of Adler. Many of the passengers were children, either going on or returning from holidays at seaside Pioneer Camps.

Although rumors of sabotage started to circulate shortly afterwards, what looks on the surface to have been a freak accident turns out to have been caused in all probability by negligent maintenance. An undetected leak in a natural gas pipeline which ran alongside the tracks a few hundred yards away had created a highly flammable cloud in the air; this was ignited by sparks from the passing trains. Engineers on the pipeline had apparently noticed a drop in pressure a few hours before, but had restored it to normal levels without first checking for leaks.

When was the Ufa Train Explosion: June 4 1989

Where was the Ufa Train Explosion: Near Ufa, Russia

What was the Ufa Train Explosion death toll: The official death toll stands at 575, making it by far Russia’s worst rail disaster. A memorial at the site, however, lists 675 names, and some sources state that as many as 780 may have died.

You should know: The force of the explosion was estimated to have been the equivalent of ten kilotons of TNT, not far short of the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.


Iran Air Flight 655 Shoot Down – 1988

In 1980, shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini had seized power and declared Iran an Islamic Republic, Iraq invaded its neighbor (with the covert blessing of the USA). In the Persian Gulf there were attacks against oil tankers and merchant vessels, so the Americans sent warships and aircraft to provide protection for shipping. The USS Vincennes, carrying the state-of-the-art Aegis combat system, was deployed to the area, arriving in May 1988 under the command of Captain William C Rogers III.

On the morning of July 3 1988 a scheduled Iranian Airbus departed from Bandar Abbas, en route to Dubai – a mere 28-minute flight. Marginally delayed, it flew within its assigned Iranian commercial air corridor, transmitting the civilian aircraft code and speaking English to the civilian control tower. Seven minutes later, during its ascent, Flight 655 was shot down in flames by one or more missiles fired from USS Vincennes, taking with it 290 passengers and crew. There were no survivors.

USS Vincennes quickly reported that they had believed themselves to be under attack from an Iranian F-14 fighter plane, though it was immediately apparent that an appalling tragedy had occurred. The subsequent naval enquiry produced a startling whitewash, claiming Flight 655 was descending in attack mode outside its allotted airspace when it was destroyed. A month later the authorities admitted that it had in fact been at 3,658 m (12,000 ft) and was ascending well within its flight path. Later, the US Navy reported that the ship’s crew were suffering from psychological stress due to first-time combat.

The crew of USS Vincennes all received medals and Captain Rogers, who was thought trigger-happy and arrogant by several high-ranking colleagues, retired in 1991 with the Legion of Merit. The 290 passengers who died were effectively forgotten.

When was the Iran Air Flight 655 Shoot Down: July 3 1988

Where was the Iran Air Flight 655 Shoot Down: Strait of Hormuz, Persian Gulf

What was the Iran Air Flight 655 Shoot Down death toll: 290 passengers and crew, including 66 children.

You should know: Washington was eventually obliged to admit in the International Court of Justice that the USS Vincennes had been patrolling illegally in Iranian waters. Neither accepting responsibility nor apologizing for this disastrous action, Washington paid $131.8 million in compensation to Iran, further compensation going to the families of the 38 non-Iranians on board that day. In August 1988, George Bush Senior said I’ll\l never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don’t care what the facts are’. Unsurprisingly, the incident has colored relations between both countries ever since.