Lisbon Earthquake 1755

One of Europe’s most elegant capital cities was laid waste at a stroke when a ferocious earthquake – thought to have measured as high as 9.0 on the Richter scale – hit Lisbon in 1755. It was the morning of November 1, All Saints’ Day, and thousands of citizens were attending Mass in the city’s churches. Contemporary accounts described animals becoming unusually agitated in the hours preceding the disaster and water in the wells developing a strange taste. The epicentre of the earthquake was out in the Atlantic, some 200 km (125 mi) to the southwest of Portugal. When it struck Lisbon, the ground shook violently for ten terrifying minutes and vibrations were felt throughout the whole Iberian Peninsula.

Hundreds died when the quaysides on which they had gathered collapsed as they were trying to make their escape on the River Tagus. Worse was to follow, however. Fires broke out throughout the city; when they finally abated five days later, 85 per cent of Lisbon’s buildings had been destroyed, including the cathedral, the royal palace and the new opera house. The earthquake also generated a huge tsunami which inundated the city and devastated the coastlines of Portugal, Spain and North Africa. Reaching a height of 15 m (49 ft), the giant wave had an effect which was noticed as far away as the West Indies.

The Lisbon earthquake sent shockwaves throughout Europe; literally, with waves noted on the surface of Loch Ness in Scotland, but also metaphorically in the worlds of thought and letters. Many intellectuals began to question the notion of divine providence and the view that such natural disasters were part of God’s plan for the world. The most famous product of this new spirit of scepticism was Voltaire’s satirical masterpiece Candide.

When did the Lisbon earthquake happen: November 1 1755

Where did the Lisbon earthquake happen: Lisbon, Portugal

What was Lisbon’s earthquake death toll: 80,000-90,000 of Lisbon’s inhabitants. One third of the city’s population is thought to have perished and the overall death toll from the earthquake, fire and tsunami was probably well in excess of 100,000.

You should know: The Lisbon earthquake continues to puzzle seismologists and confound plate tectonics theory as the city lies nowhere near a plate boundary.

Vesuvius and the Destruction of Pompeii

The ancient Romans were a superstitious people, forever looking for portents in natural events. They failed utterly, however, to predict the cataclysm which engulfed the fertile and heavily populated Campanian countryside south of Naples in AD 79. Had they possessed a modem scientist’s understanding of the earth’s behaviour they might have seen the link with the earthquake which had damaged many buildings in the region 17 years earlier. As it was, a comprehensive rebuilding programme was still underway in tiie busy provincial town of Pompeii when on a late summer’s day its brooding neighbour Mount Vesuvius erupted without warning, casting day into night in a trice. At 1,280 m (4,200 ft) and only 17,000 years old, Vesuvius was a small and young volcano but the explosion nevertheless propelled a column of ash and gases some 25 km (15 mi) into the stratosphere.

Overwhelming though the initial eruption was, it was the subsequent pyroclastic flows which did the real damage. A pyroclastic flow is a relatively rare phenomenon in volcanic eruptions, caused by a temporary collapse of pressure in the eruptive column which produces a dense cloud of incandescent ash, mud and volcanic debris. Nothing stands a chance in the face of this deadly cocktail as it roars over the ground at speeds up to 500 kph (310 mph) and temperatures as high as 500°C, In AD 79 there were no fewer than six such flows, at the end of which the entire communities of Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum lay buried beneath meters of volcanic ash and lava. In one of history’s great ironies, this catastrophe became posterity’s great gain, for the burial ensured the near-perfect preservation of complete townscapes which have yielded unparalleled insights into an ancient and vanished way of life.

When did Vesuvius erupt: August 24-26 AD 79

Where is Vesuvius: Campania, southern Italy

What was Vesuvius’s eruption death toll: Unknown, but estimates range from 10,000 to 25,000, based on the known populations of the affected communities. Evidence of over 1,500 bodies has been unearthed – including cavities created by corpses which had decayed in their casings of ash and pumice. The plaster casts made by archaeologists of bodies at the moment of death provide an extraordinarily potent and moving witness to the disaster.

You should know: Vesuvius has erupted more than 50 times since AD 79. The last occasion was in 1944, which means that another eruption is overdue.

