A Brief History
On July 18, 1806, a powder magazine exploded accidentally at Birgu, Malta, creating massive damage to the military and civilian infrastructure nearby and killing at least 200 people. Such accidental explosions have often taken place throughout the history of gunpowder and other explosives, and today we take a look at 10 of those memorable events. (“Gunpowder” includes black powder, the original explosive and propellant, as well as modern “smokeless” nitro based powders and modern explosives.)
USS Maine, 1898
We list this disaster first, because of the battle cry, “Remember the Maine!” How could we forget? When this large American warship blew up all by itself while at anchor in Havana, Cuba, which was owned by Spain at the time, the outcry among American journalists whipped up war fever in the US against Spain and served as the catalyst for the Spanish-American War (April to August of 1898). Americans accused Spain of some sort of sabotage or use of a naval mine, but most historians believe the blast that sank the mighty vessel (sometimes called a “battleship,” but designated as an “armored cruiser,” similar to a battle cruiser or a “pocket battleship.”) was merely an accident, perhaps a coal bunker fire that ignited the magazines. Many ships over the years have experienced catastrophic explosions, from the black powder era to the smokeless powder era, sometimes sinking the ship. Of course, any sort of spark or fire could set off black powder stored on a ship, and with the advent of smokeless, nitro based powder, the stuff would deteriorate chemically and sometimes spontaneously explode, with the properties and problems associated with the new technology taking some years to develop. (Click the link to see a list of ships actually sunk by such explosions.)
USS Iowa, 1989
The namesake of the Iowa class battleships, the greatest battleships ever produced, the Iowa and her 3 sister ships were recommissioned in 1982 (until 1992) to serve as the point of the proverbial spear against the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. Unfortunately, the Iowa had been conducting unauthorized experiments with powder charges in 1989 while in the Caribbean, resulting in the accidental explosion in its #2 16 inch gun turret, killing 47 sailors and causing heavy damage to the turret. The US Navy initially blamed one of the seamen that had died in the blast of causing the explosion, with homosexual overtones to the accusation, but later investigation revealed this line of blame to be false and the real problem being the powder tests. One theory of the cause of the blast was an “overram” of the powder charge behind the 16 inch projectile which prematurely blew the charge. The accident accelerated the ultimate decommissioning of the Iowa and her classmates.
Japanese battleship Mikasa, 1905
Considered a “pre-dreadnought” battleship, this mighty ship was named after Mount Mikasa at Nara, Japan, and displaced over 15,000 long tons, with a crew of over 800 men. Only 3 years old when her magazine (a ship’s magazine is where the powder and shells are stored) accidentally exploded and sank the ship, an explosion that killed 251 of her crew, she was one of the exceptional vessels that having sunk, was later raised and recommissioned, serving until 1923. Shortly before the Mikasa’s fatal accident, the ship had been involved in the Battle of Tsushima (May 27, 1905) and had shrugged off over 40 shell strikes from heavy Russian naval guns! (113 of her crew were killed or injured in the battle.) Ironically, in 1912 a despondent sailor among her crew tried to blow the ship up once again while the ship rode at anchor at Kobe.
Halifax Explosion, 1917
The time of war is a time of great danger with ships carrying heavy cargoes of explosives, both propellants and weapons, and a variety of circumstances could ignite catastrophic explosions. One of those precipitating events could be a collision of ships carrying mass quantities of explosives, and that was the case at Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada) during World War I in 1917. A French ship and a Norwegian ship managed to collide in the narrow entrance to Halifax Harbor, the resulting explosion estimated to be the equivalent of a 2.7 kiloton nuclear blast, the largest man-made explosion in history up to that date. Almost 1800 people died and over 9000 were injured, though exact numbers are hard to come by. About 6000 persons were made totally homeless, and another 25,000 had less than adequate housing due to damage. (Over 1600 home destroyed and around 12,000 more damaged.) A huge part of the industrial heart of Halifax was demolished by the blast. The ammunition carrying French ship, the Mont Blanc, disintegrated in the blast, and tsunami type wave resulted from the explosion, causing further damage. Dozens of spectators were either blinded or suffered eye damage from the flying debris. Other local towns also suffered damage. Sadly, Halifax was the scene of another big blast in the next World War in 1945, when a dockside fire triggered an explosion of ammunition waiting to be loaded on ships at Bedford, a town adjacent to Halifax. Luckily, despite the enormous blast, only 1 person died that time.
Wanggongchang Explosion 1626
Way back during the Ming Dynasty in China, what is now known as Beijing was a major point of production of gunpowder (black powder, invented by the Chinese around the 9th Century AD, but not really becoming common until the 11th Century, with a variety of formulas, saltpeter being the common ingredient). In addition to a major gunpowder factory that produced almost 2 metric tons of gunpowder every 5 days, the same area was an enormous arsenal of weapons and gunpowder storage. While we do not know what sparked the massive explosion, we do know that around 20,000 people were killed, a staggering number of fatalities due to the highly concentrated population of the city even back then. The enormous explosion rumbled on and destroyed an area of about 4 square kilometers, with a much larger area affected by blast damage and damage from falling debris. A crater 21 feet deep was left by the explosion. People over 150 kilometers away heard and felt the blast, and about 2000 workers at the Imperial Palace that were working on the roof were knocked off the roof, falling to their deaths. While the Emperor survived the tragedy unscathed, his son and heir was killed as were many city and government officials. Many people were buried alive as their homes and buildings collapsed. While many possible causes of the blast have been theorized, at the time a common belief was that the city and country was being punished as some sort of Divine retribution for whatever wrongs the Emperor and his government had committed, causing even more unrest in a country already beset by unrest.
Brescia explosion, 1769
With a reported death toll of around 6000, this Italian disaster ranks among the worst of the black powder explosions of all time, this time caused by a lightening strike. (The number of fatalities varies among those making estimates.) Part of the Republic of Venice, Brescia was the site of the Bastion of San Nazaro, a military arsenal and powder storage area. About 200,000 pounds of black powder was stored at the site (around 90,000 kilos), enough to destroy about a sixth of the city when a lightening bolt set off the blast. Giant rocks and building stones were launched about a kilometer away in every direction, causing massive damage to the surrounding area and crushing unfortunate people. The blast also blew out windows and blew in doors to buildings over a wide area. This particular tragedy provided the impetus for Benjamin Franklin to espouse the use of lightening rods to protect powder storage buildings, advice apparently taken by the British.
Severomorsk Disaster, 1984
In a massive example of a “Naval Oops Moment” the Severomorsk Naval Base, home of the Soviet Navy’s Northern Fleet, was the scene of a series of explosions that lasted from May 13 to May 17 of 1984. Still in the clutches of the Cold War, the Soviets kept Severomorsk a “closed” city, not available to foreigners due to the military nature of the activities there. Besides hosting around 148 surface warships and 190 submarines, the base was also the site of a massive storage of missiles, shells, and torpedoes. A fire started in one of the warehouses, perhaps because of improper storage of munitions, that quickly spread and started setting off huge explosions, further spreading the fires. So powerful were the blasts and so extensive the damage, both the Soviets and Americans at first thought nuclear weapons may have been detonated, though it was later determined that no nuclear weapons had been destroyed in the explosions and fires. Incredibly, only about 200 people are reported to have died in the disaster, though around 900 of the Soviet Navy’s missiles and torpedoes were destroyed.
