Tragedy

Surface Tension

Low-pressure weather systems are a familiar feature of the winter climate in the northern Atlantic. While they often drive wind, rain, and other unpleasantness against Europe’s rocky western margin, this is typically on a “mostly harmless” basis. Early in the evening of 31 January 1953, the weather in northern Europe was damp, chilly, and blustery. These unremarkable seasonal conditions disguised the fact that a storm of extreme severity was massing nearby, and that an ill-fated assortment of meteorological, geophysical, and human factors would soon coalesce into an almost unprecedented watery catastrophe.

The storm scudded past the northern tip of Scotland and took an unusual southerly detour, shifting towards a low-lying soft European overbelly of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land. The various people, communities, and countries in its path differed in their readiness and in their responses to the looming crisis, yet the next 24 hours were about to teach them all some enduring lessons. In a world that remains awash with extreme weather events—and with increasing numbers of people living in vulnerable coastal areas—the story of this particular storm system’s collision with humanity remains much-studied by emergency planners, and much-remembered in the three countries it so fatally struck.

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Andrée and the Aeronauts' Voyage to the Top of the World

From right to left: S. A. Andrée, Knut Fraenkel, Nils Strindberg, and Vilhelm Swedenborg (Spaeronaut)
From right to left: S. A. Andrée, Knut Fraenkel, Nils Strindberg, and Vilhelm Swedenborg (Spaeronaut)
On the 11th of July 1897, the world breathlessly awaited word from the small Norwegian island of Danskøya in the Arctic Sea. Three gallant Swedish scientists stationed there were about to embark on an enterprise of history-making proportions, and newspapers around the globe had allotted considerable ink to the anticipated adventure. The undertaking was led by renowned engineer Salomon August Andrée, and he was accompanied by his research companions Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel.

In the shadow of a 67-foot-wide spherical hydrogen balloon--one of the largest to have been built at that time--toasts were drunk, telegrams to the Swedish king were dictated, hands were shook, and notes to loved ones were pressed into palms. "Strindberg and Fraenkel!" Andrée cried, "Are you ready to get into the car?" They were, and they dutifully ducked into the four-and-a-half-foot tall, six-foot-wide carriage suspended from the balloon. The whole flying apparatus had been christened the "Örnen," the Swedish word for "Eagle."

"Cut away everywhere!" Andrée commanded after clambering into the Eagle himself, and the ground crew slashed at the lines binding the balloon to the Earth. Hurrahs were offered as the immense, primitive airship pulled away from the wood-plank hangar and bobbed ponderously into the atmosphere. Their mission was to be the first humans to reach the North Pole, taking aerial photographs and scientific measurements along the way for future explorers. If all went according to plan they would then touch down in Siberia or Alaska after a few weeks' flight, laden with information about the top of the world.

Onlookers watched for about an hour as the voluminous sphere shrank into the distance and disappeared into northerly mists. Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel would not arrive on the other side of the planet as planned. But their journey was far from over.

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Pushed to the Limit

On the morning of 15 September 1952, Captain James Robinson Risner sat in the cockpit of an F-86A Sabre and scrutinized the clear azure skies. He was leader of a flight of four Sabres tasked to escort F-84 Thunderjets to bomb the kimchi out of a North Korean chemical factory on the Yuan River. His squinty perseverance paid off when he spotted a flight of enemy jet fighters-- MiG-15s--making a run for his Thunderjets. CPTN Risner's opening salvo hit one MiG so hard it took the canopy off and sent the other 3 MiGs running, but Risner didn't let it end there. The injured enemy took it low, flying hard and dirty along a dry riverbed to escape. Risner and his wingman gave chase, eating the dust and rocks kicked up by the MiG's wash. Risner told "Aces in Combat":

"He was not in very good shape, but he was a great pilot - and he was fighting like a cornered rat!

He chopped the throttle and threw his speed brakes out. I coasted up, afraid that I'd overshoot him. I did a roll over the top of him, and when I came down on the other side, I was right on his wing tip. We were both at Idle with our speed brakes out, just coasting.

He looked over at me, raised his hand, and shook his fist. I thought 'This is like a movie. This can't be happening!' He had on a leather helmet and I could see the stitching in it."

The wily chase took the trio into Chinese airspace. Low altitude and high speed conspired to keep the US pilots from seeing an airfield until they were right on top of it. The MiG pilot must have radioed ahead, however, because the field's anti-aircraft guns were manned and firing.

The MiG darted, desperate to make a landing. Risner waited for his moment and hammered him with the last of his 50 CAL rounds. The MiG slammed into the tarmac and burst into flame. As they turned to hurry out of China and back into compliance with official US policy, the wingman, 1st Lieutenant Joe Logan, took a flak shell to the underside of his plane. The Sabre held together and stayed airborne, but her fuel tank was gutted, and her hydraulic fluid was bleeding out.

Bailing the crippled craft guaranteed Logan's capture, but there was no hope of making it 60 miles over anti-aircraft gun infested territory to the nearest rescue detachment. Risner couldn't desert his friend, so instead he did the only possible thing: he attempted the craziest and most daring rescue maneuver in aviation history.

