History has its fair share of disasters, but sometimes we manage to just skirt around impending doom. From natural disasters to entirely man-made ones, it’s seriously impressive that we’re still around today. Here are 17 terrifyingly close calls that never happened, but would have seriously scarred the world if they had: 17 near disasters that almost changed history.
Sources: NRK.no, Peter Pry (“War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink”), DailyMail.co.uk, BBC.com, NYPost.com, DailyMail.co.uk, Cracked.com
NASA recently released information that on July 23, 2012, a solar flare – also known as a coronal mass ejection – was released by the sun during its most powerful solar storm in more than 150 years. If the flare had hit Earth, the results could have been catastrophic, destroying all communication networks and electrical grids. The economic impact was estimated at more than $2 trillion, and the damage would have taken years to correct. While that is all sobering enough, scientists estimate that the probability of another solar flare hitting Earth in the next decade is 12 percent — a not completely reassuring statistic.
On Jan. 23, 1961 a B-52 plane was heading over North Carolina on a routine flight when it began to go into an uncontrolled spin and break apart. A plane crash would have been one thing, but the B-52 was carrying two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs that were accidentally released from the plane as it entered crisis mode. The bombs were released over Goldsboro, North Carolina. One fell to the ground without incident, but the other began to initiate its arming mechanisms as if it had been released over an enemy target. One single low-voltage switch was the only safety mechanism that prevented catastrophe: the bomb was nearly 260 times more powerful than those released on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
One would hope that most skyscrapers are designed to withstand high winds. But the Citigroup Center in New York City, completed in 1977 as the seventh-tallest building in the world at the time, had an unusual problem. It had to be built around the newly remodeled St. Peter’s Church, and thus was built on 114-foot stilts located in the center of the building. A 400-ton mass damper concrete ball was built on top of the building to allow it to withstand winds, but miscommunication between the architect and construction workers meant that it was attached with bolts, rather than welds. This was not discovered until an undergraduate architect student called the chief engineer on the project, William LeMessurier, and questioned him about the construction of the building. LeMessurier realized the mistake and quickly took his findings to the proper authorities to fix the problem as Hurricane Ella formed off the coast of the U.S. Luckily, the repairs were fixed, the hurricane never made landfall, and the 10-block disaster evacuation plan in midtown Manhattan never had to be used.
While the Americans were gearing up to fight the British for independence during the Revolutionary War, several pro-British Americans known as Tories, weren’t quite on the same page. They plotted to assassinate then-General Washington and to recruit Loyalists to take on the Yankee army. Obviously, the plot failed and one conspirator, Thomas Hickey, was put on trial for treason and executed in front of 20,000 people. Had they succeeded, however, it’s uncertain whether the Continental Army would have won the war, and whether the U.S. would even exist.
Back in January 1995, a team of Norwegian and American scientists launched a Black Brant XII sounding rocket from the northwestern coast of Norway, meant to study the aurora borealis over Svalbard. Due to its trajectory and altitude, Russian forces feared it was a U.S. Navy Trident missile, and they went on high alert. The Russian nuclear weapons command suitcase was brought to then-President Boris Yeltsin, who luckily waited long enough to see that the rocket veered away from Russian airspace and wasn’t a threat, thus avoiding all-out nuclear war.
In June 2011, an EgyptAir flight was taxiing along the runway at JFK International Airport in New York when it misunderstood air traffic control instructions to turn left. Instead, it continued straight and headed into the path of a Lufthansa flight that was speeding down the runway for take-off. Air traffic control immediately alerted the Lufthansa pilots, who were quick enough to slam on their brakes – overheating their plane – and missing the EgyptAir aircraft by mere seconds. Had they not been able to brake so quickly, the combined 632 people on board, including passengers and crew, would have constituted the worst commercial air accident in history.
Expensive technology is commonplace when it comes to national defense systems, but sometimes skimping at the lowest level can lead to almost-catastrophe. That was the case on June 3, 1980, when a 46-cent microchip malfunctioned inside American NORAD computers and began showing twos instead of zeros. Meaning that the readout that initially read “0 Incoming Missiles” all of a sudden showed “220 Incoming Missiles.” Bombers carrying nukes began taking off across the U.S. to prepare for war, but luckily somebody quickly figured out that no missiles were showing up on the radar screens, and that something was amiss. The bombers returned home without incident, and, once more, nuclear war was avoided. See a common theme here?
The date was Oct. 25, 1962, and an intruder was spotted at a U.S. air base trying to scale the fence. Intruder alarms went off at all military bases in the area, but one base accidentally set off its incoming attack alarm instead. Nuclear bombers prepared for retaliation, and were only stopped at the last second when people realized that the Soviet “spy” was actually a bear. The next day, two scheduled tests launched Titan rockets over the Pacific Ocean, upping tensions even more. The fact that all-out nuclear war never actually occurred is a serious miracle.
Japanese Emperor Hirohito was preparing to surrender in mid-August 1945 as World War II drew to a close, but several of his countrymen weren’t quite ready to do so. Several officers of the Japanese War Ministry and Imperial Guard developed a plot to assassinate all of the emperor’s officers who were advocating for war, and kidnap the emperor, placing him under “protective custody” so that he couldn’t surrender. The group planned to broadcast to the world that Japan intended to fight down to the last man. Thankfully they were stopped before they could carry out their agenda.
The date was Nov. 5, 1605, and Guy Fawkes and his group of British Catholic conspirators had grand plans to blow up the House of Lords, killing King James I and the rest of the members of Parliament. The plot was discovered before they could get the 36 barrels of gunpowder under Parliament and set it off, and all of the conspirators were executed. But had they succeeded, and started their intended revolution, the world would most likely look very different today.
Alexander the Great almost took over Italy
In the weeks leading up to Alexander the Great’s death, he was preparing a Greek/Persian army to attack Carthage, Sicily and Italy. He had already gone so far as to build a military road to the Pillars of Hercules. At the time Carthage was very weak, and had Alexander the Great lived to pursue this war, he probably would have succeeded, and eventually taken over Italy as well.
A U-2 spy plane mistaken for a missile
In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, an American U-2 Spy Plane took off from Alaska, intending a reconnaissance mission (a mission to locate an enemy or ascertain strategic features), accidentally drifted into the Soviet Union. Mistaking it for a nuclear bomber, the Soviet sent fighter jets to destroy the U-2, which could have resulted in a full blown war. Luckily the U-2 found its way back out of Soviet territory before being attacked.
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The nearly explosive submarine
Also during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the American destroyer USS Beale shot warning shots at a Soviet submarine, simply meant to encourage the submarine to come to the surface. The captain of the submarine mistook the warning shots as live explosives, and told his crew to prepare the submarine’s torpedo for attack. Luckily, one of the submarine’s captains would not give his consent, and the torpedo did not go off, and we did not go into what could have been World War III.
An exercise gone wrong
In 1983, a NATO exercise almost went terribly wrong. The exercise was called the Able Archer, and it involved airlifting 19,000 troops to Europe and relocating several commands. The Soviets believed the exercise could be a cover up for a real world attack. In response, the Soviets readied nuclear weapons throughout Europe. Very luckily, the NATO exercise ended without any real nuclear incidents, and the Soviets disassembled their units.
When the phones went dead in 1961
On November 24, 1961, all communication lines between the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) inexplicably went dead. The U.S. believed the only explanation was there had been a strike by the Soviets, and immediately put all SAC units on alert, bomber crews were put on stand by, and nuclear weapons were readied. Before anything catastrophic could happen though, it was discovered the lines were down due to an overheated motor in a Colorado station.
When a fire on an airplane almost caused a nuclear explosion
On January 21, 1968, a plane carrying an immense amount of nuclear weapons caught on fire, and the crew had to escape the plane, allowing it to crash. It crashed about seven miles away from an early warning radar station in Greenland. The plane and the explosives inside exploded, the damage of which could have caused a nuclear explosion and had a dominos effect that would have lead to NORAD believing the Soviets had launched a preemptive nuclear strike. Luckily, the crash did not result in a nuclear explosion.
When computer software confused everyone
On November 9, 1979, computer software used for training exercises that showed what it would look like if the Soviet launched a first nuclear strike was activated on the screens at four command centers in the U.S. Mistaking this for a real alert, the U.S. immediately readied their nuclear weapons for a retaliation, and even launched a jumbo jet with radiation shielding and advanced communications, meant for the President of the United States. Luckily, before any weapons were launched, the centers realized this was just training software.