Worst United States Disasters

Aircraft: 1979
May 25, Chicago: American Airlines DC-10 crashed seconds after takeoff killing all 272 persons aboard and three on the ground.

Avalanche: 1910
March 1, Wellington, Wash.: two trains snowbound in Stevens Pass in Cascade Range swept off tracks into canyon 150 ft below, killing 96.

Dam: 1889
May 31, Johnstown, Pa.: collapse of South Fork Dam left more than 2,200 dead.

Drought: 1930s
Many states: longest drought of 20th century. Peak periods were 1930, 1934, 1936, 1939, and 1940. During 1934, dry regions stretched solidly from N.Y. and Pa. across the Great Plains to the Calif. coast. A great “dust bowl” covered 50 million acres in south-central plains during winter of 1935–1936.

Earthquake: 1906
April 18, San Francisco: earthquake accompanied by fire razed more than 4 sq mi; more than 500 dead or missing.


Epidemic: 1918
Nationwide: Spanish influenza killed over 500,000 Americans.

Explosion: 1947

April 16–18, Texas City, Tex.: a fire and subsequent explosion on the French freighter Grandcamp destroyed most of the city; 516 killed.

Fire: 1871
Oct. 8, Peshtigo, Wis.: over 1,200 lives lost and 2 billion trees burned in forest fire.

Flood: 1889
May 31, Johnstown, Pa.: collapse of South Fork Dam left more than 2,200 dead.

Hurricane: 1900
Sept. 8, Galveston, Tex.: an estimated 6,000–8,000 dead, mostly from devastation due to tidal surge.

Marine: 1865
April 27, Mississippi River, nr. Memphis, Tenn.: explosion on steamboat Sultana killed 1,547.

* EXPLOSIONS: The explosion of the steamship Sultana on April 27, 1865, was the worst shipwreck in American history. Not only did more than 1,500 die, but most of the dead were Union POWs finally headed home at the end of the war. Having survived the Civil War and inhuman conditions at Andersonville and other notorious POW camps, it was a cruel irony that the soldiers died just as their ordeal was about to end.

To transport POWs home at the end of the war, the government offered shipping companies a fee for every soldier they carried north on the Mississippi. The Sultana, a 1,700-ton steamship with a capacity to carry only a few hundred people, crowded almost 2,500 soldiers aboard, and headed north for Cairo, Ill. A little north of Memphis, its boiler exploded. There were no life boats or life jackets.

Another irony of the disaster is how little attention it received, despite its being America's worst maritime disaster. Occurring in April 1865—the same month Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse (April 9), President Lincoln was assassinated (April 14), the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth ended (April 26), and Jefferson Davis and his cabinet were still at large—it was obscured in the welter of other events. Yet even today, few American history books mention the disaster, despite the fact that the Sultana remains unrivalled among shipping catastrophes and adds a particularly wretched chapter to our Civil War.

Mine: 1907
Dec. 6, Monongha, W. Va.: coal mine explosion killed 361.

Oil Spill: 1989
Mar. 24, Prince William Sound, Alaska: tanker Exxon Valdez hit an undersea reef and released 10 million plus gallons of oil into the waters.

Railroad: 1918
July 9, Nashville, Tenn.: 101 killed in a two-train collision near Nashville.

Submarine: 1963
April 10, North Atlantic: atomic-powered submarine Thresher sank; 129 dead.

Terrorist Attack: 2001
Sept. 11, New York City and Arlington, Va.: hijackers crashed two commercial jets from Boston into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, causing the collapse of both towers and another nearby building. A short time later, two more hijacked U.S. planes crashed, one into the Pentagon and one into a field near Shanksville, Pa. All 266 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft were killed; final death toll and persons responsible unknown at time the almanac went to press, although total deaths were estimated to be in the thousands.

Tornado: 1925
March 18, Mo., Ill., and Ind.: great “Tri-State Tornado”; 689 dead; over 2,000 injured. Property damage estimated at $16.5 million.
Other Tornadoes

Winter Storm: 1888
March 11–14, East Coast: the “Blizzard of 1888.” 400 people died; as much as 5 ft of snow. Damage was estimated at $20 million.


 Other Terrorist Attacks in U.S.

Sept. 16, New York City: TNT bomb planted in unattended horse-drawn wagon exploded on Wall Street opposite House of Morgan, killing 35 persons and injuring hundreds more. Bolshevist or anarchist terrorists believed responsible, but crime never solved.

Jan. 24, New York City: bomb set off in historical Fraunces Tavern killed four and injured more than 50 persons. Puerto Rican nationalist group (FALN) claimed responsibility and police tied 13 other bombings to it.

Feb. 26, New York City: bomb exploded in basement garage of World Trade Center; killed six and injured at least 1,040 others. Six Middle Eastern men were later convicted in this act of vengeance for the Palestinian people. They claimed to be retaliating against U.S. support for the Israeli government.

April 19, Oklahoma City: car bomb exploded outside federal office building, collapsing wall and floors. 168 persons were killed, including 19 children and one person who died in rescue effort. Over 220 buildings sustained damage. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols later convicted in the antigovernment plot to avenge the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Tex., exactly two years earlier. (See Miscellaneous Disasters.)

Sept. 11, New York City and Arlington, Va.: American Airlines Boeing 767 and United Airlines Boeing 767, both en route from Boston to Los Angeles, were hijacked and flown only minutes apart into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Shortly afterwards, American Airlines Boeing 757, en route from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane, operated by United and headed from Newark to San Francisco, crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa. Both World Trade Center towers collapsed, and a section of the Pentagon was destroyed. All 266 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft were killed; final death toll and persons responsible unknown at time the almanac went to press, although total deaths were estimated to be in the thousands.

 *Major U.S. Epidemics

1793 - Philadelphia: more than 4,000 residents died from yellow fever.
1832 - July–Aug., New York City: over 3,000 people killed in a cholera epidemic.
Oct., New Orleans: cholera took the lives of 4,340 people.
1848 - New York City: more than 5,000 deaths caused by cholera.
1853 - New Orleans: yellow fever killed 7,790.
1867 - New Orleans: 3,093 perished from yellow fever.
1878 - Southern states: over 13,000 people died from yellow fever in lower Mississippi Valley.
1916 - Nationwide: over 7,000 deaths occurred and 27,363 cases were reported of polio (infantile paralysis) in America's worst polio epidemic.
1918 - March–Nov., nationwide: outbreak of Spanish influenza killed over 500,000 people in the worst single U.S. epidemic.
1949 - Nationwide: 2,720 deaths occurred from polio, and 42,173 cases were reported.
1952 - Nationwide: polio killed 3,300; 57,628 cases reported; worst epidemic since 1916.
1981 to June 2000: total U.S. AIDS cases reported to Centers for Disease Control: 753,907; total AIDS deaths reported: 438,795.


Influenza or flu,acute, highly contagious disease caused by any one of at least three types of virus, but usually by types designated A and B. Formerly known as the grippe, influenza is difficult to diagnose in the absence of an epidemic, since it resembles many common respiratory ailments. It can be distinguished from a cold, however, by sudden fever, prostration, weakness, and sometimes severe muscular aches and pains. It is spread by respiratory droplets.

Influenza is usually self-limiting, but complications such as pneumonia and bronchitis can be serious threats to newborns, the elderly, and people with chronic diseases. Epidemics of influenza (usually of type A), sometimes worldwide in scope, have decimated large populations (more than 20 million people in 1918). Type B is more likely to occur sporadically.

Because a number of different viral strains can cause the disease, immunity to one type does not prevent susceptibility to another. Influenza virus vaccine confers immunity to a particular strain and is recommended for persons at risk; unfortunately the surface antigens of flu viruses change periodically, making it necessary to reformulate the vaccine yearly in an educated guess at what strain will appear.

The antiviral drugs amantadine and rimantadine are effective against type A influenza, and zanamivir against types A and B. Treatment with antibiotics has greatly reduced fatalities from secondary infections. Uncomplicated influenza requires only rest and treatment of symptoms. Return to normal activity should be undertaken slowly, as relapses are easily precipitated.

See G. Kolata, Flu (1999).