In 1937 – (80 years ago) – in New London, Texas, a natural gas leak caused the deadliest school disaster in American history. To save money, the administration of New London School had canceled its regular heating gas contract, instead tapping into a line of residue gas from a nearby oilfield. This was a common cost-saving practice in that area, since the oil producers considered their residue gas to be a waste product and usually just burned it off. But natural gas has no odor of its own, and the oil field’s residue gas lacked the odor agents that natural gas providers are now required to add as a safety measure. So when the school’s wood-shop teacher turned on an electric sander in his classroom, he was unaware that the air in the room was saturated with gas. The building explosion could be heard four miles away, and some three hundred people, mostly young students, were killed.
In 1965 – (52 years ago) – Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the world’s first space walk, floating in the void for twelve minutes. He then spent the next fifteen trying to get back into his spacecraft. Due to political pressure from the Kremlin to score another win over the Americans, his spacesuit and breathing unit had been designed and built in such a frantic hurry that they were almost unworkable. The suit overheated, and grew rigid like a balloon. Leonov could not move his arms and legs without reducing the air pressure to a dangerously low level. In the struggle to re-enter his spacecraft, he almost passed out, and nearly ran out of oxygen. Returning to earth the next day, Leonov and his crewmate, Pavel Belyayev, landed hundreds of miles off target and spent a freezing night in the deep Russian forest, shivering inside their spacecraft as hungry wolves and bears circled outside. The Kremlin trumpeted the news of another space first, but the truth about Leonov’s brush with death remained a state secret for decades.
In 1967 – (50 years ago) – the BP-chartered supertanker Torrey Canyon hit a rock off the coast of Cornwall, Great Britain. Over the next few days, it dumped its whole cargo into the North Atlantic: 120,000 tons of crude oil from Kuwait. It was the worst such accident up to that time, and as the oil slick threatened the beaches of Cornwall and northern France, various attempts to clean it up failed miserably. Long strings of containment booms blew apart in the heavy waves. Navy vessels and helicopters dropped toxic dispersants — euphemistically called “detergents,” and manufactured by BP — but they were ineffective, and would prove more even toxic to marine life than the crude oil was. The British air force finally resorted to dropping bombs, jet fuel, and napalm on the shipwreck to set the oil on fire and burn it off. Still, enough oil remained to contaminate 120 miles of British coastline, killing tens of thousands of birds, seals, and other innocent creatures. Another huge oil slick reached the island of Guernsey, and the locals hastily shoveled it up and dumped it into an open quarry — where it remains to this day as a death trap for unsuspecting birds. Later efforts to clean up the quarry have been complicated by the presence underneath of a storage dump of unexploded German ordnance from World War II.
Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi