Man-Made Disasters


A series of explosions August 12, 2015, in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed more than 40 people and caused about $3.3 billion in insured losses, according to estimates by Allianz. That loss accounted for almost half of the 2015 global losses of $7 billion.

On August 5, 2015, a team of Environmental Protection Agency contractors investigating leaks from an abandoned gold mine accidentally sent a spill of three million gallons of toxic slurry into the Animas River, threatening communities in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation that draw water from the river and its tributaries. The contaminated sludge that accumulated from almost a century in the tunnels of the mine spilled at a rate of 740 gallons a minute into a creek that feeds the Animas River. The sludge contains lead, arsenic, mercury, copper, cadmium and other heavy metals. The ecological impact of the pollution is yet to be determined, although the San Juan has been designated as a critical habitat for two species of fish and tourism is important to the local economy. Drinking water remains available in the region because utilities closed their intake gates, but farmers and local residents no longer have safe water for crops, wells and livestock.

In 2014, 366 catastrophic events occurred, including 189 natural catastrophes and 147 man-made disasters, according to Swiss Re. Natural catastrophes caused about $28 billion in insured losses in 2014, while man-made disasters resulted in additional losses of about $7 billion. Major man-made catastrophes in 2014 included maritime, aviation and rail disasters, fires and explosions, and terrorism and social unrest. A fire at a petrochemical plant in Texas in April caused the largest man-made disaster loss in 2014. The September 11 terrorist attack in the U.S. was the costliest man-made disaster in history, based on Swiss Re data going back to 1970. It caused $25.1 billion in insured losses (in 2014 dollars).


There were 56 catastrophic disasters attributed to transportation incidents in 2014, according to Swiss Re, including 39 maritime disasters, 12 aviation disasters and five rail disasters. These events resulted in 3,205 deaths worldwide. Aviation disasters caused $916 million in insured losses, while maritime disasters caused another $783 million.  Losses for rail disasters were not reported. See Swiss Re chart on Man Made Disasters below for further information.



  Number of incidents Deaths Insured loss ($ millions)
All man-made disasters (1) 147 5,711 $6,958
Major fires, explosions 43 490 $4,257
Industry, warehouses 12 152 1,278
Oil, gas 18 40 2,928
Other buildings 9 296 50
Other fires, explosions 4 2 NA
Aviation disasters 12 960 $916
Crashes 7 940 337
Explosions, fires 1 20 NA
Space 4 NA 579
Maritime disasters  39 2,118 $783
Freighters 3 8 156
Passenger ships 28 2,000 231
Drilling platforms 4 NA 326
Other maritime accidents 4 110 70
Rail disasters (includes cableways) 5 127 NA
Mining accidents 7 400 $110
Collapse of buildings/bridges 3 42 NA
Miscellaneous 38 1,574 $893
Social unrest 1 21 350
Terrorism 28 1,361 543
Other miscellaneous losses 9 192 NA

(1) Based on events classified by Swiss Re as a catastrophe. The threshold is $19.3 million in insured losses for maritime disasters, $38.6 million for aviation disasters and $48.0 million for other losses or $96 million in total economic loss; or at least 20 dead or missing, 50 injured or 2,000 made homeless.

NA=Data not available.

Source: Swiss Re, sigma, 2/2015.

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In 2013, 744 million people flew on commercial airlines in the United States, compared with 739 million in 2012 and 734 million in 2011. The Federal Aviation Administration projects that more than 1 billion people will fly on scheduled commercial airlines in the United States annually by 2028.

In 2014 more than 3.3 billion people flew safely on 38.0 million global flights, according to the International Air Transport Association. The global accident rate (as measured by the rate of hull losses on western- built jets) was 0.23 in 2014, or about one accident for every 4.4 million flights and the lowest rate in history. The 2013 accident rate was 0.41. (A hull loss is an accident in which the aircraft is destroyed or substantially damaged and is not subsequently repaired.) There were 73 accidents in 2014 (on eastern- and western-built aircraft), down from 81 in 2013. A Malaysia Airlines jet shot down on July 17, 2014, over Ukraine became the seventh deadliest crash in history, with 298 fatalities. This crash is not counted in the accident statistics. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 en route to Beijing disappeared on March 8, 2014 with 239 on board. For further information see the International Air Transport Association.

