The 30 Deadliest Structural Failures of All Time

Throughout history, structural failures caused by faulty construction materials or heavy rains have led to building collapses, dam failures, bridges collapsing, and more, with some of the deadliest of these causing the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people.

The ForneyVault research team put together a list of 30 structural failures that have led to the highest death tolls in history, including the circumstances that led to these structures failing in such a catastrophic way. When going through the list, take note of how many of these deadly disasters were caused by safety issues being ignored or improper construction of the structure. In certain instances, the building owner, engineers, inspectors, or even the local government were found to have cut corners during construction or inspections, which led to these catastrophic consequences. One investigation of faulty construction even found that cooking-oil cans were used as building materials to fill in wall cavities!

Some of these structural disasters occurred before building codes and safety regulations were implemented in the late 19th century to reduce accidents such as these, but that doesn’t mean that deadly structural failures don’t still occur today. Five of the deadliest construction disasters to make the top 30 list occurred recently, during the 2010s. Read on to see which structural failures were deemed the deadliest, and what issues led to their doom.

What Was the Deadliest Structural Failure of All Time?

The deadliest structural failure of all time dates back to 27 C.E., during the Roman Empire, when the Fidenae Amphitheatre collapsed and 20,000 spectators were killed. What led to the Fidenae Amphitheatre collapse? The amphitheater had been cheaply constructed using wood and was not built to be able to withstand the weight of the 50,000 people who came to watch the gladiator games. The collapse of the Fidenae Amphitheatre is considered to be the worst sporting disaster in history.

The 10 Deadliest Structural Failures

  1. The Fidenae Amphitheatre collapse of 27 C.E. left 20,000 spectators dead.
  2. The Ponte das Barcas bridge collapse of 1809 left 4,000 people dead.
  3. The Word Trade Center collapse of 2001 left 2,996 people dead.
  4. The South Fork Dam failure of 1889 left 2,209 people dead.
  5. The Vajont Dam failure of 1963 left 2,000 people dead.
  6. The Eitai Bridge collapse of 1807 left 1,400 people dead.
  7. The Rana Plaza garment factory collapse of 2013 left 1,134 employees dead.
  8. The Circus Maximus stadium collapse of 140 C.E. left 1,112 spectators dead.
  9. The Sampoong Department Store collapse of 1995 left 502 shoppers and employees dead.
  10. The St. Francis Dam failure of 1928 left 431 people dead.

What Was the Deadliest Structural Failure in a Building?

The deadliest building collapse of all time was the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11, 2001, which killed 2,996 people and first-responders. Why did the World Trade Center collapse? When the Twin Towers were struck by two commercial airplanes that had been hijacked by terrorists, it resulted in many fires throughout the floors that were hit. These fires caused the floors of the building to sag, which then caused the perimeter columns to buckle and ultimately led to the Twin Towers’ collapse. The collapse of the World Trade Center was one of the only structural failures on our list that was caused by something other than bad weather, faulty construction, or ignoring safety regulations.

What Was the Deadliest Bridge Disaster of All Time?

The deadliest bridge collapse was in 1809, when the Ponte das Barcas bridge in Porto, Portugal, collapsed, leading to the deaths of at least 4,000 people. The Ponte das Barcas bridge collapsed due to the unique way it was designed, using wooden boats that connected together to create a bridge. The bridge was designed this way so that it could be easily disassembled and reassembled. When the French attacked Portugal on March 29, 1809, thousands of people tried to escape by crossing the Pontas das Barcas, and the bridge collapsed under the weight of too many people.

What Was the Deadliest Dam Failure of All Time?

The deadliest dam failure was in 1889, when the South Fork Dam failed catastrophically and killed 2,209 people. Days of heavy rain caused the South Fork Dam failure when too much water overtopped the dam, resulting in a flood wave of 20 million tons of water that hit the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and killed thousands of people. This deadly flood has become known as the Johnstown Flood and was the first major disaster relief effort that was handled by the American Red Cross.

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BuildingType of StructureLocationYearDeath TollCause of Structural Failure
Fidenae Amphitheatre amphitheaterRome, Italy27 C.E.20,000The amphitheater was cheaply constructed with wood and not able to withstand the 50,000 people who came to watch the gladiator games, causing it to collapse.
Ponte das Barcasbridge Porto, Portugal 18094,000The bridge was uniquely built by connecting wooden boats together, which collapsed under the weight of thousands of people escaping Portugal when the French attacked.
World Trade CenterbuildingNew York, New York, USA20012,996The Twin Towers were struck by hijacked commercial airplanes, resulting in fires that caused floors to sag and perimeter columns to buckle, ultimately leading to the collapse of both towers.
South Fork DamdamJohnstown, Pennsylvania, USA18892,209After days of heavy rain, the dam failed catastrophically and released 20 million tons of water.
Vajont DamdamFriuli Venezia Giulia, Italy19632,000After the government dismissed reports that part of the basin was unstable, a landslide caused a megatsunami in the lake and sent a wave with 13 billion gallons of water over the top of the dam.
Eitai BridgebridgeTokyo, Japan18071,400Due to a dispute between people living on either side over who should pay for maintenance and repairs, the bridge was left uncared for and collapsed during a festival when thousands of people were crossing it.
Rana PlazabuildingSavar, Dhaka, Bangladesh20131,134The owners ignored warnings about cracks that had appeared in the building and ordered their employees to return to work the next day. The building collapsed during the morning rush.
Circus MaximusstadiumRome, Italy140 C.E.1,112The upper tier of seats in this chariot racing stadium collapsed under the weight of too many spectators.
Sampoong Department StorebuildingSeoul, South Korea1995502During construction, the building’s use changed from residential to a department store, and multiple support columns were removed. This led to widespread cracking in the roof when heavy A/C units were moved. The owner refused to evacuate for fear of loss of revenue, and the building collapsed not long after.
St. Francis DamdamSanta Clarita, California, USA 1928431After inspectors decided that a new leak was safe and repairs could be done at a later date, the dam catastrophically failed later that day and triggered a deadly flood. A defective soil foundation and design flaws were deemed to be the cause.
Malpasset DamdamCôte d'Azur, France1959423The dam collapsed from the pressure of heavy rainfall filling the reservoir to its maximum level as well as due to a tectonic fault in the impermeable rock base, which had been inadequately surveyed. The collapse led to a dam-break wave 130 feet high.
Dzhrashen SchoolbuildingSpitak, Armenia1988400A strong earthquake led to the precast concrete floors of the school building collapsing, which was caused by poor ties with the walls.
St. Servatius BridgebridgeMaastricht, Netherlands1275400This wooden bridge collapsed under the weight of a large procession of hundreds of people that were crossing it.
New London SchoolbuildingNew London, Texas, USA1937300The school was heated with odorless natural gas, which leaked into a long crawlspace underneath. A spark from turning on an electric appliance caused explosions across the entire building, and the main wing collapsed.
Val di Stava Dam damStava, Italy1985268The dam was poorly maintained, and after issues with drainage, water pressure forced the dam to fail and release 47 million gallons of water, sand, and mud.
Dale Dike DamdamSouth Yorkshire, England, UK 1864244This newly built dam failed the day after its reservoir was filled, releasing a flood of 828 million gallons of water.
Angers BridgebridgeAngers, Maine-et-Loire, France 1850226The failure was attributed to the dynamic load from both a storm hitting the bridge and hundreds of soldiers crossing it while walking in step, causing multiple cables to break and the bridge to partially collapse.
Corralejas Bullring Stadium stadiumSincelejo, Sucre, Colombia1980222The hastily constructed stands collapsed during a heavy rain when people were trying to escape the rain and the ground beneath had been reduced to mud.
DharaharabuildingKathmandu, Nepal2015200An earthquake caused the tower to collapse, leaving only the base of it standing.
Alfred P. Murrah Federal BuildingbuildingOklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA1995168The building was the target of a bombing, causing one third of the building to collapse just seconds after a truck bomb detonated.
Whangaehu River Rail BridgebridgeTangiwai, New Zealand1953151The collapse of a nearby damn led to a mudflow that destroyed one of the concrete pylons of the bridge, which collapsed when a passenger train crossed it just minutes later.
Maddur Railway BridgebridgeMaddur, India 1897150The river below the bridge had flooded from heavy rains, causing the bridge to collapse just as a train full of passengers began to cross it.
Pemberton MillbuildingLawrence, Massachusetts, USA1860145The factory had not been constructed to code, and with the second floor having been overloaded with equipment, the building buckled and collapsed.
Royal Plaza HotelbuildingNakhon Ratchasima, Thailand1993137The hotel collapsed in just seconds following the gradual deformation and weakening of the support columns; when one failed, the rest quickly did as well. It was later blamed on a violation of safety regulations by the engineer.
Buffalo Creek DamdamLogan County, West Virginia, USA1972125Four days after being inspected and declared satisfactory, the coal slurry impoundment dam failed after heavy rains and unleashed 132 million gallons of black waste water.
Weiguan JinlongbuildingTainan, Taiwan2016116After this residential building collapsed in an earthquake, it was discovered that cooking oil cans had been used as building materials in the walls and polystyrene had been mixed into concrete in the support beams.
Synagogue Church of All NationsbuildingLagos, Nigeria2014115A guesthouse on the premise collapsed due to structural failure. Government agencies found that inadequate beams and columns and a lack of rigid zones or movement joints were to blame.
Canterbury Television BuildingbuildingChristchurch, South Island, New Zealand2011115The building collapsed in an earthquake after having been declared safe during inspections after two prior earthquakes. It was later found that the supervisor of the building’s construction had faked his engineering degree.
Hyatt Regency Hotelbuilding Kansas City, Missouri, USA1981114The hotel had two walkways collapse under the weight of many people, crashing to the floor. It was later found that a change in the design of the walkways’ hanger rods led to the collapse.
Eden Railroad BridgebridgeEden, Colorado, USA1904111A thunderstorm caused a flash flood wave to pass over the trestle, which caused part of the bridge to collapse and pushed half of the train into the river.

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