, by technology and history writer James R. Chiles, is an unusual book: it appeals to the macabre desires that keep us riveted to highway accidents, while knowledgeably discoursing on the often preventable mistakes that caused them. At its heart are colorful stories behind more than 50 of the most infamous catastrophes that periodically chilled the advance of the industrial age. There are both those well remembered (the 1986 Challenger explosion, for example) and those now largely forgotten (a 1937 gas explosion at a Texas school that killed 298). But along with lively depictions of these deadly devastations and white-knuckle calamities--the U.S. battleship Maine, Apollo 13, and Three Mile Island among them--Chiles offers an informed analysis of the unfortunate chain of events that brought them about. And by grouping like incidents to show how fatal "system fractures" eventually developed through a combination of human error and mechanical malfunction, he also suggests how we might sidestep such tragedies in the future. In so, doing he fashions these spectacular accounts of failed planes, trains, ships, bridges, dams, factories, and other conveyances and facilities into a cautionary tale about technological progress. --Howard Rothman
From Publishers Weekly
Despite the specter of the Titanic, the oil rig Ocean Ranger was called "unsinkable" until one fateful night in the North Atlantic in 1982. Failing to anticipate that the vessel could list significantly to one side, its builders left open some five-foot-long holes on top of its corner supports, which filled with water during a terrible storm and led to the deaths of all 84 crew members. Chiles treats readers to a laundry list of such disasters from Bhopal to Chernobyl that arose from mistakes, panic or hubris. The result is a parade of dramatic stories about people who are simply unable to think in critical situations: "imagine having to take the most difficult final exam of your life while somebody is lobbing tear-gas grenades at you... when you are also suffering a major migraine headache and violent food poisoning." In some cases, he suggests proactive measures (e.g., when on a plane, note the number the rows to the exit, in case there's a snafu involving blinding smoke). In a book that is much more than a litany of disaster and tips on survival, Chiles also offers fascinating, detailed analyses of "system fractures" chains of events yielding catastrophes. Despite the depressing subject matter, the book is ultimately hopeful, recounting numerous acts of foresight or bravery in the face of bureaucratic opposition that saved many lives. (Aug. 31)
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.