The deadliest world aviation accident was the collision of two Boeing 747 passenger planes on the runway of an airport in the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977. The crash resulted in the deaths of 583 out of 644 passengers according to the Geneva-based Aircraft Crashes Record Office’s list of Worst Aviation Accidents.


In the United States the National Transportation Safety Board compiles data on aviation flight hours, accidents and fatalities for commercial and general aviation.

Commercial airlines are divided into two categories according to the type of aircraft used: aircraft with 10 or more seats and aircraft with fewer than 10 seats. The nonscheduled commercial aircraft with more than 10 seats are also called charter airlines. Commercial airlines flying aircraft with fewer than 10 seats include commuter (scheduled) airlines, and on-demand air taxis. General aviation includes all U.S. noncommercial or privately owned aircraft.

In 2013, 744 million people flew on commercial airlines in the United States, compared with 739 million in 2012 and 734 million in 2011. The Federal Aviation Administration projects that more than 1 billion people will fly on scheduled commercial airlines in the United States annually by 2028.



    Number of accidents    
  Flight hours
Total Fatal Number of
fatalities (2)
per 100,000
flight hours
Commercial airlines          
     10 or more seats          
          Scheduled 17,226 27 0 0 0.157
          Nonscheduled 373 1 0 0 0.268
     Less than 10 seats          
          Commuter 349 4 0 0 1.448
          On-demand 3,448 35 8 20 1.015
General aviation 18,103 1,221 253 419 6.744
Total civil aviation NA 1,287 261 439 NA

(1) Preliminary data. Totals do not add because of collisions involving aircraft in different categories.
(2) Includes nonpassenger deaths.

NA=Data not available.

Source: National Transportation Safety Board.

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  • There were 1,297 civil aviation accidents in 2013, down from 1,539 in 2012. Total fatalities fell to 429 from 447.
  • There were two fatalities on large scheduled commercial airlines in 2013, following three years with no fatalities. There were seven fatalities on large nonscheduled airlines (charter airlines) in 2013. There were no fatalities in the prior two years.
  • Small commuter airlines had eight accidents 2013 compared with four in 2012. There were six fatalities in 2013 after six years with no fatalities.
  • The number of small on-demand airline (air taxi) accidents grew to 44 in 2013 from 37 in 2012.
  • There were 1,222 general aviation (noncommercial) accidents in 2013, down 17 percent from 1,471 in 2012. 2013 accidents resulted in 387 deaths, down from 432 in 2012.


Marine accidents killed 1,135 people and caused $814 million in insured losses in 2013. In June, a fire on a cargo vessel in the Indian Ocean near Bahrain resulted in about $300 million in total damages. In 2012, 30 people were killed when the Costa Concordia cruise ship carrying 4,200 passengers went aground off the coast of Italy. The Costa Concordia incident was the costliest man-made disaster in 2012, causing $515 million in insured damages losses when it occurred. The greatest maritime disaster in peacetime happened in December 1987, when the Philippine ferry, the Doa Paz, collided with the Vector, a small coastal oil tanker, according to the National Maritime Museum in the United Kingdom. Only 24 of the 4,317 Doa passengers survived. By contrast, 1,500 perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.



Category Number of events Victims Insured losses ($ millions)
Freighters 3 8 $156
Passenger ships 28 2,000 231
Drilling platforms 4 0 0
Other maritime incidents 4 110 70
Total 39 2,118 $783

(1) Based on events classified by Swiss Re as a catastrophe. The threshold for a maritime disaster is $19.3 million in insured losses or total losses of $96 million; or at least 20 dead or missing, 50 injured or 2,000 made homeless.

Source: Swiss Re, sigma, No. 2/2015.

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Some 167 crew members lost their lives in a July, 1988 fire and explosion aboard the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea. The incident, which caused property damage losses of $1.8 billion in 2013 dollars, represents the largest single property damage event in a Marsh’s study of losses in the energy industry from 1972 to 2013.



