The disaster at the 1955 Le Mans endurance race – “Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh died at the scene, whilst 120 more were injured in the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.”
The 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred during the 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race, when Pierre Levegh’s state of the art Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR ran into Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey 100 and crashed into the audience, causing large fragments of racing car debris to fly into the crowd. Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh perished at the scene with 120 more injured in the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.
(Levegh’s car had a special magnesium alloy body that burned incredibly hot when it ignited and water obviously doesn’t help with magnesium fires.)
How the accident happened:
The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans began on 11 June 1955, with Pierre Levegh behind the wheel of the #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR run by Daimler-Benz. American John Fitchwas Levegh’s assigned partner in the car, and he would take over driving duties later. Competition between Mercedes, Jaguar, Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Maseratiwas close, with all the marques fighting for the top positions early on. The race was extremely fast, with lap records being repeatedly broken.
At the end of Lap 35, Levegh was following Mike Hawthorn’s leading Jaguar D-type, just as they were entering the pit straight. Hawthorn had just passed Lance Macklin’s slower Austin-Healey 100 when he belatedly noticed a pit signal to stop for fuel. Hawthorn slowed suddenly in an effort to stop rather than make another lap. Hawthorn’s Jaguar, with the new disc brakes, could decelerate much faster than other cars using drum brakes, such as Levegh’s Mercedes. The sudden, unexpected braking by Hawthorn caused Macklin in the Healey to brake hard, throwing up a small cloud of dust in front of Levegh, who trailed close behind. Macklin then swerved across the centre of the track, attempting to re-pass the slowing Jaguar, but also apparently out of control. Macklin had not noticed Levegh nor Juan Manuel Fangio, in another 300 SLR, approaching rapidly from behind. Fangio was in second place at the time, but directly behind, and attempting to lap Levegh.
Levegh, ahead of Fangio on the track, did not have time to react. Levegh’s car made contact with the left rear of Macklin’s car as he closed rapidly (at about 240 km/h (150 mph)) upon the slowed car.
When Levegh’s 300 SLR hit Macklin’s Austin-Healey from behind, his car became airborne, soaring towards the left side of the track, where it landed atop the earthen embankment separating spectators from the track itself. The car struck the mound at such speed and angle that it was launched into a somersault, which caused some parts of the car, already damaged and loosened by the collision, to be flung from the vehicle at very great speeds. This included the bonnet and the front axle, both of which separated from the frame and flew through the crowd.
The bonnet decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine. With the front of the spaceframe chassis—and thus crucial engine mounts—destroyed, the car’s heavy engine block also broke free and hurtled into the crowd. Spectators who had climbed onto trestle tables to get a better view of the track found themselves in the direct path of the lethal debris. Levegh was thrown free of the tumbling car, and his skull was fatally crushed when he landed.
As the somersaulting remains of the 300 SLR decelerated, the rear-mounted fuel tank ruptured. The ensuing fuel fire raised the temperature of the remaining Elektron bodywork past its ignition temperature, which was lower than other metal alloys due to its high magnesium content. The alloy burst into white-hot flames, sending searing embers onto the track and into the crowd. Rescue workers, totally unfamiliar with magnesium fires, poured water on the inferno, greatly intensifying the fire. As a result, the car burned for several hours. Official accounts put the death total at 84 (83 spectators plus Levegh), either by flying debris or from the fire, with a further 120 injured. Other observers estimated the toll to be much higher.
Fangio, driving behind Levegh, narrowly escaped the heavily damaged Austin-Healey, which was now skidding to the right of the track, across his path. Macklin then hit the pit wall and bounced back to the left, crossing the track again. He struck the barrier near the location of the now burning 300 SLR, causing the death of a spectator, although Macklin survived the incident without serious injury.
An injured survivor of the Hindenburg disaster calmly smokes a cigarette as he is moved to a hospital from the field at Lakehurst, New Jersey; May 6, 1937
Primary source footage that explains the event and info about the Hindenburg here:
Also live commentary of the event, “Oh, the humanity!”:
Most of the people onboard survived the Hindenburg disaster.
Hydrogen rises, burning hydrogen rises even faster. While it made one hell of a fireball, the people actually below the gas bags were in (relatively) little danger.
Also interestingly, the most deadly airship accident was the the loss of the helium using USS Akron four years earlier.
(Which raises the question of why does everyone know about the Hindenburg, but few know about the Akron? The Hindenburg disaster is not historic because of the disaster itself, what made it historic was that it is the beginning of the rise of news media ubiquity. It’s the first major disaster that was recorded as it happened and shown in both video and live(recorded for radio) commentary to the world.
Were it not for the film and commentary, it would just be another footnote in the question of why nobody uses zeppelins.)
The loss of Franklin and his men was a huge mystery, how could so many men and two state of the art ships just disappear? Search parties scoured the arctic (and in the process charted most of the up til then unexplored regions of the arctic archipeligo, and McClure even technically made it through the passage in his “search” for Franklin) for more than a decade before any real traces of the expedition turned up. Many other expeditions suffered and lost men in the same era of arctic exploration, but none disappeared completely! To this day, there’s a lot we don’t know about how such a well equipped and large expedition could fail so completely and quickly.
Here’s what we’ve found and what we know at this point: The ships spent their first winter at Beechey Island, and all seemed well. The next summer, they travelled south, and were frozen in near King William Island that Fall. They wintered here, and the next summer the ice failed to melt, trapping them for a second winter on King William Island. This alone is not out of the ordinary for arctic expeditions, many ships were frozen in for several years without a great loss of life.
In the summer between the first and second winters at King William Island, in 1847, the crew leave a note in a cairn on King William Island saying “all is well”. After the second winter stuck in the ice, the note is dug up and in the margins someone writes that 24 men have died, including Franklin, and that the crew is abandoning their ships and marching south towards the mainland of North America. It’s important to point out this second note contained several errors, but we’ll get to that.
The crew’s march is a death march, the local eskimo later report seeing dozens of white men dying in their tracks. Some men may have made it all the way to the mainland, but none survive. By the early 1850s it’s likely that all or almost all of the expedition is dead.
McClintock in 1859 finds the note in the cairn on King William Island, a single skeleton, and finally a life boat with two skeletons in it. The contents of the lifeboat add to the mystery- “a large amount of abandoned equipment, including boots, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and many books, among them a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.” The lifeboat was being man-hauled, but was pointing north, not south. A decade later Hall finds more graves and campsites, all on the King William Island. This is pretty much the extent of the evidence known up until contemporary scientific expeditions.
So, the mysteries- Scurvy, starvation, and cold had killed men on previous and subsequent expeditions, but many expeditions had survived much longer than Franklin’s without anything so catastrophic. In all, the Franklin’s men had spent only three winters in the arctic before abandoning their ships. They were equipped for five.
The mysterious contents of the lifeboat and the inconsistencies in the note point to a deteriorating mental situation. Why would dying men man-haul heavy books and silverware? Why was the boat facing north, were the men trying to return to the abandoned ships?
So, what could the ships tell us?
When scientific autopsies were conducted on the bodies on King William’s Island, it was found that lead poisoning contributed to the deaths of those men. It’s believed the solder on the tins of food was the source, but there are other theories- perhaps the ship’s water system was the source. The men also were suffering from TB and Pneumonia.
Finding the ships could finally help resolve the issue, for instance if there are more bodies on or near the ships then we know some men may have turned around from their march and made it back. Plus finding more bodies would inevitably help our understanding of what killed the men. We could also get more insight into why the men were carrying such strange items in their lifeboat, by seeing the things they chose not to take. And obviously examining more of the food tins, as well as the ship’s water system, might better explain the presence of lead.
More than anything, we don’t know exactly what the ships might tell us, but there’s so little we know as it is, it’d be amazing to find any new bits of evidence.
In late October of 1960, nearly 200 families around the Soviet Union got letters notifying them that a loved one had died in a plane crash. It took thirty years for the public to be informed of what actually happened. It’s known as the Nedelin Catastrophe, and it’s one of the most chilling accidents of the nuclear age.
“On August 3, 1957, the Soviet Russian R-7 Semyorka missile, called “Little Seven” by the men who worked around it, flew a simulated nuclear strike trajectory, then became a space launcher just two months later, on October 4, by launching Sputnik. A great international triumph, then, but in missile terms, not necessarily the military advantage that Russia wanted.
The Semyorka used kerosene and LOX. Who in their right mind wants a nuclear missile that takes three or four hours to prime with LOX before you can launch it? Not the Soviet Red Army, for sure. So they commissioned an even more secret missile, the R-16, which, in theory, could be fueled and primed several days, or even weeks, before it was needed, with no loss of oxidizer, because its engineers had abandoned super-cold LOX and kerosene in favor of nitric acid and hydrazine: hypergolic fuels… a fuel and oxidizer combination that can be stored indefinitely at normal pressures and temperatures.
