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Published January 22, 2024

Every year brings its share of tragic events. A few are somewhat predictable – we will always expect a number of hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones, for example – while others are more unusual. Some grab headlines and make history, and others are quickly forgotten.

In a slight change of format for these yearly review episodes, this time I will be looking at just one event for each month in 2023.

January – Yeti Airlines Flight 691

On the 15th of January, 2023, at just after half past ten in the morning, local time, Yeti Airlines Flight 691 left Kathmandu in Nepal bound for Pokhara, about 126 miles or 204km away. Onboard were 68 passengers and four crew, all no doubt expecting a routine short flight.

Amongst them was a 25 year old Indian man named Sonu Jaiswal, who started a Facebook live video stream as they approached Pokhara. He filmed the view from his window, and turned his phone to show himself and fellow passengers, smiling and laughing.

Then something happened. Screams could be heard, but little could be seen as the phone fell. When the picture became clear a few moments later, all that could be seen was flames.

The twin engine turboprop plane had crashed on the bank of the Seti Gandaki River, between the old Pokhara Airport and the new Pokhara International Airport, where the flight was expected to land. All 72 people on board were killed.

As well as Jaiswal’s video from inside the plane, another clip circulated on social media, showing the plane’s approach from the ground. This allowed experts to note that the plane’s nose was noticeably high before the aircraft veered suddenly to the left, indicating a stall.

Preliminary reports stated that the pilot flying, co-pilot Anju Khatiwada, had switched off the autopilot at 10:56, and called for “Flaps 30”.

The flaps on an aircraft are adjustable surfaces along the wing which essentially change the surface of the wing to either create more lift or more drag as needed. The setting called for would increase drag, slowing the plane down for a safe landing.

The cockpit voice recorder showed that the pilot monitoring, senior captain Kamal KC, had responded positively – “Flaps 30 and descending” – but the flight data recorder didn’t register any change to the flaps at that time. Instead, it appeared that the captain had feathered the propellers. This action is normally only used when an engine has stopped in flight, as it puts the blades of the propeller parallel to the airflow, reducing drag and producing no power. 

Twenty seconds later, the flaps were set as originally requested, but when the wreckage was investigated it was found that the condition levers which controlled the propellers were still set to feathered.

Although a final report has not yet been released, the results of the preliminary investigation suggested that captain Kamal KC had somehow adjusted the propeller condition levers instead of the flap lever, which is adjacent. This confounded many commentators who noted that the two levers are very different and difficult to mistake. In addition, while he corrected the flaps setting, he failed to correct the propellers, and it was implied that the landing checklist was not properly followed.

The crash was the deadliest in the history of Nepalese domestic aviation, and the worst in the country since the crash of Pakistan International Airlines Flight 268 in 1992. 

February – Turkey/Syria Earthquake

On the 6th of February, shortly after four in the morning local time, the first of a series of devastating earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria. Measured at 7.8 in magnitude, the quake’s epicentre was near to Gaziantep, also known as Antep, in south-central Turkey, near to the Syrian border. It was the largest earthquake to hit Turkey since 1939.

The initial quake occurred on the East Anatolian Fault, a strike-slip fault like the famous San Andreas fault in California, at a depth of about 18 km or about 11 miles. This relatively shallow depth caused particularly severe shaking. 

The activity then spread; a 6.7 magnitude aftershock just eleven minutes after the first shock, and then at around half past one in the afternoon, a second earthquake, this time 7.5 magnitude, struck approximately 59 miles or 95 kilometres away, with another 6.0 aftershock.

Thousands more aftershocks would follow, with many at a magnitude of 4.0 or greater.

Cities and towns crumbled into so much rubble, and left more than fifty thousand dead in Turkey, nearly nine thousand in Syria, and many, many more injured.

Thousands of buildings, including historical sites like Gaziantep Castle, were damaged or destroyed, and more would have to be demolished in the months following. There was also anger from many, who accused the Turkish government of failing to enforce building regulations despite previous major earthquakes in the region. Experts from the United Nations estimated that about 1.5 million people were left homeless, and with the cold winter weather the need for shelter was paramount.

The impact of the disaster was heightened by the existing humanitarian crisis in Syria, which  the United Nations stated was already at a peak with 4.1 million people relying on humanitarian assistance for subsistence. The northwest part of Syria, which was hardest hit by the tremors, was not entirely controlled by the Syrian government, and therefore aid had to come through three border-crossing points from Turkey. Amnesty International reported that more than a hundred trucks carrying food, medical supplies and tents were prevented from reaching parts of Aleppo due to regional hostilities.

Many of those affected in Turkey had already been displaced from Syria, and this tragedy has further deepened psychological scars. One said;

“What I saw here when the earthquake hit was truly heartbreaking. It reminded me of what we experienced in Syria when the shelling used to start. We used to suddenly fall in the street, hide and sleep under trees and in corners. It was very scary.”

Recovery would also be slowed by the impact of the tremors on the agricultural production of the area known as Turkey’s “fertile crescent”. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that more than 20 per cent of the country’s food production had been affected. 

March – Vanuatu’s Triple Strike

Vanuatu is a small island country in the South Pacific Ocean, and is ranked as one of the countries with the highest disaster risk worldwide. This was amply demonstrated in March, when the country was struck by an earthquake and two cyclones within the space of just a few days.

Cyclone Judy first made landfall on the island of Efate on the morning of the 1st of March (local time), strengthening into a category 4 severe tropical cyclone later that day. At its peak, there were 10-minute sustained winds of 175 km/h (110 mph), and 1-minute sustained winds of 195 km/h (120 mph).

It caused widespread damage and flooding, but residents had little time to react before the second cyclone arrived. Kevin, which crossed the islands of Erromango and Tanna on the 3rd of March as it intensified, reached its peak with 10-minute sustained winds of 215 km/h (130 mph).

It was while Kevin was blowing across Vanuatu that the earthquake struck; measured at 6.5 magnitude, and centred west of Espiritu Santo at a depth of just 10 km or 6.2 miles. An aftershock shortly afterwards was measured at 5.5 in magnitude. Although there were strong shaking conditions, it seems that little additional damage was caused, and fortunately no tsunami ensued, however the psychological effects of a quake during such a storm can’t be denied; secretary general of the Vanuatu Red Cross Society Dickinson Tevi told reporters that people had “felt the earthquake, but couldn’t go outside to assess the damage because of the high winds.”

In the aftermath of the cyclones, a state of emergency was quickly declared, and neighbouring countries like Australia quickly responded with humanitarian aid supplies such as water, sanitation and hygiene kits and emergency shelters. 

Vanuatu-based journalist Dan McGarry tweeted on the 3rd:

“Fuel is in short supply, power is out everywhere, and a boil water order is in effect.”

Although there were no reported fatalities directly caused by the earthquakes or cyclones, the Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office reported that more than 250,000 people were affected; almost 80 percent of the country’s population, and in the weeks that followed, there were concerns about an increase in cases of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection often connected to contaminated water, with 19 cases and 3 deaths reported in the first month after the cyclones.

Extensive damage to the country’s infrastructure, including schools, medical centres and hospitals, would make recovery a slow process.

UNICEF’s Eric Durpaire said, “It’s crazy, Vanuatu is used to natural disasters, but I think this is the first time it has had two cyclones back to back.”

April – New York City Parking Garage Collapse

In a city like New York, with literally millions of vehicles driving through each day, parking is obviously in high demand. Putting your car into a parking garage comes at a premium, but you can at least expect your vehicle to be safe while you’re away.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for users of the garage at 57 Ann Street in Manhattan on the 18th of April, 2023; shortly after 4pm, with little warning, the interior collapsed like a pancake and the roof caved in. Dozens of vehicles were crushed and tumbled like carelessly discarded children’s toys.

Eyewitness Sophia Vuksanaj was in the building next door.

