Epic Engineering Failures and the Lessons They Teach
Stephen Ressler is a Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he taught for 21 years. He holds an MS and PhD in Civil Engineering from Lehigh University and is a registered professional engineer in Virginia. He served in a variety of military engineering assignments in the United States, Europe, and Central Asia. He has focused his scholarly and professional work on engineering education and has won numerous national awards for engineering education and service.
01: Learning from Failure: Three Vignettes
What does a 19th-century British railway disaster have in common with the partial collapse of a hotel in 20th-century Kansas City and the 21st-century destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans? All were engineering failures that resulted in important improvements in the engineering process. Discover the very human issues that contributed to poor engineering decisions in these three cases, with disastrous consequences.
02: Flawed Design Concept: The Dee Bridge
One spring evening in the mid-19th century, a three-span iron bridge across England’s River Dee collapsed just as a locomotive reached the middle of the third span. Railroad technology was only just coming of age, and this collapse was one of its most serious accidents to date. Discover how this accident inquiry led to improved bridge safety throughout the country—even though the exact collapse mechanism of this bridge is still debated.
03: Wind Loading: The Tay Bridge
When the Tay Bridge in Scotland was completed in 1878, it became the longest bridge in the world. Its collapse the following year, with a loss of 75 lives, triggered a crisis of confidence among the British traveling public. Discover the behind-the-scenes details of the bridge design and construction, and how the failure of one single, simple connection triggered a chain of events that brought down a 4,000-ton structure.
04: Rainwater Loading: Kemper Arena
In 1976, the American Institute of Architects presented an Honor Award to Helmut Jahn for his innovative design of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City. Three years later, a 43,000-square-foot section of the roof collapsed onto the floor during a storm. Follow the forensic engineers as they painstakingly analyze the arena’s innovative design, including its roof drainage system, and identify four major factors that contributed to the roof’s collapse.
05: Earthquake Loading: The Cypress Structure
If you were watching Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, you saw the Loma Prieta earthquake as it happened. While the earthquake caused many fires, landslides, and structural failures, two thirds of the fatalities were caused by the collapse of the Cypress Structure, a two-level elevated highway. Explore the complex effects of earthquakes on structures and learn the role resonance and sediment-induced amplification played in this catastrophe.
06: Vehicle Collisions: Land and Sea
When an unexpected squall limited visibility to near zero, the Summit Venture freighter collided with Tampa’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge on May 9, 1980, shearing off a reinforced concrete pier and toppling 1,300 feet of the bridge into the bay. Was this an engineering failure? Or was it just an accident? Discover how high-quality engineering design can account for and minimize accidental catastrophe.
07: Blast Loading: The Murrah Federal Building
On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh’s bomb demolished almost half of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Explore details of the building’s design and specific ways in which various structural elements responded to the blast. Is it possible that a few modest changes to the steel reinforcement might have allowed the building to survive with only localized damage? Learn how the investigation of this tragedy has led to a fundamentally new engineering design philosophy.
08: Structural Response: The Hyatt Regency Walkways
In 1978, a developer chose to build a hotel in Kansas City using a management technique called fast-tracking, in which construction begins before the design is complete. While the approach can work, it requires careful communication between the owner, design professional, and constructor. What can happen when each principal assumes that someone else has designed a critical structural connection? Explore the series of mistakes that led to the tragic collapse of two suspended walkways and the deaths of 114 people.
09: Bridge Aerodynamics: Galloping Gertie
One of the most epic engineering failures in history was the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940. Nicknamed “Galloping Gertie,” the bridge undulated so strongly that thrill-seekers came from all over just to drive across it. Explore the inherent structural inefficiency of the suspension bridge, and why this bridge failed spectacularly only four months after its opening.
10: Dynamic Response: London’s Wobbly Bridge
On June 10, 2000, Londoners celebrated the technological promise of the new millennium with the opening of a state-of-the-art pedestrian bridge over the Thames River. Two days later, the Millennium Bridge was vibrating so intensely that it was closed and did not reopen for more than two years. Explore the phenomenon of synchronous lateral excitation and learn how engineers were able to fix “The Wobbly Bridge” and develop methods to prevent similar failures in other bridges.
11: Dynamic Response: Boston’s Plywood Palace
Boston’s John Hancock Tower was still under construction when winds of 75 miles per hour struck on January 20, 1973. By morning, 65 exterior glass panels—each weighing 500 pounds—lay shattered on the ground. Around that same time, construction workers reported severe swaying of the structure during winds. Were the two phenomena linked or was the timing coincidental? Discover how tuned-mass damper technology became an effective tool for controlling wind-induced (and earthquake-induced) sway—and why all 10,344 windows had to be replaced.
12: Stone Masonry: Beauvais Cathedral
On November 29, 1284, much of the renowned Cathedral of Saint-Pierre at Beauvais collapsed without warning. Had this Gothic church simply exceeded the inherent maximum height of a stone structural system, as some historians have suggested? Watch fascinating demonstrations that both explain the function of the medieval flying buttress and point to the design flaws that most likely caused the collapse.
13: Experiment in Iron: The Ashtabula Bridge
Handing lucrative contracts to family members is apparently nothing new, but rarely has it led to such a public catastrophe as the 1876 Ashtabula Bridge disaster. As you learn the fascinating history of entrepreneur Amasa Stone—a story filled with ignorance and hubris, as he built an iron bridge using a structural concept specifically developed for wood—you’ll follow the series of mistakes that led to America’s worst rail accident and worst bridge failure up to that time.
