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The Worlds Strangest Disasters

Written by Kevin Jennings

From earthquakes, to tsunamis, to tornados, there is no shortage of natural disasters wreaking havoc upon our civilization. While each is devastating in its own right, most of them are rather common. A hurricane may have the potential to destroy entire communities, causing death and rendering countless people homeless, but enough hurricanes strike every year that a system has been implemented to name them so we can tell one storm apart from another in conversation.

            What follows are disasters that are much more unique. Often manmade, these are one of kind events that, unlike seismic activity or weather patterns, are unlikely to have ever been predicted with the information and technology available at the time.

The Great Molasses Flood

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            If there’s one thing everyone knows about molasses, is that it is an extremely viscous, slow moving substance, hence the common phrase “slow as molasses”. One can only imagine the shock that would ensue if, after hearing what sounded like a machine gun followed by a tremendous crash, they were to turn around and see a 25 foot tall wave of sticky, sweet goo careening towards them at speeds reaching 35 miles per hour. For the people in Boston’s North End on January 15, 1919, this was not a bizarre “what if” scenario, it was their terrifying reality.

            Fermented molasses produces ethanol, used in both alcoholic beverages and munitions, and the Purity Distilling Company on Commercial Street had a massive tank filled with it. The previous day, the company had received a large shipment of molasses that had been heated to make it less viscous for the transfer into the tank. The fresh batch of warm molasses would begin to heat the older, colder batch already in the tank. This problem only intensified on the 15th when the previously freezing temperatures rapidly climbed above 40 °F (4 °C), an abnormally warm temperature for Boston in the middle of winter. The pressure of the expanding molasses was more than the tank could bear.

            At approximately 12:30 pm, when the overly warm sun was highest in the sky, the tank gave out. The rivets fired out of the tank like bullets, and 2.3 million gallons, approximately 12,000 tons, burst from the tank in a giant wave that rushed through the streets of Boston. The blast had such force that people nearby were thrown several feet through the air.

            The wave of molasses traveled through the streets, destroying buildings and carrying their debris along with it.  The wave even lifted a truck, hurling into Boston Harbor. Of all those that lost their lives that day, the ones being struck by debris were the lucky ones, suffering a quick death. While some people were crushed by the weight of the molasses, the most common form of death was drowning and suffocation, with the sticky goo clogging people’s throats. In the aftermath of the flood, coughing fits became an extremely common ailment.

            In total, 150 people were injured and 21 died during the Great Molasses Flood, as well as the injury and death of many horses, dogs, and cats. The wave did not discriminate and claimed the lives of women and men alike, and of seniors as old as 78 down to children as young as 10.

It took hundreds of people working for weeks to clean up the sticky mess, before talks of repairing the damage could even begin. The tank was never rebuilt, but for decades after the residents of Boston would swear that on hot days, the entire North End still smelled like molasses.

The Deathstalker Plague

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            It seems only fitting that this story of a plague of Biblical proportions would take place in Egypt, specifically in the city of Aswan. Aswan is a busy market and tourism center, located on the east bank of the Nile, just north of the Aswan Dam.

            Like all of Egypt, Aswan is classified as a hot, desert climate. In fact, Aswan is one of the hottest, sunniest, and driest cities in the entire world. Average summer high temperatures exceed 100 °F (37.8 °C). Even in the dead of winter, the average low temperature is in excess of 47 °F (8.3 °C). With November’s normal temperatures having an average high of nearly 85 °F (29.5 °C) and average low of nearly 60 °F (15.5 °C), nothing could have prepared this dry, desert city for what it was going to experience in November of 2021.

            It began with a sandstorm, something not too uncommon for residents in the deserts of Egypt. Aswan’s typical yearly rainfall of 0.0 inches (not a typo) meant that a sandstorm was where it was expected to end. It did not. The sandstorm turned into a torrential downpour, flooding the streets of the city. In total, over 2 inches of rain fell during the storm. Rainfall numbers can be deceptive, especially to those living in wetter and particularly colder climates, so by comparison 2 inches of rain is the equivalent of approximately 24 inches of snow. It was a big storm, and it wasn’t over yet. After the rain and flooding came the hailstorm. The storm was like nothing the city of Aswan had ever seen before.

            As with any major storm, homes were lost. In this case, however, any people who may have lost their homes to the storm were the least of anyone’s concerns. The real problem was that flooding terrain resulted in the destruction of the nests of thousands of scorpions. With their homes destroyed, the scorpions decided to move into the numerous other homes just waiting for them in Aswan, with no regard given to the fact that someone might already be living there.

            The two couch surfing species of scorpions also happened to be two of the most dangerous and venomous species in the world: the fat-tailed scorpion, and the aptly named deathstalker. While initial reports were that three people had died as a result of the scorpion attacks, Egypt’s health ministry declared that those deaths were not caused by the scorpions.

            Either way, there is no denying that over 500 people were injured after being stung by scorpions. There were so many attacks that doctors were called in from vacation and taken away from Covid vaccine facilities in an attempt to keep up with the demand for administering anti-venom to the wounded.

            With the plague of scorpions seemingly dealt with, the city of Aswan could go back to their very long road to recovery from the damage to property and infrastructure caused by the storm itself, before the deathstalkers came knocking at their doors.

Dublin Whiskey Fire

            Laurence Malone’s bonded storehouse sat on the corner of Ardee Street in 1875 Dublin. The storehouse was home to 5,000 hogsheads of whiskey, or over 315,000 gallons in more useful units of measurements. On June 18 at 4:35 pm, the storehouse was checked and all was well. At 8:00 pm, the alarm was raised. To this day, nobody knows what happened in the interim or how the fire started.

            They say animals are always the first to know when it comes to disasters. Normally this refers to natural disasters, with animals recognizing atmospheric or other changes that humans are generally imperceptive to. In this case, the animals were the first to know because they were the first victims. Before the alarm was sounded, it was the noise of squealing pigs inside livestock pens that had caught fire that alerted the residents closest to the storehouse of what was happening. This is said to have been a major contributing factor to the surprisingly fast evacuation of the area.

            At this point, the fire that somehow began in the storehouse was spreading slowly. That would change at approximately 9:30 pm when barrels inside the storehouse would begin to explode from heat, releasing the whiskey. From the doors and windows of the storehouse, a flaming river of whiskey, two feet wide and six inches deep, began to run down the streets of Dublin. The stream ran down multiple streets. When it reached its third street, it caught a single home on fire, but on the fourth street it quickly leveled a row of small houses.

            The Dublin Fire Brigade arrived under the command of Captain James Robert Ingram, a former officer of the New York Fire Department. Ingram was well known for his unconventional strategies, and this night would be no different. He knew better than to try to douse the fire with water. Much like an oil fire, an alcohol fire burns with such heat that the water would instantly vaporize, resulting in the flaming substances being propelled outward thus spreading the fire.

            Ingram’s first course of action was to call for soldiers to pull up paving stones and fill the area with sand and gravel, hoping to absorb the whiskey. When this proved ineffective it was time to think fast, so with an abundance of livestock around, the only logical plan was to build dams out of cartloads of manure. As the river of whiskey met with the dams, the manure began to soak up the liquid and the flames subsided.

            Though the fire was now mostly contained, it was still on course to collide with both the Coombe Maternity Hospital and a convent. A fortuitous wind arrived to turn the river away, which the nuns attributed as a miracle.

            From the start of the fire,  residents immediately could recognize that this was a disaster on their hands, but Irishmen are gonna Irish. Pots, pans, hats, and even the boots off spectators’ feet were used to collect the torrent of free whiskey they had been blessed with. People were filling their boots, drinking directly out of them, and then filling them again.

            The whiskey fire was one of the most devastating fires the city of Dublin has ever seen, causing millions of pounds of damage (adjusted for inflation). The death toll from this catastrophe, including both those that died from burns and those that died from smoke inhalation, is exactly zero. The death toll for those that died of alcohol poisoning that night from drinking too much of the flaming river was thirteen, with eleven more hospitalized.

            Approximately £5.5 million of whiskey in today’s dollars was lost that day, meaning the end of Malone’s enterprise. But in 2014 the Malone Whiskey Company was resurrected to launch Flaming Pig Irish Whiskey, in honour of those that sounded the alarm and ensured that no human lives would be lost to the fire.

The Oakville Blobs

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Oakville, Washington, is a small, rural town. In 1994, it boasted a population of just 723 people. On August 7, at approximately 3 am, the rain began. Officer David Lacey was on patrol with a civilian friend, and make the logical decision of turning on his windshield wipers. To his surprise, rather than wiping away water, it was smearing a clear, jelly-like substance across his windshield. He immediately knew that something wasn’t right, and he pulled into a gas station to clean his windshield.

As Officer Lacey investigated the substance, he noted that it was very mushy. “It’s almost like if you had Jell-O in your hand.” This was the first of six times in a three week period that these blobs would fall from the sky over a 20 square mile area encompassing Oakville.  

The blobs were described as being a translucent, gelatin like substance, each blob roughly half the size of a grain of rice. Immediately after the blobs appeared, some residents began experiencing severe, flu-like symptoms lasting as long as 8 weeks. Dozens got sick, and multiple cats and dogs were reported to have died shortly after coming into contact with the substance.

Doctors were skeptical about tying the blobs to the illnesses. Examination of samples brought in by residents showed two types of bacteria, but neither would account for the illnesses. There were other cells found within the blobs as well. One investigation into the substance by the Washington State Department of Ecology claimed the substance contained human white blood cells with no nuclei.

A year later, a private research lab tested another sample that a resident had kept in her freezer. The microbiologist who studied the blob said, “I saw what I think was a eukaryotic cell, which is, basically, a cell that has a definable nucleus, and is found present in most animals.”

So what exactly were the Oakville Blobs? To this day, we still don’t know. They are likened to a substance known as “star jelly” that has appeared in both scientific reports and literary works dating back to at least the 14th century, but the nature of star jelly is hardly scientific. Early works claim that it was deposited on earth by meteor showers, but that’s just old-timey folklore. Whether the Oakville Blobs were the same material as traditional star jelly or not is unknown, seeing as neither substance is truly understood, but there are certainly theories as to what it was.

The most popular theory is that these gelatinous blobs are pieces of jellyfish. The theory states that bombing runs performed by the military in the ocean 50 miles away exploded a swarm of jellyfish, launching their remnants into the clouds. These particles then rained down on the town of Oakville. The US Air Force confirmed that they had been conducting bombing runs over the Pacific Ocean at the time, but they denied any knowledge of the substance and denied any involvement in its creation or dispersal.

Despite their denial, this only means that the Oakville Blobs were nothing that they planned or implemented themselves, but their lack of knowledge would not make the jellyfish theory less plausible. While it may seem unlikely that the cloud would travel 50 miles before finally releasing the jellyfish particulates from its grasp, it’s far from impossible. Strange events such as raining frogs, while obviously rare, are much more common than most people realize. The biggest question in this theory is why these blobs would rain down on six separate occasions over a three week period, and why always in the same location.

While a definitive answer is not yet accepted, Sunny Barclift believes she has one. Sunny was one of the residents during the incidents, and her mother was one of the people that fell very ill with flu-like symptoms. She also lost her cat to the blobs and was also the one to freeze a sample that was later tested at a private lab. Over the course of the entire investigation, Sunny remained extremely involved.

According to a post allegedly written by Sunny, “Over the years I have held some information close to me. Very little about it has been released to the press. However, 2 years ago some information surfaced on the internet that led me to the conclusion that the Oakville Event was in fact a continuity exercise conducted by the military.”

The Oakville Blobs were featured on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries in May of 1997, and no more is known about them now than was when the episode aired.

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