“We heard a big boom and we thought it hit our building… We immediately saw smoke… and it was completely just collapsed. Everything was collapsed. All debris, smoke, cars were sinking. It looked like out of a movie. It was horrible.”

Freelance photographer Ahmed Scott was on his way back to his car at the time. He told reporters, “The way my car looks, if I would have gotten my car, I would have been dead…I was literally about to go walk into [it].”

Due to high rent prices in the city, Scott had been living in that car; the collapse meant he was left with nothing.

However, he was still fortunate compared to the car park’s manager, Willis Moore, who was killed in the collapse. Another customer who lost her vehicle said, “The car is just a car… He was super hard working, worked holidays. Everyone on his team really respected and liked him, so it’s really sad.”

Five others were injured. Adjacent buildings had to be evacuated and some tenants would have to wait months before they would be able to return home. 

The New York police and fire departments responded to the scene, but rescuers were quickly pulled back out of the building amid fears of further collapse. However, they were able to deploy a robotic rescue dog, built by Boston Dynamic and named “Digidog”, to conduct the search. It was more than 24 hours before they were able to retrieve Moore’s body. The vehicles had to be lifted out by crane before a controlled demolition of the rest of the structure.

Built in 1925, the building had been licensed for use as a parking garage in 1926 and again in 1957. However, with developments in automobile technology over the years, the average car weighs significantly more now, especially with the popularity of SUVs and the rise in electric vehicles (which are heavier due to the weight of their batteries). An employee of the garage stated that they had been instructed to park SUVs on the roof level, because there was no other space for large vehicles. While the interior levels were permitted up to 120lb per square foot, the roof was only permitted up to 75lb per sq ft.

A preliminary investigation suggested that too much weight on the roof, and the age of the building, had likely contributed to the collapse.

It was also revealed that the building had several violations based on failure to maintain the property; inspections in 2003, 2005 and 2009 had referenced cracks and defects in the concrete. Applications were made in 2011 to make repairs and install auto lifts in the building; an inspection later that year noted that the repair work was ongoing, and another inspection in 2013 issued no violations for the concrete work – although there were violations unrelated to structural integrity – but the paperwork to close the original violations was never filed. 

May – Floods in DR Congo

Water is one of the defining features of our little blue planet; a vital, life-giving resource that simultaneously poses a great risk and often brings death. Flooding affects many parts of the world, every year, causing thousands of fatalities and huge amounts of devastation, and in 2023 the Democratic Republic of Congo was just one place that suffered in this way. 

Torrential rains in South Kivu province caused several rivers to burst their banks on the evening of the 4th of May. Villages in the area, including Bushushu and Nyamukubi, were devastated, with many buildings entirely swept away and others left too damaged for safe use. 

Ulrich Crepin Namfeibona, an emergency coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières said, “There are some places that had houses, but you look at them now and can’t imagine that there was anything there before.”

Survivors, many of whom had lost entire families, said that it was “like the end of the world.” One told reporters, “The whole village has been turned into a wasteland. There’s only stones left, and we can’t even tell where our land once was.”

In the days immediately after the floods, the death toll rose quickly to over 400, but it was reported that thousands were still missing. Identifying the dead was made difficult by the fact that the rains had hit on a regional market day, meaning that many people had travelled away from their homes to trade produce. The population of Bushushu was reported to be twice as large as usual.

Remarkably, two babies were rescued from Lake Kivu in the days after the floods, both found alive floating on debris. They were, unfortunately, vastly outnumbered by the dead. 

The sheer number of fatalities meant that the Congolese Red Cross simply did not have enough body bags; dead bodies were piled up and wrapped in blankets, and the use of mass grave sites prompted an outcry, with Congolese Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Denis Mukwege posting on Twitter, 

“Civil society in South Kivu, let us demand a dignified burial for our compatriots who died in Kalehe: exhume the bodies, identify them by DNA, bury them individually and not in a mass grave.”

