Acts  of  FATE  continued


star fighter to widow maker

A new fleet of American fighter-bombers was supposed to herald a bright new dawn for the revived German Air Force, allowing it to play a key role in the NATO alliance during the Cold War. But unusually high accident rates turned a political triumph into a fiasco.

On July 19, 1962, the military airfield at Norvenich was a hive of activity. The first unit to convert to the Lockheed F-104G fighter-bomber, 31 (Ground Attack) Squadron 'Boelcke', was due to be officially taken into commission the next day. An air show would mark this key event in the history of the German Air Force. Four pilots from the display team took off for a last practice run before the big day in their new Starfighters. But shortly after take-off, the formation leader made an error and the entire display team crashed; all four pilots were killed. The festivities were cancelled. Before long, the Starfighter had acquired another name - the Widow Maker. It was also known as the Flying Coffin.


The nickname was coined in 1965-66, when Starfighters began to crash with depressing regularity. Difficult questions were asked. Why had the government ordered 916 aircraft that seemed catastrophically accident-prone?

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it was inconceivable that Germany would play a significant military role again. But growing tensions between East and West caused the Federal Republic of Germany, immediately to the west of the Eastern Bloc, to become vital to the NATO alliance. Western Europe and the United States faced a new enemy: the Soviet Union and the armed forces of its satellite states. West Germany needed a new army, navy and airforce to support its NATO allies. It was particularly difficult to create an airforce from scratch as most of the German military-industrial complex had been destroyed during the war. The fledgling West German aeronautics industry was incapable of producing aircraft that could hold their own against an opposing force.

When negotiations began at the end of the 1950s over the choice of future combat aircraft, three planes made it onto the shortlist: the French Dassault Mirage IIIA, the American Grumman Super Tiger, and the American Lockhed F-104 Starfighter. Eventually the decision was made in favour of the Starfighter, not least because the aircraft could be built under licence in the Federal Republic.


The new high-tech aircraft fitted perfectly into the West German rearmament policy. But from the outset, the Starfighter was blighted by misfortune. Shortly after licensing the Germans to build the aircraft, the Americans withdrew the plane from service in the US. The F-104G was also wholly unsuited to European weather conditions. Ninety separate modifications were made to the plane's construction, driving up the cost of each plane by nearly 30 per cent. But the project was seen as a milestone in the restoration of Germany's international standing. The plane could also deliver nuclear payloads - the real role envisaged for the aircraft officially designated as a 'multi-role combat aircraft'.


The Starfighter at first proved too technically complex for German pilots, with little experience of sophisticated aircraft. North European weather and operational restrictions hampered training. A Luftwaffe training operation was set up in the southwestern United States, where there was space, clear air and good weather; but it was an inadequate preparation for northern Europe; many of the problems were caused when flying low-altitude missions at high speed in conditions of poor visibility.

The question of where the expensive aircraft were to be housed had been largely neglected. With insufficient hangars, the aircraft, equipped with sophisticated electronics, were frequently left out in the wind and rain. The Starfighter needed many hours of maintenance for every hour in the air, and many of the ground crew personnel were hastily trained conscripts.

From its inception to 1987, when the Starfighter was withdrawn from service by the Germans, 116 pilots lost their lives flying the aircraft. The accident rate escalated as more operations were undertaken, with 28 crashes in 1965, an average of more than two a month. By mid-1966, 61 Starfighters had crashed, with the loss of 35 pilots.

The crashes drew the media's attention to the plane's problems and prompted a debate in the German parliament. At the height of the Starfighter political crisis in mid-1966, the Luftwaffe chief had to resign after criticising the programme as being politically motivated. But when the number of crashes fell, thanks to technical alterations and better pilot training, public interest waned. In retrospect, the Starfighter's accident rate of one crash for every 6765 hours flown is a fairly average rate of attrition for operational fighter aircraft in peacetime. But the problems caused in the plane's first years of service were well publicised and it retained its notoriety as a 'widow maker'.





In April 1986, the unthinkable happened in Ukraine. A nuclear reactor blew up, turning an entire city into a deadly wasteland. It was the worst nuclear accident of all time, releasing 400 times more fallout than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, and sending a radioactive cloud across Europe.

At 11 am on April 27, 1986, the authorities finally ordered the residents of the Pripyat, in the Ukraine, to leave the area as quickly as they could. An explosion had devastated reactor block 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power station a few miles away 33 hours before. The evacuation of Pripyat began at 2 pm and, two hours later, 1200 buses had cleared the city of its inhabitants. In three days, it was claimed, they would be able to return. Days turned into years. Today, Pripyat's former citizens have long been aware that their home is a radioactive no-go area, and will remain uninhabitable for generations.


Everything seemed normal at the Chernobyl nuclear power station on the night of April 25-26. The employees responsible for reactor block 4 performed their tasks routinely. They were preparing to shut down the reactor to allow maintenance to be carried out. At the same time they were preparing to conduct a long-overdue test to ascertain whether the station's turbine, then close to the end of its life, still generated enough electricity to guarantee short-term operation of the plant's emergency cooling system in the event of a power cut. For various reasons, the reactor was running at well below capacity. This was risky, as the RBMK-1000 reactors installed at Chernobyl, were unstable at low power. The nuclear reaction was maintained and moderated by the use of graphite-tipped control rods and the fuel rods were cooled with light water. If the cooling system failed, then the reaction could quickly run out of control.

At 1.23 am it became clear that the reactor operation was becoming less stable and an emergency shut-down procedure was started. Paradoxically, this initially accelerated the reaction. Because of a design flaw in the construction of the reactors, the control rods activated by the procedure could only bring the reaction to a halt after first stimulating an initial increase in the reaction. The reactor had been running at just 10 per cent of its usual operational level. Just seven seconds after the emergency procedure, it shot up to ten times its normal output - and Chernobyl 4 erupted like a volcano. A massive steam explosion travelled along the channels in the reactor, rupturing coolant tubes and blowing a hole in the roof. The reactor core, reaction chamber, and the main reactor hall were completely destroyed. For several days after the explosion, winds scattered radioactive particles in all directions, with some landing as far away as northern Italy, Finland, Scandinavia and western Britain.

Nuclear accidents


On October 10, 1957, a fire broke out in the nuclear reactor at Windscale (now Sellafield) in Cumbria. A cloud of radioactive material was released, and spread over the British Isles and the European mainland.

Nuclear submarines 

There have been repeated reports of serious accidents on nuclear-powered submarines. The Soviet submarine K-27 experienced a major reactor malfunction while at sea on May 24, 1968, which cost nine crewmen their lives.

Three Mile Island    

Before Chernobyl, the most serious known reactor accident occurred on March 28, 1979, at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant at Harrisburg in the USA. The core suffered a partial meltdown, and it took five days to bring the reactor under control. The accident released radioactive material into the environment.


A series of investigations found that the operators had violated plant procedures, but this may have been due to their lack of knowledge of the plant's flawed design. Ignoring the guidelines, they switched off many of the reactor's safety systems. A government commission in 1986 found they removed at least 204 out of a total of 211 control rods from the reactor core, leaving just seven: guidelines prohibited the operation of the RBMK-1000 with fewer than 15 rods inside the core.

The Soviet engineers who designed the plant were fully aware of the potential risks. But they favoured hazardous graphite-moderated reactors of the type at Chernobyl for a very specific reason. While the plant was still running, the fuel rods could be taken out and processed to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons. To conduct the same operation in a light-water-moderated reactor, it was necessary to run the core for a certain amount of time before shutting it off completely.


Within three and a half hours of the accident, the fire service had managed to extinguish the fire almost completely. During the operation, more than 230 men had received extremely high doses of radiation, and 29 of them died in the following weeks from the consequences of this exposure. But they had laid the foundations for the containment of the catastrophe. In the days following the accident, helicopters dropped 40 tonnes of boric acid onto the ruins of the reactor hall to stop the nuclear reaction, 800 tonnes of the mineral dolomite to absorb the heat it had generated, 1800 tonnes of sand and mud to extinguish the fires and 2400 tonnes of lead to screen the radiation. But this only succeeded in trapping the heat within the ruined building, which threatened to set off the nuclear reaction once again. So a tunnel was excavated under the reactor and a cooling system using liquid nitrogen was installed. Ten days after the explosion, the ruins of Chernobyl 4 were stabilised and all radioactivity contained.

Subsequently, 2000 construction workers and engineers, assisted by thousands of soldiers, built a protective concrete shield around the wreckage - the so-called sarcophagus. Three cement works were set up to produce enough concrete for the enormous task. The walls that now entomb the turbine building, the service building and the devastated main reactor hall are up to 15 metres thick in places. As a foundation, the workers put a layer of gravel and cement 6-12 metres thick under the melted reactor core, which also isolated it from the ground water. During the operations, workers were exposed to increased levels of radiation, but the long-term effects of this exposure are still not fully known.

Regular Geiger-counter readings to measure radiation levels are still taken today at the site of the destroyed reactor. About 95 per cent of the fuel (180 tonnes) in the reactor at the time of the accident is thought to remain inside the shelter. If the sarcophagus, which is deteriorating with age, collapses, another cloud of radioactive dust could be released.


