Tag Archives: Tragedy

Ten Minutes in Lituya Bay

In 1952, geologist Don Miller was conducting a petroleum investigation in the region surrounding the Gulf of Alaska when he encountered a vaguely disquieting geological anomaly. While surveying a remote fjord known as Lituya Bay, Miller found that the dense, mature forest that surrounded the bay ended abruptly hundreds of feet upslope of the water. There was some vegetation growing below the distinct line, but it was all upstart grasses, saplings, and such. It was clear that at some point in recent history, an unknown, massive force had scraped the shores clean, and the vegetation was only beginning to reclaim the land.

There was no evidence that a fire had passed through—none of the surviving trees were charred, nor were the few remaining tree stumps. Instead, it appeared that the trees had been bent and twisted away by some powerful lateral force. The damage resembled a “trimline” like those left behind when a glacier recedes, exposing a line of bare rock alongside vegetation, but there was no glacier in a location that would account for it. A tsunami could also theoretically cause such destruction, but the boundary was much farther upshore than any tsunami in recorded history. Upon investigating further, Miller discovered other, older trimlines around the bay, suggesting that the destructive event had occurred multiple times prior, each a few decades apart. This was not typical bay behavior.

Miller interviewed some people familiar with the area, and heard tales of “cataclysmic floods” and such. He sliced samples from the trees along the edge of the old growth and saw signs of blunt trauma. He left Alaska still contemplating hypotheses, and he ended up writing a paper putting forward some possibilities. But the origin of the distinct damage would remain a geological mystery until five years later, when humans had the unsought opportunity to witness the cause of the terrifying phenomenon firsthand.

The Derelict

Under ordinary circumstances, the final evening of a cruise aboard the luxury turbo-electric ocean liner SS Morro Castle was a splendid event. Hundreds of lady and gentlemen passengers would gather in the Grand Ballroom in their finest evening attire for the customary Farewell Dinner, where veteran sailor Captain Willmott would captivate his guests with salty tales from his years at sea over endless glasses of champagne. Reality, bills, hangovers, and economic depression were all far away, on the other end of tomorrow morning’s gangplank in New York. But on the night of Friday, the 7th of September 1934, circumstances aboard ship were not ordinary. Passengers were indeed draped in their finery in the ballroom, yet the captain’s chair at the captain’s table was conspicuously vacant. He had somewhat suddenly felt unwell. And atop the typical worries lurking outside were two near-hurricane-force storms, one approaching from the north and another from the south. The agitated sea and gusty winds were beginning to cause some sway in the decks, putting already-eaten entrées in danger of unscheduled egress. The surly weather was bound to be a considerable distraction.

Nevertheless, the Morro Castle was a large and modern cruise ship quite capable of handling inclement weather. Chief Warms was in command of the bridge for the night shift, and he knew well enough to keep her slicing through the sea near top speed to minimize passenger discomfort. The ship made 20 knots against a gale-force headwind, so shuffleboard was out of the question, but in the Grand Ballroom, festooned with colorful flags and balloons, drinks were drunk and rugs were cut. The waitstaff served a steady supply of Cuban lobster broiled in butter, ham in champagne sauce, roast turkey, and candied sweet potatoes. The ship’s orchestra served a steady supply of dance tunes.

The Morro Castle Orchestra
The Morro Castle Orchestra

Just before 8:00pm, the orchestra abruptly stopped playing mid-song. The previously foxtrotting passengers turned to see what was the matter, and there at the bandstand they saw cruise director Bob Smith beckoning for everyone’s attention. He announced that he had some sad news to share. Their captain, Robert Willmott, had died suddenly in his quarters. The official farewell party and dance contest were therefore canceled, but the orchestra and barkeeps would remain on station late into the evening for passengers who wished to linger. Smith instructed the passengers to have a pleasant evening, and departed.

The ship’s doctor had determined the captain’s cause of death as “heart attack brought on by acute indigestion.” He had been just 52 years old. William Warms and the other officers were shocked and saddened by the turn of events, but there was also an unmistakable undertow of apprehension on the bridge. In recent weeks Captain Willmott had confided in some of his fellow officers that he had reason to believe that a “red” was aboard the ship plotting revenge against the Morro Castle and her captain. Although Willmott had never seemed particularly prone to paranoia, his remarks had been dismissed as such. The wild sabotage speculations were more difficult to ignore under the new circumstances, but scrutiny would have to wait. Chief Warms—now Acting Captain Warms—was understandably anxious. It was he who had discovered the captain’s body face-down and motionless in his bathtub, and he was having trouble keeping the image out of his mind. Now he was obliged to assume command during some of the worst sailing weather he had ever seen, and he had already been awake for over twenty-four hours. Even if sleep had been possible under such conditions, there was no time for it. It was going to be a long night.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Eugenics and You

Sir Francis Galton, 1893
Sir Francis Galton, 1893

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.