However, with many bodies already decomposing before they could be found in the mud and floodwaters, dealing with the bodies quickly was vital to prevent outbreaks of disease and infection. Cholera is already endemic in the region, and with so many left without proper shelter the risks become even greater.

This disaster came just a few days after flooding on the other side of Lake Kivu, in Rwanda, had caused the deaths of at least 130 people.

United Nations secretary general António Guterres said that the floods were “yet another illustration of accelerating climate change and its disastrous impact on countries that have done nothing to contribute to global warming.”

June – Titan submersible implosion

I began the Great Disasters podcast by looking at the sinking of the Titanic, because it is one of the most enduring tragedies of our time. More than a hundred years later, many are still fascinated with the great ship and her untimely end.

So fascinated, in fact, that some were willing to pay a quarter of a million US dollars, each, to private exploration company OceanGate, to join an expedition two and a half miles under the sea to visit her wreckage.

The price they paid turned out to be much higher even than that.

The Titan submersible, with five people on board, was expected to take around eight hours for its dive to the Titanic wreck site and back on the 18th of June 2023. However, it lost contact with its mother ship the Polar Prince about an hour and 45 minutes after departure. This time would be consistent with it reaching its full depth. After it failed to resurface as expected at 4:30 that afternoon, the US Coast Guard were notified.

Search and rescue teams were deployed, with the media reporting that the submersible had enough oxygen to last 96 hours, however a US Navy detection system reported receiving an acoustic signature consistent with an implosion at the time the Titan lost contact. This was confirmed when debris was located on the 22nd of June. Rear Admiral John Mauger of the US Coast Guard said that the recovered pieces were “consistent with a catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber”.

Experts stated that the vehicle would have collapsed in milliseconds, and killed its passengers instantly.

Further recovery efforts continued into October, eventually recovering more debris and presumed human remains. 

The five dead were OceanGate co-founder and chief executive, Stockton Rush, who piloted the vehicle, and deep-sea explorer and Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet, who served as guide, alongside three tourists: business man Hamish Harding, and Shahzada and Suleman Dawood, a Pakistani-British businessman and his 19 year old son.

In the wake of the disaster, it was revealed that many experts had warned that the submersible had serious design flaws, particularly in its use of a carbon fibre composite structure. Film director and diving expert James Cameron pointed out that the material has “no strength in compression” – which would be a significant issue under the pressure of the sea at those depths. Much was also made of the fact that it was operated using the same kind of controller associated with the Sony Playstation gaming console –  a wireless controller without any hard-wired backup.

David Lochridge, OceanGate’s former director of marine operations, had called the submersible “an accident waiting to happen”. He had been fired by Rush after refusing to sign off on the testing protocols for the submersible.

Author Susan Casey revealed in Vanity Fair that she had considered a trip on the Titan submersible herself some five years earlier, but had been warned away by Terry Kerby, a veteran deep-sea submersible pilot.

“Do not get into that sub. He is going to have a major accident.”

Sadly, Rush had ignored all the warnings, justifying his recklessness by saying,

“Industry attempts to disparage innovative business, operational and design approaches will not help advance subsea exploration.”

July – “Cerberus” Heatwave 

Although there is no formal convention for naming heatwaves, as there is for hurricanes and cyclones, the one that blazed over Europe in July 2023 came to be widely known as “Cerberus”. Taken from Greek mythology, where it’s the name of the three headed dog that guards the gates of hell, the name was chosen by a popular Italian weather website to refer to the anticyclone system that brought the heat, and its use spread. Some sources attributed the name to the Italian Meteorological Society, but their president Luca Mercalli stated that they “absolutely don’t use it” and called it somewhat sensationalistic. 

While some commentators argued that the use of a scary name might convince people to take the heatwave more seriously, others pointed out that, “We’re going to run out of dangerous monsters quite quickly,” and this approach might actually desensitise people to the risk.