The former reactor core gave most cause for concern. Although it had been buried under a million tonnes of concrete, underneath the carapace the radioactive material continued to generate heat, causing stresses that fractured the concrete. Engineers feared that water might penetrate the cracks, setting off a new chain-reaction in the fuel still present in the core, so they set about constructing a roof for the sarcophagus.

The roof was installed using helicopters. The pilots lowered thick steel tubing, 30 metres long and 120 centimetres in diameter. The tubes were positioned to span the gap between the top of the western wall of the reactor hall, which had survived the explosion, and the ventilation shafts on the opposite side of the wrecked reactor. Then a light coating was laid on top of the pipes to repel the rain. It was impossible to work with complete accuracy from a helicopter, and as a result there were gaps between the steel tubes up to 25 centimetres wide, through which rainwater seeped. At first, it seemed impossible to seal the gaps, as anyone working on the roof would have been given a fatal dose of radiation within ten hours. Eventually most of the holes were plugged using a remote-control system.

The ruins of the reactor were not the only radioactive legacy. A huge amount of radioactive waste such as vehicles, tools and other items accumulated at Chernobyl. The debris has been placed in trenches 100 metres long, 4 metres deep and up to 50 metres wide, with concrete bases to seal them off from the groundwater. Each dump can accommodate up to 15,000 cubic metres of waste, and to date around 1000 such dumps have been created in the surrounding area.


A surprising beneficiary of the Chernobyl disaster has been the surrounding countryside. The authorities were obliged to evacuate around 350,000 people from parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, leaving 3860 square miles of land almost uninhabited. As humans left, wild animals came in to fill the vacuum. Ten years after the catastrophe, three times as many animals as before the event were living in the area around the reactor. Belarus has even declared the part of the 30-kilometre-wide exclusion zone around the reactor within its territory as a 'State Radioecological Reserve', which they have stocked with European bison and other wildlife.

Today, the animals show no external signs of suffering any ill effects from the catastrophe. But in the years immediately after the accident, tests on wild boar, birds and rodents within 6 miles of the reactor revealed an incidence of hereditary defects ten times greater than that in other regions. Scientists also found a large number of animals with six toes and other anomalies. The defects were clearly the result of irradiation of the foetuses in the womb. The incidence of such anomalies has now declined to a level not much higher than before the accident, and even the number of hereditary defects has fallen noticeably.

Firefighters who rushed to the scene were not told how radioactive the smoke and debris were. Even their vehicles were irradiated. Many of the vehicles deployed on rescue operations in the aftermath of the accident, tools and other equipment have been buried in huge trenches within the Chernobyl exclusion zone.


People living around the reactor also suffered high doses of radiation. The radioactive substance iodine-131, released by the explosion of reactor number 4, found its way mainly into victims' thyroid glands after the accident. There, the radiation altered the

Many children in Belarus have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer following the Chernobyl disaster. Nine children who suffered from thyroid cancer have died, but the vast majority of those diagnosed with the condition have survived. One of the main causes of this cancer has been identified as drinking milk from cows that ate contaminated grass.

genetic make-up of the cells and eventually caused cancer. In the aftermath of the disaster in the worst affected areas in Belarus, doctors diagnosed incidences of thyroid cancer 40 times higher than in areas unaffected by the blast. In Belarus alone, it is reckoned that some 3000 people will contract such tumours over time, although these cases are relatively treatable. A further 1600 such cases are expected in Ukraine.

After ten years, the authorities had found around 1000 tumours of this kind among children. Two-thirds of them had been under five when the accident happened: at this age the thyroid glands are seven times more susceptible to the effects of radioactivity than in adults. In the years following the disaster, no higher incidence of other forms of cancer became apparent in the affected areas than elsewhere. Estimates of the final death toll from cancer vary from a conservative 9000 - in a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organisation - to a potential 200,000 by Greenpeace.

The worst effects of the reactor accident for the former inhabitants of the region may be its psychosocial repercussions. A total of 350,000 people were displaced and resettled, some of them within just a few hours, and their homeland was declared a radioactive exclusion zone. Up to 800,000 so-called liquidators' were involved in the clean-up operation following the accident, and many of them received high doses of radiation. Even today, few of these rescue workers know how they have been affected.

The effects of this uncertainty are dramatic. In the decade after the accident, the birth rate among the Chernobylis, as the survivors are known, fell to just a sixth of that in the rest of country. On the other hand, the suicide rate rocketed.


