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Big Disaster Plot

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A big disaster and/or its aftermath are the main focus of either the whole plot, a given Story Arc, or a single episode that is often the season opener of the finale. The former is often the case of Disaster Movies while the latter is common for series of any kind and it's known as the Train Crash episode. Some long-runners and series with an overall disaster premise have a Big Disaster Plot contained in more or less one of their arcs.

Depending on the series' main focus, the disaster anchors the episode in one of two ways:

  1. The Police, Fire, Hospital personnel, or Lawyers encounter the crash/disaster in the course of their work. The chief focus in the Police and Law procedurals is usually on the causation; with the Corrupt Corporate Executive likely to make an appearance while the victims are only briefly touched on, whether on-camera or in summary.
  2. The episode focuses on the POV of a person or group either involved in the disaster or related to victims thereof. If not a Medical Drama, (and even sometimes then,) could fall under Very Special Episode.

No matter the case, the disaster is prone to get covered in Radio Times or another such publication. Spectacular special effects are in no shortage to depict the consequences and the exact moment of the Big Disaster.

Common in the Medical Drama and Crime and Punishment Series. Compare Big Storm Episode, The Great Fire, and Disaster Movie. For plots that could be described as disastrous, see So Bad, It's Horrible.

The examples that crashed into this trope include:

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    Films — Animated 
  • The turning point in Big Hero 6 is a fire where the protagonist's older brother dies by means of an Heroic Sacrifice — in trying to help his Professor evacuate, he took too long to exit the building. This causes Hiro to fall into a severe depression, feel too demotivated to engage in his passion (Robotics), and experience crankiness and constant mood changes. The cause of the disaster remains unsolved for most of the plot. As it turns out, the villain did it in order to fake his own death. The villain's callousness about the incident prompts Hiro to go into a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The protagonists of The Hurricane Heist exploit this trope as a cover of their robbery. To clarify, the disaster in question is a category five hurricane first approaching then devastating the town they live in.

  • The The Roman Mysteries book series features several historical disasters that affected the Roman Empire.
    • The Secrets of Vesuvius and The Pirates of Pompeii respectively revolve around the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and its immediate aftermath.
    • The Enemies of Jupiter starts with a plague ravaging the city of Rome which serves the double purpose of gathering the main characters there. They are summoned by the Emperor to track down Rome's mysterious enemy who seeks to destroy it. A good chunk of the plot is spent trying to prevent a disaster — they ultimately fail and, as a result, the villain sets off a fire that engulfs the city in retaliation of Jerusalem's destruction.
  • War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches: The plot of Determinism and the Martian War, with Relativistic Corrections starts with a train crash. But it was no accident whatsoever — a Martian tripod actively attacks a train of which Albert Einstein is one of the passengers. This effectively gets him involved in the eponymous Martian War.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Par for the course in season openers on 9-1-1, so far having featured an earthquake, a tsunami, a dam collapse and mudslide, and a mass ransomware attack that incapacitated much of L.A.'s infrastructure. 9-1-1: Lone Star has followed suit, featuring a volcanic eruption and a massive blizzard.
  • A number of episodes of Babylon 5 have plots kicked off by docking accidents, most particularly "By Any Means Necessary", which centers more on the concerns of the dockworkers (obsolete or faulty equipment, insufficient manpower to keep up with the high flow of shipping traffic in and out of the station, etc.) and Earth's attempts to put an end to their strike.
  • Casualty has these every now and then, often when a member of the regular cast is on-board. A few examples include:
    • A bombing in a busy shopping centre
    • A chemical leak on a housing estate
    • A collapsed block of flats full of immigrants and refugees and surrounded by protesters
    • Part of a school collapsing
    • Season 18 opened with a train derailment two-parter that resulted in the death of one of the nurses who was on the crashed train.
    • Season 28 has a two-parter with a helicopter crash in the first part and a train crash, caused by metal thieves, in the second.
  • Chernobyl is a five-episode miniseries that examines many aspects of the 1986 nuclear disaster. It explores how the climate of secrecy, fear, and blame-dodging within the Soviet Union made a bad situation worse, how it enabled the disaster to happen at all, and the immense toll that the disaster and the necessary work of containing it took on everyone involved, from first responders to government officials to the literal army of "liquidators" brought in to mitigate the radiation.
  • Cold Case: An arson fire set in a disco to cover up a murder ended up killing almost a dozen more.
  • Crossing Jordan had a subway derailment and an office building bombing that both created mass casualties.
  • CSI had a bus crash version, which was caused by shoddy materials. It was Greg's first time in the field, too.
  • Emmerdale had the Beckindale air disaster, which marked the culmination of the series' Genre Shift into a full-blown Soap Opera. A passenger jet breaks up in mid-flight, killing everyone on board and showering Beckindale in debris that kills nine more people, including four regular cast members. The event is depicted entirely from the villagers' point of view, with the break-up itself not being shown.
  • A second season episode of Eli Stone deals with a major earthquake which Eli had had a vision of early in season one.
  • Emergency!, naturally, featured any number of fires, building collapses, bus or plane crashes, and other small- or medium-scale examples. Averted for large-scale incidents, when plans for a county-wide earthquake response story were scuttled by a writers' strike.
  • Forever Knight had Black Buddha, where a plane crashed outside Toronto. It happened to be carrying Nick's partner, who died.
  • Grey's Anatomy has one almost every season, and some seasons manage two major disasters
    • Season 2x05: A big storm hits Seattle Grace Hospital and a power-outage traps George, Alex, and a patient in the elevator, forcing George to perform open-heart surgery as Burke advises.
    • Season 2x06: A train crash with multiple ensuing casualties.
    • Season 2x16 & 17: A man arrives at the hospital with a bomb lodged in his chest.
    • Season 3x15 & 17: A barge crashes into a ferry boat with many casualties, and Meredith Grey drowns (it's okay, she gets better).
    • Season 4x09 & 10: An ambulance collision in the ER bay leaves multiple paramedics in critical condition fighting for their lives and others trapped in the wreckage.
    • Season 6x14: The roof collapses on a popular restaurant on Valentine's Day and the doctors must treat dozens of injured patients.
    • Season 6x23 & 24: The husband of a deceased patient enters the hospital heavily armed and goes on a shooting rampage.
    • Season 7x18: Callie and Arizona get into a car crash en route to a romantic weekend getaway, moments after Arizona proposes, that leaves Callie suffering from severe injuries and their unborn child in danger. Also the show's Musical Episode.
    • Season 8x23 & 24: Meredith, Cristina, Derek, Mark, Lexie, and Arizona board a flight to Boise, ID to take part in a surgery on conjoined twins. Their tiny plane crashes in the woods, critically injuring several passengers.
    • Season 9x23 & 24 and 10x01: A major storm threatens the newly renamed Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. Meredith goes into labor as the hospital loses power for the second time in nine seasons, and a packed school bus flips over right outside of the hospital. Then a mudslide sends a second wave of casualties into the hospital as Heather and Richard are electrocuted.
    • Season 10x24: An explosion at a shopping mall sparks fears of a terrorist attack and both Cristina (leaving for Switzerland) and Leah (fired) show up one last time to pitch in.
    • Season 11x20: A small plane crashes, causing multiple casualties and also traumatic flashbacks for the doctors who were in the plane crash in season 8.
    • Season 11x23 & 24: A tunnel collapse floods the ER and sends a team of doctors into the field to save a man trapped in a car.
    • Season 12x08: A wildfire fills the ER with burned firefighters
    • Season 13x23 & 24: Stephanie is taken hostage by a rapist attempting to escape the hospital and sets him on fire. The resulting explosion reduces the guy to a crisp and starts a large fire that inflicts career-ending burns on Stephanie as she fights her way through the flames to save herself and a little girl.
    • Season 14x08 & 09: A hack takes the entire computer system down, sending the hospital back to pen-and-paper records.
    • Season 15x07 & 08: A major windstorm hits Seattle, flooding the hospital with impalements. Oh, and the hospital loses power for the third time, resulting in the show's second elevator surgery.
  • The Flashpoint Grand Finale has the team dealing with a Mad Bomber who has planted bombs in a series of government and commercial buildings, several of which go off before they realize what's going on.
  • House:
    • The Season 4 premiere depicted an office building collapsing, whereas the Season 6 finale depicted the process of a crane collapsing and crashing into an apartment building.
    • Let's not forget the bus crash at the end of season 4. It's a while before we actually see the bus crash, but when we do, it's all slow-mo, heart-wrenching-ness.
  • Law & Order over its run has featured a ferry boat crash, an arson at a packed nightclub, a car-bombing, and a train wreck.
  • London's Burning generally ended each Season Finale with one of these. Memorable examples include a fairground ride collapse, a fire in a builder's yard with about a hundred gas cylinders, and a fire engine plunging down an embankment.
  • Episode "The Eye" of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power deals with the aftermath of Orodruin's eruption. The eruption completely destroyed the Southlands leaving its natives without a home and many dead, Queen Miriel is left blind, Galadriel reveals new Hidden Depths about herself, and Adar claims what was left from the Southlands for his Orcs and renames the place Mordor.
  • Lost: The pilot episode shows the crash of Oceanic flight 815 and deals with the aftermath.
  • NUMB3RS: "Thirty-Six Hours" has the agents dealing with the aftermath of a massive train crash. The main plot involves the agents and Charlie attempting to rescue trapped passengers, while a secondary thread follows the investigation into the cause of the crash.
    • Train crashes were also the subject of an earlier episode, "Sabotage", though none of those incidents were of the same scale. The one that the FBI ultimately foiled, however, quite possibly would have been a massive disaster if the saboteur had been able to carry out his plan.
  • The premiere of Peter Benchley's Amazon included a plane crashing in a jungle with the main characters - some of the crash is seen from different passenger perspectives throughout the first three episodes. Interestingly, this also predates Lost's plane-crash scenario by two years.
  • Press Gang: In "The Rest of My Life", there is a huge explosion at a local block of flats that has a busy record shop underneath. Lynda motivates the team into hurrying to report the breaking news until she notices that Spike is not present. Lying amongst the rubble, Spike talks to a girl called Mary Brien, buried deeper below the debris and badly injured.
  • Silent Witness: "Body 21" and a later episode involving a Chinook crashing into a refugee detention centre.
  • The WKRP in Cincinnati episode "In Concert" centered around the then-recent The Who concert disaster of 1979. While the actual events of the crush aren't shown, most of the cast had attended the concert and witnessed the event,note  with the latter half of the episode devoted to them trying to process what happened. It especially hits the cast hard because WKRP had promoted the concert, and there are questions about whether the fallout of the disaster will lead to Mr. Carlson undoing the station's change to a Rock n' Roll format. The episode served as an indictment of festival seating, which was considered to be a contributing factor to the disaster.
  • The X-Files has a plane crash-centered episode in "Tempus Fugit".

    Western Animation 
  • Downplayed and Played for Laughs in the episode "Hot to the Touch" of Adventure Time. The chaotic Flame Princess decides to take over the Goblin Kingdom and turn it into an extension of the Flame Kingdom for which she needs to set everything and everyone on fire. As Finn and Jake have spent the better part of the episode following her because Finn is infatuated with her and wants to approach her, they have to drop their attempts and go rescue the goblins. Only for most of the rescuing happening off-screen and by Jake because Finn is too occupied calming down Flame Princess, which extinguishes the fires in the process. Jake even messes Finn up by telling him all of the goblins died while he wasn't watching. In reality, they are fine, if a little bit scorched.
  • Arcane: Caitlyn, a Piltover enforcer, is punished with the graveyard shift of the Day of Progress for messing around with an investigation she wasn't assigned to. While her fellow enforcers mock her for being so uptight and coming from a very wealthy family, she spots the uprising blazes of an explosion and the subsequent fires. She and the other enforcers go to investigate and are lured to the core of the disaster by the cries for help of a little girl. It turns out, Jinx, the perpetrator, prerecorded the message and attached it to one of her monkey bombs, killing six enforcers and severely injuring Caitlyn with its blast. The whole ordeal was used by Jinx as a diversion so she could steal the very valuable hexgem. This is what triggers Arc Two's plot for all sides of the conflict.
  • The Arthur episode "April 9th", acted as the series response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. It tells of Lakewood Elementary catching fire during one day and how all the different people involved are affected by it. The story is spread across the entire episode, unlike the usual two 11-minute episodes that most of the rest of the series has. It was also substantially much more serious and somber than the series normally is, showing the very real symptoms of PTSD that can occur such as Arthur constantly stressing over his father, who was trapped in the building longer than everyone else (a family-friendly surrogate of the people who died in the 9/11 attacks), Sue Ellen suffering over losing her diary that she'd kept for years (symbolizing the memories that were destroyed when the attacks occurred), Mr. Morris suffering injuries that cause him to retire, and Binky being so traumatized by it that he pulls the fire alarm for no reason as an outlet for his fear.
  • The fifth season of Winx Club opens with one of these. An oil tank explodes provoking an oil spill near Gardenia's (the protagonist's hometown) shores and it's up to the eponymous sextet of fairies to use their magic to restore the tank and rescue the oil platform workers. The Winx also damage control by magically cleansing most of the spilled oil and turning the oil platform into a more Eco-friendly facility (it now works with renewable energies). This incident has double importance — first, because it marks the soft reboot of the series (now aiming at younger audiences) and secondly because it sets the plot in motion. The Arc Villain, a submarine creature, gets accidentally polluted by the remaining oil, mutates into a monster, and gains new magical powers as a result.