However, it was clear that the heatwave was, like its namesake, both unusual and dangerous, with some billing this as the hottest month in 120,000 years. Several parts of Europe, including Greece, Spain, and Italy, experienced temperatures of over 45°C (113°F), and hundreds of heat-related excess deaths were reported – however the true toll is hard to estimate. 

Many places were designated as climate shelters, including the crypts of Girona Cathedral, in order to provide people with somewhere to find respite from the heat, and tourist attractions like the Acropolis were closed early to discourage tourists from lingering outside at the peak of the day. Volunteers and first-aid workers distributed free bottles of water and treated people who had collapsed or fainted.

It wasn’t just Europe either; during the same period Morocco and Algeria recorded the highest temperatures in all of Africa, with a sweltering 47.5°C (117.5°F) in the city of Benni Mellal in central Morocco, and 48°C (118.4°F) in the northeast Algerian city of Biskra. In America, temperatures in Death Valley exceeded 50°C (122°F) on the 16th of July, and in China an all-time high of 52.2°C (126°F) was recorded in Sanbao.

These temperatures were likely influenced by unusually high temperature conditions in the world’s oceans; exceptionally warm conditions were recorded in the North Atlantic Ocean from June onwards, and El Niño conditions were recorded in the Pacific, a warming phenomenon which occurs on average every two to seven years.

Climate researcher Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, said, “Without a dedicated study we can’t say how much more likely the current heatwave has become as a consequence of climate change, but it could be seen as part of a global pattern.”

Aside from the direct impact on human health, the heatwave also increased the risk of wildfires, with Greece experiencing the worst fires in twenty years.

August – Wildfires in Maui

And in August, devastating wildfires struck the island of Maui in Hawaii, killing around a hundred people – making it the most deadly wildfire to strike any American state in more than a hundred years.

High winds, potentially caused by Hurricane Dora passing south of the islands, brought down a power line in Lahaina on the morning of the 8th of August. With the area already suffering from persistent drought conditions, the grass was extremely dry and quickly caught fire.

This was immediately reported by residents, and within a few hours the Maui County Fire Department declared that it was 100% contained.

However, at around 3pm that afternoon electricity workers in the area to make repairs reported another fire in a nearby field. That fire spread, driven by the winds, and quickly grew bigger and more intense. Although firefighters again responded, they soon found that the same conditions that helped the fire begin now prevented them from ending it.

Keahi Ho, one of those firefighters, said, “There was just no water in the hydrants.”

Fresh water supplies in the area were already limited by the drought, and power outages from the downed lines had impacted the ability to pump water from wells. Although backup generators initially allowed them to maintain supply, as the fire spread and more properties were damaged, their supply pipes broke, and depressurised the water system that supplied the hydrants.

At the same time, those winds made it extremely difficult to use helicopters to bring in sea water to tackle the blaze.

Instead of fighting the fires, rescue crews were forced to focus on evacuations. This came with its own difficulties, though.

Herman Andaya, head of the county’s Emergency Management Agency, reportedly decided not to sound any warning sirens in the Lahaina area, fearing that people would assume the alert was for a tsunami and move towards the mountains, into the fire. 

Residents criticised this decision, with one stating, “If I would have heard the siren that morning, I would have at least prepared, you know, packed something in my car, called my parents.”

Andaya would resign the position soon after.

Many of those attempting to evacuate found themselves stuck in traffic, with survivors reporting that they had been turned away from main routes by both police and utility workers. It was reported that this was because they believed many of those downed power lines to be live – but the power had actually been cut off early on.

One 911 caller reported, “Traffic is completely stuck… You need to open it up. There is no reason why. People can’t evacuate this area. You need to do that. Police need to do that. People are going to die!”

Another resident told reporters, “I’m pretty sure the people that were stuck behind me were getting burned up. I don’t know how else to say that… Nobody knew what was going on.”