Ten years after the catastrophe, the contamination of the area had decreased to an extent that made it possible to visit the city for brief periods. But readings taken in Pripyat in February 1996 still recorded radiation levels some 20 to 30 times higher than in any uncontaminated city - far too high for people to live there for any length of time. This situation has not changed in the interim. Two miles away, at the Chernobyl nuclear installation, radiation is an order of magnitude some 60 to 100 times greater than uncontaminated areas. In the summer, when a warm breeze whips up the radioactive dust, these readings can be five or six times higher, according to Alexander Krasnyuk, who for many years was the power station's press officer. As a result, the 10,000 or so employees of the nuclear plant, who continued to work in the immediate vicinity of the shattered reactor for a decade and a half after the accident, were housed 30 miles away in the uncontaminated town of Slavutitch, only coming into the Chernobyl area for the duration of their shifts. There they kept reactors 1, 2 and 3 running until the last of these was finally decommissioned at the end of 2000.      

Faced with the continued uncertainty, some of the evacuees, especially older people, have taken it upon themselves to return to the exclusion zone. These returnees are now living in primitive conditions in the huge area that the explosion contaminated. The authorities turn a blind eye, at least to old people, even when they burn irradiated wood and so spread radioactivity again. It is thought that the high levels of radiation in the region will have little impact on people with only a few years left to live.



into a  



About ten miles east of Mobile, Alabama, Willie Odom peered through the thick fog over the Mobile River. The skipper of a tug, the Mauvilla, which was towing six heavy barges upstream, he had completely lost his bearings. With no chart or compass, it was impossible to check his position, and his radar equipment wasn't helping as he didn't know how to use it properly. So he was unaware that he was gradually deviating from the main shipping channel and heading for the mouth of a small tributary not normally used by commercial river traffic. This creek, the Big Bayou Canot, was straddled by a bridge carrying the main railway line. Lost in the fog, Odom did not notice that a barge he was towing had hit a steel pier that supported the railway bridge.

'I looked to my right - and saw water gushing into the carriage.'


Meanwhile, the Amtrak transcontinental service Sunset Limited, with more than 200 people on board, was trundling through the night at a comfortable 70 miles an hour. A few minutes earlier, the train had pulled out of Mobile on the final leg of its 3000 mile journey from Los Angeles to Miami via New Orleans - the so-called 'Scenic Southern Route'. Most passengers were asleep or dozing as dawn approached. A few people were still awake in the restaurant car, including two of the train's guards.


When the Sunset Limited reached the bridge at 2.54 am on September 22, 1993, the damaged pier buckled under the weight of the three locomotives pulling the train. The engines plunged into the water, dragging the baggage and dormitory cars and two of the six passenger carriages with them! The fuel tanks ruptured and the diesel ignited the baggage and dormitory cars. In an instant the quiet creek was transformed into a nightmarish scene of twisted metal, sinking railway carriages and burning diesel fuel. Inside the wrecked carriages that had fallen into the water, people were fighting for their lives. Many drowned; others were killed by fire and smoke. Some people were crushed by huge pieces of wreckage - including the train driver, who lay buried under one of the locomotives deep in the muddy riverbed.

The passengers in the rear part of the train had been violently shaken when the front carriages came uncoupled and the train ground to a halt - but at first they had no idea of their lucky escape. As the sun came up, it became clearer what had happened, but the scene took on a new, dangerous dimension - one of the carriages, which had come to a stop right at the far end of the wrecked bridge, was threatening to topple into the river. Disaster was averted by the two guards who had been in the restaurant car - maintaining calm and order, they managed to lead the passengers in the four rear carriages to safety.

One of the guards then radioed for help. At almost the same time, the US Coastguard received a distress call from the tugboat. A rescue operation swung into action, with helicopters, divers and river boats, including the Mauvilla, taking part. The creek water was so muddy that it was virtually impossible to see

anything, so the rescuers - aware of the possible proximity of alligators and poisonous snakes - were often forced to rely solely on their sense of touch. It was a slow business salvaging the bodies from the wreckage, not helped by the lack of a proper passenger list. By evening it emerged that 42 of the passengers and five train crew had been killed; 103 passengers had been injured. The tug's , crew of four were unhurt.

The public reaction was one of outrage. How could such an accident possibly have happened? The search for answers revealed the shocking truth - under existing law, tugboats were not required to carry accurate navigation equipment, or even to have a properly qualified skipper on board. A few weeks after the accident, safety legislation was passed addressing these loopholes - too late for the 47 unfortunate victims of the Sunset Limited.

2004: a bad year for railways


February 18, 2004: In the Iranian city of Nishapur, a freight train carrying chemicals and petrol exploded, killing 300 people.

North Korea

April 22, 2004: Two trains carrying fuel blew up in the city of Ryongchon, North Korea, killing 161 and injuring 1300

United Kingdom

November 6, 2004: A high speed train hit a stationary car at Ufton Nervet, Berkshire. Seven people were killed, 100 injured.

