In 1943, Bethnal Green in East London experienced one of its worst wartime tragedies. Not from bombs or flying shrapnel, but something potentially far deadlier: panic.
Memorial plaque commemorating the victims of an accident on the southeastern staircase of Bethnal Green tube station during an air raid alert in 1943. (Image: Sunil060902)
During a routine air raid siren test, civilians on their way to shelter in the Tube station all happened to converge on the entrance at once.
In their panic to get downstairs, some people tripped… and then the stampede began.
As more and more people fell to their knees and bodies kept piling in the door, the panic became a deadly crush. One hundred and seventy-three people were trampled to death, including at least 41 children.
The disaster was Britain’s worst civilian tragedy in the entire war.
Photo: Underground Tube Stations in London were used regularly as bomb shelters
Over 70 years after the accident, its memory still scars the station. Underground staff and late night passengers have reported hearing women screaming and the sound of children crying.
Do the voices of the dead still linger beneath East London’s streets?
The only way to be sure is to go down there late at night and find out for yourself.
Photo: Workmen repairing the stairs after the tragedy.
Survivors of the USS Indianapolis are taken to medical aid on the island of Guam. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.
The USS Indianapolis had delivered the crucial components of first operational atomic bomb to a naval base on the Pacific island of Tinian. On August 6, 1945, the weapon would level Hiroshima. But now, on July 28, the Indianapolis sailed from Guam, without an escort, to meet the battleship USS Idaho in the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines and prepare for an invasion of Japan.
The next day was quiet, with the Indianapolis making about 17 knots through swells of five or six feet in the seemingly endless Pacific. As the sun set over the ship, the sailors played cards and read books; some spoke with the ship’s priest, Father Thomas Conway.
But shortly after midnight, a Japanese torpedo hit the Indianapolis in the starboard bow, blowing almost 65 feet of the ship’s bow out of the water and igniting a tank containing 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel into a pillar of fire shooting several hundred feet into the sky.
Then another torpedo from the same submarine hit closer to midship, hitting fuel tanks and powder magazines and setting off a chain reaction of explosions that effectively ripped the Indianapolis in two.
Still traveling at 17 knots, the Indianapolis began taking on massive amounts of water; the ship sank in just 12 minutes. Of the 1,196 men aboard, 900 made it into the water alive.
Their ordeal—what is considered the worst shark attack in history—was just beginning.
As the sun rose on July 30, the survivors bobbed in the water. Life rafts were scarce. The living searched for the dead floating in the water and appropriated their lifejackets for survivors who had none. Hoping to keep some semblance of order, survivors began forming groups—some small, some over 300—in the open water.
Soon enough they would be staving off exposure, thirst—and sharks.
The animals were drawn by the sound of the explosions, the sinking of the ship and the thrashing and blood in the water. Though many species of shark live in the open water, none is considered as aggressive as the oceanic whitetip.
Reports from the Indianapolis survivors indicate that the sharks tended to attack live victims close to the surface, leading historians to believe that most of the shark-related casualities came from oceanic whitetips.
The first night, the sharks focused on the floating dead. But the survivors’ struggles in the water only attracted more and more sharks, which could feel their motions through a biological feature known as a lateral line: receptors along their bodies that pick up changes in pressure and movement from hundreds of yards away.
As the sharks turned their attentions toward the living, especially the injured and the bleeding, sailors tried to quarantine themselves away from anyone with an open wound, and when someone died, they would push the body away, hoping to sacrifice the corpse in return for a reprieve from a shark’s jaw.
Many survivors were paralyzed with fear, unable even to eat or drink from the meager rations they had salvaged from their ship. One group of survivors made the mistake of opening a can of Spam—but before they could taste it, the scent of the meat drew a swarm of sharks around them. They got rid of their meat rations rather than risk a second swarming.
The sharks fed for days, with no sign of rescue for the men.
Navy intelligence had intercepted a message from the Japanese submarine that had torpedoed the Indianapolis describing how it had sunk an American battleship along the Indianapolis’ route, but the message was disregarded as a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush.
In the meantime, the Indianapolis survivors learned that they had the best odds in a group, and ideally in the center of the group. The men on the margins or, worse, alone, were the most susceptible to the sharks.
Lithograph from 1888 showing the Krakatoa eruption, author unknown.
During the winter of 1883 the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins descended into one of his periodic depressions, “a wretched state of weakness and weariness, I can’t tell why,” he wrote, “always drowsy and incapable of reading or thinking to any effect.” It was partly boredom:
Hopkins was ungainfully employed at a Catholic boarding school in Lancashire, where much of his time was spent steering his pupils through their university entrance exams.
The thought that he was wasting his time and talents weighed heavily upon him during the long, brooding walks he took through the “sweet landscape” of Ribblesdale, “thy lovely dale”, as he described it in one of the handful of poems he managed to compose that winter.
He was about to turn forty and felt trapped.
Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1866, detail from a photo by Thomas C. Bayfield. National Portrait Gallery.
Such was his state of mind when the Krakatoa sunsets began.
The tiny volcanic island of Krakatoa (located halfway between Java and Sumatra) had staged a spectacular eruption at the end of August 1883, jettisoning billions of tonnes of ash and debris deep into the earth’s upper atmosphere.
Nearly 40,000 people had been killed by a series of mountainous waves thrown out by the force of the explosion: the Javan port of Anjer had been almost completely destroyed, along with more than a hundred coastal towns and villages. “All gone. Plenty lives lost”, as a telegram sent from Serang reported, and for weeks afterwards the bodies of the drowned continued to wash up along the shoreline.
Meanwhile, the vast volcanic ash-cloud had spread into a semi-opaque band that threaded slowly westward around the equator, forming memorable sunsets and afterglows across the earth’s lower latitudes.
A few weeks later, the stratospheric veil moved outwards from the tropics to the poles, and by late October 1883 most of the world, including Britain, was being subjected to lurid evening displays, caused by the scattering of incoming light by the meandering volcanic haze.
Throughout November and December, the skies flared through virulent shades of green, blue, copper and magenta, “more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets,” wrote Hopkins; “the glow is intense; that is what strikes everyone; it has prolonged the daylight, and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.”
For the first time since the accident in 1976, workers at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington are planning to clean out the room where chemicals exploded in Harold McCluskey’s face, showering him with radiation 500 times the occupational limit and embedding radioactive americium in his skull, turning him into the Atomic Man.
McCluskey, improbably, survived the incident. (He later said, “Of nine doctors, four thought I had a 50-50 chance and the rest just shook their heads.”) The massive dose of radiation left him with health problems, and decades later, his body still set off Geiger counters.
But the most painful legacy of the explosion was probably the isolation, both physical and social, as other humans shied away from his radioactive body.
When the accident happened on August 30, 1976, McCluskey had just returned to his job as a technician after a five-month strike had shut down the Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford.
The material he was working with had become unstable after the long hiatus and so right after he added nitric acid as instructed, it exploded, blowing out the glove box that was supposed to contain it.
His body—now covered in blood and shards of metal and glass—was taken to the decontamination center where he stayed in an isolation of concrete and steel.
Nobody was allowed near him out of fear for the radiation he still emitted.
“Blinded, his hearing damaged by the explosion, McCluskey spent the next three weeks at the unit cut off from personal contact,” described a later profile in People. “Monitored, like an alien, by nurses wearing respirators and protective clothing, he could neither see nor clearly understand the attendants who approached.”
The nurses scrubbed and shaved him every day—the bath towels and bathwater now part of Hanford’s radioactive waste.
He endured 600 shots of zinc DTPA, a drug that binds to radioactive metals.