14: Shear in Concrete: The FIU Pedestrian Bridge
The Florida International University Pedestrian Bridge was created with long-span trusses made of reinforced concrete, using post-tensioning to prevent cracking. The cracks that did show up during construction were said to be “not a safety issue”—until a truss collapsed, killing six people. Explore the series of mistakes that led to this tragedy, including problems with the most sophisticated engineering tool of all—human judgment.
15: House of Cards: Ronan Point
Modular, reinforced-concrete components can be manufactured in a factory, transported to the job site, and then assembled into multi-story buildings. But in one such 22 story development, a minor gas explosion dislodged a load-bearing wall on which the entire high-rise structural system depended, triggering a major collapse. Discover how this could happen in a building that was in full compliance with the governing building code.
16: Brittle Fracture: The Great Molasses Flood
In December 1915, United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) built—without any formal engineering design—a massive cylindrical steel tank along Boston’s North End waterfront to store incoming shipments of molasses. When the tank ruptured three years later, 21 people died. USIA immediately blamed the rupture on an anarchist bomb attack, but a three-year legal battle pointed elsewhere. Explore the phenomena of metal fatigue and brittle fracture and learn what role they played in the Great Boston Molasses Flood.
17: Stress Corrosion: The Silver Bridge
On a cold night in 1967, the Silver Bridge in West Virginia collapsed into the Ohio River, killing 46 people. For 39 years, the bridge had been hailed as an engineering triumph with its cost-saving, innovative structural concept. Follow this fascinating story of forensic engineering as investigators eventually determined that the 1,965-foot bridge failed because one eyebar in a suspension chain fractured. But what caused this fracture?
18: Soil and Settlement: The Leaning Tower of Pisa
What would the Tower of Pisa be if it weren’t leaning? Not as interesting, and certainly not as attractive to tourists. That was the issue faced by the late-20th-century engineers who figured out what caused the lean and devised a way to reduce the tower’s angle of tilt. Take a journey through the centuries to explore how various engineers tried to stabilize the leaning tower, but only succeeded in making the problem worse. Today, the Pisa tower has been saved; but what about the more recent “Leaning Tower of San Francisco”?
19: Water in Soil: Teton Dam and Niigata
Within days of filling its reservoir, the Teton Dam began to leak. Bulldozers that were sent to plug the leaks were instead swallowed up by a growing sinkhole. By the end of the day the dam had been breached and the reservoir poured down the Teton valley in a tidal wave. Explore the potentially catastrophic effects of water moving through soil under pressure—whether in dams and levees or in the liquefaction caused by earthquakes.
20: Construction Engineering: Two Failed Lifts
Some engineering failures occur when the construction process goes badly awry. Explore two such cases: one in which five people died trying to implement an ad hoc solution to an unexpected construction challenge and one in which a building collapse was caused by a flawed technology that was intended solely to improve construction efficiency. Construction is the world’s most hazardous occupation, and engineering input can be as important during construction as it is in design.
21: Maintenance Malpractice: The Mianus River Bridge
You know that if you don’t maintain your car, it can stop working—no matter how good its design and construction. But we have often overlooked that lesson when it comes to bridges. Follow the fascinating case of the Mianus River Bridge and discover how lack of maintenance caused its collapse in 1983, although the bridge had just been inspected. What happened to those pin-and-hanger connections? And exactly, whose fault was it?
22: Decision-Making: The Challenger Disaster
Unlike most structural catastrophes, the 1986 Challenger disaster occurred on live TV. Before long, the entire viewing audience became familiar with the infamous O-rings. Explore behind the scenes to learn about the personalities, conversations, and conflicting goals that led to this catastrophic result. It will become clear that this disaster—which killed seven people and threw the entire US space program into crisis—was as much a failure of organizational decision-making as it was an engineering failure.
23: Nuclear Meltdown: Chernobyl
No engineering failure in history had more world-changing consequences than the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union. Discover the numerous design, organizational, personnel, and bureaucratic flaws that resulted in the explosion of Reactor 4 during a routine safety test—releasing 800 times more radioactive material than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
24: Blowout: Deepwater Horizon
You don’t have to know much about oil and gas to imagine the myriad of technical difficulties that come with drilling an exploratory well miles below a floating platform on the high seas. But after the presence of oil is confirmed, then what? Explore the step-by-step sequence of failures—flawed design decisions, careless oversights, deliberate procedural shortcuts, and prioritizing profits over safety—that led to the worst environmental disaster in US history.
25: Corporate Culture: The Boeing 737 MAX
What role should corporate culture play in the development of an airplane? Discover what went wrong in the development of Boeing’s 737 MAX and how the flawed design of the airplane’s flight control system led to 346 deaths in two separate crashes. Have we learned the apparently difficult lesson that prioritizing the corporate bottom line over technological excellence does not work?
26: Learning from Failure: Hurricane Katrina
The flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, was the costliest engineering failure in American history, and one of the deadliest. Local and federal authorities had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a comprehensive hurricane protection system for the city; yet, this system failed catastrophically during Katrina. Discover the economic development decisions over two centuries that contributed to the disaster. And, learn how the disaster has stimulated a more sustainable approach to flood protection.