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April 5, 2013

The Firey Keel of Antwerp’s Bridge
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:42 PM *

Yea, stranger engines for the brunt of war
Than was the firey keel at Antwerp bridge
I’ll make my servile spirits to invent….
— Dr. Faustus, Marlowe, Act 1 scene i, lines 92-94

As Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”

Some years ago, a young Naval officer assigned to Panamá , was tasked with coming up with a plan to defend the famous canal in that country. Making plans like that is a constant thing in the military; it’s a way to keep junior officers busy, to keep them out of trouble, and also to have something on file to pull out in the event of any odd event. Canada invades the US through Port Huron? Someone’s planned for it, and if it happens someone else can pull out those plans and start moving assets.

So: How could the Panama Canal be attacked, and what could the Navy do about it? Something coming in at fifty thousand feet and doing Mach Two — there wasn’t going to be anything the Navy could do about it with assets at hand or reasonably procurable. That would be an Air Force problem. An armed force attacking overland would be an Army problem. Sabotage by workers, intelligence assets would have to deal with detecting and preventing that. Which left seaborne attack. This young Naval officer had a literary/historical turn of mind, as it happened, and instantly thought of his favorite play: Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.

Back during the Eighty Years War the Dutch had a problem. The Spanish had blockaded the port of Antwerp with a half-mile-long bridge, strongly defended, across the River Scheldt. The bridge was constructed of stone piers with parapets and blockhouses at each shore, and a series of ships tied together side-by-side and planked over floating in the stream between the piers. In order to supply the city, the bridge had to be destroyed. But how? A landward attack would face stiff resistance, and seaward attack lacked resources. The bridge was under the command of the Prince (actually Duke) of Parma, Alexander Farnese, an active and intelligent officer.

Fireships were a known military technology — take a hulk, put some barrels of pitch on it, set it on fire and set it drifting down toward an enemy fleet. Fire is a serious hazard at sea, particularly when wooden ships with canvas sails, caulked with tarred hemp were floating tinderboxes at the best of times. To counter this threat the Spanish had set rafts outboard of the floating portion of the bridge with spears and hooks pointing upstream to ward off unmanned vessels.

The Dutch had a secret weapon, though, in the person of a professional bomb maker. He was an Italian military engineer named Federigo Giambelli, who was secretly in the pay and under the command of Elizabeth I of England. If you want to think of this as Tudor England meddling in the internal affairs of Hapsburg Spain using plausibly deniable non-state assets, that would be a pretty good description.

So. Giambelli came up with a plan, involving waves of ordinary fireships to act as a diversion and cover, to be followed with a special floating bomb. With typical engineering frame of mind he went for a 100% backup; he constructed two of the special fireships, called hellebrenners, each one sufficient if the other failed. These were converted merchantmen, with a compartment inside running the length of the ship, one yard in cross section by twelve yards long, each containing three and a half tons of black powder. The bomb chambers were floored with brick. The walls were five feet thick, the powder compartment was covered over with flat slabs of rock (old tombstones) set vertically and sealed with lead. Above and to the sides of each chamber was packed with scrap iron and broken rock. The entire thing was decked over.

Each ship carried a pilot aboard who would steer it until close to the target bridge, then escape using a skiff towed astern.

The two hellebrenners had separate firing mechanisms; one used conventional slow-match, the other had a clockwork-and-flintlock time delay device.

We now join sober history to describe the events that dark night:

From HISTORY OF THE UNITED NETHERLANDS, 1584-1609, Complete From the Death of William the Silent to the Twelve Year’s Truce Volume I. By John Lothrop Motley (at Project Gutenberg)

The 5th April, (1585) being the day following that on which the successful assault upon Liefkenshoek and Saint Anthony had taken place, was fixed for the descent of the fire-ships. So soon as it should be dark, the thirty-two lesser burning-vessels, under the direction of Admiral Jacob Jacobzoon, were to be sent forth from the neighborhood of the ‘Boor’s Sconce’—a fort close to the city walls—in accordance with the Italian’s plan. “Run-a-way Jacob,” however, or “Koppen Loppen,” had earned no new laurels which could throw into the shade that opprobrious appellation. He was not one of Holland’s naval heroes, but, on the whole, a very incompetent officer; exactly the man to damage the best concerted scheme which the genius of others could invent. Accordingly, Koppen-Loppen began with a grave mistake. Instead of allowing the precursory fire-ships to drift down the stream, at the regular intervals agreed upon, he despatched them all rapidly, and helter skelter, one after another, as fast as they could be set forth on their career. Not long afterwards, he sent the two “hellburners,” the ‘Fortune’ and the ‘Hope,’ directly in their wake. Thus the whole fiery fleet had set forth, almost at once, upon its fatal voyage.

It was known to Parma that preparations for an attack were making at Antwerp, but as to the nature of the danger he was necessarily in the dark. He was anticipating an invasion by a fleet from the city in combination with a squadron of Zeelanders coming up from below. So soon as the first vessels, therefore, with their trains not yet lighted, were discovered bearing down from the city, he was confirmed in his conjecture. His drama and trumpets instantly called to arms, and the whole body of his troops was mustered upon the bridge; the palisades, and in the nearest forts. Thus the preparations to avoid or to contend with the danger, were leading the Spaniards into the very jaws of destruction. Alexander, after crossing and recrossing the river, giving minute directions for repelling the expected assault, finally stationed himself in the block-house at the point of junction, on the Flemish side, between the palisade and the bridge of boats. He was surrounded by a group of superior officers, among whom Richebourg, Billy, Gaetano, Cessis, and the Englishman Sir Rowland Yorke, were conspicuous.

It was a dark, mild evening of early spring. As the fleet of vessels dropped slowly down the river, they suddenly became luminous, each ship flaming out of the darkness, a phantom of living fire. The very waves of the Scheldt seemed glowing with the conflagration, while its banks were lighted up with a preternatural glare. It was a wild, pompous, theatrical spectacle. The array of soldiers on both sides the river, along the dykes and upon the bridge, with banners waving, and spear and cuirass glancing in the lurid light; the demon fleet, guided by no human hand, wrapped in flames, and flitting through the darkness, with irregular movement; but portentous aspect, at the caprice of wind and tide; the death-like silence of expectation, which had succeeded the sound of trumpet and the shouts of the soldiers; and the weird glow which had supplanted the darkness—all combined with the sense of imminent and mysterious danger to excite and oppress the imagination.

