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Five Disastrous Engineering Failures

Five Disastrous Engineering Failures

boat going down a flooded street

Engineering failures are not new. From the Johnstown Flood in 1889 to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, engineering failures have been caused by problems in design, construction and safety protocol.

The blame can often be laid at ignorance, miscommunications and, in some extreme cases, indifference or negligence. After many of these engineering disasters however, professionals and leaders have learned from the wrong decisions that were made. Here, we discuss some of the worst engineering disasters and what caused them.

Ford Pinto

Not all engineering mistakes are associated with large-scale feats or impressive architectural marvels. From 1971 through 1976, the Ford Motor Company produced and sold more than 2.2 million Ford Pintos. The automaker set out to make a competitive, affordable car, but late into the development of its design, engineers discovered an issue with the fuel tank. Located between the rear axle and the bumper, the tank punctured and ruptured easily due to the car’s design. Ford’s engineers recommended an easy fix to the problem, one that would cost an additional $11 for each vehicle. In spite of this, the company decided to continue with the design as is, both to keep the cost low and to not delay production.

After just a few years on the road, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating accidents involving the small car catching fire, but it took an article from the magazine Mother Jones to bring to light the Pinto’s danger to the public as well as Ford’s previous knowledge of it. After losing a lawsuit, Ford recalled the Pinto in 1978 and fixed vehicles with the original suggested solution. Some estimate that between 27 and 180 people died from the fuel tank issue.1

Love Canal

The saga of the Love Canal is one of the first major environmental disasters in the U.S. The project originally began in 1894 when an entrepreneur attempted to build a canal in Niagara Falls, New York, to bring water and hydroelectric power to the city. The project was never completed, but in 1947, the canal was sold to Hooker Chemicals and Plastic Corporation. The company lined the unfinished canal with clay and began dumping chemicals and waste into the then isolated site. In 1953, the site was sold again, but this time to build an elementary school and houses.

Controversy remains over whether Hooker or the Niagara Falls Board of Education, which chose the site in spite of strict restrictions detailed in the land deed, is responsible for the consequences from building on the site. During the construction of the school, homes and a sewer line were built on and through the canal. The clay lining broke and chemicals began seeping into the ground. Eventually a state of emergency was declared by New York. Residents reported miscarriages, birth defects, cancer and other disorders and continued to fight to keep the site vacant years after they were evacuated. Today, the ramifications of this environmental and engineering failure still affects building and policy.2

The Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway

One year after the Hyatt Regency Hotel was completed in Kansas City, Missouri, two walkways suspended over the atrium lobby collapsed in July 1981. It happened in the middle of a dance, with attendees packed on the walkways and the floor below. More than 200 were injured, and 114 people were killed.

A series of decisions and miscommunications were found to be at fault. The original designs for the walkways violated the city’s weight-bearing codes: The second and fourth story walkways were suspended by slim sets of rods anchored to the ceiling. However, following a discussion with the fabricator during construction, the decision was made to attach the set of rods supporting the second-floor walkway to the bottom of the fourth—instead of the ceiling. That meant the rods attached to the fourth-floor walkway were supporting twice the weight than the original design intended. A lack of proper communication was blamed for the design change not being analyzed and approved properly, but the engineers involved with the site and the fabricators refused to accept responsibility.3

New Orleans’ Levee System

The American Society of Civil Engineers notes that the destruction of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina is unique among engineering failures. No one single decision led to the disaster, but rather systemic failures were the cause.

During construction, the Army Corps of Engineers failed to follow their own guidelines when estimating the strength of the soil—and designed the system to withstand low hurricane wind speeds. The height of the levees was another of many engineering mistakes: In addition to using flawed data about land elevation, the Corps also did not take into account the land’s natural, gradual sinking. In addition, local, state and federal politics and mismanagement played a role in both the quality and speediness of the construction and in failing to fund and maintain the system.

Across the Gulf Coast, more than 1,800 died and more than $100 billion in damage was caused. New Orleans was one of the hardest hit regions from Hurricane Katrina. Roughly 80 percent of the city and its surrounding area were flooded. 4

The Titanic

More than 1,500 people died when the Titanic struck an iceberg in 1912. Over the years, many have researched and investigated the details of its sinking, and it has been determined that a number of design issues and poor decisions led to its sinking in just over two and-a-half hours.

As one of the biggest ocean liners of its day, the Titanic featured 16 watertight compartments. If four of those flooded, the ship would still be able to stay afloat. Six compartments flooded though because the bulkheads were not tall enough to hold the water.5 Some potential causes behind the ship’s sinking include designs that failed to take into account its size and mobility, the speed the ship was traveling, ignored warnings about the likelihood of icebergs and other factors.6

One flaw that is undisputed though: There were not enough lifeboats for everyone on board. The 20 lifeboats would only have had space for roughly 1,200 people, while more than 2,200 passengers and crew were on board the ship. Additional lifeboats had been removed from the design because the ship owners were worried that it made the ship look unsafe and seemed packed on the deck.

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Importance of Leadership

Decisions that impact the integrity of a design or its construction usually come from the top down. Lapses in leadership can lead to these kinds of engineering failures. That’s why it’s essential to have leaders trained in both ethical decision-making and technical decision-making.

At the Case School of Engineering, our online graduate programs focus on developing the leadership expertise that highly skilled engineers need to be successful. Joining our program means joining a network of experienced engineering leaders from a number of different industries. Learn more about who our students are.


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