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A catastrophic failure is a sudden and total failure of some system from which recovery is impossible. Catastrophic failures often lead to cascading systems failure.

The term is most commonly used for structural failures, but has often been extended to many other disciplines where total and irrecoverable loss occurs. Such failures are investigated using the methods of forensic engineering, which aims to isolate the cause or causes of failure.


Examples of catastrophic failure of engineered structures include:

  • The Tay Rail Bridge disaster of 1879, where the center half mile of the bridge was completely destroyed while a train was crossing in a storm. The bridge was badly designed and its replacement was built as a separate structure upstream of the old.
  • The failure of the South Fork Dam in 1889 released 4.8 billion US gallons of water and killed over 2,200 people (popularly known as the Johnstown Flood).
  • The failure of the St. Francis Dam in 1928 released 12 1/2 billion US gallons of water, resulting in a death toll of near 600 people.
  • The collapse of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge of 1940, where the main deck of the road bridge was totally destroyed by dynamic oscillations in a


  • The De Havilland Comet disasters of 1954, later determined to be structural failures due to unanticipated metal fatigue at the corners of square windows used by the Comet 1.
  • The 62 Banqiao Dams failure event in China in 1975, due to Typhoon Nina. Approximately 86,000 people died from flooding and another 145,000 died from subsequent diseases, total of 231,000 deaths.
  • The Hyatt Regency walkway collapse of 1981, where a suspended walkway in a hotel lobby in Kansas City, Missouri collapsed completely, killing over 100 people on and below the structure.
  • The Space Shuttle Challenger of 1986, in which an O-ring of a rocket booster failed, and the entire vehicle (and crew) was lost.
  • The reactor at the Chernobyl power plant, which exploded in 1986 causing the release of a substantial amount of radioactive materials.
  • The collapse of the Warsaw radio mast of 1991, which had up to that point held the title of world's tallest structure.
  • The Sampoong Department Store collapse of 1995, which happened due to structural weaknesses, killed 502 people and injured 937.
  • The attack and subsequent fire at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, weakened the floor joist to the point of catastrophic failure.
  • The Space Shuttle Columbia of 2003, where damage to a wing during launch resulted in total loss upon re-entry.
  • The collapse of the multi-span I-35W Mississippi River bridge on August 1, 2007.

See also


catastrophic_failure.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/12 18:32 (external edit)