Presently, the Spaniards, as they gazed from the bridge, began to take heart again. One after another, many of the lesser vessels drifted blindly against the raft, where they entangled themselves among the hooks and gigantic spearheads, and burned slowly out without causing any extensive conflagration. Others grounded on the banks of the river, before reaching their destination. Some sank in the stream.

Last of all came the two infernal ships, swaying unsteadily with the current; the pilots of course, as they neared the bridge, having noiselessly effected their escape in the skiffs. The slight fire upon the deck scarcely illuminated the dark phantom-like hulls. Both were carried by the current clear of the raft, which, by a great error of judgment, as it now appeared, on the part of the builders, had only been made to protect the floating portion of the bridge. The ‘Fortune’ came first, staggering inside the raft, and then lurching clumsily against the dyke, and grounding near Kalloo, without touching the bridge. There was a moment’s pause of expectation. At last the slow match upon the deck burned out, and there was a faint and partial explosion, by which little or no damage was produced.

Parma instantly called for volunteers to board the mysterious vessel. The desperate expedition was headed by the bold Roland York, a Londoner, of whom one day there was more to be heard in Netherland history. The party sprang into the deserted and now harmless volcano, extinguishing the slight fires that were smouldering on the deck, and thrusting spears and long poles into the hidden recesses of the hold. There was, however, little time to pursue these perilous investigations, and the party soon made their escape to the bridge.

The troops of Parma, crowding on the palisade, and looking over the parapets, now began to greet the exhibition with peals of derisive laughter. It was but child’s play, they thought, to threaten a Spanish army, and a general like Alexander Farnese, with such paltry fire-works as these. Nevertheless all eyes were anxiously fixed upon the remaining fire-ship, or “hell-burner,” the ‘Hope,’ which had now drifted very near the place of its destination. Tearing her way between the raft and the shore, she struck heavily against the bridge on the Kalloo side, close to the block-house at the commencement of the floating portion of the bridge. A thin wreath of smoke was seen curling over a slight and smouldering fire upon her deck.

Marquis Richebourg, standing on the bridge, laughed loudly at the apparently impotent conclusion of the whole adventure. It was his last laugh on earth. A number of soldiers, at Parma’s summons, instantly sprang on board this second mysterious vessel, and occupied themselves, as the party on board the ‘Fortune’ had done, in extinguishing, the flames, and in endeavoring to ascertain the nature of the machine. Richebourg boldly directed from the bridge their hazardous experiments.

At the same moment a certain ensign De Vega, who stood near the Prince of Parma, close to the block-house, approached him with vehement entreaties that he should retire. Alexander refused to stir from the spot, being anxious to learn the result of these investigations. Vega, moved by some instinctive and irresistible apprehension, fell upon his knees, and plucking the General earnestly by the cloak, implored him with such passionate words and gestures to leave the place, that the Prince reluctantly yielded.

It was not a moment too soon. The clockwork had been better adjusted than the slow match in the ‘Fortune.’ Scarcely had Alexander reached the entrance of Saint Mary’s Fort, at the end of the bridge, when a horrible explosion was heard. The ‘Hope’ disappeared, together with the men who had boarded her, and the block-house, against which she had struck, with all its garrison, while a large portion of the bridge, with all the troops stationed upon it, had vanished into air. It was the work of a single instant. The Scheldt yawned to its lowest depth, and then cast its waters across the dykes, deep into the forts, and far over the land. The earth shook as with the throb of a volcano. A wild glare lighted up the scene for one moment, and was then succeeded by pitchy darkness. Houses were toppled down miles away, and not a living thing, even in remote places, could keep its feet. The air was filled with a rain of plough-shares, grave-stones, and marble balls, intermixed with the heads, limbs, and bodies, of what had been human beings. Slabs of granite, vomited by the flaming ship, were found afterwards at a league’s distance, and buried deep in the earth. A thousand soldiers were destroyed in a second of time; many of them being torn to shreds, beyond even the semblance of humanity.

Richebourg disappeared, and was not found until several days later, when his body was discovered; doubled around an iron chain, which hung from one of the bridge-boats in the centre of the river. The veteran Robles, Seigneur de Billy, a Portuguese officer of eminent service and high military rank, was also destroyed. Months afterwards, his body was discovered adhering to the timber-work of the bridge, upon the ultimate removal of that structure, and was only recognized by a peculiar gold chain which he habitually wore. Parma himself was thrown to the ground, stunned by a blow on the shoulder from a flying stake. The page, who was behind him, carrying his helmet, fell dead without a wound, killed by the concussion of the air.

Several strange and less tragical incidents occurred. The Viscomte de Bruxelles was blown out of a boat on the Flemish side, and descended safe and sound into another in the centre of the stream. Captain Tucci, clad in complete armour, was whirled out of a fort, shot perpendicularly into the air, and then fell back into the river. Being of a cool temperament, a good swimmer, and very pious, he skilfully divested himself of cuirass and helmet, recommended himself to the Blessed Virgin, and swam safely ashore. Another young officer of Parma’s body-guard, Francois de Liege by name, standing on the Kalloo end of the bridge, rose like a feather into the clouds, and, flying quite across the river, alighted on the opposite bank with no further harm than a contused shoulder. He imagined himself (he said afterwards) to have been changed into a cannon-ball, as he rushed through the pitchy atmosphere, propelled by a blast of irresistible fury.

[The chief authorities used in the foregoing account of this famous enterprise are those already cited on a previous page, viz.: the MS. Letters of the Prince of Parma in the Archives of Simancas; Bor, ii. 596, 597; Strada, H. 334 seq.; Meteren, xii. 223; Hoofd Vervolgh, 91; Baudartii Polemographia, ii. 24-27; Bentivoglio, etc., I have not thought it necessary to cite them step by step; for all the accounts, with some inevitable and unimportant discrepancies, agree with each other. The most copious details are to be found in Strada and in Bor.]

Folks who want a visual reference for this sort of thing can see Game of Thrones, Season Two, Episode Nine, “Blackwater” (currently nominated for a Hugo despite its having the stupidest, most incompetent movie-version amphibious assault since the Medieval Mike-Boats in the recent Ridley Scott Robin Hood). At the time of the attack on the ship-bridge, the explosion was the largest ever seen in Europe.

The results were not good, however, and the siege was not lifted; the Dutch had failed to plan for what would happen if the attack worked; no followup was mounted, and the Spanish were able to repair the bridge and maintain the siege.

Okay, that’s one example of an attack against stonework from the sea. The young Naval officer asked himself if there were any examples more recent than four hundred years ante.

Yes, as it happened. The Normandie Dock raid during WWII. And, as it happened, one of the Royal Navy officers who had been involved in that operation had written his memoirs recounting the raid, and the young US Navy officer had read them.

During WWII, Nazi Germany had two super-battleships; Bismarck and Tirpitz. Either could cause immense damage to Atlantic shipping. But they were both so large that, when they needed repair and refit (as any ship, particularly a warship, would) in a drydock, only a very few yards in the world had a dock large enough. The only such dock on the Atlantic coast of continental Europe was in St. Nazaire, France. It was known as the Normandie Dock, since it had been built for the passenger liner SS Normandie, at that time the largest passenger ship ever constructed, 147 feet longer, and displacing 18,990 tons more, than RMS Titanic.

Normandie burned and capsized in New York harbor in 1942 while she was being re-fitted as a troopship under the name USS Lafayette. But our story does not concern her, but rather the dock in which she was constructed. The Normandie Dock was the only place outside of the Baltic where major German warships could be repaired. Bismarck had been heading there after the Battle of the Denmark Strait before she was sunk. Therefore, destroying the Normandie Dock became a priority for the Allies. Given the lack of accuracy of WWII-era bombs, the difficulty of destroying massive concrete-and-steel structures using aerial bombardment, and the stiff anti-aircraft defenses in the area, the Royal Navy was tasked with destroying the dock with a seaborne assault.

The plan was this: An obsolete destroyer, HMS Campbeltown (ex-USS Buchanan), was fitted as a floating bomb. The bilges were filled with high explosives fitted with a chemical time fuse, then concrete was poured over and around them. The resemblance to the hellebrenner with its compression chamber and its clockwork fuse should be obvious.

The decks of Campbeltown were crowded with commandos. The plan was: Get Campbeltown going as fast as she could. Ram the drydock gates. The commandos would leap ashore and destroy as much as possible in the area, including pump houses, generators, machine shops, and other facilities that would render the dock useless. They would then get aboard Royal Navy small craft to be transported back to England.

This worked semi-well. After midnight on 28 March 1942 Campbeltown hit, and became lodged in, the dock gates. The commandos carried out their mission. But, by then, most of the small craft had been sunk. The surviving commandos got together and agreed to attempt to make it back to England by any means necessary, and, if that proved impossible, not to surrender while they still had any ammunition. They then broke up into small groups to operate independently. Five eventually did make it back to England via Spain and Gibraltar.

The cold sea water slowed down the chemical fuse in the 4.5 ton high-explosive charge in Campbeltown. It didn’t go until noon the next day, while the deck of the wedged ship was crowded with high-ranking Nazi officials inspecting the scene and planning how to dislodge it. Once again, as at Antwerp, debris and body-parts rained down on a town.

The young Naval officer in Panamá considered this. A drydock is very similar to a canal lock. How could he defend the Panama Canal against a night-time attack based around a ship filled with explosives going as fast as it could, intending to ram?

He came up with a plan that seemed feasible to him. What that plan was, and whether it was adopted, I cannot say.

Comments on The Firey Keel of Antwerp's Bridge:
#1 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2013, 03:46 AM:

Operation Chariot, the St. Nazaire raid, maybe got a little too big. The attack tried to mess up the whole port, by also attacking the ordinary locks that gave access to the docks. Which would have made useless the submarine pens that had been built. That was certainly worth trying, but it meant that the gasoline fueled, wooden, motor launches that would get the commando force out had to go in against the active defences, against such things as the light AA guns—quadruple 20mm cannon for instance— which were placed on the waterfront to defend the port.

The little I know of the options open to the US Navy, at the likely time of this story, suggests that there wasn't much possible in the line of on-shore defences. Though a few Marine Corps tanks in the right place would be useful. Tanks do shoot against moving targets.

#2 ::: Dave Crisp ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2013, 04:15 AM:

Have you missed something off the end of the fourth paragraph here, Jim? It ends strangely - "under the command of the Duke of Parma," - and then the next para seems like a bit of a non sequitur.

#3 ::: Dave Crisp has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2013, 04:17 AM:

I have pineapple cake...

#4 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2013, 09:44 AM:

The sentence has been completed.

#5 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2013, 03:27 PM:

Game of Thrones, Season Two, Episode Nine, “Blackwater” (currently nominated for a Hugo despite its having the stupidest, most incompetent movie-version amphibious assault since the Medieval Mike-Boats in the recent Ridley Scott Robin Hood).

Ooh. Would you be willing to expand on that? (What made the Battle of Blackwater Bay as depicted an incompetent amphibious assault?)

Thinking about it myself, not doing something to neutralize the enemy archers and fortifications seems like poor planning. The basic setup is as any other force storming a fortification -- where are the ship-mounted catapults? To say nothing of the cannon, assuming the Westerosi have invented them yet.

#6 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2013, 04:27 PM:

I suppose the old standards, when a hostile boat is coming towards you fast, are Put Crap In The Way or Shoot It Until It Sinks, both no doubt popular tactics among young naval officers then and now.

(You could also lay mines, but I suspect that (a) nobody wants to go down in history as The Guy Who Mined The Panama Canal and (b) if you have time to lay a minefield, you have time to do something more purposeful, like bringing up lots of heavily-armed ships.)

Putting crap in the way: drop lots of empty cargo containers into the water? Panama must have a million of them. I don't know how long they float, though.

On the somewhat more dramatic side... open the canal locks. All of them. Incoming hellburner is now trying to ram against a canal's worth of water pouring out in its face.

I'm sure there's some reason why this doesn't work -- safety interlocks, infeasibly tight timing, container ships getting jammed jackknife-wise in the locks -- but it's the first thing I thought of. If I were making an HBO series with no particular constraint on budget or plausibility, that's what I'd script.

#7 ::: John Leigh ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2013, 04:41 PM:

(I grew up in Panama, so delurking to weigh in here seemed almost mandatory.)

First plan: on the Pacific approach, deploy 16 ton weights from the Bridge of the Americas, to be dropped on approaching hostiles. On the Atlantic approach, lacking a suitable vehicle for 16 ton weight deployment, it will be necessary to release the tiger (the direct utility of the tiger against metal-hulled ships being somewhat suboptimal, we would hope that the enemy gets confused and runs aground before making it as far in as Gatun).

Somewhat less jokey plan: on both ends of the canal, the locks are far enough in that some combination of mines and shore-based artillery should have a pretty good chance of stopping an attacker, although you would want the artillery to be pretty heavy, if the people intent on ramming the locks are in any kind of warship (to rig modern fire control systems on the old guns would be pretty handy, although I am guessing not feasible). Torpedo boats in the bays would also be helpful, since the historical lessons point to the advisability of engaging explodey ships as far out as possible.

On preview, I see that I am semi-pwned by Andrew Plotkin. Re: the mines point, I think you could safely do a bit of mining to the outside approaches to the locks and still keep the canal functional.

I'm really curious about what the actual plan was.

#8 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2013, 07:51 PM:

Kevin #5

Ooh. Would you be willing to expand on that? (What made the Battle of Blackwater Bay as depicted an incompetent amphibious assault?)


First, they're trying it at night. There's a reason assaults happen at first light. There's a reason Wellington said "Give me night or give me Blücher." Any time up to radio, night-vision devices and starlight scopes night assaults were rare and for good reason. You can't see what you're doing. You can't control your troops. It's a mess.

Second, they're entering a piloting situation in restricted waters at night, way too bunched up, in sailing ships.

Third, what are they going to do with those ships? Beach them?

Fourth, they have no scouting or security.

Fifth, they land in perfect boat-wave groups within arrow-shot of the walls. They have no siege machinery. They have one ladder and one ram.

Sixth, Stannis Baratheon goes and climbs the ladder first. All that has to happen is for him to fall off and the whole enterprise is lost right there.

Seventh, they have no exterior lines, so any clown can get around behind them. Which happens. Twice.

They have a night-time assault (risky), an amphibious assault (risky), and combat in a built up area (risky). Three majorly risky things, simultaneously, when there is no need to do any of them.

What they should have done:

Landed somewhere up the coast. During daylight. Formed up and marched overland, to set up a double-donut around the city (like Caesar at Alesia). Put some ships outside the harbor mouth to blockade. Sat there for a couple of months, building siege engines and ladders and what-not. Waited for typhus inside the walls to do the job for them. Meanwhile, defend against any outside attack.

#9 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2013, 10:09 PM:

I recorded those lines by Marlowe, but I have to admit I didn't know what they referred to. Interesting stuff.

#10 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2013, 11:06 PM:

I don't have any clever comments to post, but want to tell you that I found this entry very interesting, informative, and thought-provoking. Thank you.

#11 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 12:14 AM:

Jim –

Some fun, but a couple of things:

1) “Some years ago, a young Naval officer assigned to Panamá…” You know, you never specify that this is U.S. officer you're talking about. After a little while, it becomes clear, but my first assumption was not that it was an American (in the U.S. sense) that you were talking about.

2) “These were converted merchantmen, with a compartment inside running the length of the ship, one yard in cross section by twelve yards long…” Er, was the length of the ship twelve yards? Not big enough to be called a “ship,” I’d say, even in the 16th century.

#12 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 12:23 AM:

Random thought wrt. Andrew Plotkin's shipping containers (assuming this is post-1956 and standard shipping containers and handling infrastructure exists) ...

How explodey is bunker oil mixed with ammonium nitrate? (I know ANFO is diesel and ammonium nitrate; I assume bunker oil is somewhat sub-optimal, but should still make for a nice bang if mixed in the right ratio with a strong oxidizer.)

I'm thinking in terms of pumping ANFO into shipping containers, adding ballast/air bags internally so that they just barely float, then anchoring them in the approaches with a line out to detonate them.

Up to 20 tons of ANFO per container ought to work a real number on the hull of any ship caught by the shock wave. Especially if it's passing through narrows at the time.

(This idea bought to you by the department of field-expedient MOABs.)

#13 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 12:27 AM:

Jim @8: Hah! All right. Faulty all the way down.

(The fanwiki page at least acknowledges the recklessness of not scouting. I wonder if setting it at night was a change the filmmakers made, to make the wildfire more impressive on screen. Movie night is always weirdly well-lit anyway, it's hard to convey the claustrophobia and confusion of an actual night fight, I suppose.)

#14 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 12:33 AM:

Hm. Here's a really nasty tweak to Charlie's idea: why not make it directional? You'd probably want the majority of the blast aimed away from major shipping installations - take the same shipping container, and (assuming you can; my knowledge of explosives is deeply spotty and contaminated by media[1]) shape it much like a Claymore mine. 20 tons of ANFO-style boom + a pile of random ironmongery, on top of the steel of the container will make one hell of a shotgun. Boat, what boat?

[1] Blame Mythbusters, mostly. I've had a dire addiction to that show since my freshman year of college. That, and every bad action movie ever.

#15 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 01:06 AM:

Ships weren't all that big at the time. Recall that Columbus's largest ship, Santa Maria, had a keel length of about 40 feet.

#16 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 02:15 AM:

It strikes me that the Normandie Dock raid was also at night, amphibious, and going directly into a built-up area. Recall that they a) their mission didn't include take-and-hold, and b) only five of the commandos made it back before the war was over.

It also involved a small group of very highly-trained and motivated troops.

#17 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 02:36 AM:

On mines:

What you need are mines that are detonated from the shore. It's an old idea. Such mines were the "torpedoes" of Mobile Bay. A variation is the influence mine on the sea-bed that can be armed and disarmed by remote control.

I vaguely recall that such infernal engines were deployed by Sweden during the Cold War, They certainly had coastal artillery.

The downside is that you might need mine-clearance divers to be sure the Canal is safe to use after the mines were turned on.

#18 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 01:06 PM:

It occurs to me that the Halifax Explosion of 1917 was an own-goal, accidental, version of this strategy.

The Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship entering Halifax harbour, accidentally rammed a hospital ship leaving the harbour. The munitions ship was ignoring pretty much every safety regulation you can think of, and was not flying any warning flags because Spies Might Find Out We're A Munitions Ship. Also the captain and crew panicked and fled, and probably didn't speak enough English to warn the locals anyway. Consequently, firemen sailed up to the flaming, explosives-filled Mont Blanc as she burned in the narrowest part of the harbour, and lots of curious citizens went down to the docks or went to their windows to watch.

Shortly after 9 am, the Mont Blanc exploded with a force that has since been compared to that of an A-bomb...

#19 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 01:54 PM:

(The Halifax explosion also featured a heroic telegraph operator.)

Along with the Mont Blanc explosion, consider the Texas City Disaster in 1947. This was an event that has been used to model nuclear explosions in urban areas.

#20 ::: Tam ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 01:55 PM:

Sarah @18: It made me think of the Halifax explosion too. I suppose when you have a big explosion over water you always get a certain effect, but the "The Scheldt yawned to its lowest depth" reminded me forcefully of descriptions of the bare Halifax harbor, and the distance of the debris too - the Mont Blanc's anchor was said to have landed some 2 miles away.

Very interesting, very thought provoking, something to chew one's lip over. Thanks, Jim.

#21 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 02:18 PM:

As long as we're doing major explosions, the Henderson, NV, explosion from 1988.

This post is part of the lead-in to my next Trauma And You post, which will deal with explosion injuries.

Briefly, what to do in case of an explosion: Lie face down with your head toward the explosion, away from windows and in a dip in the ground if possible. Cover your eyes with your fingers and place your thumbs in your ears. Open your mouth. Remain there until after the second gust of wind passes over you.

#22 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 04:42 PM:

There was also the Port Chicago explosion (Port Chicago is part of the Concord Naval weapons station, in northern California). And then there was the Roseville freight yard: a munitions train blew up in 1973. It was relatively mild only because they'd had to split the train to fit it on the available sidings. (6000 Mk-81 bombs, some of which were found buried and unexploded, in 1997. No one died.)

#23 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 06:58 PM:

For your exploding pleasure: list of the largest artificial non-nuclear explosions with links to many videos

#24 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 08:13 PM:

I'm now imagining the List of Largest Non-Artificial Non-Nuclear Explosions...

1. The Big Bang
2. ...

#25 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 09:47 PM:

David Bell @#17

I come from Dundee, Scotland. One of the local castles was refitted in the tail end of the 19th century to command undersea mines across the Tay. The prospective invader then was France. The castle is now a museum, and has some interesting displays, including some items from the mine era. (The castle was built in 1495, and then refortified from 1855 to 1949.)

#26 ::: Tam ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 10:02 PM:

Kevin @24

Ooh, I like this game!

2. Chicxulub
3. Tunguska
4. Krakatoa

(I'm not actually sure about the order, but I thought I might as well have a bash.)

#27 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 10:17 PM:

Tam @ 26:

I think Mount Tambora goes ahead of those 3, but Wikipedia says there were WAY bigger ones before our history. Doesn't suprise me after seeing the layers of basalt in eastern Oregon.

#28 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 10:44 PM:

While we're on the subject of big bangs, how about Buncefield? Fifth-largest oil depot in the UK, storing 270 million litres (roughly 270,000 tons) of oil ... and it went BANG on December 11th, 2005, with a fuel-air explosion believed to be the biggest in Europe since the second world war: the detonation was audible up to 200 kilometres away in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.

Astonishingly, nobody was killed: seismic analysis put the explosive yield at around the 2.9 kiloton mark.

(And yes, some evidence came up during the technical enquiry after the event that it was an actual detonation -- i.e. supersonic shockwave -- rather than deflagration, due to a peculiarity of local geography that focused the combustion wave-front.)

#29 ::: Tam ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 10:48 PM:

Janetl @27 Oh, that list! I like that list a lot!

#30 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 10:56 PM:

Kevin Riggle @24 -- I'm not sure you can classify the Big Bang as non-nuclear. I'd want to know what your definitions are before I agree to that. By my lights, it's the ultimate nuclear explosion (if there was anything to explode, it was a nucleus, right?).

#31 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2013, 11:18 PM:

They missed the Long Valley caldera - it's in the same size range. Dropped ash all over the western half of what's now the US.

#32 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 12:31 AM:

Tom @30, the Big Bang predates atomic nuclei by some considerable time. Hell, it predates protons and neutrons. (We know that fairly soon after it kicked off, a hot quark/gluon plasma emerged; what happened before then is unclear, but the actual particles of which nuclei are composed only condensed out of that plasma some time after expansion, as I understand it.)

#33 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 12:32 AM:

As I say, Charles, it depends on definitions. And at that point, the definitions are really unclear (as opposed to nuclear).

#34 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 01:13 AM:

Mr. Whitmore, have you no shame?

#35 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 01:33 AM:

No, shame is thought to have condensed out around 10e-43 seconds after the Big Bang, as a result of the first spontaneous symmetry breaking.

("Oh, crap, did I break that? I'm sooo sorrreeee....")

The echoes of this original, primordial shame are still detectable today, in the form of the Cosmic Redfaced Shift.

#36 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 03:30 AM:

Rasseff award to Zarf.

#37 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 09:54 AM:

The line about being "a good swimmer and very pious" kills me.

#38 ::: Nangleator ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 10:12 AM:

janetl @ #27, and the boom that created our moon was a biggie, I'm sure.

The big problem with fireships at the Canal is, they don't have to be as obvious as before. An attack from a competent enemy would be from a manned ship, with legal access to the area. Even conventional explosives in workable amounts could presumably be hidden without the crew being wise.

Are all ships sniffed for explosives? That would make a good first line of defense.

#39 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 10:20 AM:


Yeah, but it obviously saved him.

#40 ::: Bendal ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 11:01 AM:

Command detonated minefields were all the rage to protect harbors back during the Golden Age of coastal defenses, the time between the US Civil War and WWII. IIRC the Panama Canal had them at both entrances, with the control buildings dug in where naval gunfire couldn't reach it.

They are, however, hard to maintain and expensive too, plus the mines tend to break loose and drift around, causing concern and alarm amongst the commercial shipping.

Now, if I were trying to protect the Panama Canal from a raid similar to the St. Nazaire attack, I'd require every approaching ship to be inspected prior to reaching the canal. Missile armed helicopters and patrol craft with the inspection party, who are trained to be very thorough. Unless the ship has a large crew (unlikely, it's going to blow up), the armed craft can disable the bridge/control rooms and allow boarders to take control of the ship long before it can get to the Canal locks.

Also, the St. Nazaire raid was supposed to have an air raid right before the destroyer entered the harbor, to keep the garrison occupied. It happened too early though, so the garrison was alert and spotted the DD as she approached, with predictable results.

#41 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 11:15 AM:

Bendal @40: Yes, but inspected how thoroughly?

Many modern crude carriers have double-walled hulls -- brought in after the tanker war in the Gulf during the 80s, and various oil spills -- and these are often flooded with CO2 or nitrogen to reduce the risk of explosion/fire in event of a vapour leak from the crude tanks. Makes searching them really difficult and dangerous. So, what if the lower hull of the vessel, under the oil tanks, is filled with explosives? Worse, what if there's crude oil in the tanks, and the explosives are immersed in it? How are you going to find out?

#42 ::: Vasha ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 12:41 PM:

@41, that's a good point, intelligence work to detect plots in the making would be far more useful than trying to search shipping. (A point which has been made in reference to the TSA too.)

#43 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 01:13 PM:

Try as I might, I just can't get hellebrenners into a palindrome.

#44 ::: Bendal ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 02:22 PM:

Charlie #41:

Most current tankers are too large to pass through the Canal now, so that risk isn't as large as you'd think. IIRC the Canal lock width is about 120'; a modern CVN barely squeaks through (and probably has some serious overhang with the flight deck). I took the original concept as a problem during wartime, when certain kinds of ships could just be banned from using the Canal if necessary.

Btw, an ammunition ship, the Mount Hood, exploded in the Central Pacific during WWII. Survivors from nearby ships said it just disappeared; the shockwave from the explosion seriously damaged many ships around it, and debris raining down injured many sailors on ships miles away. A trench 1000' long and 300' wide was dug out in the harbor bottom from the explosion.

btw2, I used to post under the name John L. Bendal is a longterm pseudonym I've used on other discussion groups.

#45 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 02:44 PM:

This really hit hard: The only survivors from the Mount Hood crew were a junior officer and five enlisted men who had left the ship a short time before the explosion. Two of the crew were being transferred to the base brig for trial by court martial; and the remainder of the party were picking up mail at the base post office. Charges against the prisoners were dropped following the explosion.

#46 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 03:31 PM:

Tam @ 26:

I'm afraid that core-collapse supernovae are going to rank well above cases of "really small rock bumps into larger rock at low velocities"...

#47 ::: Errolwi ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 03:34 PM:

Bendal #44:
USN aircraft carriers since the Midway class of 1945 have been too big for the Panama Canal, before angled flightdecks (and hence serious overhangs) even.

#48 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 04:02 PM:

#44 ::: Bendal

Ah, yes. The Mt. Hood explosion. I reference that obliquely in Why We Immunize as "Holes in the coral where ammunition ships were formerly anchored." An annual review of OP 1014; Ordnance Safety Precautions: Their Origin and Necessity had given me an encyclopedic knowledge of explosive mishaps great and small, told in an uncompromising style.

#49 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 05:38 PM:

A shipload of ammonium nitrate would be quite enough. Do they even let such cargoes through the canal? I recall being told that trucks loaded with fertiliser were not allowed through the Tyne Tunnel, so they had to drive through the middle of Newcastle. Seemed a little odd.

#50 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2013, 07:47 PM:

I think the Antwerp's Bridge attack is one of the battles Dorothy Dunnett reuses in her Lymond of Crawford novels. I haven't reread those for a while -- I fear their 1960-isms will be a lot more salient than they were 20 years ago. But oh, I loved them.

#51 ::: ErrolC ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 12:00 AM:

After the Christchurch (NZ) earthquakes, the road over the Port Hills (between the post and the city) was closed to truck traffic. Potentially dangerous loads went through the Lytellton Tunnel (where they are normally banned) one at a time overnight.

#52 ::: k8 ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 02:00 AM:

clew @50: Actually, I read the Lymond novels for the first time a couple of years ago and loved them quite a lot. I don't remember them seeming to be dated. (Granted, I was raised on literature from the 60s and earlier, so it's possible my brain's just attuned to that accent, so to speak.)

#53 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 07:42 AM:

eric @43: Try as I might, I just can't get hellebrenners into a palindrome.

Excellent. Now all we need to do is erect palindromes in front of our bridges to protect them.

#54 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 07:46 AM:

Elise @53 <snork!>

#55 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 10:00 AM:

I would just like to say that 'hellebrenner' is a wonderful word, both as-is and in translation.

#56 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 11:31 AM:

Peter @46: Core collapse supernovae are fun, but for real explosion lulz you need to look up pair instability supernovae one of my new space-operatic favourite things. I just wish I could figure out an excuse to use one in fiction: anything that triggers a matter/antimatter explosion that converts around 40 solar masses of hydrogen into nickel in a matter of seconds is, well, it gets my explosion geek side all excited.

#57 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 12:23 PM:

I think you're overlooking one obvious plan for protecting the Panama Canal: deception.

All you need to do is to plant a *decoy* canal some miles away, so that would-be attackers will mistake it for the real canal, and attack it instead.

Then, you can camouflage the actual Panama Canal by putting up large posters saying "Sea World," "Wall Drug," or possibly "Stew Leonards", and they will never find it!

#58 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 12:28 PM:

What's wrong with calling to a beautiful waitress who used to work on a fireship -- "O hellebrenner belle; ho!"?

Kind of minimal, but it works as well as many palindromes I've seen.

#59 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 12:33 PM:

Tom @58:

Excellent! And once you get the core of a palindrome worked out, it need not stay minimal for long--just enclose it in symmetrical concatenations of other palindromes, and you have as long a palindrome as you like. E.g.,

"Kayak radar o hellebrenner belle; ho radar kayak!"

Oh--you wanted it to make sense, too? That's harder... If I only had a plan that involved a canal, possibly one that was flanked on both sides by radar-guided kayaks for protection....

#60 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 12:40 PM:

clew @50:

Re: Francis Crawford of Lymond

"In fire is your friend; in flood is your foe; in powder is your release..."

IIRC, Francis is often in the area when a cubic buttload of gunpowder goes up: the Knights of Malta armory in "Disorderly Knights," the above mentioned use of the battle at Antwerp (which I think is in "Checkmate," and wasn't there a fireworks explosion in "Queen's Play?").

#61 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 01:10 PM:

oldster @ #57: other variations include replacing the real explosives with fake explosives, or, better yet, replacing the real terrorists with fake terrorists.

#62 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 01:11 PM:

All you need to do is to plant a *decoy* canal some miles away, so that would-be attackers will mistake it for the real canal, and attack it instead.

Which is very similar to what stage magician Jasper Maskelyne did during WWII to hide the Suez Canal from the Nazis (among his many other clever illusions).

#63 ::: Steven desJardins ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 01:19 PM:

@56: I like the phrase "... runaway thermonuclear reactions (not shown here) ensue ..." from that Wikipedia article.

#64 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 01:45 PM:

Why am I getting visions of Roadrunner cartoons?

#65 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 03:57 PM:

Jim Macdonald @62

Jasper Maskelyne's exploits come from two sources: he ghost-written autobiography, and a biography written with his cooperation. But people who were around him record none of these incredible successes in their memoirs, there is nothing in the Imperial War Museum or the National Archives and his biggest claim was for events after he left the desert and was running entertainment for the troops in Cairo.

About the only thing he did that was used on a large scale was to implement an idea of General Wavell's.

#66 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 04:08 PM:

So you're saying there was a man, a plan, a canal . . .

And can you not say, or will you not reveal classified information?

#67 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2013, 05:15 PM:

Being in St. Louis during the snowstorm they had last month inspired me to compose a plaindrome:

I own no snow, I.

#68 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 10:07 AM:

Charlie @ 56

Yes, pair-instability SNe are fun, but since they're technically thermonuclear explosions, I wasn't considering them; Kevin Riggle's original suggestion was "Largest Non-Artificial Non-Nuclear Explosions"...

And it's actually the reverse of a matter/antimatter explosion which sets the whole thing off. Matter/antimatter explosions come from pairs of matter and antimatter particles (e.g., electrons and positrons) annihilating to produce gamma rays. The pair-instability mechanism is high-energy gamma rays[*] turning into electron/positron pairs. Since radiation pressure from the gamma rays is what's keeping the star from collapsing up until that point, the loss of gamma rays streaming out from the core means gravity takes over and the star collapses. The result is a catastrophic runaway thermonuclear explosion.[**]

[*] Produced by ongoing nuclear reactions and as standard thermal radiation, due to the fact that the core of the star is several billion degrees hot at this point.

[**] To be really nit-picky, the iron and nickel that's created starts of as mostly carbon and oxygen, built up by the preceding stage of helium fusion...

#69 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 01:24 PM:

Looking back at the canal, I am given to wonder whether Gatun Dam is actually the weakest point. On the one hand, it's a dam, and therefore is intrinsically armored. On the other hand, it's a single point of failure which takes out the entire system. Given the damage done at the Normandie dock, it's not clear that a single explosion could take out both sets of locks.

Hmmm, now there's an idea: how about a freighter which releases its entire load of Jell-o while in the lock?

#70 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 02:19 PM:

C. Wingate @69 -- Jello wouldn't work (not hot enough to melt it, not cold enough to set it). Cornstarch might cause an interesting couple of days if you could get enough and mix it properly. And I think there are some interesting other chemicals that would be amusing without being totally destructive -- though for destructive, a tanker-load of concentrated hydrofluoric acid would do some very nasty things.

#71 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 02:27 PM:

Shouldn't it be lime jello?

A ship loaded with (a) lime jello and (b) dry ice.

#72 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 02:59 PM:

Even if Jell-o per se wouldn't do it, there's got to be some polymer out there that would give a similar effect.

#73 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 03:26 PM:

Hm. Wouldn't a barge full of a water-activated material be really nasty to clean up? Rather than something like Jello, which you could conceivably wash away given lots of hoses or the like, is there anything out there like concrete that will cure (or even harden) underwater? Once it sets, you've just reduced the depth of that canal section a respectable amount - do it in a lock, and you've probably just killed the lock short of a full rebuild. That seems evilly effective.

#74 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 04:07 PM:

How about a material that would expand when liquid is added, enough to pop hull plates at a time when it's in one of the locks? Timing could be dependent on the material's contents or its particle size.

#75 ::: Bendal ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 04:20 PM:

Under the right conditions, a ship full of bulk cement would still become a big problem if it sank in a lock. The cement would gradually be mixed with the water, and the hull of the ship would keep it concentrated, so most of the cement would harden underwater anyway even without the admixtures that are usually added to cement being pumped underwater.

#76 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 05:23 PM:

I'm thinking that scuttling a ship in a lock will have an effect on trade. Yes, the locks are paired, and the canal will not be completely closed by one set of locks being out of use, but it will make a big difference to the capacity.

So, Hollywood plot time, the bad guy arranges for a loaded ship to be scuttled in a lock, and makes huge amounts of money out of the effects on freight costs and commodity prices.

#77 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 06:34 PM:

Dave Bell @65: Yeah, I googled around after Maskelyne and found a lot of dubiousness about whether he actually did anything much that helped camouflage the canal. They talk about his plans, but I couldn't find anything verifying they had ever been implemented, and a bunch of people who argued convincingly that they hadn't.

#78 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 09:51 PM:

re 74: There was some ship that burst and sank when its cargo got wet but I forget the name and what it was carrying.

#79 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 10:02 PM:

C. Wingate, 78: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower once lost a cargo of rice that way.

#80 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 10:05 PM:

OK, now I remember: it was tapioca. It didn't sink, but it was a close-run thing.

#81 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 10:16 PM:

Dear God, that calls out for the sea chantey to end all sea chanteys.

#82 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2013, 11:53 PM:

I will admit to having had that one in mind.

#83 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2013, 03:23 AM:

P J @71: you drop de lime in de P. Canal and mix it all together?

--Dave, tin tang, voila voila, big bang

#84 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2013, 09:56 AM:

elise @77: Knowing something about the way that magicians tend to think, and about the way that people in intelligence tend to think (hint: they're both the kind of people who will tell you that they're wearing red suspenders when they're actually wearing a belt, purely from an ingrained impulse to misdirect), it's entirely possible that Maskelyne did something, but that it was completely different from what he said he did, and besides it's probably still classified until some date shortly before the heat death of the universe, just in case sometime somebody else wants to do it again.

#85 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2013, 10:29 AM:

From C. Wingate's link in #80, my new favorite phrase is "terrible tapioca time bomb".

#86 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2013, 11:25 AM:

Doyle @84: Oh! Good point. (Also, it simultaneously gives me the giggles and makes me feel better about the whole thing, with a side helping of plot bunnies. Cool.)

#87 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2013, 12:10 PM:

People who want video of large explosions are encouraged to search on "BLEVE." This stands for Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion, or, "Blast Levels Everything Very Effectively."

#88 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2013, 03:36 PM:

Debra Doyle: it's entirely possible that Maskelyne did something, but that it was completely different from what he said he did

I don't know if he did something, but if he did it's guaranteed to be different than what he said he did. I recommend reading Vanishing the Elephant for the short version of the Maskelyne family: basically you'd be better off trusting Houdini's accounts of anything in the world than a description by a Maskelyne on how he crossed the street and at what time and date. (Those who have read Houdini on Robert-Houdin are now wide-eyed...)

#89 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2013, 12:42 AM:

For real Blowing Stuff Up, it's hard to find something better than the contemporary Russian TOS-1 Buratino Heavy Flame Thrower; Video here.

(It's a medium-range MLRS, based on the chassis of a T-72, firing thermobaric -- i.e. fuel-air explosive -- warheads. Scary shit ...)

#92 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2013, 12:46 AM:

More info on the West, TX, (as opposed to West Texas) fire, here.

West is a small town near Waco, and judging by the news reports, a good portion of it's been wiped flat. No human malice involved, apparently; just the sort of badness that can happen where fertilizer plants are involved.

#93 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2013, 10:11 AM:

There are a lot of people ready to attribute it to malice, though. Most of them have never been to Texas, I suspect, because they're assuming that it's run like California, with environmental and safety regs all over the place, and zoning and actual land-use planning as well.

#94 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2013, 11:44 AM:

Have I ever mentioned that I once managed to set off a BLEVE? (Thank God, a very very minor one.)

I set a pot of beans on to cook, and put the lid on. I then came back, and went to take the lid off and add water. (I should, at this point, mention that the pot was a small, long-handled pressure cooker, that I frequently used with no gasket and no bobber as an ordinary pot.) the lid seemed a bit stuck, so I held one handle in each hand, leaned back, and shoved it open. The result was about what you'd expect (except that I was not thinking at the moment). The lid hit the ceiling hard enough to leave a dent, and I believe every surface in the kitchen had beans on it. I'd absentmindedly put the lid on with the gasket in, and the beans had clogged the vent.

I ended up no injuries except with a first-degree steam burn on my forearm. I was extremely fortunate. (It did manage to completely get my mind off my girlfriend, who was far more upset than I was.)

#95 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2013, 01:00 PM:

#94, SamChevre -- I was canning potatoes once and one of the quart mason jars must have had a flaw in it.

When I opened the lid to take the finished jars out, one of the jars blew up. There were big chunks of glass embedded in the ceiling, and about 20 feet away on my couch. I had potatoes everywhere, probably much like your beans.

I had minor first and second degree burns on my arms and forehead. I've never jumped in a shower so fast in my life. I was sure I was hurt a lot worse than I was. Don't know how all the glass missed me.

I was lucky it was potatoes and not jam ...

#96 ::: Quixote ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2013, 01:26 PM:

#91, Jim Macdonald -- I can't tell if that's the same video I saw this morning (I'm at work and they have Youtube blocked). I'm going to assume it's the video of the girl who ends up yelling "Dad, I can't hear anything".

When I was watching it, all I could think about was footage of the PEPCON disaster and how they were really close to that fire. If I knew that was a fertilizer factory, I'd have lit out of there like Godzilla was on my tail.

#97 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2013, 01:31 PM:

It's worth mentioning, if you were wondering, that the girl in that video was OK.

I certainly was.

#98 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2013, 01:34 PM:

#96 : Quixote

Yes, that's the footage.

When I posted the link it had 301 hits. This morning it had 2.8+ million.

My guess as to the range that footage was taken from was about a half mile.

#99 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2013, 01:37 PM:

Correction: 300 yards, not a half-mile. A tenth of a mile.

#100 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2013, 01:55 PM:

For pipelines, there's a formula for figuring the Potential Impact Radius (PIR) that involves the internal pressure as well as the wall thickness. For most of the pipe I was looking at, it's less than 250 yards.

#101 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2013, 02:16 PM:

Teams search for survivors after massive blast at Texas plant

In 2006, West Fertilizer had a complaint filed against it for a lingering smell of ammonia, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows.

Separately, the plant had informed the Environmental Protection Agency that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, according to The Dallas Morning News. It did so in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

The plant's report to the EPA said even a worst-case scenario wouldn't be that dire: There would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn't kill or injure anyone, the newspaper reported.

And this is why we have our jump bags and deployment bags pre-packed and ready to grab, so that when the firefighters come by, pound on your door, and yell, "Get out! Now!" you can do it.

Getting out with just the clothes on your back is better than not getting out, but getting out in the same time period with the clothes on your back, a change of socks, and a hundred bucks in cash, is better.

#102 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2013, 10:15 PM:

For those interested in making donations to help the people of West, Texas, who've just lost most of their fire and EMS personnel, not to mention a bunch of other people and a good chunk of their town, more information can be found here.

#104 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2013, 06:23 PM:

My last CERT class was last night*, and we did a table-top exercise in small groups. We were given a scenario with a map showing buildings, and Damage Assessment forms filled out for each building. Each group's job was to decide where to put our medical treatment area, and prioritize what we worked on first. The building were:

- Church
- Day care center
- three residences
- Fertilizer plant. It had smoke coming from it.

The fertilizer plant had a diamond-shaped hazardous material information sign, which means that we stay away.

After the exercise, I asked our instructor if the fertilizer plant was added based on recent events. He said that it was the same scenario they'd been using for awhile.

*final exercise coming soon!

#105 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2013, 11:45 PM:

My first earthquake was a fertilizer plant explosion. It was ~1970, I was in junior high school in Delaware, and it was across the river in New Jersey, maybe 10-20 miles away. The room shook briefly, and the light fixture on the ceiling shook for a while.

According to a recent MSNBC report, Dick Cheney's son-in-law Phil Perry was responsible for blocking some EPA regulations of the fertilizer industry and moving regulatory authority from EPA over to Homeland Security (but not giving them much funding for safety inspection.) I also remember that during the post-9/11 "terrorists might blow up anything" panics, a lot of previously public safety information about chemical plants was made restricted, so that terrorists wouldn't get it, and too bad about the warnings that they used to have to give people living nearby about potentially dangerous chemicals. I currently live in Silicon Valley (near some Superfund sites), and used to live in New Jersey (near more of them), and the public really does need access to that information.

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Even larger type, with serifs

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Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.