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In Soviet Russia, Lake Contaminates You

In late 1945, along the banks of the Techa River in the Soviet Union, a dozen labor camps sent 70,000 inmates to begin construction of a secret city. Mere months earlier the United States' Little Boy and Fat Man bombs had flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving Soviet leaders salivating over the massive power of the atom. In a rush to close the gap in weapons technology, the USSR commissioned a sprawling plutonium-production complex in the southern Ural mountains. The clandestine military-industrial community was to be operated by Russia's Mayak Chemical Combine, and it would come to be known as Chelyabinsk-40.

Within a few years the newfangled nuclear reactors were pumping out plutonium to fuel the Soviet Union's first atomic weapons. Chelyabinsk-40 was absent from all official maps, and it would be over forty years before the Soviet government would even acknowledge its existence. Nevertheless, the small city became an insidious influence in the Soviet Union, ultimately creating a corona of nuclear contamination dwarfing the devastation of the Chernobyl disaster.

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Eugenics and You

Sir Francis Galton, father of eugenics
Sir Francis Galton, father of eugenics
When Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking theory of Natural Selection in 1859, it was received by the public with considerable vexation. Although the esteemed naturalist had been kind enough to explain his theory using mounds of logic and evidence, he lacked the good manners to incorporate the readers' preconceived notions of the universe. Nevertheless, many men of science were drawn to the elegant hypothesis, and they found it pregnant with intriguing corollaries. One of these was a phenomenon Darwin referred to as artificial selection: the centuries-old process of selectively breeding domestic animals to magnify desirable traits. This, he explained, was the same mechanism as natural selection, merely accelerated by human influence.

In 1865, Darwin's half-cousin Sir Francis Galton pried the lid from yet another worm-can with the publication of his article entitled "Hereditary Talent and Character." In this essay, the gentleman-scientist suggested that one could apply the principle of artificial selection to humans just as one could in domestic animals, thereby exaggerating desirable human traits over several generations. This scientific philosophy would come to be known as eugenics, and over the subsequent years its seemingly sensible insights gained approval worldwide. In an effort to curtail the genetic pollution created by "inferior" genes, some governments even enacted laws authorizing the forcible sterilization of the "insane, idiotic, imbecile, feebleminded or epileptic," as well as individuals with criminal or promiscuous inclinations. Ultimately hundreds of thousands of people were forced or coerced into sterilization worldwide, over 65,000 of them in the country which pioneered the eugenic effort: The United States of America.

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The Forgotten Fire

This article was written by Dan Gillis, one of our shiny new Damn Interesting writers!

On October 8th, 1871, the small Wisconsin logging town of Peshtigo was consumed by one of the most severe and woefully under-reported fires in human history.

After a hot and dry year, with a mere two inches of rain falling from July through September, churchgoers were praying for much-needed precipitation. The creeks had dried up, and the Peshtigo River, which many residents relied upon for transportation and water, was dangerously low.

In the midst of that quiet Sunday evening, the tiny township was totally annihilated - charred by a gigantic fire that engulfed the buildings, the countryside, and even the townsfolk themselves. Even today the little-known blaze holds the distinction of being the deadliest fire ever to occur in the US.

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Building the BAM

The Soviet engineers gazed into the abandoned tunnel with dismay. It was 1974 and work was scheduled to resume on the construction of the Baikal-Amur Magistral (BAM), a railway line in north-eastern Siberia. The Dusse-Alin Tunnel had been completed in an earlier phase of the undertaking, as evidenced by the inscription “1947-1950” over the entrance and the busts of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin that earlier workers had hewn out of the nearby rock. But the harsh climate and intervening years had not been kind to the permafrost-piercing passage. Peering into the gaping hole, the worried workers could see something glinting inside. The BAM project, perhaps the greatest civil engineering endeavour the world has ever seen, had encountered yet another problem.

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The Star Dust Mystery

The passenger manifest for British South American Airlines (BSAA) flight CS-59 might have made a perfect character list for a murder-mystery. Aboard were two businessman friends touring South America on the lookout for trade opportunities: a fun-loving Swiss and a self-made English executive. Also travelling were a Palestinian man who was rumoured to have a diamond stitched into his jacket, and a South American agent of the Dunlop tyre company who had once been the tutor to Prince Michael of Romania. The oldest passenger was in her seventies, a widow of German extraction returning to her Chilean home after an inconvenient World War had unexpectedly extended her stay abroad. And to add a whiff of espionage, a member of a select corps of British civil servants known as King’s Messengers joined the flight, carrying a diplomatic bag bound for the UK embassy across the border.

The date was August 2nd, 1947, and the flight was scheduled to depart from Buenos Aires, Argentina, bound for Santiago, Chile. The intrepid voyagers were to fly in the Star Dust, a shiny Lancastrian aircraft derived from the legendary Avro Lancaster World War II bomber. Its aircrew were ex-Royal Air Force to a chap, and the machine was captained by an experienced and decorated wartime flyer named Reginald Cook. Traversing the Andes Mountains in atrocious winter weather was an undertaking that would demand all his knowledge and skills, yet the journey should have been well within the capabilities of both man and machine.

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DAMN LARGE

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