Worst Subway Disaster of All Time

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A Brief History

On October 28, 1995, the subway system that serves Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was the scene of a terrible fire that resulted in the deaths of 289 people, making it the worst subway related tragedy in history.  Among the dead were 286 passengers and 3 subway employees, and sadly, 28 of the deceased passengers were children.  Another 270 people were injured, but believe it or not, it could have been worse!

Digging Deeper

The reason things were not at least marginally worse was the heroism of Chingiz Babayev, an Azerbaijan Army veteran that risked his own life to save others, ultimately costing the hero his own life.  Babayev was recognized for his heroics by being awarded the title, National Hero of Azerbaijan.

Investigators determined that the fire had started due to an electrical fault while the 5 car train was in a narrow part of the subway tunnel.  Passengers on the fifth car smelled smoke, and white and then black smoke became visible in cars 4 and 5.  The short or fault, or whatever electrical defect that caused the fire started in the fourth car and brought the electrically powered subway train to a halt.  Smoke filled the train and the tunnel, people began suffering from carbon monoxide, and car doors would not open, causing the panicked people to try to evacuate by passing through other cars.  During the pandemonium of trying to escape the flames and choking fumes, some passengers accidentally grabbed electric cables and were electrocuted.  About 15 minutes after the fire was reported, the ventilation fans were turned on, but unfortunately this action drew the smoke toward the direction of the evacuation!

Survivors reported panic and terror during the incident, with most of the fatalities caused by crushing and trampling by other people trying to escape.  Another factor contributing to the horror was the loss of electric light in the train.  Various reports from the local morgue and government agencies put the death toll at 303 or 337 victims, with the “official” toll of 289 deaths later reported.

Investigators could not rule out the possibility that the fire had been an act of sabotage or terrorism, though nobody ever convincingly took the credit for the event.  No trace of explosives was found, though 2 mysterious large holes in the side of a car cause speculation about explosives being involved in the tragedy.  Some voiced the opinion that outdated Russian (Soviet) equipment was to blame. The Russian energy and fuel giant, Lukoil, graciously endowed the families of the victims with a grant of $9000 each.

This terrible incident did not go without anyone being punished.  Investigators found 2 men at fault, the metro operator and the station traffic controller, who were sentenced to 15 years and 10 years in prison respectively.

Subway travel is generally quite safe, and the worst previous incident was a wreck in the New York City subway in 1918 (Malbone Street Wreck of 1918) in which 93 people died.  Another tragic subway event was the fire involving the Paris Metro in 1903, a conflagration that took 84 lives.  Another notable subway incident of 1995 was the Tokyo subway terrorist attack on the subway riders where 5 teams of Aum Shinrikyo religious cult terrorists released deadly Sarin gas in the subway, before taking the antidote and escaping themselves.  Thankfully, only 12 people died, but over 5000 were injured and the death toll could have been much worse.  Still, these terrible incidents are few and far between.  Subway passengers are far more likely to be mugged or have their pockets picked than become part of a disaster.

Opinion:  This author does not particularly like to use mass transit, although socio-economic scientists and climatologists claim mass transit is far better for the environment and society than individual travel such as by automobile or taxi.  Being jammed in with a bunch of strangers is kind of disquieting and a little claustrophobic, especially traveling through tunnels, even without some sort of disaster or terrorist attack.  I’m just saying…

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Hood, Clifton. 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Poolos, J. The Nerve Gas Attack on the Tokyo Subway. Rosen Pub Group, 2003.

Salazar, Glen. Splendid Azerbaijan: The History and Culture of the Land of Fire. CreateSpace, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a map or the Baku Subway System in 1970, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.