There have been many extremely large explosions, accidental and intentional, caused by modern high explosives, boiling liquid expanding vapour explosions (BLEVEs), older explosives such as gunpowder, volatile petroleum-based fuels such as petrol, and other chemical reactions. This list contains the largest known examples, sorted by date. An unambiguous ranking in order of severity is not possible; a 1994 study by historian Jay White of 130 large explosions suggested that they need to be ranked by an overall effect of power, quantity, radius, loss of life and property destruction, but concluded that such rankings are difficult to assess.The weight of an explosive does not directly correlate with the energy or destructive impact of an explosion, as these can depend upon many other factors such as containment, proximity, purity, preheating, and external oxygenation (in the case of thermobaric weapons, gas leaks and BLEVEs).
In this article, explosion means "the sudden conversion of potential energy (chemical or mechanical) into kinetic energy", as defined by the US National Fire Protection Association, or the common dictionary meaning, "a violent and destructive shattering or blowing apart of something". No distinction is made as to whether it is a deflagration with subsonic propagation or a detonation with supersonic propagation.
On 4 April 1585, during the Spanish siege of Antwerp, a fortified bridge named "Puente Farnesio"[a] had been built by the Spanish on the River Scheldt. The Dutch launched four large hellburners (explosive fire ships filled with gunpowder and rocks) to destroy the bridge and thereby isolate the city from reinforcement. Three of the hellburners failed to reach the target, but one containing 4 tons of explosive struck the bridge. It did not explode immediately, which gave time for some curious Spaniards to board it. There was then a devastating blast that killed 800 Spaniards on the bridge throwing bodies, rocks and pieces of metal a distance of several kilometres. A small tsunami arose in the river, the ground shook for miles around and a large, dark cloud covered the area. The blast was felt as far as 35 kilometres (22 mi) away in Ghent, where windows vibrated. It has been described as an early weapon of mass destruction.
At around nine in the morning of May 30, 1626, a plume of smoke arose from the Wanggongchang Armory in Ming-era Beijing China, followed by an explosion. Almost everything within an area of two square kilometers surrounding the site was destroyed. The estimated death toll was 20,000. About half of Beijing, from Xuanwumen Gate in the South to today's West Chang'an Boulevard in the North, was affected. Guard units stationed as far away as Tongzhou, nearly 40 kilometers away, reported hearing the blast and feeling the earth tremble.
On 16 February 1646, eighty barrels (5.72 tons) of gunpowder were accidentally ignited by a stray spark during the Battle of Torrington in the English Civil War, destroying the church in which the magazine was located and killing several Royalist guards and a large number of Parliamentarian prisoners who were being held there. The explosion effectively ended the battle, bringing victory to the Parliamentarians. It narrowly missed killing the Parliamentarian commander, Sir Thomas Fairfax. Great damage was caused.
On 26 September 1687, the Parthenon, hitherto intact, was partially destroyed when an Ottoman ammunition bunker inside was struck by a Venetian mortar. 300 Turkish soldiers were killed in the explosion.
In 1769, the Bastion of San Nazaro in Brescia, Italy was struck by lightning. The resulting fire ignited 90 tonnes of gunpowder being stored, and the subsequent explosion destroyed one-sixth of the city and killed 3000 people.
On 26 August 1810, in Almeida, Portugal, during the Peninsular War phase of the Napoleonic Wars, French forces commanded by Marshall André Masséna laid siege to the garrison; the garrison was commanded by British Brigadier General William Cox. A shell made a chance hit on the medieval castle, within the star fortress, which was being used as the powder magazine. It ignited 4000 prepared charges, which in turn ignited 68,000 kg of black powder and 1,000,000 musket cartridges. The ensuing explosion killed 600 defenders and wounded 300. The medieval castle was razed to the ground and sections of the defences were damaged. Unable to reply to the French cannonade without gunpowder, Cox was forced to capitulate the following day with the survivors of the blast and 100 cannon. The French losses during the operation were 58 killed and 320 wounded.
