It is almost a norm for every manufactured structure, at one point or the other, to collapse. Such disasters, like the collapse of a building or bridge, usually claim the lives and properties of affected citizens. Worldwide, several countries have suffered more than others in terms of infrastructural collapse, particularly with bridges which most often happens unexpectedly.
Although bridges are among history’s most impressive technical marvels, they have occasionally collapsed abruptly, tragically owing to structural issues, environmental factors, or excessive weight. Most times, when such bridge collapses are unpredictable, they not only take innocent lives but also cause damages, amounting to a lot of money. Here are the five most catastrophic bridge collapses ever recorded:
1. Ponte das Barcas
Ponte da Barca, a medieval bridge, was constructed at the beginning of the 16th century and renovated in 1761 and 1896 to protect the Lima River. This old bridge crosses the Lima River in the northern greenish Minho area, within the boundaries of the lovely Ponte da Barca hamlet, in an awe-inspiring setting of outstanding natural beauty. This bridge was significant as a stopping point on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This Carlos Amarante-designed bridge opened to traffic on August 15, 1806, and was regarded as the first bridge connecting Porto and Gaia.
However, disaster struck in 1809. On the 29th of March, 1809, the forces of Napoleon attacked the Portuguese city of Porto. During Napoleon’s Second French Invasion, when General Soult’s army was marching on the city with the intention of destroying it, many desperate civilians tried to flee the French army by crossing the Ponte das Barcas. However, at the time, the bridge was not constructed to hold many people, and with the number of panicked people on the bridge, it collapsed.
The collapse of Ponte das Barcas killed over 4,000 people, including the Portuguese and some French people. Because the collapse resulted in the death of at least 4,000 people, it is known as the worst bridge collapse. More tragically, despite the bridge collapsing, some people also had to jump into the Douro River because French troops forced residents out of the city.
2. Eitai-Bashi Bridge
The Eitai-Bashi bridge in Tokyo, Japan, was built between 1696 and 1698 and is thought to have been built to commemorate the 5th Shogun Tsunayoshi’s 50th birthday. The bridge connects Nihonbashi and Fukagawa by crossing the Sumida River. At the time, the bridge was located almost 100 meters from its current location.
The first collapse of this bridge happened in 1807 when one of its girders collapsed. At the time of the collapse, there were many people crossing the bridge because it was at the time of the Fukagawa Hachiman festival, and almost 1500 people died from the collapse. The bridge was reconstructed using iron, which was stronger, but it later collapsed again in 1923 during the Great Kanto earthquake. The current bridge was redesigned and constructed in 1926.
3. Angers Bridge
The Angers Bridge, also known as the Basse-Chaîne Bridge, was a suspension bridge in Angers, France, that crossed the Maine River. The bridge was constructed by Joseph Chaley and Bordillon between 1836 and 1839. The bridge was over 335 feet long and was supported by two wire cables that carried a deck that was 24 feet wide and towers that were 17.9 feet tall and built of cast iron columns. Considering how long ago the bridge was constructed, it was regarded as a very solid bridge until its collapse in 1850.
The bridge collapsed on April 16, 1850, when a troop of French soldiers was crossing. The bridge was routinely used by soldiers stationed in the area, and earlier that day, two battalions of the same regiment had passed. However, at the time the third battalion was to make its way across, they were caught in a heavy wind on the bridge that made them walk as though they were drunk, unable to maintain their balance.
The swaying soldiers and the heavy winds caused the wires supporting the suspension bridge to detach from the cement, which finally caused the wires to break. The bridge was covered with over 400 soldiers, and many of them were thrown into the river below. Although some soldiers who fell were saved by the ones yet to cross, over 200 of them still died. As a result of the collapse, France abandoned the construction and use of suspension bridges until the late 19th century.
4. Ulyanovsk Railway Bridge
Located in Ulyanovsk, Russia, the Ulyanovsk Railway Bridge collapsed on the 5th of June, 1983. The bridge was opened in 1916 and was regarded as the largest railway bridge in Europe. The cause of the bridge’s collapse was that it was rammed by a cruise ship called the Aleksandr Suvorov. On the day of the accident, the ship was sailing from Rostov to Moscow, carrying over 400 people. The ship was to pass another span of the bridge (the second), but because it was going at maximum speed and most of the people aboard were busy in an auction on the upper deck, no one noticed they were headed the wrong way.
By the time controllers realized the ship was headed the wrong way, they tried sending a signal but did not get a response. At that moment, the span of the bridge cut through the ship’s upper deck, where most of the passengers were, but the lower deck remained undamaged. Over 170 people perished due to the collision, which also caused damage to the bridge and derailments of other cars, some of whose contents fell onto the ship.
5. Whangaehu River Rail Bridge
In what is popularly called the Tangiwai disaster, the Whangaehu River rail bridge, a railway bridge over the Whangaehu River, collapsed. This bridge was located at Tangiwai, North Island, New Zealand, and on Christmas eve of 1953, the bridge collapsed and crashed an express passenger train. At the time of the accident, the affected train was traveling from Wellington to Auckland. The leading cause of the bridge’s collapse was a sudden wave that hit it and had enough force to break one of the Whangaehu River Rail bridge’s concrete pylons. The wave carried mud, debris, ice, and rocks from the crater of New Zealand’s Mt. Ruapehu.
At the time one of the concrete pylons broke, a train carrying over 280 passengers was approaching the bridge. A passerby who noticed the state of the bridge tried sending a signal to the driver, who then initiated an emergency brake, but it did not stop the train from running into the collapsed bridge. Although the bridge collapsed on the train, not all the coaches were affected. The safe carriages included three first-class carriages and the guard and postal vans. However, over 150 people, including the driver, the fireman, and everybody in the first six carriages, died.
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- Joyce Chepkemoi, Available here: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/worst-bridge-disasters-in-history.html
- History, Available here: https://www.history.com/news/deadly-bridge-collapses
- midas Bridge, Available here: https://www.midasbridge.com/en/blog/newstrends/worst-bridge-collapse-in-history