Monday, June 9, 2014

Disaster Books: Fires and Volcanoes

Ruins of Pompeii in the shadow of Mt Vesuvius
I have been fascinated with true accounts of disasters since I was a little kid.  It's not morbid curiosity.  I just like the historical aspects, the compassionate feelings the tragedies invoke, the heroes and the villains, and the improvements that we as human beings, have created to try to counteract the forces of mother nature and our past hubris.  Plus, a good disaster book almost always keeps me on the edge of my seat and wanting to read more.

Since August will be the anniversary of two big volcanic eruptions and two deadly fires, I thought I'd highlight the books and authors that are part of a genre called disaster books.  The definition according to Wikipedia is:

"Disaster books are a literary genre involving detailed descriptions of major historical disasters, often based on the historical records or personal testimonies of survivors. Since reportage of both natural disasters and man-made disasters is commonplace, authors tend to be journalists who develop their news reports into books."

This week we will be covering volcanoes and fires.  Look for other types of disaster books in the following weeks.  Give these books and authors a try--you won't be disappointed.


Mount Vesuvius--August 24, 79 A. D.--southwest of Naples, Italy. It erupted for eight straight days and killed 20,000 people.  Hot ash mixed with water, formed a deadly crust that buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The preserved bodies of the dead can still be seen to this day.

--From Pompeii: the Afterlife of a Roman Town by Ingrid D. Rowland
--Pompeii (2014)--DVD and Blu-ray

Mount Tambora--April 5, 1815-Spring 1817--on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia.  The eruption spewed ash that blocked the sun and caused temperatures to drop.  This caused excessive rain, frost, and snowfall in the United States and Europe.  This lead to riots, famine, and epidemics. Over 150,000 people died and billions of dollars in crops were destroyed.

--The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History by William K. and Nicholas P. Klingaman

Krakatoa--August 26-27, 1883--an island in Indonesia. The eruption annihilated the island of Krakatoa and the resulting tsunami killed nearly 40,000 people.  This was the most powerful volcanic eruption of all time.  The explosion woke up people in Southern Australia which was over 2,500 miles away.

--Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester


Peshtigo, WI--October 8, 1871--the whole town was destroyed in one hour and over 2000 people died.  Because the Great Chicago Fire occurred on the same day, Peshtigo's tragedy was largely overlooked.

--Firestorm at Peshtigo: a Town, It's People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History by Denise Gess and William Lutz

Great Chicago Fire--Chicago, IL--October 8, 1871--it started in Mrs. O'Leary's barn but no evidence was ever found to blame her cow.  The fire burned four square miles of town and left 90,000 people homeless.  300 people died and it overshadowed the deadlier Peshtigo fire.

--The Great Chicago Fire by Robert Cromie

Iroquois Theater Fire Memorial
Iroquois Theater Fire--December 30, 1903--Chicago, IL--the worst theater fire in U. S. history, 602 died, many which were children.  It was a new theater and advertised itself as "fireproof".  It had no working sprinklers, the fire escapes had no stairs or ladders, and 27 of the exits were padlocked shut.  This criminally negligent fire led to the adoption of stricter safety, building, and fire codes around the country.

--Chicago Death Trap: the Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903 by Nat Brandt

"The Big Burn"--August 20, 1910--Washington, Idaho, and Montana--the largest forest fire in U. S. history, it destroyed 3 million acres and killed 7 civilians and 78 firefighters. It helped pioneer the conservation of public lands and defined the role of the U. S. Forest Service as a major foe of wildfires.

--The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan

Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire--March 25, 1911 in New York City--it killed 145 people, mostly immigrant women aged 13-23.  This disaster horrified the country and changed labor laws for the better.  The 100 year memorial for the victims was held in 2011.

--Triangle: the Fire that Changed America by David von Drehle
--Triangle Fire (2011)--DVD

Morro Castle Steamship Fire--September 8, 1934--Offshore Asbury Park, NJ--a mystery including a murder, a suspicious fire, incompetence, and criminal negligence that led to the death of 133 people.

--When the Dancing Stopped: the Real Story of the Morro Castle and Its Deadly Wake by Brian Hicks

Famous Clown Emmett Kelly carrying water at Hartford Circus Fire
Hartford Circus Fire--July 6, 1944--Hartford, CT--worst circus tragedy in the United States--168 people died, 2/3 of which were children--the big top tent went up in flames and trapped scores of people inside. This tragedy led to a new flame-retardant material being used for tents.

--The Circus Fire: a True Story
by Stewart O'Nan

--Hartford Circus Fire by Michael Skidgett (2014)--on order

Mann Gulch Fire Memorial

Mann Gulch Fire--August 5, 1949--Mann Gulch, Montana--1 fire watch guard and 12 smokejumpers died--worst disaster in the history of the U. S. Forest Service elite smokejumpers unit--their deaths led to updates in wildfire fighting techniques and safety procedures.

--Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

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