Hypergolic chemicals are efficient too. They ignite spontaneously on contact with each other and deliver a pretty good bang for your buck. Of course there’s a downside. Hypergolics are among the nastiest and most toxic substances in the rocket business. Did we mention that they can be stored? Well, sort of. They are so corrosive they will play havoc with any part of your rocket (or your people) that they come into contact with that they shouldn’t….
In October 1960, the R-16 was hoisted upright for launch at Baikonur, Russia’s ultrasecret equivalent of Cape Kennedy, based deep in the deserts of Kazakhstan. And so began the single greatest rocket disaster in history.
The R-16’s “storable” fuels wouldn’t store. They were viciously corrosive and leaky as hell, oozing from dozens of pipe joints and tank seams. On October 23, the surrounding launch gantries were crowded with young technicians trying to fix a dozen different problems. As zero hour approached, the rocket began to drip nitric acid from its base. At this point, launch director Mitrofan Nedelin should have ordered the entire gantry to be evacuated, but he didn’t seem to care about the risks. He sent yet more ground staff into the pad area straightaway, to see if they could tighten up some valves and stop the leaks and get the rocket up in the air.
Suddenly, the rocket exploded, instantly killing everyone on the gantry. With nothing to support it, the upper stage crashed to the ground, spilling fuel and flame. The new tarmac aprons and roadways around the gantry melted in the heat, then caught fire. Ground staff fleeing for their lives were trapped in the viscous tar as it burned all around them. The conflagration spread for thousands of yards, a wave of fire engulfing everything and everyone in its path. More than 190 people were killed, including Nedelin, perched on his chair near the gantry as a surge of blazing chemicals swept toward him.” (From Piers Bizony’s How To Build Your Own Spaceship)
- The deadliest launch pad accident in history.
Victims of government pressure.
Its the same kind of pressure that pushed NASA to go for a Challenger launch in near zero degree weather even though the engineers said the o-rings in the boosters would shrink, causing a burn-through and explosion.
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when Space Shuttle Challenger (mission STS-51-L) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members.
The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida at 11:38 EST (16:38 UTC). Disintegration of the vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRBs aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces broke up the orbiter.
The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after a lengthy search and recovery operation. The exact timing of the death of the crew is unknown; several crew members are known to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft. The shuttle had no escape system, and the impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
The Munich massacre is a common reference name for an attack that occurred during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Bavaria, in southern West Germany, when 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually killed, along with a German police officer, by the Palestinian group Black September. Shortly after the crisis began, they demanded the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails, and the release of the founders (Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof) of the German Red Army Faction, who were held in German prisons. Black September called the operation “Ikrit and Biram”, after two Christian Palestinian villages whose inhabitants were expelled by the Haganah in 1948.
The attackers were apparently given logistical assistance by German neo-Nazis. Five of the eight members of Black September were killed by police officers during a failed rescue attempt. The three surviving assassins were captured, but later released by West Germany following the hijacking by Black September of a Lufthansa airliner. Israel responded to the killers’ release with Operation Spring of Youth and Operation Wrath of God, during which Israeli intelligence and special forces systematically tracked down and killed Palestinians suspected of involvement in the massacre.
The first few days of the Olympic Games went smoothly. On September 4, the Israeli team spent the evening out to see the play, Fiddler on the Roof, and then went back to the Olympic Village to sleep. A little after 4 a.m. on September 5, as the Israeli athletes slept, eight members of the Palestinian terrorist organization, Black September, jumped over the six-foot high fence that encircled the Olympic Village.
The terrorists headed straight for 31 Connollystrasse, the building where the Israeli contingent was staying. Around 4:30 a.m., the terrorists entered the building. They rounded up the occupants of apartment 1 and then apartment 3. Several of the Israelis fought back; two of them were killed. A couple of others were able to escape out windows. Nine were taken hostage.
By 5:10 a.m., the police had been alerted and news of the attack had begun to spread around the world. The terrorists then dropped a list of their demands out the window; they wanted 234 prisoners released from Israeli prisons and two from German prisons by 9 a.m.
Negotiators were able to extend the deadline to noon, then 1 p.m., then 3 p.m., then 5 p.m.; however, the terrorists refused to back down on their demands and Israel refused to release the prisoners. A confrontation became inevitable.
At 5 p.m., the terrorists realized that their demands were not going to be met. They asked for two planes to fly both the terrorists and the hostages to Cairo, Egypt, hoping a new locale would help get their demands met. The German officials agreed, but realized that they could not let the terrorists leave Germany. Desperate to end the standoff, the Germans organized Operation Sunshine, which was a plan to storm the apartment building. The terrorists discovered the plan by watching television. The Germans then planned to attack the terrorists on their way to the airport, but again the terrorists found out their plans.
Around 10:30 p.m., the terrorists and hostages were transported to the Fürstenfeldbruck airport by helicopter. The Germans had decided to confront the terrorists at the airport and had snipers waiting for them. Once on the ground, the terrorists realized there was a trap. Snipers started shooting at them and they shot back. Two terrorists and one policeman were killed. Then a stalemate developed. The Germans requested armored cars and waited for over an hour for them to arrive.
When the armored cars arrived, the terrorists knew the end had come. One of the terrorists jumped into a helicopter and shot four of the hostages, then threw in a grenade. Another terrorist hopped into the other helicopter and used his machine gun to kill the remaining five hostages. The snipers and armored cars killed three more terrorists in this second round of gunfire. Three terrorists survived the attack and were taken into custody.
“They’re all gone.”
In the end, 17 people died during the Black September attack: six Israeli coaches, five Israeli athletes, five of the eight terrorists and one West German policeman. Three terrorists were captured, but less than two months later, the three remaining terrorists were released by the German government after two other Black September members hijacked a plane and threatened to blow it up unless the three were released. According to multiple reports (long denied by Israel) Israeli security agents later tracked down and killed many of those believed to be responsible for the Munich attack.
Sept. 4, 8 pm: The Israeli delegation attends a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof,” presented in German and starring Israeli actor Shmuel Rodensky. Simultaneously, the six trained terrorists gather at the Munich Central Railway Station, 10 minutes away from the theater. The men eat dinner at the station restaurant, where they are joined by Muhammad Massalha, 27, and Yussef Nazzal, 25, who possess secret orders for the operation. A plan is revealed to kidnap Israeli athletes for use as leverage in the exchange of some 200 Palestinian prisoners from the Jewish state.
9:30 pm: The Israeli team is invited backstage during intermission to meet the “Fiddler” cast. The group takes a picture with the performers, the last they will ever pose for.
Midnight: The Black September terrorists locate specified lockers at the Munich railway station and remove an arsenal of weaponry that has been stored there for them.
Sept. 5, 4 am: Eight members of the Palestinian terror group Black September quietly scale the fence of the Israeli Village, as athletes inside sleep. The terrorists head to 31 Connollystrasse, a dormitory containing five apartments that house the Israeli men’s team.
4:42 am: Black September enters 31 Connollystrasse.
The terrorists come upon wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg at Apartment 1. Weinberg struggles with one terrorist, getting shot in the process. The wounded coach is ordered to take the men to the rest of the team. Forced by gunpoint, Weinberg leads the terrorists past Apartment 2, where field athletes are housed, instead heading to Apartment 3, where the weightlifters and wrestlers sleep. Weinberg’s hope is that the stronger athletes may have a chance of overpowering the gunmen.
Hostages in Apartment 3 are rounded up and marched back to Apartment 1. Weinberg makes a final attempt at stopping the terrorists, knocking one out and stabbing at another with a fruit knife. The scuffle allows wrestler Gad Tsobari to escape via an underground parking garage. Weightlifter Yossef Romano (who is injured and on crutches, planning to fly back to Israel in one day to undergo surgery) joins his friend Weinberg in attacking the terrorists. Both Israeli men are shot and killed. The terrorists now have nine living hostages.
5:10 am: Shmuel Lalkin discovers the naked body of Weinberg in a hallway and alerts authorities, who arrive on the scene.
6 am: Israeli news outlets pick up the story. What would become a media frenzy begins.
7:40 am: The terrorists demand the release of 236 Palestinian prisoners, giving a 9 am deadline.
9 am: The first deadline passes. Authorities are able to secure extensions to continue negotiations, pushing the deadline time back to noon, then 1 pm, then 3 pm, then 5 pm. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is in constant communication with German officials, but insists that Israel will not give in to terrorist demands.