On 27 April 1813, the magazine of Fort York in Ontario (now Toronto) was fired by retreating British troops during an American invasion. Thirty thousand pounds of gunpowder and thirty thousand cartridges exploded sending debris, cannon and musket balls over the American troops. Thirty eight soldiers, including General Zebulon Pike the American commander, were killed and 222 were wounded.
On 27 July 1816, the British Royal Marines established a fort on the Apalachicola river known as Negro Fort (later Fort Gadsden). It was occupied by about 330 members of a militia consisting of African Americanfreedmen, Choctaw and SeminoleNative Americans, when General Andrew Jackson's navy attacked in a campaign that accelerated the First Seminole War. After five to nine rounds of hot shot, a cannonball entered the fort's powder magazine. The ensuing explosion, which was heard more than 100 miles away, destroyed the entire post which was initially supplied with "three thousand stand of arms, from five to six hundred barrels of powders and a great quantity of fixed ammunition, shot[s], shells". About 270 men, women and children lay dead. General Edmund P. Gaines later said that the "explosion was awful and the scene horrible beyond description." There apparently were no American military casualties.
On 30 December 1848, in Multan during the Second Anglo-Sikh War, a British mortar shell hit 180 000 kg of gunpowder [200 short tons (180 t)] stored in a mosque, causing an explosion and many casualties.
On 4 April 1856, the Ottomans had stored a large amount of gunpowder in the palace and the adjacent church, which were also full of people. At the time, it was considered that the ringing of bells could prevent the formation of storms. A lightning bolt hit the gunpowder, triggering a blast that killed 4000 people.
On 10 October 1885 in New York City, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers detonated 300,000 pounds (135 t) of explosives on Flood Rock, annihilating the island, in order to clear the Hell Gate for the benefit of East River shipping traffic. The explosion sent a geyser of water 250 feet in the air; the blast was felt as far away as Princeton, New Jersey. The explosion has been described as "the largest planned explosion before testing began for the atomic bomb", though the detonation at the Battle of Messines was larger. Rubble from the detonation was used in 1890 to fill the gap between Great Mill Rock and Little Mill Rock, merging the two into a single island, Mill Rock.
Explosion of steam ship Cabo Machichaco
On 3 November 1893, in Santander, Spain, the steam ship Cabo Machichaco caught fire when she was docked. The ship was loaded with sulphuric acid and 51 tons of dynamite from Galdácano, Basque Country, but authorities were unaware of this. Firefighters and crewmen from other ships boarded the Cabo Machichaco to help fight the fire, while local dignitaries and a large crowd of people watched from the shore. At 5 pm, a huge explosion destroyed nearby buildings and created a huge wave that washed over the seafront. Pieces of iron and rubbish were thrown as far as
Peñacastillo, 8 km away, where a person was killed by the falling debris. A total of 590 people were killed, while an uncertain number, estimated from 500 to 2000, were injured.
The hole created by the Braamfontein dynamite explosion (looking west) at Maraisburg on 19 February 1896
On 19 February 1896, an explosives train at Braamfontein station in Johannesburg, loaded with between 56 and 60 tons of blasting gelatine destined for the burgeoning gold mines of the Witwatersrand and having been standing for three and a half days in searing heat, was struck by a shunting train. The load exploded, leaving a crater in the Braamfontein rail yard 60 metres (200 ft) long, 50 metres (160 ft) wide and 8 metres (26 ft) deep. The explosion was heard up to 200 kilometres (120 mi) away. 75 people were killed, and more than 200 injured. Surrounding suburbs were destroyed, and roughly 3000 people lost their homes. Almost every window in Johannesburg was broken.
On 15 October 1907, approximately 40,000 kegs of powder exploded in Fontanet, Indiana, killing between 50 and 80 people, and destroying the town. The sound of the explosion was heard over 200 miles (320 km) away, with damage occurring to buildings 25 miles (40 km) away.
Alum Chine was a Welsh freighter (out of Cardiff) carrying 343 tons of dynamite for use during construction of the Panama Canal. She was anchored off Hawkins Point, near the entrance to Baltimore Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland. She exploded on 7 March 1913, killing over 30, injuring about 60, and destroying a tugboat and two barges. Most accounts describe two distinct explosions.