Series / Seconds From Disaster

"Disasters don't just happen. They're a chain of critical events. Unravel the fateful decisions in those final, Seconds from Disaster."

Seconds From Disaster is a Documentary series on the National Geographic Channel. The program investigates historically relevant man-made and natural disasters. Each episode aims to explain a single incident by analyzing the causes and circumstances that ultimately affected the disaster. The series uses re-enactments, interviews, testimonies, and CGI to analyze the sequence of events second-by-second for the audience.

Narrators for the show include Ashton Smith (American narrator for seasons 1 to 3), Richard Vaughan (British narrator for seasons 1 and 2; narrator from season 4 onwards) and Peter Guinness (British narrator for season 3).


This series provides examples of:

  • Ace Pilot:
    • Crash Landing At Sioux City. The pilots kept the plane in the air until they could land at an airport with emergency crews waiting, despite the loss of all hydraulic controls, likely saving many lives on the ground and even lowering the death toll in the crash itself. Part of this was that one of the pilots (who had been a passenger on the plane to begin with) had studied the crash mentioned in...
    • ...Terrified Over Tokyo. The skill of the pilots again likely saved many lives on the ground in getting the plane out of anywhere populated. Also, they kept the plane flying longer than anyone running the same situation in a simulator ever has. In addition, had the J.S.D.F. arrived in time, they would have been able to save many more people than just the four survivors. Many of the plane's passengers survived the crash, only to die of hypothermia in the ensuing hours.
    • Collision on the Runway is a subversion. The pilot of the KLM flight fancied himself to be this and was promoted as such - which possibly led to his crew and even air traffic control deferring to his wishes when they absolutely should not have done so.
  • Adult Fear: Nearly every episode interviews at least one person who lost a relative or loved one in the disaster.
    • Amsterdam Air Crash/Schiphol Plane Crash/Plane Crash in the Suburbs: Two parents leave their children home alone to visit some friends a few blocks away. Minutes later, a jumbo jet crashes directly into their apartment.
  • Anyone Can Die: Or be seriously injured and/or permanently disabled. While not 100% effective for the sake of drama (since some people are interviewed later after the re-enactment unfolds), a good way to tell if someone is dead is if they're mentioned but never interviewed, or if other people, usually relatives, refer to them in past-tense.
  • Anachronism Stew: In the Chicago Air Crash episode, set in 1979, on some of the scenes on the escalator, you can see an LCD display showing the flight times. They were not widely used until the late 2000s.
  • Apocalypse Cult:
    • Waco Cult, the story of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas
    • Jonestown Cult Suicide, one of the worst peacetime mass suicides/mass homicides inspired by religion in recent history.
  • Atomic Hate:
  • Computer-Generated Images: A selling point of the series.
    Narrator: "Advanced computer simulation will take us to where no camera can go... into the heart of the disaster zone."
  • Chekhov's Volcano: At least two, for the eruptions at Soufriere Hills and Mt St Helens are also shown as episodes.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Several disasters featured in-series are found to be the result of good old-fashioned corruption and cutting corners on safety regulations at the behest of a high-ranking suit trying to save money.
    • Skywalk Collapse: The collapse of the Hyatt skywalk, caused by the actual building of the skywalk not matching the engineering blueprints and using a shoddy construction style, with no load testing before opening to the public. The skywalk was therefore too weak to support the amount of people who crowded onto it, causing the disaster.
    • Superstore Collapse/Department Store Collapse: The collapse of the Sanpoong Department Store is ultimately attributed to repeated professional negligence on the part of the store owners, who approved reducing the strength of the building's support structure and adding loads exceeding what the building was designed for, in order to increase profits by expanding the commercial floor space.
    • Bhopal Nightmare: Corruption and cut corners in the management and maintenance of a Union Carbide pesticide factory, solely due to the desire for extra profits, was the cause of one of the most deadly chemical accidents in history. Worse, due to a coverup and blaming employees, the Corrupt Corporate Executive involved got away with zero consequences.
  • Disaster Dominoes: Investigating how these unfold in Real Life disasters is the premise of the series.
    • Collision on the Runway: A bomb planted in Gran Canaria Airport kicks off a series of events that would lead to two fully loaded Boeing 747s colliding on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport over 100 kilometers away, resulting in the deaths of 583 people in the worst accident in aviation history. The bomb led to the planes diverting to Los Rodeos. The hot weather at Los Rodeos led to most of the passengers disembarking for the terminal. Once all the passengers made it back, a pair of children were unaccounted for, causing the Pan-Am flight to be delayed and put immediately behind the KLM flight. The delay meant that both planes were taxiing through the fog. The fog necessitated communication through radio by the pilots, but a technical glitch meant that they couldn't understand each other. This miscommunication was what made the disaster from this point onwards irreversible.
    • Explosion in the North Sea: The loss of the Piper Alpha oil rig was the result of a chain of events that ultimately stemmed from a bad paperwork system. During the recap, the narrator even points out four links in the chain that, had any one of them been done differently, would have mitigated, or even outright prevented, the disaster.
  • TV Documentary: The series is focused on recounting the events of a disaster, presenting the findings of the investigation, going over the aftermath, and reflecting on the disaster's significance in history.
  • Exact Time to Failure: An iconic feature of the series, every significant event in the timeline is listed with an exact time to the moment of disaster.
  • Failed a Spot Check: The Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster wouldn't have happened if anyone had noticed that the doors connecting the ferry's car deck to the outside world had been left open.
  • Failsafe Failure: Many disasters featured occurred as failsafes in place were overwhelmed, out-of-order, or unwittingly disabled through human error.
    • In Paris Train Crash/Runaway Train, the train driver releases air from all the brakes of his train to overcome a mis-diagnosed clog in the air-brake system. Instead, he unwittingly sabotages an automated failsafe that locks the air brakes of his train if air-pressure in the brake system is dangerously low. This leads to a literal train wreck when he is unable to stop his train from crashing into a stationary one further up the line.
  • For Want of a Nail: Often a major final or initiating factor in the disaster.
    • Comet Air Crash/Crash of the Comet: The decision to secure a window with rivets instead of glue (as originally designed) left a microscopic manufacturing defect in the fuselage of BOAC Flight 781. Over time, the defect grew into a fatigue crack. The fatigue crack then failed, leading to Explosive Decompression, causing the crash of the Comet. The crash crippled the promised rise of British Aviation company de Havilland, allowing two little known companies, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas to leave them in the dust forever. Also, the subsequent inquiry into the crash resulted in unprecedented investigative techniques (such as wreckage reassembly) being developed; techniques that form the cornerstone of accident investigations to this day.
    • Paris Train Crash/Runaway Train: While trying to reset the emergency brake cord, the train driver accidentally pulls shut a valve supplying air to his train's brakes. This leaves him unable to stop his train at the end of the line, resulting in the Gare de Lyon rail accident.
    • Inferno in Guadalajara: One very small water pipe bent over a gas main, as well as creating a U-bend in the main sewer line in order to get a subway tunnel through, eventually causes a massive sequential explosion which kills over 200, cripples many more, and causes hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
      • Essentially the same thing happened four years later in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this time with a propane pipe cracking under the weight of settling concrete and groundfill above due to a sharp bend; the Guadalajara explosion is even referenced and footage from that episode shown.
    • The faulty experimental engine which downed British Midlands Flight 092 and caused a couple other planes to make emergency landings was never tested in flight prior to release, instead being only wind-tunnel tested; a flight test would almost surely have uncovered the weak fan blade design.
  • Going Critical: Two disasters are nuclear meltdowns, though this trope is averted as both are depicted accurately:
    • Meltdown in Chernobyl: A steam explosion blows the roof and containment off of the Chernobyl reactor, leading to a massive, uncontrolled release of radioactive material and one of the two worst peacetime nuclear disasters of human history.
    • Fukushima: Damage from a 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami, loss of power related to it, and a build-up of hydrogen leads to a meltdown and explosions that damage the containment of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, leading to the second worst and ongoing peacetime nuclear disaster of human history.
  • Heroic Bystander: Many episodes mention the heroics of average people stepping up to save others. In some, they even manage to bring the individual(s) in question for an interview.
    • Collision on the Runway: Jack Ridout, a passenger on Pan Am Flight 1736, barely survives the horrific side-on collision with KLM Flight 4805. Although injured and suffering burn wounds, he opens one of the aircraft's exits and braves the burning plane to help several passengers exit the aircraft. He is credited with saving 12 lives. In context, he and the 12 are among the 61 people that escaped the Pan Am alive.
    • Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster/Capsized in the North Sea: In the wake of the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise, stories of heroism include a man acting as a human bridge to allow others to escape, and a truck driver saving a 5 year old girl, who lost the rest of her family in the capsize.
    • Crash Landing at Sioux City: Jerry Schemmel, who survived the crash landing with minor injuries, quickly reached the exit of the plane. Before he could get out, he heard the cries of a baby amid the flames. Without a second thought, he darted back into the wreckage and carried the child to safety.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The series often features individuals that went above and beyond, giving their lives to save others from the disaster.
    • Paris Train Crash/Runaway Train: André Tanguy, the driver of the stationary train in the path of the unstoppable runaway one, frantically warned his passengers over the intercom to evacuate. Staring death in the face, he stayed at his post repeating the warning until the two trains collided head-on, killing him instantly. He is named the hero of the accident, credited with saving dozens of lives.
  • Infant Immortality: Brutally averted in many cases; in fact, the show goes to great pains to highlight just how many (often small) children die in disasters just to drive the Tear Jerker factor in even further. It's even more gut-wrenching when the parents are interviewed.
    • A perfect example of this is the episode covering the Oklahoma City Bombing. It's highly stressed that there are several children in a daycare directly above where Timothy McVeigh's bomb exploded, and that the grandson of one of the people interviewed was there. The grandson survives, but it's noted that he saw many other children die. Especially tragic since this was a deliberate terrorist act rather than a freak accident.
    • Occasionally it's played straight, though not in a good way since in most cases the children's parents die, such as the girl in the Zeebrugge example above.
  • It's Probably Nothing: In many cases, there are warning signs before the disaster occurs, but these warnings are dismissed.
    • In Guadalajara, gasoline starts coming out of taps and showers in nearby homes, but no one considers evacuating.
    • Before the collapse of the Hotel New World, debris starts falling, and the hotel's supporting columns and walls visibly crack. Nobody appears to understand the implications of this before the entire building goes down.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • The Texas City explosion would have been averted had it not been for one worker carelessly leaving his truck running next to the blowdown stack that began to malfunction a few minutes later. As far as official sources state, he was never prosecuted for his negligence.
    • Everyone from the CEO to the plant managers of the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal. No one was found guilty of the massive corruption and negligence that led to the deaths and suffering that resulted from a completely preventable chemical disaster, to the degree that calling Bhopal an "accident" is almost insufficient.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • Inferno in Guadalajara: The chain of explosions was likely set off by a spark created when a utility worker trying to fix the gasoline odors slammed down a manhole cover.
    • Meltdown in Chernobyl: A safety test conducted by inexperienced employees kicked off the disaster.
  • Stock Footage: Ubiquitous in the show, mostly from news broadcasts and other media significant to the disaster and subsequent investigation.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Exploding sewers, exploding buildings, exploding planes, and lots of things going up in smoke due to leaking fuel catching fire, not to mention actual bombs going off.
    • The initial Guadalajara explosion was powerful enough to be picked up on seismographs, where it registered 3.3 on the Richter scale.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: On a few occasions, the disaster can be traced back to the actions of a single person, and the unforeseen consequences thereof.
    • Tunnel Inferno: The truck driver of the margarine and flour truck who only realized his load was catching fire far too late, and then left his engine running while he ran for his life.
    • Meltdown In Chernobyl: The reactor crew performing the safety test were all this - had the test just not been done, the disaster never would have happened.
    • Paris Train Crash/Runaway Train: The woman who pulled the emergency brake on the train had no way of knowing that the driver's attempts to reset the brake system would lead to a fatal collision.
    • King's Cross Fire/London's Subway Inferno: The smoker who carelessly discarded their still-lit match on the escalator, starting a fire that killed 31 people.
    • Derailment at Eschede: Had the conductor chosen to notify the driver of the train instead of going to investigate the piece of metal sticking through the floor of the train, the driver may have chosen to bring the train to a stop before it derailed.
    • Texas Oil Explosion: The driver of the white pickup truck who left his truck parked running near the leaking blowdown stack.
  • Violation of Common Sense: What could've prevented the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire in Tunnel Inferno. Due to the way forward movement was starving the lorry's air filter and/or engine fire of oxygen. If Gilbert had driven to the end of the tunnel instead of stopping halfway to inspect and extinguish the fire, the fire would've erupted outside the tunnel. In addition, if he had chosen to stop the engine instead of leaving it running, the burning cab wouldn't have continued to ingest air from around itself.
    • Fire on the Ski Slope: A small group of twelve passengers, after escaping from the burning train, evacuated the tunnel by going downhill, towards the fire, but away from the smoke. These twelve ended up being the only passengers to survive, as all of the rest of them tried to flee uphill. It helped that one of them was a volunteer firefighter, who knew full well that this particular Violation of Common Sense was the smartest thing to do.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • Jonestown Cult Suicide. Jim Jones ordered children to be killed by their own parents.
    • Oklahoma City Bombing, Timothy Mc Veigh, the terrorist who committed the worst act of terrorism on US soil before September 11, 2001. The childcare center in the Murrah Building was right above where his truck bomb exploded.
    • The United States of America itself, in the Nagasaki episode. The episode pays particular attention to the fact that most of the city's children had been sent out to try and build firebreaks, in anticipation of a firebombing attack similar to what happened in Tokyo. When the bomb hit, they had no chance to escape, and died instantly from the effects of the bomb.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Series/SecondsFromDisaster