“What was the most expensive accident to befall a man-made vessel over the past 100 years?”
The majority of respondents to this recent poll on History In An Hour’s Facebook page chose the sinking of RMS Titanic as the most likely answer. With almost 4,500 people participating in the survey, the other options and results were as follows:
|A.||The sinking of RMS Titanic, mid-Atlantic, 1912||61.18%|
|B.||The Swissair Flight 111 crash, Nova Scotia, 1998||6.54 %|
|C.||The Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster, Texas, 2003||31.05%|
|D.||The MetroLink train crash, California, 2008||1.23%|
Interestingly, the question posed in this poll sparked a thought-provoking debate on the interpretation of the word ‘expensive’. When considering the cost of such disasters, should we focus solely on the financial loss, or do we also take into account the loss of life? And, if we do consider the death toll, how can we possibly compare the two? The answer is, of course, we can’t – the loss of human life can never be measured in monetary terms, nor should it be.
However, in terms of death toll alone, the majority of participants were correct in saying RMS Titanic (pictured) was the most ‘expensive’ – over 1,500 people lost their lives on that tragic night in 1912, compared to 229 in the Swissair crash, 25 in the Metrolink train accident, and 7 in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster.
But, if we look at this question from in purely financial terms, we are left with a very different picture. In this case, it is the Columbia tragedy which is regarded as being by far the most expensive. Space exploration is a notoriously costly business – the shuttle itself cost around to US$2 billion to build in 1978 (a staggering US$7 billion in ‘today’s money’), and if we factor in the expense of the subsequent investigation and recovery operation, the total costs eclipse that of even the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986.
In contrast, Titanic cost ‘only’ US$7.5 million to build (about US$170 million adjusted for inflation), and even if we include the loss of passengers’ personal belongings and subsequent insurance claims, the cost comes nowhere near the Columbia disaster. Similarly, the cost of the MetroLink train crash may exceed US$200 million (arising mainly from wrongful death lawsuits) and the Swissair crash cost US$38 million (the majority of which was spent on the four-year investigation into the accident – although there has been speculation that a cargo of diamonds worth US$500 million was lost with the plane).
Another issue raised in the Facebook comments was the choice of options included in the poll, with some people suggesting that 9/11 and Lockerbie should have featured on the list. In these cases, we have to ask ourselves, ‘can a terrorist attack be called an accident?’ For the purposes of this exercise, the answer is probably no.
And finally, if one of our respondents, Mr Aiden Oswell, would like to provide us with the statistics associated with the ‘knacking of his Skoda accelerator cable on Kenton Road in Newcastle’, we will happily consider this for inclusion on the list.
Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote.