The purest form of panic comes when you are rousted from sleep by blaring klaxons, wailing sirens and distant screams. Emergency workers and harried neighbors shout urgent instructions as you rush to a safety that may not exist.
That primal fear has been brought on by natural horrors (landslides, volcanoes) and human-engineered crises (derailed trains, nuclear meltdowns).
Here are 10 of the worst ways people have woken up to in history.
The Great Chicago and Peshtigo Fire (1871)
October 10, 1871 was the fieriest night in American history, with two record-breaking blazes tearing through different cities at the same time. The infamous Chicago fire, whose causes aren’t as cow-related as you might believe, torched through 300 lives and left 100,000 people homeless. While less known, Wisconsin’s Peshtigo Fire was far more deadly, killing five times the people as the Windy City inferno.
The Wellington Train Disaster (1910)
The most fatal avalanche in American history might not have claimed a single life if not for the engineering marvel of the railroad. Wellington, a lightly populated Washington state mountain town, was out of the avalanche’s reach. Unfortunately, two passenger railroad cars with over 100 passengers were stuck on tracks in its path. Witnesses said the deluge batted the train cars as if they were plastic toys.
The Moro Gulf Tsunami (1976)
Ten minutes after midnight on August 16, an 8.0 Richter scale magnitude earthquake shook the Pacific, sending 30-foot-high waves crashing onto the Philippines. Residents of heavily populated areas like Pagadian City woke to find their homes rocking like boats. The quake and subsequent tsunami killed 8,000 and reduced miles of coastal areas to rubble.
The Tangshan Earthquake (1976)
Between 240,000 and 650,000 Chinese died in the series of tremors that became the most fatal earthquake of the 20th century. The initial 7.8 Richter scale magnitude quake lasted for about 15 seconds, and was followed 15 hours later by a 7.1 magnitude aftershock. Without the warning of foreshocks that normally precede a quake of its size, most of the residents of the industrial city of Tangshan were in bed when it struck at four a.m.
The Damascus, Arkansas Incident (1980)
While only one person died in the incident, the unique potential for grand scale nuclear catastrophe on Sept. 18, 1980 is unmatched. That night was the closest the United States came to detonating an intercontinental ballistic missile on its soil. During routine maintenance, a piece of equipment dropped down a missile silo, tearing open a fuel tank and causing an explosion. Fortunately, the largest warhead in the U.S. military arsenal, the 9-megton-yield W53, did not detonate — but it was nonetheless a fraught overnight for engineers and military personnel.
The Armero Tragedy (1985)
More than 22,000 people died after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Tolima, Colombia erupted shortly after 9 p.m. on Nov. 13. The eruption caught the people living in the small town of Armero unaware, despite government officials having ample warning of the eminent threat of eruption beforehand, which is why it’s called a tragedy instead of just an eruption. Mudflow hit Armero at 11:30 p.m. and wiped out three quarters of its 28,700 residents in under an hour.
Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami (2004)
When two tectonic plates ruptured off the coast of Indonesia shortly after midnight on Dec. 16, the spasm created the third largest earthquake in history. The 8.8 Richter scale magnitude quake triggered storms in the Indian Ocean, sending 100-feet-high waves to coastal communities throughout Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. The resultant energy from the quake literally shook the planet; the storm’s death toll was estimated at 230,000.
Japan Airlines Flight 123 (1985)
History’s deadliest single plane accident was seven years in the making. An unnoticed faulty repair from 1977 caused part of the Boeing 747SR’s engine to explode about 12 minutes after taking off from Tokyo on August 12, 1985. Pressurized air rushed out of the cabin, crushing the ceiling and blowing off the verticle stabilizer on the plane’s tail. More than 500 souls were lost half an hour into the flight when the plane collided with the ridges of Mount Takamagahara.
Chernobyl Nuclear Meltdown (1986)
Saturday night revelries were winding down on April 26 when an unprecedented power surge rocked the Soviet Union’s premiere nuclear power plant. At 1:23 a.m. engineers trying to shut down the Ukrainian energy plant set off explosions that melted the reactor core and spewed burning radioactive material. Thirty-one people died of acute radiation poisoning, and the accident has been linked to decades of thyroid cancer and other illnesses. The nearby city of Pripyat remains a ghost town to this day.
The Great Bhola Cyclone (1970)
Between 300,000 and 500,000 people died in the deadliest tropical cyclone in history. While meteorologists knew about the storm, they were unable to communicate the danger and the 20-foot waves and 140 mph winds obliterated entire islands and villages overnight. Criticism of the Pakistani government’s led to the revolution that created the country of Bangladesh.