Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination

Lee Clarke's Worst Cases

from the author of Worst Cases: Terror and
Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination

Worst Case Disasters of the Past


This is presently the worst air disaster, in terms of body count. In 1977, on the Spanish island of Tenerife, 583 souls were lost when two Boeing 747s slammed into each other. What’s so interesting about this disaster is that it took maybe a dozen things to go wrong to create it. If any one of those things had not happened, the disaster would have been averted. I call this the “small causes problem” in chapter 3 of Worst Cases, where I consider how to use counterfactuals to discipline worst case thinking.


This has to be on anyone’s list. It’s on mine for its cultural and political significance. We can call up, at will, the image of that second plane slamming into the south tower. Over and over and over again. The immediacy of those images lets us put ourselves in that plane. September 11 put us in a worst case mood.

USS Indianapolis

This is my favorite disaster. It was the worst inside of worst. In Worst Cases I use it as an example of “imagination breakdown” and “scapegoating” on the part of the navy. The USS Indianapolis delivered parts of the Hiroshima bomb to Tinian, in the South Pacific, on July 26, 1945. Then it went to Guam for its next assignment, which was to head for the Philippines for the invasion of Japan. At Guam, a vice admiral decided it didn’t need an escort, although Captain Charles McVay had requested one because the vessel had no antisubmarine weaponry and would be sailing through waters where subs had been sighted. McVay followed Navy procedure, which was to zigzag in clear weather. But as midnight neared, the skies clouded over, so McVay ordered a stop to the zigzagging and went below decks leaving orders to resume the maneuver should the skies clear. Right about midnight the skies cleared for a few moments, right at the time that a Japanese sub surfaced. Two of Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto’s torpedoes found their target. Of the 1,196 sailors aboard the Indianapolis, 300 went down with the ship and the rest went in the water. They weren’t rescued for almost five days, during which sharks ravaged the surviving sailors. Only 316 survived. McVay was scapegoated by the navy, as often happens. But the real failures were the navy’s, and I spend more than few pages on the case. In the end, it was only luck that anyone at all was rescued.

2004 Christmas Tsunami

A huge earthquake broke around eight in the morning, eastern standard time, near the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The quake produced a tsunami that crossed the Indian Ocean; it traveled seven hours to kill people in eastern Africa. It even passed into the Pacific and was recorded as far away as the west coast of North America. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Entire communities were wiped from the earth; it threw into doubt the continued existence of whole countries. One reason we need to look closely at that disaster is that it throws into bold relief the issue of “globally relevant disasters.” Chapter 2 of Worst Cases shows how we’re more vulnerable to such threats.

Holland 747 Crash

When I use this one in speeches, people often ask me if I made it up. In 1992 an El Al 747 was taking off near Amsterdam when two of its engines caught fire. The four-hundred-ton plane sheared five floors off two buildings and exploded in a fireball. As if that weren’t bad enough, the plane was also carrying most of the chemicals necessary to make Sarin nerve gas and not-so-depleted uranium in the tail. Luckily, eighty-three tons of what officials call “oil industry explosives” were off-loaded just before the crash, or it would have been worse. The death toll was not high on this one. But it is a worst case because it is so bizarre.

Three Mile Island

This is our best worst case. Nobody died when a reactor core in Pennsylvania came within thirty minutes of breeching its containment shell in 1979. TMI was hugely significant for political reasons. After it, public sentiment turned decisively against nuclear power. More important is that the accident put government regulators in a position where they would, finally, have to actually regulate, rather than merely promote, the industry. In disasters there are always winners as well as losers, which is one reason I titled chapter 4 “Power, Politics, and Panic in Worst Cases.”

Baltimore Tunnel Fire

This is one of the most important near disasters in recent times. Not enough people know about it. In July 2001 a train was traveling through a tunnel in Baltimore tunnel when it caught fire. The train was carrying some very dangerous, and very inflammable, materials. A water main above the tunnel broke, electricity was knocked out for a lot of people, and Camden Yards had to be evacuated. Baltimore officials even sounded the city’s civil defense sirens. It was only luck that prevented major loss of life. What if a ninety-ton chlorine car had been in that tunnel? Worse, what if the fallen train had been carrying high-level nuclear waste? The steel freight cars were so hot they were glowing orange. There are credible estimates that the fire burned at 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit for three days. Even the most conservative estimates are that it burned at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit for twenty-four hours. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rule for transporting nuclear waste is that the containers must withstand 1,475 degrees for thirty minutes. Had the worst case happened, people would say, as they usually do, “Who would have thought of that?”


Over 7 percent of the adult population in sub-Saharan Africa is infected with HIV. Twenty five million people there have it, with millions of new cases every year. There are also alarming increases in infection rates in the Caribbean, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. This is a crisis of massive proportions, and we’re not doing enough to combat it. This is an example of how distributions of the world’s riches is sometimes connected with vulnerabilities to calamity.

American Airlines Flight 587 Crash in Queens

Two months after the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Pennsylvania disasters an American Airlines jetliner broke apart soon after takeoff from Kennedy airport, crashing into Queens, NY, and killing 265. The plane’s tail broke off in flight, which is quite rare. It had taken off after a Boeing 747 and got caught in that plane’s turbulence. In Worst Cases I argue that the composite materials use in the Airbus A-300 were strongly implicated, along with production pressures in the airline industry. But the National Transportation Safety Board exonerated the machines—pilots call it “blaming the dead guy”—and mentioned nothing about the tight scheduling between takeoffs. This is a sad example of narrowing the imagination so that some worst cases are ruled out of consideration.


This one happened a long time ago, but it could happen again any day now. Only a few scientists are thinking about it. Tambora was a volcano that blew itself to pieces in 1815. It sent a volcanic column twenty-eight miles high and darkened skies, entirely, over a distance of 370 miles. The next year, 1816, is known as the “year without a summer” across the Northern Hemisphere. The death toll was ninety-two thousand, the vast majority from starvation caused by cooler temperatures. It was a taste of the worst case projections of large-scale, sudden climate change. Volcanic eruptions have been influential in changing many cultures and societies. Tambora is an example of a “globally relevant disaster.” We haven’t studied GRDs nearly enough.

1918 Spanish Flu

It wasn’t really Spanish. It’s called the Spanish flu because Spain reported its cases more honestly than other countries. It was horrible. The flu blanketed places in about two weeks; the whole thing came and went, all over the world, in less than a year’s time. It made militaries sick, and public health and government officials acted terribly. People wore gauze masks at baseball games. The usual estimates are that 40 million died, but some say that perhaps 100 million people lost their lives during the 1918–1919 pandemic. It is a portent. We’re a little alert to the worst case possibilities, right now, because of the avian flu threat. But the key lessons from the 1918 pandemic, and similar events, do not seem to be, as it were, in the air. Experts know what those lessons are. The knowledge is available. Who is listening?

Read Clarke's worst case disasters of the future.

Book details:

Lee Clarke
Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination
©2005, 200 pages
Cloth $22.50 ISBN: 0-226-10859-7

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Worst Cases.

See also: