Accidents and natural disasters are an inevitability. The unpredictability of mother nature and the fallibility of mankind means that every once in a while, our day-to-day lives come to a stop when we either find ourselves at the mercy of a tragic incident, or when we stand in solidarity to witness a disaster in the news. Such devastation takes on an even more poignant note when it occurs close to home, though often the community response helps to alleviate the pain and loss felt by those directly affected by the disaster. From floods to fires, nuclear meltdowns to mine explosions, here are the worst disasters that have occurred in the state of Pennsylvania.
1. Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889
The South Fork Dam was erected fourteen miles upstream from Johnstown and it created the Lake Conemaugh reservoir. After a few days of the heavy rainfall in 1889, the dam gave out, suddenly releasing all 20 million tons of the lake's water upon the town. 2, 209 people perished, including over 900 families and over 300 children. The disaster incurred millions of dollars in damages and its victims were unsuccessful in recovering legal damages from the dam's owners.
The Johnstown Flood still is remembered as one of the biggest accidents and tragic disasters in American history.
2. United Airlines Flight 93, September 11, 2001
Al-Qaeda highjacked Flight 93, which was bound for San Francisco, and redirected the flight towards Washington, D.C., where it is believed they aimed to crash the plane into the White House or Capitol Building. Thanks to the bravery of the passengers on board who revolted against the highjackers, the plane crashed into a field in Somerset County, PA, rather than reaching its intended destination. No on on board survived.
In the above photograph, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush survey the site of Flight 93's crash.
3. Three Mile Island, March 28, 1979
The worst nuclear accident in the history of the country occurred in Dauphin County. A combination of mechanical failures and personnel oversight caused the release of radioactive gasses into the surrounding environment. A voluntary evacuation was instituted throughout a 20-mile radius of the plant. Cleanup cost more than $1 billion and lasted until 1993.
4. Hurricane Agnes, June 1972
The scale of Agnes' destruction broke records for the United States when she hit in 1972. The massive storm plowed right across the Florida panhandle and up the east coast to devastate the northeast, a region that normally can be considered pretty safe from hurricane season. Pennsylvania faced worse destruction than any other state, with torrential downpour and dramatic flooding from the Susquehanna and Lackawanna Rivers. Over 100,000 people had to evacuate from homes that were covered by thirteen feet of water in some areas-- after the hurricane, more than 220,000 Pennsylvanians were left homeless.
5. Darr Mine Disaster, December 19, 1907
Pennsylvania's rich coal mining heritage has led to many mining accidents over the years, but the Darr Mine Disaster is remembered as the worst in the state's history. An explosion inside the mine caused 239 men and boys to lose their lives inside the mine where they remain entombed. A memorial to the Darr Mine Disaster stands at the site, near Smithton in Westmoreland County.
6. Rhoads Opera House Fire, January 13, 1908
During an evening performance of "The Scottish Reformation," a raging fire began due to a kerosene lamp that fell over inside the Rhoads Opera House in Boyertown. Due to locked or unmarked exits within the building, many people were unable to escape the fire, leaving 171 men, women, and children to perish. As a result of the tragedy, legislators tightened regulations surrounding the marking and unlocking of fire escapes in public buildings.
7. The Great Blizzard of 1888, March 1888
The above sketch will give you an idea of the Great Blizzard's brutality. The storm produced snowfall between 20-60 inches and gale force winds throughout the northeast and left 50-foot high snowdrifts in certain areas. Throughout the northeast, over 400 casualties suffered from the blizzard.
Until 1948, The U.S. Steel's Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant regularly released fluoride and sulphur emissions, but one day, these pollutants combined with foggy weather caused a catastrophic smog. As an oppressive smog began to build up, residents of Donora reported difficulty breathing, and within four days, twenty people had died and approximately a third of the town was ill. Thanks to rainfall on October 31, the smog dissipated, though ten years later, mortality rates in Donora remained higher than in surrounding communities. This tragic incident has led to the deterioration of the town of Donora, where today the population is less than a third than it was before the smog incident. Donora is also home to "Cement City," a neighborhood whose houses are built from pre-formed and poured concrete.
9. The Tornado Outbreak of May 31, 1985
Pennsylvania sees the occasional tornado, however thanks to its mountainous terrain, usually does not see them that severe or that often. On one day in 1985, that changed when a string of tornadoes touched down in Western PA to wreck havoc in the state. The biggest, a half-mile wide monster and the only F5 tornado on record in the state, crossed into Mercer County and claimed nine lives. In total, 65 Pennsylvanians lost their lives to tornados that day.
10. Centralia Mine Fire, 1962-present
The massive mine fire underneath the ground in Centralia began in 1962 as a result of an effort to burn refuse and it still burns to this day. In 1992, the state claimed eminent domain over all property in Centralia, and in 2002, the Postal Service revoked its postal code. The smoking ground is unstable and unsafe--- as a result, the area is now an uninhabited ghost town.
The scale of some of these tragedies is unbelievable. We can hope that these disasters remain the worst in our state’s history, and that we have learned from some past mistakes through improved safety regulations and emergency preparedness. There is no predicting nature or human nature, however.