Warning Signs For 12 Historical Disasters That Went Ignored

Many of history's biggest tragedies were preventable disasters. Some started small and escalated quickly, and quite a few were human-made disasters caused by flat-out avoidable error. Even the consequences of many natural disasters could have been mitigated if people had just listened to warnings and paid attention.

Alas, people never learn - nor pay attention - and as a result, loss of life and destruction are often inevitable. These disasters that could have been avoided may have you thinking twice the next time you scoff at a meteorologist's warnings. 

Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / Flickr / CC-BY 2.0

  • 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 was one of the worst industrial disasters of the 20th century, resulting in the loss of 146 lives. Essentially a sweatshop, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employed a mostly young, female workforce of Jewish and Italian immigrants. In order to improve productivity and keep out union officials, someone locked the stairwells and doors of the building, limiting access and exits. Many people suspect owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck mandated the locked doors, but authorities never proved this.

    When fire broke out on March 25, 1911, the 600 workers in the multi-level factory lacked sufficient resources to combat the flames and had no way to escape. There was an elevator, but it only held about a dozen people, the fire escape was blocked, and the hose was reportedly rotted. Blanck and Harris, who had fires in their factories before, were on the tenth floor at the time the fire started. They were alerted to the fire and escaped to the roof while employees on the ninth floor were not told what was happening. Of the 200 workers on that floor, 146 perished, including several who jumped out the windows trying to save themselves. 

    Blanck and Harris faced manslaughter charges, but a jury later acquitted them. Labor unions organized and pushed for reforms, successfully implementing many in 1912. The lessons learned from this fire haven't stopped similar tragedies from happening, like the 1991 Imperial Food Products plant fire, which took the lives of 25 workers unable to escape a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. 

  • 1912: Sinking Of The 'Titanic'
    Photo: Willy Stöwer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Titanic sank after striking an iceberg that it couldn't avoid in time, but the ship's builders and even some of its crew could have made some much better decisions before the impact. More than 1,500 people lost their lives when the Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, and that number could have been much lower had the luxury liner had enough lifeboats or a double hull.

    What was even more damning for the ship and its crew was the insufficient reaction to ice warnings. The Titanic received several ice warnings in the days before it sank, some of which were never delivered to Captain Edward John Smith. Smith did make adjustments based on the warnings he saw, but it wasn't enough to save the ship or many of its passengers. He may have been under pressure from the White Star Line chairman and director, J. Bruce Ismay, who wanted the Titanic to make a "record crossing" across the sea. 

  • 1970: Ancash Avalanche

    On May 31, 1970, an underwater earthquake off the coast of Peru triggered a massive avalanche and landslides that overwhelmed thousands of people in the Ancash region. The towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca were swallowed by ice, rock, and snow that came down from Mount Huascarán at over 120 MPH. The 25,000 residents of Yungay were buried under the 3,000-foot-wide wave, with only about 350 people surviving the event. 

    All told, it's estimated there were as many as 70,000 deaths in the region. Given an earlier earthquake in 1962 also resulted in mass casualties, the lack of hazard zoning or population relocation was a large oversight by Peruvian officials. The poverty in Peru, however, limits the country's political ability to restructure and improve its systems for mitigating extreme damage inflicted by natural disasters.

    When severe flooding and epic mudslides caused widespread damage and loss of life in the country in 2017, Peru’s defense minister told The Guardian“I believe we’ve learned the hard way that this country needs a reconstruction of historic proportions.”

  • At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, eight members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took over the area where Israeli athletes were staying in the Olympic Village. Black September held 11 Israelis hostage while demanding that over 230 individuals held in Israeli prisons be released.

    Negotiations for the release of the hostages were unsuccessful, and the terrorists took their prisoners to the Munich Airport in hopes of escape. Authorities and the terrorists exchanged fire at the airport, which resulted in the 11 Israeli hostages, five of the terrorists, and one German police officer losing their lives. Olympic play was suspended for 24 hours.

    In the days, months, and years after the attack at Munich, information came to light proving there were numerous warnings about the potential for an attack at the Olympics. The month before the Games began, a German officer at the embassy in Lebanon allegedly heard "an incident would be staged by from [sic] the Palestinian side during the Olympic Games in Munich." Just days prior, Bavarian officials heard about the threat as well.

    Intelligence officers urged them to take all necessary precautions, but the German government failed to act. An Italian newspaper even published tips regarding a potential Black September attack. Even after the Israelis told Olympic officials their facilities were not secure, they did nothing.

    One additional ignored warning came from Munich's police psychologist, Georg Sieber, who came up with 26 possible scenarios for attacks at the Games. Scenario 21 was incredibly close to what actually took place, but German authorities implemented no training or preemptive actions after recording Sieber's warnings. According to Sieber, the man in charge of security at the games, Munich police chief Manfred Schreiber, said, "We receive laundry baskets full of warnings every day. If we were to process them all, we would have to delay the Olympic Games by 20 years."


  • On January 28, 1986, NASA launched the Challenger space shuttle, carrying seven crew members, in an event watched by millions of people on television around the world. Just 73 seconds later, Challenger burst into flames, killing all on board and horrifying onlookers. The loss of life on that day was tragic, and the whole disaster could have been avoided if safety concerns had been taken seriously.

    Challenger was initially supposed to be launched on January 22, but weather and technical issues pushed back the flight. On the day of the launch, frigid temperatures in Florida caused engineers to express concerns about the plastic O-rings that sealed the ship's rocket boosters. Their warnings were not heeded and the launch proceeded.

    In the aftermath of the explosion, an investigation revealed that neither Jesse Moore, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Flight, nor Gene Thomas, the Launch Director, even knew about the concerns. NASA officials received criticism for ineffective communication and faulty equipment alike, and the government suspended space travel for two years. 


  • 1989: San Francisco Earthquake
    Photo: J.K. Nakata, United States Geological Survey / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The San Francisco earthquake - also known as the Loma Prieta earthquake because it was centered at Loma Prieta Peak near the city - struck on October 17, 1989. The 6.9 magnitude quake hit the San Francisco Bay area at about the same time the third game of the World Series was scheduled to start between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. Because of this, the quake was broadcast live on national television.

    This was the first big earthquake in San Francisco since 1906. Before it hit, Santa Clara geologist Jim Berkland predicted an earthquake would occur during the World Series, though he was largely ignored. Although the earthquake only lasted 15 seconds, it caused $5 billion worth of damage and claimed more than 60 lives. A significant portion of that toll came from the Cypress Street Viaduct, a two-tiered section of the Nimitz Freeway. Buildings collapsed throughout the area and in one city, Watsonville, one out of eight homes was destroyed. 

    The fact that there was a baseball game with two teams from the area probably saved a lot of lives that day, given many people had gone home early to watch the game. What didn't save lives were the sub-par building codes and questionable infrastructure. In the weeks after the earthquake, several private companies alleged the collapse of the Nimitz could have been prevented.

    After 64 people perished in 1971 during the San Fernando earthquake in Sylmar, CA, engineers developed new technology to strengthen overpasses against earthquakes. One engineer from the State Department of Transportation even told the Los Angeles Times the Nimitz freeway was not reinforced due to "budget limitations." But, the anonymous engineer said, "The technology [for strengthening freeways] has been around since San Fernando."

    In addition to physical aspects of damage, thousands of people were injured, some in the hours after the quake when insufficient advisory warnings were issued. Findings also revealed many of those injured didn't go to the local hospitals for medical attention.