Antioch Earthquake

Lying on the Orontes River some 20 km (13 mi) inland from the Mediterranean coast in what is now the southeastern corner of modern Turkey, the ancient city of Antioch was an important centre of early Christianity. Founded in the late 4th century BC in Syria, as it then was, by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Antioch prospered as the capital of his new dominion and grew rapidly. In its heyday during the early Roman Empire the city had an estimated population of half million; only Alexandria and Rome itself were more prestigious. Antioch was the destination for St Paul’s first missionary journey following his conversion on the Damascus road, and the New Testament tells us that its gentile converts to the new religion were also the first to call themselves Christians.

Important though the city was, Antioch had the misfortune to be situated in one of the most unstable parts of the planet. In geological terms the Eastern Mediterranean is an area where four great tectonic plates meet. Antioch itself lay on the Anatolian plate and had a history of recurring earthquakes which damaged the buildings and fabric of the metropolis, including one in AD 115 while the Emperor Trajan himself was staying in the city before his ill- fated Parthian campaign. These were as nothing, however, to the massive quake of late May AD 526 which completely destroyed the city, including the great church built 200 hundred years previously by Emperor Constantius II, son of Constantine the Great. Few contemporary accounts of the disaster survive, but any buildings left standing after the initial tremor probably collapsed in a series of aftershocks; a huge fire which broke out the following day consumed what was left of Antioch ‘the Golden’.

When did the Antioch earthquake happen: Late May AD 526

Where did the Antioch earthquake happen: Antakya, Turkey

What was the Antioch earthquake death toll: Although the population had declined since its heyday, it is estimated that the city’s entire population of some 250,000 perished in the earthquake.

You should know: Its location made Antioch a key strategic bulwark of the Eastern Roman Empire against the Persian threat from the east. When Justinian assumed the Byzantine throne the year after the earthquake he spent lavishly on rebuilding the city. It was to little avail, however, as just a dozen years later it was sacked by the Persians.

Hindenburg Disaster – 1937

Germany built the biggest and best airships, having honed the technology after constructing huge Zeppelins from the early years of the 20th century. The guiding light was Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who finalized his revolutionary design for a rigid-frame airship in the 1890s. Before World War I Zeppelins were being used for scheduled passenger flights by the world’s first commercial airline, DELAG (short for German Airship Travel). These craft were modified for use as scouts and bombers after war broke out in 1914.

Count Zeppelin died in 1917 but, after the Armistice, colleague Dr Hugo Eckner resurrected the civilian air transport concept, finally making the breakthrough in 1924 when America ordered a dirigible and the Zeppelin company created LZ126, its finest airship yet. This served successfully as the USS Los Angeles until 1932 after an 8,000 km (5,000 mi) transatlantic delivery voyage lasting 81 hours. Thus energized, Eckner created the magnificent LZ127, christened Graf Zeppelin and launched in 1928. After this sturdy craft completed an impressive global circumnavigation in 21 days, commercial flights between Germany and Brazil began.


This service was very successful, but when the Nazis came to power they took over Zeppelin flights, including those by the most advanced airship of them all, LZ129. The Hindenburg was designed to be lifted by inert helium rather than flammable hydrogen and took to the skies in 1936, quickly being pressed into service on transatlantic crossings. Unfortunately, an embargo on strategic supplies meant insufficient helium could be obtained, so hydrogen was used. It was a fatal decision. In May 1937, at America’s Lakehurst airship facility, Hindenburg’s swastika­ decorated tail caught fire at the mooring mast. Within 34 seconds she was engulfed in flames as horrified spectators watched helplessly and a dramatic radio commentary was broadcast live. Of 97 on board, 62 survived.

When was the Hindenburg Disaster: May 6 1937

Where was the Hindenburg Disaster: Lakehurst, New Jersey, USA

What was the Hindenburg Disaster death toll: 35 (22 crew and 13 passengers)

You should know: The art deco spire atop New York’s iconic Empire State Building was originally designed as a mooring mast, thus creating a terminal where airships could dock. The 102nd floor was designated as a landing area, complete with gangplank, while an elevator carried outgoing passengers up from check-in on the 86th-floor observation deck. The idea was trialed but proved impractical as powerful air currents around the building made the whole operation too dangerous.


