5 Sleep-Deprived Disasters

The following article is from the new book Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader.

We tend to think of being very sleepy as, well, just being very sleepy. But if you’re in a position of serious responsibility—really bad things can happen. Here are a few examples.


Disaster: On January 28, 1986, the NASA space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after taking off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all seven crew members on board.

Sleep Deprivation: The night before the disaster, NASA officials held a conference call with officials from Morton Thiakol, the company that designed the shuttle’s rocket boosters. One of Thiakol’s engineers recommended canceling the launch, due to the cold weather forecast for the next day, telling NASA officials that cold temperatures could adversely affect equipment in the boosters—which could cause an explosion. NASA declined to cancel the launch. An investigation into the disaster found that it was indeed caused by the cold weather. The investigation also found that sleep deprivation, caused by a culture of overwork at NASA, played a critical role in the decision by the managers to ignore the engineer’s advice: two of the top managers involved in the conference call had been awake for 23 hours straight at the time of the call, and they had slept for only three hours the previous day. “The willingness of NASA employees in general to work excessive hours, while admirable,” the official report into the disaster said, “raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake.”


(Image credit: Pawel Kierzkowski)

Disaster: On June 1, 2009, during a flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Paris, France, Air France 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 people on board.

Sleep Deprivation: Captain Marc Dubois, 58, the pilot on the flight with the most experience by far, had just one hour of sleep the night before. “I didn’t sleep enough last night,” he can be heard saying early in the flight on the plane’s cockpit voice recorder (which wasn’t recovered until May 2011). “One hour, it’s not enough.” And when his two younger copilots encountered trouble about three hours into the flight, Dubois was asleep in a bunk located just behind the cockpit. It was, it must be noted, a scheduled nap, because all pilots on especially long flights are required to take naps. But when the copilots started experiencing problems—including “STALL!” warnings blaring in the cockpit—and called for Dubois on the plane’s intercom, it took Dubois more than a minute to respond. And when he finally did get to the cockpit, he seemed confused and failed to take control of the situation, which a pilot of his experience should have been able to do. (The least experienced of the copilots, for example, was pulling back on the control stick during the ordeal—the exact opposite of what’s supposed to be done during a stall.) The plane crashed into the ocean less than three minutes after Dubois got to the cockpit. The time it took him to respond to the calls for help, and his subsequent inability to figure out what was going on, were determined by investigators to have been caused by fatigue.


(Image credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service)

Disaster: Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef just a few hours after leaving port in the town of Valdez, in Prince William Sound on the south coast of Alaska.

Sleep Deprivation: We’ve written about the Exxon Valdez disaster before and reported, as others have, that the main fault lies with the ship’s captain, Joseph Hazelwood, who had at least three vodkas (and possibly more) just a few hours before setting off from Valdez, Alaska. But there’s more to the story: investigators found that fatigue, once again caused by a culture of overwork, also played a significant role in the disaster. Hazelwood had left the third mate, Gregory Cousins, alone on the bridge shortly before the ship ran aground—a violation of regulations, which state that at least two officers must be on the bridge at all times—so that he could sleep off his intoxication. Cousins had been awake for more than 18 hours when he took the wheel, and he’d had only five hours of sleep the night before that. Because of his drowsiness, investigators said, Cousins failed to notice that the enormous, 987-footlong ship had gone dangerously off course…until it was too late to stop it, leading to the ship’s striking a reef, and the subsequent spilling of 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.


Disaster: On the morning of December 1, 2013, a crowded Metro-North Railroad passenger train derailed in the New York City borough of the Bronx. The crash killed four people and injured another 61, and caused $9 million worth of damage.

Sleep Deprivation: An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the train had jumped the tracks as it sped around a sharp curve at 82 mph. (The speed limit was 30 mph.) Why was it going so fast? The engineer, William Rockefeller, had fallen asleep at the controls. Rockefeller, the investigation revealed, had been reassigned from the afternoon shift to the morning shift just two weeks prior to the crash, and had not yet adjusted to his new sleep pattern. In addition, Rockefeller was later diagnosed with a severe form of the disorder sleep apnea, which causes high carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream and can result in fatigue and slow reaction time. Rockefeller was also found to have taken an antihistamine at some point prior to the crash, which also could have contributed to his sleepiness. (Authorities considered filing criminal charges against Rockefeller, but ultimately decided not to.)

5. UPS FLIGHT 1354

Disaster: In the early morning hours of August 14, 2013, an Airbus A300 cargo plane owned by UPS Airlines (the airline of the United Parcel Service) crashed during its approach into Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Alabama. Two pilots were on board; both were killed.

Sleep Deprivation: The investigation into the crash by the NTSB found that both pilots made a series of errors during their approach into the airport. They failed to properly configure the plane’s computer for a landing, they descended too rapidly, and they failed to abort the landing attempt when it was clear that it was not safe—all of which led to the plane clipping treetops before the runway, which in turn caused the plane to crash into a hillside and explode. The mistakes were attributed to fatigue. In the days leading up to the crash, both pilots, Captain Cerea Beal, 58, and First Officer Shanda Fanning, 37, had complained of being overworked. Beal told a colleague, “These schedules over the past several years are killing me.” And when the plane’s cockpit voice recorder was recovered the day after the crash, both pilots could be heard talking about their demanding work schedules, about how tired they were—and even implying that UPS was more interested in saving money than in pilot safety. “These people,” Beal said, “have no clue.” (Nobody at UPS Airlines was disciplined for the crash, but the NTSB required the airline to update their fatigue management plans.)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's newest volume, Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader. The 29th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories, facts, and lists, and comes in both the Kindle version and paperback.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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