Port Chicago Disaster, 1944
Not to be confused with the Midwestern metropolis, this Port Chicago is located in California, where during World War II munitions were loaded on ships to be sent to American forces fighting in the Pacific. This particular disaster involved the loading of the SS E. A. Bryan (a Liberty ship), when the ship was rocked and sunk by an enormous explosion that killed 320 men and injured another 390. Of particular note, about 2 thirds of those killed were African American sailors, later resulting in what has been called The Port Chicago Mutiny when many African American sailors and dockhands refused to work due to unsafe explosive handling practices. Sadly, despite the righteousness of their complaints, 50 of those Black men were court martialed and convicted, given dishonorable discharges and prison sentences of 15 years! (Sentences were later commuted.) Public outcry over the poor treatment of the African American sailors resulted in a review of the trials, but the convictions were upheld, making the “mutiny” a long standing cause for civil rights activists. In 2019, the records of the men involved were finally cleared by an act of Congress. The sequence of events for the disaster started when some sort of accident occurred where a bomb of some type was probably dropped or partly fell, creating an explosion and subsequent fire. The fire soon triggered other explosive weapons to detonate, and a few thousand tons of bombs, shells and explosives went up, taking the hapless ship with it. A second ship, the Quinault Victory that was also being loaded with munitions was also destroyed. The fireball from the main blast was reported to be about 3 miles in diameter! Much of the equipment and facilities at and around the docks were destroyed or damaged, as well as rail cars and anything else nearby. The blast was felt in Nevada and some damage was even recorded in San Francisco. Seismologists at Berkely recorded the equivalent of a 3.4 Richter Scale earthquake. The 202 African American sailors killed and the 233 African American sailors injured totaled an incredible 15% of all African American casualties of World War II! Only 51 of the 320 men killed could be identifies, as many had been blown to pieces. Yet another sad racial aspect to this tragedy was the motion in Congress to grant the families of the men who were killed a $5000 stipend, but when a Representative from Mississippi found out most of the men killed were African American, he insisted the amount be reduced to only $2000. Eventually, a compromise number of $3000 was agreed upon. Investigation found numerous unsafe practices and equipment involved and many changes were instituted in the handling and loading of explosive munitions.
Heleneborg, Sweden Nobel Explosion
Not only was Immanuel Nobel the father of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of Dynamite, an explosive utilizing a more stable mixture of nitroglycerine, he also invented various devices for the relatively safe use of that explosive and the manufacture of his brainchild. Additionally, Nobel employed members of his family in the pursuit of creating useful explosives and their associated devices. Unfortunately, one day in 1864, an explosion at Immanuel’s factory in Helenborg resulted in the deaths of Alfred Nobel’s son, Emil, and several other persons working on various combinations of ingredients along with nitroglycerine in attempts to find the ideal combination of ingredients for the most efficient explosive. Alfred soon formed a company himself called Nitroglycerin Aktiebolaget AB, and soon after that formed yet another company, this time in Germany, he called Dynamit Nobel. The sacrifice of his son and the other workers spurred Alfred to ultimately invent Dynamite, a combination of nitroglycerine in diatomaceous Earth (kind of a chalk-like clayey substance) that enabled engineers and military types to use the extreme power of nitroglycerine in a much safer manner than previously possible. Other industrial enterprises have also suffered explosions of explosive substances over the years, including fireworks factories as well as weapons and explosive plants.
Beirut Blast, 2020
One of the biggest accidental explosions in history occurred quite recently, in August of 2020, when the Lebanese port city of Beirut was the scene of a tremendous blast, about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate going up in an explosion that rivals small nuclear weapons. Over 200 people died and around an additional 7000 were injured, leaving a crater over 400 feet across and over 140 feet deep! Incredibly, 300,000 people were made homeless by the blast (actually 2 blasts about 30 some seconds apart) and homes 6 miles aways were damaged. The explosion could be heard 150 miles away and felt even farther. The ammonium nitrate, used as fertilizer, is also used in making bombs when mixed with fuel oil or diesel fuel. The blast destroyed much of the grain reserves of Lebanon and the Middle East, posing a severe threat of hunger in the area.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other accidental explosions of gunpowder or explosives would you put on this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Blow, Michael. A Ship to Remember: The Maine and the Spanish-American War. William Morrow & Co, 1992
Sheinkin, Steve. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. Square Fish, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Continentaleurope of the site of the 1806 Birgu polverista, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. explosion