Many of those who were caught in gridlock along Lahaina’s Front Street took refuge in the sea. Among them were Lanz Aguinaldo and Isabella Lynch, who were in the water for some six hours. Lanz recorded their harrowing escape in a TikTok video, which amply documents how quickly conditions deteriorated.


thought id be going back to my house that day :( if youd like to donate to help my family my venmo is @lanzaira our gofundme will be in my bio. if you cant donate then share anything helps ❤️❤️ #lahainafire #lahaina #maui #hawaii #fyp #filipino

♬ original sound – lanz

Five months on, even as tourism returns to the area, more than 6,000 people remain without permanent shelter, with some camping on the Ka’anapali Beach to highlight their continued plight.

September – Hanoi Building Fire

At around 11:30 pm on the 12th of September 2023, a fire broke out in a nine-story residential building in Hanoi, Vietnam. It would later be established that the fire began with a short circuit in a motor scooter parked in the building’s garage, spreading quickly to other vehicles and to the building’s electrical systems.

Although fifteen fire engines were quickly dispatched, firefighters were hampered in their efforts by the location of the building; Hanoi is famous for its labyrinthine alleys, which are large enough for the six million motorcycles in use around the city but certainly not big enough for large fire trucks. The rescuers had to park about 400 metres, or more than 1,300 feet away. By 1am, the fire was under control, but the blaze had already become the deadliest fire in Vietnam since the 2002 Ho Chi Minh City ITC fire.

Those same winding alleyways also made it difficult for the residents to evacuate; the property consisted of micro-apartments, with a total of around 150 people living there – and since it was late at night, the majority were at home, getting ready for bed.

A neighbour told reporters, “I heard a lot of shouts for help. We could not help them much…The apartment is so closed with no escape route, impossible for the victims to get out.”

Bars across many of the windows made escape difficult. Some residents were able to smash through, and leaped onto neighbouring roofs to escape, with some suffering injuries in the process. At least one child was thrown from one of the higher floors, with another witness saying, “I don’t know whether he survived or not although people used a mattress to catch him.”

In total, 56 people were killed, including ten children. Nearly forty people were injured. Hundreds of relatives gathered at a morgue in the west of the city to find out if their loved ones were among the dead. One group of women told reporters their “whole family had gone… they were our children and grandchildren.”

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh visited the scene of the tragedy, promised that the government would cover treatment costs for the victims, and asked authorities to review all apartment buildings in the city, saying “It is unacceptable when  [the apartment block which houses] 45 households has no exit.”

The owner of the building, Nghiem Quang Minh, was arrested the day after the fire and charged with violating regulations on fire prevention and fighting.

Rumours that the fire had started from an electrical scooter – not the gasoline-powered scooter identified by the investigation – led to many buildings in Hanoi banning owners from charging electrical vehicles at their properties. With a lack of fast-charging infrastructure in the area and many gig riders depending on such vehicles, this has a significant economic impact.

October – Hurricane Otis

Every year has its hurricane season. The key questions are, how many will there be, where will they hit, and how bad will they be?

When Hurricane Otis began as a tropical depression south of Mexico, there was no sign that it would be a record breaker. In fact, forecasters didn’t even think it would become a hurricane; it was originally expected to reach the coast of Mexico as a category three tropical storm.

Instead, driven by unusually warm ocean waters, it underwent rapid, even explosive intensification, not only becoming a hurricane but growing into a massive category five hurricane before hitting the resort city of Acapulco early on the 25th of October.

In just twelve hours, the wind speeds went from 65mph (about 105km/h) to 145mph, or 233 km/h. No other hurricane has ever been recorded growing as fast. And it wasn’t done; by the time it struck the coast the wind speeds had reached 165mph – 265km/h.

It grew so quickly that, when the first hurricane warnings were issued at 4am local time on the 24th of October, those still only indicated a category one hurricane. The difference is huge; a category five has thirteen times more destructive potential, and the region had never experienced anything greater than a category one before.

As it approached landfall, a forecaster for the National Hurricane Center called this, “A nightmare scenario.” Even with sufficient warnings, a category five hurricane is devastating; just the idea of one hitting a major metropolitan area unprepared is terrifying.