Sri Lanka

December 26, 2004: A packed passenger train, the Queen of the Sea, on the island of Sri Lanka was swamped by the tsunami created by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, with the loss of 1800 lives. This was the world's worst rail disaster!



Destruction of Halifax

On December 6, 1917, a minor collision caused a munitions ship to blow up in the Canadian port of Halifax. It was the largest man-made explosion until the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.

The small port of Halifax on the east coast of Canada may have been far removed from the battlefields of Europe during the First World War, but its large natural harbour was crowded with wartime shipping - loading cargo, awaiting convoys or under repair. Freighters assembled there every week before crossing to Europe in convoys escorted by warships. Halifax was easy to protect and defend: every evening at sunset its bottleneck entrance channel was simply blocked by anti-submarine nets to stop enemy U-boats from entering. It also prevented the passage of ships in or out of the harbour.

On December 5, 1917, the Mont Blanc, captained by Aime le Medec, arrived just too late to be let into the harbour. At the same time an empty Norwegian freighter, the Imo,

The northern part of Halifax, including the cathedral, was worst hit. The explosion completely destroyed more than 1630 homes; 12,000 houses were badly damaged and 6000 people were left homeless.

In the 20 minutes between the collision and the explosion, crowds of spectators, including many children, ran to the waterfront to watch the ship burning. They all died. Survivors search for victims among the wreckage.

under Haakon From, was due to embark for New York to pick up relief supplies for Belgium, but because of delayed coal supplies, this ship had also missed the sunset shutdown. On hearing that the Mont Blanc would have to spend the night at anchor outside the port, its captain was alarmed. His ship had more than 2400 tonnes of explosives in its holds and there were drums of benzene stacked on deck. Moored offshore, the ship was a sitting target.


At daybreak on December 6, 1917, the Mont Blanc weighed anchor and headed in towards the narrow harbour mouth. At the same time, the Imo was heading out. The entrance and exit of ships through the passage known as the Narrows was strictly controlled. Whether entering or leaving, vessels were meant to keep to starboard, and also to maintain radio contact - taking independent evasive action if necessary.

As she made for the harbour mouth, the Imo found her passage blocked, so she moved over to the opposite channel - the channel that the Mont Blanc was using. The Mont Blanc signalled that she intended to hold her course and that the Imo should give way - but the Imo signalled that she, too, was maintaining her course. After a flurry of unresolved negotiations, the Mont Blanc saw only one option - to swing to port across the bows of the Imo. As soon as the Imo's captain realised what was happening he signalled evasive action - 'full steam astern' - to his engine room. But the Imo's propellers churning the water in reverse dragged her out into the middle of the channel. Her bow crunched into the Mont Blanc creating a shower of sparks which ignited vapour escaping from the drums of benzene on deck.

As soon as they saw the flames, the Mont Blanc's crew knew that their cargo would explode within minutes. They lowered the lifeboats and rowed towards the far shore. Their screams of warning went unheeded - the people on the quay were enjoying the spectacle - and probably didn't understand French. As the ship burned, crowds of spectators gathered to watch. And the burning ship drifted towards the industrial north end of Halifax.


At 9.05 am the fire reached the explosives. In a blinding flash more than 1900 people were killed. Around 9000 more were injured and an area of half a square mile was flattened. Much of the area burnt to the ground, fuelled by overturned stoves and cellars stacked with winter coal. The explosion blew in every pane of glass for miles around. Shock waves were reported as far away as Sydney in Cape Breton, 270 miles to the northeast. The impact also triggered a tidal wave that washed up the shoreline, sinking small vessels and funnelling up Tufts Cove (due north of the explosion) where there was a tiny native American Mi'kmaq settlement. It was swept away by the man-made tsunami.

In Halifax, the bewildered survivors were in a state of shock. Most were convinced they were under German attack, so when the truth emerged there was some comfort in the knowledge that there would be no more explosions. Troops, sailors and hundreds of volunteers organised a huge relief effort. Much of the aid came from the people of Massachusetts, who shipped medical staff and supplies, food, clothing, transport - and even glass and glaziers - from Boston. Halifax still presents Boston with a giant Christmas tree as a thank you for their help in December 1917. And every year, at 9 am on December 6, a memorial service is held close to where the Mont Blanc exploded.


Escape from an

Underground tomb

TOn October 24, 1963, 129 men clocked on at the Mathilde pit at an iron mine at Lengede, northwest Germany. For some, it would be the longest shift of their lives. Others would never emerge.