3:50 pm: Zvi Zamir, head of the Mossad, arrives in Munich, despite German protests that Israel does not need to send its own security team over.
4 pm: German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, realizing the negotiations are turning futile, offers himself up in exchange for the Israeli athletes. Massalha, who acts as representative for all the Black September members, refuses.
4:30 pm: Hostage Andre Spitzer pokes his head out a window and speaks to German authorities. He says all but one of the hostages is okay.
4:50 pm: Genscher and a police chief are permitted entrance to the hostage location to speak face to face with the terrorists. Their first person account leads to misinformation that there are only four terrorists. The two Germans will later report that the Israeli athletes were “not very hopeful” that their lives could be saved.
5 pm: German officials put into place a covert initiative, called Operation Sunshine. Due to Bavarian law, German military are not legally allowed to deploy. Instead, a team of 38 volunteers dressed as athletes plans to storm 31 Connollystrasse, with machine guns hidden in canvas bags. However, thanks to live television cameras trained on the site, the terrorists see the attack coming and the plan is foiled.
5:46 pm: Eventually accepting their prisoner exchange demands will not be met, the terrorists request a plane to transport themselves and the hostages to Cairo, where they expect easier negotiations. German authorities agree to supply the plane, but do not intend to let the terrorists actually leave the country with the Israeli athletes.
10:30 pm: The terrorists and hostages are brought by helicopter to Furstenfeldbruck, a military airport. A decoy plane waits with a police squad disguised as flight crew planning to overpower the Palestinians. Five snipers sit at a tower, as authorities expect only four terrorists to arrive with the Israelis.
Realizing their mistake, authorities decide the plane crew is undertrained and abandon the decoy mission. Instead, the terrorists and hostages land on the ground, where the snipers begin shooting. Two terrorists and one German policeman, Anton Fliegerbauer, are killed immediately.
11:30 pm: Reaching a stalemate, the Germans order armored cars and wait over an hour for the vehicles to arrive. Once delivered, the terrorists enact a scattered offensive. One jumps onto a helicopter, shooting four more of the Israelis and firing off a grenade. Another Palestinian jumps into the second helicopter, killing the remaining five athletes. Snipers hit three of the terrorists, then finally take the last three Palestinians into custody.
Midnight: German government spokesman Conrad Ahlers goes on the air to falsely announce to the world that all of the terrorists are in custody and all of the Israeli athletes are alive. He calls the event an “unfortunate interruption” and says, “It will be forgotten after a few weeks.”
Sept. 6, 3:24 am: American reporter Jim McKay makes history, telling the world, “When I was a kid my father used to say, ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized.” He announces that all 11 Israeli athletes are dead.
10 am: A memorial is held in the wake of the killings. Flags of participating Olympic nations are lowered to half-staff. Ten Arab nations object, and their flags are raised back to full height.
Afternoon: The games continue. The Israeli team flies home with its murdered teammates. An international cry to suspend the Olympics goes unheeded, prompting athletes of various nationalities to drop out of their own accord. Dutch distance runner Jos Hermens says, “You give a party and someone is killed at the party, you don’t continue the party. I’m going home.”
October 29, 1972: The three surviving terrorists are awaiting trial when a Lufthansa jet is hijacked over the Mediterranean Sea. The new terrorists, also Palestinians, demand the release of the Black September gang in exchange for the passengers on board. The German government immediately agrees.
There are only 12 passengers onboard the jumbo jet, all adult men. Conspiracy theories persist that the hijacking was a setup by Germany as a way to get the Palestinians off its hands and prevent further attacks aimed at retrieving the men. In 1999’s documentary “One September Day,” German General Ulrich Wegener, who was on the scene for the entire tragedy, says, “I think it’s probably true, yes.”
The three surviving terrorists, Mohammed Safady, Adnan Al-Gashey and Jamal Al-Gashey, return to Libya to a hero’s welcome.
The months following: Under the authority of Golda Meir and led by Mossad head Zvi Zamir, Israel enacts a response initiative called Operation Wrath of God. It is widely believed that two of the three remaining Munich terrorists are tracked down and killed as part of the covert mission. The third, Jamal Al-Gashey, is still alive today and resides in North Africa with his wife and children. He has given few interviews in the last decades, but spoke during the filming of “One September Day.” He says to the camera, “I’m proud of what I did in Munich.”