The deadliest modern building collapses

When we gaze at a high-rise building or any other sort of gigantic construction, we are immediately struck by how invincible the entire structure appears.

There is something terrifying and troubling when we see such human-made giants collapse. These buildings once stood tall and proud, but they have gone down in history leaving shockwaves, havoc, and in some cases, a national trauma in their ruins. The reasons for their collapse are different: a human error perhaps, negligence of safety standards, or even a systematic attack.

1. The Skyline Towers collapse, USA

The construction of the Skyline Plaza commenced in the early 1970s and was set to re-purpose the airport that previously stood on the site. Plans had been finalized by the end of the 1960s, and the airport was sold to Smith Co., who quickly revealed their plans of constructing a gigantic $200 million office, retail and residential complex. Perhaps ironically, the airport was at first deemed a danger to the public, but it had never experienced a deadly incident.

Aerial photo. The Skyline Center was constructed on the site of the Washington-Virginia Airport in the 1970s.

The entire complex was situated at Bailey’s Crossroads in Fairfax County, Virginia, and was designed to feature eight apartment buildings and parking for some 11,000 cars. The project picked up the name “Skyline Center.” All things run smoothly until March 2, 1973, when a 26-story high Skyline Plaza apartment edifice, still under construction, collapsed. The incident took the lives of fourteen construction workers, injuring dozens more.

The collapse of the building occurred while shoring was being removed from freshly poured concrete between the 22nd and 23rd floors of the building. More concrete was being added on the 24th floor too. Consequently, a climbing crane on the 24th floor fell to the ground. The collapse had left a gap 60 feet wide in the building, top to bottom. This made it look as if there were two separate buildings.

The fall of the crane was initially assumed to be the main reason for the entire accident. After a proper investigation, it was determined that the premature removal of shoring from beneath the freshly added floors, was why the collapse happened. Supposedly, the construction site workers were pulling the concrete supports too fast, in a hurry to get things done quickly.

The building that had collapsed was set to open in August 1973. At the point of the collapse, all condominium apartments, 468 in total, had already been sold, their prices ranging from $23,000 to $62,000. The Skyline Plaza collapse soon took the spotlight in various debates across the country tackling responsibility during construction. The entire project was halted for a period of time. Work resumed in July 1974 and was completed in 1977.

2. The Highland Towers collapse, Malaysia

The Highland Towers collapse was another apartment building collapse, which took place on 11 December 1993 in Selangor, Malaysia. The apartment complex was comprised of three 12-story blocks, constructed in phases between 1974 and 1982, and situated at the base of a steeply sloping hill that was in the later years further terraced. The blocks had the stark names of Block 1, Block 2, and Block 3.

The remaining buildings in 2012, photo credit

Reportedly, what led to the collapse of Block 1 of this complex started out in 1991 with a new housing project just on the hilltop behind the Highland Towers. For the purposes of that new project, the hill was cleared of all trees and vegetation, which in turn made the soil more prone to land erosion. It is thought that this was the major reason that later caused the landslides and saw the entirety of Block 1 collapse into rubble.

In 1993, at the time of the unfortunate event, Block 1 collapsed after ten days of perpetual heavy rainfall.

By then, it had also been reported that the area’s water system was overloaded, with pipes bursting at several different locations around the hill. So it was the surrounding soil, just behind Block 1, that absorbed most of the excessive water. The heavy rainfall had only worsened the situation further.

In time, the soil had pressed onto the foundation of Block 1, slowly and steadily pushing the entire edifice forward. Due to the constant pressure of the sliding soil, the foundation of Block 1 simply gave way. A few days before the collapse, residents there were able to see cracks forming and widening on the road around the blocks. This was most certainly a forewarning of the catastrophe, which eventually occurred on 11 December.

The disaster took the lives of 48 people, many of them from affluent middle-class families or expats living in the Asian country. The two other blocks of the Highland Towers were evacuated following the catastrophe, and since then, they have stood as a ghostly reminder of that horrific event in December 1993.

3. Sampoong Department Store collapse, South Korea

Back in 1988, Seoul was to host the Summer Olympics, becoming only the second Asian city after Tokyo to do so. This brought a huge development boom in the South-Korean capital, and domestic companies were quickly assigned to build many venues in a quick period of time. Also involved was the Sampoong Group and one of its projects was the Sampoong Department Store. Work on the building begun in 1987.

It was gone in less than a minute, photo credit

In a whirlpool of internal confrontations within the executive team, the building was completed by 1989. The large store was comprised of north and south wings, twinned together by an atrium, and it initially numbered four floors. Architecturally speaking, the edifice had many flaws. For example, the building was first supposed to be a residential building. When the decision was made to turn it into a department store, many support columns were cut away to make room for escalators. Reportedly, the columns were spaced 36 feet apart, prioritizing maximum retail space, while jeopardizing security and safety protocols.

Onto the already weakened structure, one more floor was added, which planned to accommodate eight restaurants. The first construction company asked to complete the obscure extension, had instantly said that the building cannot bear the weight of one more floor, so it was fired and another company took over the assignment. The extra floor significantly increased the overall weight of the building. Once it was complete, the columns were supporting four times the maximum weight they had been designed to withstand.

Not only that but the columns supporting the fifth floor didn’t even match the ones supporting the floors below it (Holy Moly! What were those people thinking?), and when the air conditioning unit was installed on the roof, an additional 45-tonne load was added to the overall weight.

View of the Sampoong building shortly after the collapse. With the exception of the end tower, the entire south wing fell upon itself. A rescue helicopter is seen flying above, photo credit

The department store eventually started to crack – the first cracks were reported in April 1995, apparent in the ceiling on the south wing’s fifth floor. By June 29, the day when the building collapsed, the actual number of cracks was alarming. Despite that, the management failed to issue evacuation orders in time, because the number of customers in the department that day was “unusually high.”

One of the people most responsible for this tragic event was the chairman of the Sampoong department store, Lee Joon.

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Allegedly, he angrily refused to shut down the department, for fear of the revenue loss. What everybody feared, started to happen around 5:00 PM when the fifth-floor ceiling begun to sink.

According to the National Geographic Channel documentary program “Seconds From Disaster,” the department store had hundreds of shoppers inside just an hour before the collapse, but even at that point, Lee had not ordered the building closed. The evacuation had begun only when the edifice started to produce loud cracking sounds at about 5:52 PM. By then, it was too late. In the time span of about twenty seconds, all the columns in the south wing had given way, killing 502 people as they did so and trapping more than 1,500 inside the ruins.

Rescue crews at the site of the collapse, photo credit

The collapse is deemed to be the largest peacetime disaster in South Korean history, as well as one of the deadliest modern building collapses up until the 9/11 attacks in New York City. The property damage was estimated at $216 million.

4. Katowice Trade Hall roof collapse, Poland

The Katowice Trade Hall may not be counted as a high-rise building, but the collapse of its roof was no less tragic for that when it occurred in 2006. During the time of the catastrophe, the trade hall was hosting the 56th National Exhibition of Carrier Pigeons, and there were more than 120 exhibitors from all over Europe taking part in it. During that year, Poland was also coping with the challenges of severely strong winter and heavy snowfalls.

The Katowice catastrophe, photo credit

The roof collapse of the trade hall took place on 28 January 2006, at around 16:15 local time. The roof had most probably collapsed due to the weight of snow in the building, and at the moment of the accident, police reports suggest there were around 700 people trapped inside the building. While rescue operations were immediately put in place, a second collapse occurred an hour and a half later. The sad incident took the lives of 65 people, and more than 170 were injured.

Following investigations, three people were arrested, all of whom were behind the event that was ongoing in the trade hall at the time of the collapse. They turned out to be aware that the building was unsafe, yet they had proceeded with the organization of the event at the venue. They were later convicted.

Memorial to the collapse victims in Katowice, photo credit

Later that same year, three architects who designed the trade hall were also arrested. Reportedly, two of them were convicted for “willfully causing a building catastrophe” and by doing so, causing the death of 65 people. The third architect was charged with “involuntarily causing a building catastrophe.”

Supposedly, the first two architects were responsible for several errors and also for introducing several alterations to the project not seen in the original plan.

Both of them had also been aware that in January 2000, the roof of the venue had faced some issues under the weight of thick snow, but no one had taken measures to improve the structure for the future.

5. The Twin Towers, United States

There can be no argument that the most devastating and heart-breaking collapse of any high-rise building in history was that of the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001. The date will forever be embedded in memory as a dark day for the United States, a day that took the lives of thousands of people.

For years, the Twin Towers stood tall and proud, an iconic part of the skyline of New York City. Architecturally speaking, the Twin Towers were a wonder in their own right. Made of lightweight steel, their support columns were made such that if one column was to fail, another would take its place.

United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center complex in New York City during the September 11 attacks, photo credit

Each tower was also designed to be able to withstand a great impact, much larger than the weight of the two hijacked Boeing 767 planes that flew into the towers on September 11. After the planes crashed, the towers shockingly collapsed in a matter of two hours.

What most likely caused real problems was the burning jet fuel that overwhelmed the sky over New York with plumes of dense black smoke. The strong fire did not melt the steel columns holding up the towers, but it did, however, weaken them significantly to half their strength.

Picture of the World Trade Center on 9/11 shortly after the second tower had collapsed, photo credit

New York, N.Y. (Sept. 14, 2001) — A solitary firefighter stands amidst the rubble and smoke in New York City. Days after the Sept 11 terrorist attack, fires still burn at the site of the World Trade Center

At one point, the immense temperatures of the fire had the steel distorted so much, that the stress was overwhelming. The affected floors inevitably started a domino collapse, virtually pancaking down one on top of the other. It took only ten seconds once these giants started to collapse. Each of the towers weighed 500,000 tons and hit the ground at 124 mph.

Read another story from us: Five amazing landmarks from around the world that survived disasters & total destruction

Despite the design of the Twin Towers being flawless, they did not survive the terrifying event. Heartbreakingly, the September 11 tragedy will be remembered for generations as one of the most terrible events that has taken place in American history.

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