(US $ millions)

Rank Date Plant type Event type Location Country Property loss (2)
1 Jul. 7, 1988 Upstream Explosion/fire Piper Alpha, North Sea U.K. $1,810
2 Oct. 23,1989 Petrochem Vapour cloud explosion Pasadena, Texas U.S. 1,400
3 Jan. 19, 2004 Gas processing Explosion/fire Skikda Algeria 940
4 Jun. 4, 2009 Upstream Collision Norwegian Sector North Sea 840
5 Mar. 19, 1989 Upstream Explosion/fire Gulf of Mexico U.S. 830
6 Jun. 25, 2000 Refinery Explosion/fire Mina Al-Ahmadi Kuwait 820
7 May 15, 2001 Upstream Explosion/fire/sinking Campos Basin Brasil 790
8 Sep. 25, 1998 Gas processing Explosion Longford, Victoria Australia 750
9 Apr. 24, 1988 Upstream Blowout Enchova, Campos Basin Brazil 700
10 Sep. 21, 2001 Petrochemical Explosion Toulouse France 680
11 May 4, 1988 Petrochemical Explosion Henderson, Nevada U.S. 640
12 May 5, 1988 Refinery Vapour cloud explosion Norco, Louisiana U.S. 610
13 Mar. 11, 2011  Refinery Earthquake (3) Sendai Japan 600
14 Apr. 21, 2010 Upstream Blowout/explosion/fire Gulf of Mexico U.S. 600
15 Sep. 12, 2008 Refinery Hurricane Texas U.S. 550
16 Jun. 13, 2013 Petrochemical Explosion/fire Geismar, Louisiana U.S. 510
17 Apr. 2, 2013 Refinery Flooding/fire La Plata, Ensenada Argentina 500 (4)
18 Dec. 25, 1997 Gas processing Explosion/fire Bintulu, Sarawak Malaysia 490
19 Jul. 27, 2005 Upstream Collision/fire Mumbai High North Field India 480
20 Nov. 14, 1987 Petrochemical Vapour cloud explosion Pampa, Texas USA 480

(1) Property damage, debris removal and clean-up costs.
(2) Inflated to December 2013 values.
(3) Loss to refinery following the Tohuku earthquake.
(4) Preliminary.

Source: Energy Practice, Marsh & McLennan Companies.

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The charts below show the costliest large-loss fires, many of which involve industrial facilities and other non-residential structures. The rankings are based on property loss data from the National Fire Protection Association.



($ millions)

Rank Month State Type of facility Estimated loss
1 September California Pier  $100.2
2 October Kansas Airport flight safety building 61.5
3 March Texas Apartment building under construction 50.0
4 March California Apartment building under construction 41.0
5 March Iowa Meatpacking plant 30.0
6 May California Wildland/urban complex 29.8
7 December California Apartment building under construction 27.1
8 June California Yacht  25.1
9 December Wisconsin Cheese storage and manufacturing 25.0
10 August South Carolina Gas distribution plant 25.0

Source: Reproduced with permission from Large-Loss Fires in the United States, 2014 by Stephen G. Badger, ©National Fire Protection Association.

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($ millions)

      Estimated loss (1)
Rank Date Location/event Dollars when occurred  In 2014 dollars (2)
1 Sep. 11, 2001 World Trade Center (terrorist attacks) $33,400 (3) $44,700 (3)
2 Apr. 18, 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire 350 9,150
3 Oct. 8-9, 1871 Great Chicago Fire 168 3,350
4 Oct. 20, 1991 Oakland, CA, fire storm 1,500 2,640
5 Oct. 20, 2007 San Diego County, CA, The Southern California Firestorm 1,800 2,030
6 Nov. 9, 1872 Great Boston Fire 75 1,520
7 Oct. 23, 1989 Pasadena, Texas, polyolefin plant 750 1,420
8 May 4, 2000 Los Alamos, NM, Cerro Grande wildland fire 1,000 1,420
9 Oct. 25, 2003 Julian, CA, Cedar wildland fire  1,100 1,320
10 Feb. 7, 1904 Baltimore, MD, Baltimore Conflagration 50 1,320

(1) Loss estimates are from National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) records. The list is limited to fires for which some reliable dollar loss estimates exists.
(2) Adjustment to 2013 dollars made by the NFPA using the Consumer Price Index, including the U.S. Census Bureau's estimates of the index for historical times; adjusted to 2014 dollars by the Insurance Information Institute using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator.
(3) Differs from inflation-adjusted estimates made by other organizations due to the use of different deflators.

Source: Reproduced with permission from Large-Loss Fires in the United States, 2013 by Stephen G. Badger, ©National Fire Protection Association.

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