People are all rubberneckers at heart. Tragedy and horror are all part of the human experience; we look at disasters with conflicted hearts, knowing it’s important to chronicle the suffering and loss. We look for the seeds of human failure that lie at the heart of every disaster. We look because in part we want to learn its lessons, to prevent recurrence, but also we look because we cannot look away.
I, too, cannot look away. I’ve read many books on a wide range of disasters, from volcanoes and floods to fires and shipwrecks. Some good, some not so much. I could try to rationalize away my obsession with morbid events, but at heart, I’m just a rubbernecker too.
Here are my favorites:
The 2003 fire at The Station, a little nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, took the lives of 100 people. Unlicensed pyrotechnics, overcrowding, few exits, and hubris coalesced into a perfect nightmare of a tragedy. The book was written by one of the lawyers who worked on the case, and despite a legalistic foray into the intricacies of class action lawsuits, this book reveals the human cost of cutting corners. Like many tragedies with greed at its heart, the story is an all too familiar one of finger-pointing and deflection. The real villains avoid consequences and the victims suffer.
The band Great White was on the stage that night, which accounted for the presence of a cameraman, allowing the tragedy to be captured from the start. It’s a wrenching video that counts the seconds from ignition to full blown engulfment, showing how the patrons had precious few seconds to save their lives. Warning: this video is devastating and graphic.
When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake by Brian Hicks
The title of this book is misleading in two ways. First, the Morro Castle is actually a cruise ship. In 1934, a fire would break out in the midst of a hurricane, transforming a relaxing vacation into nightmare fuel in the span of a few hours. The fire began mere hours after the ship’s captain was found dead in his cabin.
Second, this book is not about the disaster. While ostensibly telling the story of the cruise ship’s final night, the story spans decades to encompass the life of one George Rogers, “hero” of the Morro Castle disaster. This mystifying figure’s haunted life is the true subject of the book, with the ship fire being only a chapter in a series of bizarre events that always seemed to accompany Rogers wherever he went. Well-written, well-researched, this book spans the breadth of human bravery and cruelty.
Disaster can be measured in millimeters.
In 1989, Flight 232 circled the Sioux City, Iowa airport, waiting for the inevitable. With no hydraulics, the pilot controlled the movements of the plane with just the thrust of his remaining engines. Sooner or later, the plane was going down with nearly 300 souls aboard.
Gonzales circles the story of the crash in meticulous detail, retelling the story through the eyes of flight attendants, passengers, pilots, air traffic controllers and rescuers. The reader is trapped inside the cabin, inside the minds of those with full knowledge that they’re going to crash. Gonzales builds up the story so effectively that by the time the actual moment of the crash occurred, my heart was pounding.
Although Gonzales is susceptible to including a little too much detail (if you ever wanted to know the full history and composition of titanium, this is your jam), the route he traces backwards from the crash to the tiniest blemish that instigated the disaster is fascinating.
This is the worst kind of tragedy, the kind that makes me sick in my gut. For some reason, the idea of people going out to enjoy themselves with no presentiment that it will end in horror and death is deeply resonant and especially chilling (which is why I took Final Destination 3 so hard). When expectation is met by an opposite reality, it’s an extreme type of cognitive dissonance.
In 1944, thousands of people in Hartford, Connecticut filed into a big top to enjoy an afternoon of fun and entertainment. Little did they know the tent they sat inside was “waterproofed” with a highly flammable concoction of paraffin and gasoline. In the space of a few minutes, the crowd’s delight would devolve into terror and panic, leaving 168 dead, over a third of them children under 10. O’Nan’s narration skillfully captures the sights, sounds, and smells of that terrible afternoon, from the bright big top to the dank gloom of the makeshift morgues.
A wartime casualty caused by carelessness, bad driving, and a boatload of explosive material, the 1917 explosion in the Halifax Harbor left almost 2,000 people dead and thousands more injured and homeless. The sheer destructiveness of this tragedy is illustrated in the obliterated homes and businesses and the far reaching effects of the explosion.
Retold moment by moment by author McDonald, who hails from Halifax, the book is a gripping narrative of the disaster, illustrating link by link the poor decisions that led to tragedy. There’s a TV movie that dramatizes the disaster as well, and it is not good at all.
Several years ago I attended a performance of Chicago in downtown Chicago’s Oriental Theater. Only when I read Chicago Death Trap a few months back and dug up my old ticket stub did I realize that I had been enjoying the show on the site of a massive tragedy that took place over a century before (not the first time I retroactively discovered my recreational activities occurred in a place of death.)
In 1903, hundreds of people, largely women and children, packed the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago’s theater district to watch a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard. When a fire was sparked by a spotlight, horror ensued and over 600 people were killed, the deadliest fire in United States history.
There’s a continuity to all these stories about tragic fires: overcrowding, hidden exits, locked doors, bottlenecks, untrained employees, and greedy, greedy operators. In the Iroquois Theatre fire, the main doors, the ones everybody filed through to enter the theater, were locked during the performance to prevent non-paying patrons sneaking in.
Unfortunately, it would take another fire, equally as tragic, to spur revolutions in the fire code.
An errant match in a basement bar furnished with a ceiling carpeted with highly flammable fabric meant to imitate the night sky fueled a horrific fire that left almost 500 dead in a popular Boston nightclub with a single known exit in the form of a revolving door.
The tragedy would shine a nationwide spotlight on fire code regulations. Guilty parties, including club owner Barney Welanski, but as is often the case, no judgment would ever compensate for the immense loss of life.
A treacherous journey, a fatal shortcut, and the horrors that followed, everyone knows about the Donner Party and their tragic tale. Alongside the 1972 plane crash survivors in the Andes, it is perhaps the most famous incident of cannibalism in popular history.
But how many actually know the actual story of the Donner party?
This book lends explicit historical fact to the popular lore and the result is a book both terrifying and fascinating. That anyone survived that fatal winter is a miracle. This book will have you appreciating that next meal, though you may be too queasy to eat it.
A dam breaks in the night, and a peaceful lake, idyll for the rich, becomes the architect of destruction and death.
McCullough engineers a harrowing story with precise detail and intimate viewpoints of both survivors and victims, as the deadly flow carves a path of destruction in several smaller towns before arriving in Johnstown, just under an hour after the dam burst.
The flood is a harsh reminder of how that which gives us life, water, can in the same turn sweep it all way. It’s unfathomable to conceive of the power required to decimate an entire town, especially when it was only an hour before a placid lake. Our perceived control of the elements is little more than an illusion when we don’t respect the forces we attempt to manipulate.
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t guessed already, this is yet another tragedy precipitated by greed. Over 2,200 people would die due to another epic failure of human judgment.
The search for the Northwest passage and the North pole dominated the latter half of the 19th century; for a long time the theory that there was a landmass at the North pole similar to Antarctica in the south drove such searches.
In the Kingdom of the Ice tells of one such search, and with devastating detail; author Sides captures the searing loneliness of the frozen North. Imagine the courage it took to go off into a place with no maps, no GPS and few people; when the ship sinks in perhaps the most isolated place on earth, it seemed like that would be the end for the crew. What follows is an unimaginable struggle to survive and find their way home in a world where the land is an unforgiving as the icy sea.
AND other great reads: