When Food Attacks: Two Killer Culinary Catastrophes

We may not be at the top of the food chain, exactly, but we at least have our inanimate food conquered. Bread, veggies, milk - these things don’t pose a threat to our existence. At least, not usually. On at least a couple of occasions, some faulty (or just old) construction has resulted in freak accidents that caused a lot of death and injury. Here are the two most famous events.

The London Beer Flood of 1814

If you’re going to go out, you might as well go out doing something you love. You hear that saying a lot, but I doubt even the most die-hard beer-drinker would have enjoyed drowning in 232,000 gallons of suds during the London Beer Flood.

The year was 1814, and a very old vat at Meux’s Brewery containing 135,000 gallons of fermenting porter finally decided to give in to old age. One of the metal hoops surrounding the vat snapped; the resulting noise was heard up to five miles away. As if that much on  and as if that wasn’t bad enough, it knocked over a bunch of other vats, causing a grand total of nearly 1.25 million liters of beer to spill out onto Tottenham Court Road and other surrounding streets. The gush was so massive and powerful that two houses were entirely destroyed. At a nearby pub – which had probably previously enjoyed their proximity to Meux’s Brewery – a wall caved in, killing a teenage girl who worked there.  

The Brewery was located in a poor part of town called St. Giles Rookery, which was a bunch of tenements and low income housing.  Entire families lived in basements of these buildings, and when the beer suddenly rushed into through windows and walls, people were unable to get out and drowned. All in all, eight people were killed that day. Another person is said to have died from alcohol poisoning the following day.

People capitalized on the tragedy, though – many of the residents ran out to the streets with pots and pans to salvage whatever free alcohol they could get their hands on. And shockingly, some people took to exhibiting their dead friends and family for money.  Obviously this was quite the freak accident and people outside of the area were curious. To raise a little money, enterprising citizens decided to show the corpses for a fee. The police had to put a stop to this practice when too many gawkers crowded into one house, which was structurally unsound from the flood. The floor collapsed, dumping the lot of them into a basement that was still half-full of beer. 

Despite paying for the funerals of the drunkenly departed, the Meux Brewery was still sued for neglecting their equipment, especially when it came to light that an employee had previously alerted a boss to a crack in the vat that eventually erupted.  However, the judge presiding over the trial declared the whole tragedy an Act of God, finding the company free of fault. Something tells me the ruling would be a little different today.

The Great Molasses Flood

You think drowning in beer is bad? At least you could attempt to swim through the beer. Trying to fight through a sea of molasses would be all but futile. And that’s exactly what happened in 1919, when a vat of the sticky stuff exploded at the Purity Distilling Company in Boston. The tank was 50 feet tall, 90 feet in diameter and held 2.3 million gallons of molasses. Much like the vat of beer in London, the tank just gave out.

First-hand accounts from people in the area said the rivets popping out of the tank sounded like a machine gun being fired. And then came the wave - a solid, 15-foot-tall swath of molasses, 160 feet wide and moving at an astonishing 35 miles an hour. When you consider that molasses is the epitome of “slow,” 35 miles per hour is nearly unthinkable.

It happened at 12:30 p.m., just as a bunch of workers at the factory were taking lunch. They were among the largest group of fatalities, which also included two 10-year-old children and a 65-year-old woman who was just sitting on her porch when the entire house was smashed on top of her. Two entire blocks were practically flattened by the tsunami of syrupy sweetness - buildings in the immediate vicinity were completely knocked clear of their foundations and fell to rubble in a matter of seconds.

When it settled, the molasses was waist deep, making it almost impossible for rescuers to wade through and try to save survivors. Sadly, this disaster definitely could have been prevented. The tank was hastily constructed thanks to the increasing demand due to the war - back then, molasses was used in gunpowder. The foreman who oversaw the construction of the tank had no background and apparently couldn’t even read a blueprint, according to multiple sources. He was in such a hurry he didn’t even bother to test the tank for leaks with water when it was complete, as was standard practice. The vat was immediately filled with molasses, and you’d better believe it started leaking almost immediately. It leaked so much that neighborhood kids could stop by, fill up cans with syrup, and take it home to their mothers.

In response to complaints about the leaky monstrosity, the company had the vat painted brown so the leaks wouldn’t be so noticeable. Pretty responsible, huh? The company tried to make the public believe that the “sudden” explosion was the result of dynamite deliberately planted by anarchists, but the public didn’t believe it - and neither did the judge and jury.

It took nearly six years of investigation, but the report found without a doubt that the company had been extremely negligent. U.S. Industrial Alcohol was ordered to pay the families of the 21 victims a total of $1 million. Boston smelled of molasses for decades afterward; some residents say it still permeates the air on the right day with the right wind.

Photo from http://edp.org/molasses.htm.

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While these links may not be the exact same ones as before, I also get that sense of deja vu going. I think the story of the great molasses flood is one of the more oft repeated ones here on Neatorama. I'm not nitpicking or criticizing, just making an observation that's all.

The funny thing is, the molasses incident tends to get 'packaged' along with numerous other lists. Sometimes it's part of a 'strangest moments in American history' list, at other times it's part of a 'top 5 strange food related stories' list. And that's why we think we've seen it before.
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