Tsuyama Massacre – 1938

In an era when society has perforce become accustomed to the regular incidence of tragedies involving disturbed loners who run amok, indulging in apparently motiveless killing sprees, it is hard to imagine the unbelieving horror that the first such event recorded in modern times – the Tsuyama massacre – engendered in prewar Japan.

The perpetrator was 21-year-old Mutsuo Toi, a young man with a reputation for Yobai (night crawling) – creeping into the beds of women in the locality in the hope that they would allow sexual intercourse. The orphaned Mutsuo had been brought up by his grandmother and was an outgoing boy, but when his beloved sister married in 1934 he quickly became withdrawn. In 1937 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis – then an incurable disease that had carried off both his parents and imposed a powerful social stigma.

When the girls in his village near the city of Tsuyama started giving him the cold shoulder, the over-sexed Mutsuo started planning a most terrible revenge.

He assembled a katana (traditional curved Japanese sword), axe and Browning shotgun. In the early hours of a night in May 1938, Mutsuo cut the power supply to his small community and embarked on a deadly mission. First, he beheaded his 71-year-old grandmother with an axe. Then he attached twin electric torches to his head and stalked through the village, entering homes and slaying unsuspecting occupants. In the course of the night he killed 27 and seriously injured five more, two of whom would later succumb to their wounds. This awful toll was roughly half the village’s population. Before dawn, Mutsuo Toi shot himself fatally in the chest, leaving suicide notes that explained his sense of despair at contracting tuberculosis and anger at the behavior of those neighbors – especially young women – who had shunned him.

When: May 21 1938

Where: Kaio, near Tsuyama, Okayama Prefecture, Japan

Death toll: 31 (including the killer)

You should know: In one suicide note Mutsuo Toi claimed that it had been necessary to kill his own grandmother in order to spare her the shame of being branded as the woman who brought up a mass murderer.


Collinwood School Fire – 1908

Fatal fires don’t come more harrowing than the crackling inferno that took Collinwood’s children in 20 awful minutes, and prompted the grief-stricken community literally to vote itself out of existence. It is the worst school tragedy in Ohio’s history.

A crisp, sunny, Midwest March morning is no time for a waking nightmare. In the two-story, brick schoolhouse, teachers and children assumed it was a drill when they heard the booming gong sound three times for a fire alarm. Lake View School was well-practiced, and in each class the little boys and girls quickly lined up to go to their designated exit. Down below, the school caretaker — who had arrived that morning at 06.30 for his usual routine of cleaning and stoking up the coal furnace, and been confronted around 09.30 by a girl shouting about ‘fire in the basement’ — had seen the smoke for himself. From the gong he rushed to open the front and back doors to help everyone get clear of the building more easily.

Air rushed in and, with an explosive roar, flames erupted out of the basement and filled the hall and front stairway, meeting the converging lines of children head-on. Singed and already choking, discipline went by the board. So many children rushed the back door that they jammed each other in a panicked tangle of arms and legs. Others behind them flung themselves on top, trying to scramble to safety. Pushed back by flames and blocked by the pile of screaming bodies, those still trying to come downstairs turned back, creating a new mayhem at the windows and fire escape.

Outside, the first adults to the scene pulled outstretched limbs as they burned, but the children were locked in fatal embrace, ten deep and screaming in agony. In 20 gruesome minutes, they died while their parents tried to beat the flames with naked fists. And it was Ash Wednesday.

When was the Collinwood School Fire: March 4 1908

Where was the Collinwood School Fire: Lake View School, Collinwood, Ohio, USA

What was the Collinwood School Fire death toll: Of nearly 400 children, 172 died alongside two teachers and one of the rescuers; 19 could not be identified; many others were known only by some adjacent trinket, ring or watch. Nothing at all remained of the school except the blackened brick walls and a chimney stack.

You should know: The township of 20,000 was utterly devastated. Volunteers had to keep a suicide watch on parents driven mad with grief; but the town itself opted to disappear, by means of annexation to the city of Cleveland. The last act of residents was to vote for a memorial garden to cover the ground plan of the school. Among many heartbreaking mementoes was a piece of broken slate board. Written on it in chalk was the beginning of the sentence ‘I like to go to school… ‘. At least the disaster forced schools throughout America to revise safety regulations and codes of practice.