Erik Fellini, a visitor from Mexico City, had no idea what was coming, saying; “The hotel had been functioning normally, so we hadn’t been worried… We never imagined this and we hadn’t seen the news.”

Along with his wife, two young children, and other family members, Fellini sheltered on the eighth floor of their hotel, with mattresses and furniture piled up near the windows for protection.

“It felt like it was an earthquake… But in an earthquake it’s a minute and it finishes, and here it was 30 minutes of the hotel moving from one side to another.”

Another survivor, Efrén Garcia, told reporters, “It was the most terrible thing I ever lived through… It was two hours of fear and panic. Everything was flying. I saw entire trees flying, and the tin roofs of houses flying off.”

Officials reported that 80% of the city’s hotels suffered damage, 200 patients had to be evacuated from a damaged hospital and the city’s airport had been hard-hit, and would be closed until further notice.

However, in poorer areas of the city, damage was much worse – shacks built from cinder blocks and sheets of tin simply couldn’t stand up to the storm, and some criticised the government’s response.

Apolonio Maldonado, a resident of the Renacimiento neighbourhood, showed reporters deep cuts on his legs, saying, “The government hasn’t given us any help, not even hope… They haven’t left any food, or even mattresses or cots.”

Although official reports listed 52 people dead and 32 missing, some fear the true toll could be even higher. Alejandro Martínez Sidney, president of the National Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Services in Acapulco, said that his organisation had counted about 120 dead or missing, finding about 20 bodies washed up on the beach or by the docks. Some said the number of fatalities could be as high as 350; the president, López Obrador, rejected those suggestions as lies and propaganda.

November – Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse

On the 12th of November, a landslide in the foothills of the Himalayas collapsed part of a road tunnel under construction to link important Hindu pilgrim sites. 41 construction workers were trapped inside.

Although authorities were quickly able to establish contact with the trapped men using walkie-talkies, and supply them with essentials using a pipeline that had been laid for supplying water to the construction, actually getting them out would prove to be a long and complicated process.

Colonel Deepak Patil, in charge of the rescue operations, told reporters that they were not overly concerned about conditions inside the tunnel; 

“There are lots of big lights and a lot of air inside for two kilometres,” adding that they were pumping in extra air as well as supplying food, water and medications.

The problem was that the entrance to the tunnel on the Silkyara end was completely blocked by 60m or nearly 200 ft of debris from the landslide. They couldn’t go out the other end because the tunnel wasn’t yet complete – nearly 500m of solid mountain separated them from the other half of the tunnel – and although the plans for the tunnel included an escape passage, that had also not yet been constructed.

In addition, the tunnel was being built in an area with complicated geology. The Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountain range, with frequent seismic activity and landslides.

Geologist CP Rajendran told a reporter for the BBC, “The problem in this region is that you have varied types of rocks with different strength. Some are really soft, some are more hardened. The soft rocks crumble. This makes the region inherently unstable.”

Rescue workers began to drill through the debris, planning to lay an escape pipe large enough for the trapped men to crawl out. An advanced drilling machine was flown in from New Delhi to speed up this process, however metal mixed in with the rocky debris caused issues, and the drilling machine completely broke down on the 25th of November with only around 9 metres, or 30ft, to go. 

While attempts to reach them by other means continued, a team of expert “rat-hole” miners was flown in to dig through the last stretch. Rat-hole mining is officially banned in India by the National Green Tribunal, but despite the dangers the technique, using manual tools to dig very narrow tunnels, is still common in many parts of the country.

On the 28th of November, they broke through, telling reporters; “the moment we broke through the last part of the debris, there was an outburst of happiness inside the tunnel…

The trapped men started clapping and shouting in excitement.”

Wheeled stretchers were used to pull the men, one by one, out through the escape pipe which was just 90cm or 3ft wide. They were welcomed by officials and anxious relatives with flower garlands, and were reported to be in good health despite their 17 day ordeal.

India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said that the success of the rescue operation had made everyone emotional.

“The patience and courage that their families have shown in this challenging time cannot be appreciated enough.”

December – Stalybridge Tornado 

When you think of tornadoes, your mind probably goes to the wide open states of the American Great Plains – the area known as Tornado Alley – not the suburban rain-swept streets of the UK. While we do actually get around thirty tornadoes a year here in Britain, they’re normally very small, short-lived, and do little damage.

That’s why residents of Stalybridge, a small town in the Greater Manchester area of northern England, were so surprised to find their festive celebrations disrupted by a strong tornado, rated T5 on the International Tornado Intensity Scale, or IF2 on the International Fujita Scale, which is comparable to the EF Scale used in North America.

The Met Office had issued warnings on the 26th of December for “very strong winds”, calling the storm Gerrit in accordance with their policy of naming those systems which hold the potential to cause severe disruption or damage. Honestly, though, many Northerners would have regarded those warnings as little more than a recommendation to wear their big coat out. 

At around 11:30 on the night of the 27th, a “supercell” thunderstorm crossing Greater Manchester created the tornado, which resident Kerry Hogan called “literally a whirlwind of madness.”

She told BBC radio reporters, “We couldn’t open the front door as the wind was that bad,” she said. “It sounded horrendous, it was very, very loud… Lamp-posts were swaying, we watched trees topple like dominoes…It was horrific and how nobody has been hurt is unbelievable.”

Another resident, Dominic Halpin, said, “I was just sat on the bed and I heard this noise, this rumble, it just got louder and louder and it was literally just thirty seconds of mayhem.”

Police declared a major incident, with around a hundred homes damaged; some with their roofs torn off, their occupants having to be evacuated and the resulting instability posing a “potential risk to public safety”.

Chief Superintendent Mark Dexter said, “Our highest priority is keeping people safe which is why we are advising those who have been displaced not to return or enter their properties which have significant damage until they have been assessed by structural engineers.”

In the following days, affected residents would complain that they had been given little assistance with recovery.

Gareth Moody, who had been in his home with his wife and their children when the tornado tore through it, told reporters for the Manchester Evening News, “Our home has made national and international headlines but where is our support from the local authority? We have had little to no contact with them. I feel massively let down and angry.”

“All we’ve been told is what we can’t do. My home has been ripped apart – advise me on the next steps away from this mess.”

A spokesperson for Tameside Council, the local authority, said, “Whilst it would be inappropriate to comment specifically on an individual case, the council provided an emergency response, at pace, to a T5 category tornado that involved around 75 staff and contractors.The Council’s priority in all emergency situations such as this, is to protect people. We made sure all residents were safe and not homeless and that any dangerous buildings were secure with no risk to the public.”

It would be pointless to hope that there will be no disasters in 2024; at the time of writing, not even a full week into the new year, we’ve already seen an earthquake and plane crash in Japan, a train crash in Indonesia, and a hospital fire in Germany making headlines.

We can hope that we’ve learned the lessons of past disasters, allowing us to prepare for and cope with whatever the world throws at us.

And we can choose to help those who need it, whether by providing direct aid or by donating to the charitable organisations that respond in times of tragedy, and we can choose to be kind.

Thanks this episode go to:

I’d like to say a special thank you to Patreon supporters:

  • Judith Braham
  • Rebecca Addy-Twaits
  • Leigh
  • Justin Hamilton
  • Shamrockbrine
  • e b j
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  • Woddercolorz&TheTim
  • Catherine Aitken
  • Jay Foringer
  • Elena Tyler
  • McKenna Booth
  • Renee Maunder
  • Okamifan1 Productions
  • Andy SJ
  • Michael Fay
  • Skeleheron
  • Mish Liddle
  • J Fay

and to all of you for listening and reading. Supporting the Great Disasters podcast on Patreon can give you access to exclusive content, helps the show keep going, and helps me to keep the show ad-free.

You can also support the show by buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi.

Sources, References and Further Reading

(To Be Added – Sorry for Delay)

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