The iron extraction process required a lot of water, so to cope with the demand, a number of artificial lakes had been created right above the underground workings. At 7.30 pm, close to clocking-off time, all the lights went out and the conveyor belts carrying the mined ore shut down. At first the miners blamed an electrical short circuit - irritating but not a major problem.

They had no idea that the base of one of the lakes above them had ruptured and tonnes of water and mud were cascading into the galleries and tunnels beneath. But as soon as they heard the unmistakable roar of floodwater, they knew they were in trouble. Frantically, the men looked for an escape route, climbing, crawling, wading and swimming - some even knocking together a makeshift raft. A few hours later, 79 men emerged safely. But 50 miners were still trapped.

A rescue team was assembled. Mining engineers and surveyors' pored over maps and documents and ordered urgent delivery of specialist drilling and rescue equipment. They believed that there could be survivors near to where the water had entered the mine. Their first test bore was on target. Forty metres below ground, the team found and rescued seven miners.

Major pit disasters

China, 2005

On February 15, 2005, a gas explosion 250 metres below ground in a coal mine in the 'rust-belt' of north-east China killed at least 203 workers.

Germany, 1962

The worst catastrophe ever to hit the Saar coalfield in West Germany took place on February 7, 1962, at the Luisenthal pit near the town of Volklingen, when a firedamp explosion killed 299 miners.

Wales, 1913

An accident at the Universal Colliery, at Senghenydd in South Wales, took the lives of 439 miners on October 14, 1913. Just 12 years previously, 81 miners were killed in an incident at the same mine.


There was hope for others, too. Sudden flooding will push any remaining air up into the higher reaches of a mine, where it forms pockets and stops water from entering. Four men had been working in one such area. But two days after the flood, time was beginning to run out. The rescue team sank another borehole. There was jubilation when they detected the faint noise of someone tapping on the drilling rod. But the men would have to wait in the darkness for five more days before the drilling team could make a shaft wide enough to get them out.

It was essential for the rescuers to maintain pressure in the air pocket and prevent water from gushing in. This would happen as soon as the pressure was released, so throughout the operation, pressurised air was pumped in. Then a special device known as a Dahlbusch bomb was sent down to retrieve the trapped men. The narrow, torpedo-shaped steel capsule could hold one man at a time. Each man had to squeeze into the narrow tube before being hoisted to the surface. Three of the four came out alive. They then spent several hours in a de-pressurisation chamber before being released.

By November 1, 1963, eight days after the accident, the management of the mine was about to wind up the rescue operation - convinced that no one else could have survived underground for so long.

As quickly as possible, three shafts were sunk into the 'Old Man' pit to try and reach the men still trapped in one of its underground caverns.


But some men were still alive. On the night of the accident, 21 miners had taken refuge in the 'Old Man', a long-abandoned exhausted seam. The passageways were no longer propped up and were in danger of collapse, but the men had no choice. They inched cautiously upwards as the flood waters rose behind them, eventually reaching a dead end. Then they all squeezed into a cavern measuring just six metres by three. The air quality was so poor that breathing was difficult. All of the men developed headaches and became drowsy through lack of oxygen. They began to fall asleep; some were crushed and killed by falling rocks and boulders as they slept.

The miners trapped at Lengede were rescued with the so-called Dahlbusch bomb. The device was named after the Dahlbusch colliery in Germany where it was first used in 1955 to rescue three miners from a depth of about 900 metres after an underground fire.

The survivors were woken by a gust of fresh air. A compressed air line somewhere in the mine had probably ruptured, allowing the men to breathe. Meanwhile, the lamps on their helmets had gone out, the matches they carried were wet and their cigarette lighters out of fuel. Though the miners could breathe they were still in total darkness. They gradually became unbearably thirsty. Although there was water all around them, it was undoubtedly contaminated by the putrefying bodies. In the end they were so desperate for water that they took the risk and drank. They then tried to make themselves heard by blowing a piercing whistle and yelling as loudly as possible. But when it became clear that nobody could hear them, they lapsed into silence.


Ten days after the accident, 11 miners were still alive. But despite growing pessimism from the management team, not everyone on the surface had abandoned hope. Some of the miners were so insistent that, under similar circumstances, they would have tried to escape into the 'Old Man' that the mine's manager agreed to investigate the area. No accurate maps of the obsolete workings were available. Instead, a borehole was drilled in a spot based on an educated guess. When the drill hit the tracks of the mine railway they knew they must be in roughly the right area, so they moved the drilling operation over by a few metres.

Suddenly, the drilling team burst through to an underground cavern, 55 metres deep. From there, knocking sounds began to reach the surface - ten full days after the disaster. The rescuers lowered a small lamp down the hollow tube of the drilling rod, followed by a pencil and pad on which all the survivors wrote down their names. The tube, just 6 cm in diameter, became a vital supply line for the trapped men. Articles of dry clothing were shoved down it, as well as tea and food in narrow containers and finally, a microphone.

Meanwhile, police stopped and turned back the lorries that had started to carry the heavy rescue equipment away from Lengede. The main drilling teams were also brought back on site. Even now, it was by no means certain that the men would be saved as the roof above them could collapse at any moment - but although the manager of the mine gave the operation only

'We had a choice: either drown where we stood or get crushed to death in the "Old Man" ---  From the memoirs of Bernhard Wolter, a survivor of the Lengede Pit disaster

a 50-50 chance of success, the press was already talking excitedly about the 'miracle of Lengede'.

At 6 am on November 7, the main rescue shaft reached the cavern. Two miners went down with the Dahlbusch bomb to help their colleagues out. When the 11 survivors emerged into the light after 14 days underground, they had to shield their eyes behind dark glasses. Photographs and television footage of their rescue were broadcast worldwide. But though the men were glad to be alive, none could forget their 29 dead colleagues - one of whom was never found and still lies buried somewhere in the depths of the mine.

The  great  NORTH  SEA

Floods  of  1953

THIn 1953 a devastating storm surge swept through the North Sea, flooding the English and Dutch coasts, causing loss of life and widespread devastation. Both countries were ill-prepared for the impact of the storm, and even the elaborate Dutch sea defences were easily breached. In the aftermath of the disaster, new flood control programmes were rapidly put in place.

There seemed nothing particularly unusual about the storm that raged along the Dutch coast on January 31, 1953. For some people, including 10-year-old Ko van Oeveren, it even marked a welcome change from the previous day. In the village of Stavenisse, in southern Holland, the young boy cycled to the harbour on a stormy Saturday afternoon to ride his bike through the waves as they broke over the quayside.

On the morning of February 1, the flood tide retreated and the water level dropped. Some people were still trapped on the roofs of their houses and boats were used to paddle down flooded streets looking for survivors.

A low hill surmounted by a windmill turned out to be the last bit of dry land left as this small village on the Dutch coast was inundated. When the dikes broke at about 4 am on February 1, people awoke to thunderous noise and rushed to their rooftops. Just a few people saw the water coming and found a high spot before it reached them.

But by the evening, the inhabitants of Stavenisse noticed with alarm that the sea was encroaching ever closer to their houses. At around midnight, Ko's father made emergency preparations: as their house was situated on top of a dike he asked several relatives, who lived on lower-lying land, to spend the night with them. A total of 11 people, the family's six chickens and small pig, were holed up in the building as it was surrounded by a foaming tide. Finally, the water also reached their house, flooding the floor to a depth of 30 centimetres. To save the piglet from drowning, Ko's father had to hold the frantic animal's head above the rising water. On Sunday morning, the ebb tide brought some welcome relief.

Many other people living on the Dutch coast were less lucky. Zeeland, the low-hying area of islands and reclaimed land at the confluence of the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt estuaries was worst hit by the storm surge. Without warning, the North Sea snatched back from the Dutch land they had taken centuries to reclaim.


The Dutch word for 'flood' is watersnood or 'water peril', a term that encapsulates the misery of those in the regions inundated by the surge. Throughout the history of the Netherlands, there had been catastrophic watersnoods caused by a sudden rise in either the North Sea or the country's major rivers. The second St Elisabeth Flood hit the area around Dordrecht in southern Holland in November 1421, destroying 30 villages, while the All Saints' Day Flood of November 1570, claimed at least 20,000 lives in the affected regions.

By the winter of 1953 these devastating floods were ancient history. The entire Dutch coast - with no chains of dunes to act as natural high-water barrages - was protected by high dikes, built to exacting standards. The low-lying land, or polders, that lay behind the sea dikes had once been drained by windmills, now supplanted by efficient new diesel pumps.

A long-cherished dream of the Dutch, to dam the Zuyder Zee behind sea dikes, had been realised. The former sea inlet, created by storm surges in the Middle Ages, was now partly absorbed into the IJsselmeer, a shallow freshwater lake, and partly reclaimed as fertile polder land. It seemed that the North Sea had been tamed, and the Dutch were now far better equipped against its ravages. The Meteorological Service could detect the approach of deep lows while they were still far out in the Atlantic and raise the alarm in good time when a real emergency threatened. In general the Dutch felt secure behind the dikes; but on this occasion their confidence was misplaced.


On January 30, 1953, off the coast of Iceland, a marginal low developed. But it barely figured on meteorological charts, so a severe weather warning was not issued. Over the course of the day it shifted southeast and entered a zone where cold air from the Arctic and warm subtropical air from the south mingled as though in a whirlpool. The low quickly reached hurricane force, buffeting the northeast of Scotland on January 31 with winds at speeds of up to 112 miles an hour. As it crossed over the North Sea from the Shetland Islands and approached Denmark, the whirlwind pushed huge volumes of water southwards. As the water entered the relatively shallow waters of the North Sea, it created a tidal surge, which flowed in an anticlockwise direction.  

Storm surges in the North Sea

Orford Ness 1897 

During a heavy storm one mile of the shingle spit at Orford Ness in Suffolk was washed away.

Thames Estuary, 1928 

A northerly gale raised water levels in the Thames Estuary so high that London was flooded. In Southwark, Westminster and Hammersmith, the embankments were overtopped by water. When a section near Lambeth Bridge collapsed, water rushed into the basements of nearby houses so quickly that 14 people drowned.

Hamburg, 1962, 1976

315 people were killed, and a further 15,000 made homeless, in a storm surge that hit Hamburg on February 16-17, 1962. When the century's worst flood hit the same spot in 1976, although sea levels were higher than in 1962, there were no deaths - a result of improved sea defences.

"The waves were gigantic; I had never seen anything like them before." --- KO VAN OEVEREN

At 4 pm on January 31, the surge hit Scotland, reaching the coast of the Netherlands at 4 am the following day, where hurricane-force gusts at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour were measured. The extreme wind speeds were the lesser problem: the rising sea level, which hit a record high in the southern part of the North Sea where it funnels into a narrow strait, was far more serious.


Across the North Sea, in England, the floods were the worst natural disaster ever recorded. A total of 307 people were killed the mainland with a further 224 at sea. At Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast, where hurricane force winds were recorded at 8 pm, 38 people died when their wooden 'pre-fabs' were flooded. Canvey Island in Essex was inundated with a loss of 58 lives.

Waves over 6 metres high swept over the Lincolnshire coast. The Stranraer-Larne railway ferry MV Princess Victoria was lost at sea in the North Channel east of Belfast with 135 fatalities and many fishing trawlers sank. Floodwaters even breached sea defences to reach London's East End, inundating 1000 homes. Flooding forced the evacuation of 30,000 people and 24,000 properties were seriously damaged. While many communities had emergency plans, gales had brought down telephone lines and the co-ordination required for a large-scale evacuation was not in place. There was almost no warning, of the impending disaster.

At the Hook of Holland, the mean tide level was exceeded by more than 3 metres, while the water-level indicator at Amsterdam rose to almost 4 metres above its usual mark. Even the strongest dikes could not withstand such an onslaught. They were breached at several points on the morning of February 1, and such was the force of the floods rushing through them that they gouged holes up to 15 metres deep and flooded 1250 square miles. The consequences were terrible. In the Netherlands alone, more than 1800 people were killed; 70,000 people were evacuated, an estimated 200,000 animals drowned and around 4000 buildings destroyed, with 45,000 more badly damaged.

The Netherlands has spent huge sums on a massive hydraulic engineering project - including these flood barriers at Hagestein on the Rhine - to enable better flood control in the future. Three giant sea walls, called storm surge barriers, protect the fragile inlets and dikes. The barriers remain open in normal weather, but during a storm surge 63 hydraulic-powered sluice gates, each 6 metres tall, keep the rising waters out.


In the UK the floods caused a national outcry. The Government implemented a programme to build and strengthen sea defences. Nearly 30 years later, in 1982, the Thames Barrier programme was finally completed, intended to protect London from any future calamity. An inquiry into the disaster recommended that a flood warning organisation should be set up, and the Storm Tide Forecasting Service was established, providing 24-hour forecasts of tidal surge and wave activity.

The 1953 storm surge shocked the Netherlands to the core. The first result of the disaster was that people completely lost confidence in their coastal defences. There was a determination to make the sea defences absolutely effective by implementing the Delta Plan on the estuaries of the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt rivers. For more than 40 years, huge amounts of money were invested in this massive hydraulic engineering scheme, consisting of high dikes and ingenious storm flood weirs, which open and close automatically as required on the sea side when tidal currents are flowing. The opening mechanism is just as important as the closing mechanism that prevents sea water entering, since the danger of flooding often comes from Holland's rivers overflowing inland at times of storm surges.

Yet the greatest danger still comes from the sea. The level of the North Sea has risen inexorably for more than a century and by the end of the 21st century, the water level could be 50-60 centimetres higher than it is today. The number of severe storm surges is increasing, and in places the coastline will recede by an average of more than 4 metres a year. Even with all the technology now at our disposal, there is no comprehensive and final defence against the forces of nature.