Thursday 29 June 2017

The world's deadliest tower block fires

A retired judge, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has been appointed to head the official inquiry into London’s Grenfell Tower fire in which at least 79 people died, while the police say they are investigating any criminal offences that may have been committed.

The deadliest ever fire in a tower block (or blocks) was the result of the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, which cost more than 2,300 lives, but the worst accidental fire was probably the one that raged through the 25-storey Joelma office building in Sao Paulo, Brazil on 1 February 1974. (Grenfell Tower had 24 storeys.)

The blaze happened just a few weeks after the disaster movie, The Towering Inferno, was released, and it became known as ‘the real Towering Inferno’. It was started by an electrical fault on the 11th floor, and spread rapidly thanks to the ready availability of combustible materials such as paper, plastics and wooden walls and furniture.

When the blaze began, there were more than 750 people in the building. More than 170 fled to the roof, but the heat and smoke foiled a helicopter rescue, and about 40 were killed jumping down or trying to get to firemen’s ladders out of reach below them. Altogether up to 189 people died. 

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Oil tanker crashes + poverty = disaster

When oil tankers crash in poor countries, people often rush to the scene to gather the spilt fuel, often with lethal results. That happened again this week after a tanker crashed on the outskirts of the city of Bahawalpur in Pakistan on Sunday.

It is reported that the vehicle overturned on a sharp bend after the driver lost control when a tyre blew. A crowd of 500 had gathered to try to collect fuel in bottles, cans and household containers when, about 45 minutes after the crash, the tanker exploded.

It took firefighters two hours to put out the blaze. Twenty children were among the 146 dead, and another 80 people were injured. One local man said he had lost 12 relatives.

Probably the deadliest tanker crash ever happened on 2 July 2010 at Sange village in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The vehicle overturned as it was overtaking a bus on a dirt road. Again local people rushed to collect the spilt fuel, and a lighted cigarette caused an explosion, killing at least 230.

For the story, see my post of 7 July 2010. See also my posts of 1 February and 12 October, 2009, and 13 July 2012.

Sunday 25 June 2017

Forest fires

This month’s forest fires in Portugal, which killed 64 people, were the worst in the country’s history. Most of the deaths happened in Pedrógão Grande in the centre of the country when flames swept across a road filled with people trying to escape in their cars.

More than 1,700 Portuguese firefighters fought the blaze along with others from Spain, Morocco, Italy and Canada. Although most reports point to a thunderstorm as the cause, there have been some claims that it was arson.

Probably the deadliest forest fire ever happened in the USA, in Wisconsin on 8 October 1871. It began in the woods after a long dry spell, but was carried on the wind to Peshtigo and other nearby lumber towns on the banks of Lake Michigan, where the sawdust that always clogged the streets provided convenient fuel for the flames.

Peshtigo was burned to the ground, and more than 1,150 people were killed, but because it happened on the very same night as the Great Chicago Fire, it has tended to be rather forgotten.

For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World. See also my posts of 7 February 2009, 3 July 2013, and 7 May 2016. 

Saturday 24 June 2017

The two battles of the Medway: two British military disasters

Drawing heavily on my book Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters (The History Press), Forces Network's new account of these two two battles of the Medway can be found at

The first in AD43 was the decisive battle of the Roman conquest, happening somewhere near where the M2 bridge now crosses the river. It may well also have been one of the two biggest battles ever fought on British soil

After two days of fierce fighting (highly unusual in those days), the Romans managed to force their way across the river. British resistance continued for a time, but soon the Emperor Claudius was able to take the surrender of eleven British kings.

The second in 1667 saw the Dutch sail up the Medway and burn the British fleet. An important factor was a government austerity programme that saw sailors left unpaid, though there seemed to be plenty of money for King Charles II's mistresses.

For the full story, see my book Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters. See also my posts of 14 and 23 November 2011.

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Brexit: a game of two halves

I have always seen Brexit as rather like a football match being played while a raging gale blows torrential rain straight along the pitch. In the first half, the Brexiters had the wind at their backs. Until the negotiations began, they could follow the Groucho Marx tactic that had worked so well in the Referendum campaign: ‘these are my principles, but if you don’t like them, I have others.’

So it was: ‘if you want to leave the EU, but keep all its benefits – no problem. In fact, whatever you want, we can get.’ And Leave built up a useful lead, but in added time, the rather robotic team captain, a recent recruit from their Remain opponents, suddenly kicked the ball into her own net.

Monday was half time. Then came the second half, as negotiations began. That, of course, meant a change of ends and now the Brexiters find themselves kicking into the wind and rain. And they conceded another goal right at the start, as their attempt to discuss a trade deal in parallel with divorce negotiations was summarily dismissed.

Will I predict the result? No. But I don’t think there’s any doubt the Leavers are going to find the second half a lot harder than the first. Perhaps the biggest question is whether the Remainers will finally discover a bit of fire in their bellies. Still all to play for.

See also my post of 28 June 2016.

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Tower block disasters

The fire that raged through 24 storey Grenfell Tower, which has killed 79 people, is the deadliest in London during the 21st century, and the worst ever in a UK tower block. Another fourteen people are in hospital.

Until now, London’s most notorious tower block disaster was Ronan Point in Newham in 1968. The building had 23 storeys and was brand new. Families had been in for only two months when at six o’ clock on a May morning, they were woken by a huge explosion and some found their walls ripped away, leaving them staring at a fearful drop just a few feet away.

The whole of one corner had simply fallen away. On floor after floor, furniture was left perched on the edge of the abyss. Five people were killed and eleven injured.

The cause was a gas explosion on the 18th floor – the result of a substandard brass nut connecting a cooker to the gas supply. The council repaired the block and moved tenants back in, but the explosion was a major blow to the prestige of tower blocks, and in 1986, Ronan Point was demolished.

For the story, see London’s Disasters. From Boudicca to the Banking Crisis.