7 of the Best "Disaster" Books of All Time

Updated on March 2, 2020
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Jennifer is a voracious reader and loves most subjects including maritime disasters, WWII, urban legends, and murder mysteries.


I love a good old-fashioned disaster book. Most great novels of these particular "genre" provide insight into the depths of the human spirit that are relatively inaccessible in modern times- resilience against the odds, perseverance even in the shade of unseen forces, and the sense of camaraderie that develops between survivors. Even if you're not reading for the morality of the story, the gruesome details are sure to get you: the mystery of the circumstances, the savagery of man, and the bone-chilling elements of places most of us will never witness during the course of our lifetimes.

Below are my personal "best" disaster books, which take place in a variety of time periods and landscapes. A few, such as "Into Thin Air" and "The Terrible Hours" I have revisited and read multiple times because the stories are simply incredible. And since winter is upon us, now is the time to pick up one of these breathtaking reads and indulge in the ferocity (and sometimes insanity) of the human spirit.

"They Flew Into Oblivion" by Gian Quasar

For those of you who are unfamiliar with perhaps one of the most famous air disasters of all time, the story of Flight 19 and all of the things that went wrong for these doomed Avenger pilots will make you scratch your head in complete and utter puzzlement. Was it aliens that caused an entire flight of 14 airmen to vanish into thin air without a trace? Or was it the dark and mysterious power of the Bermuda triangle?

There have been several theories about the fate of the doomed Flight 19, but the facts remain the same: Five Avenger aircraft disappeared during an overwater training flight on December 5, 1945. The flight, led by experienced pilot-trainer Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor, began as a routine training mission before quickly turning into one of history's most stalwart disasters. All five aircraft went missing, and they have yet to be found.

Transcripts of the conversations between the airmen and Lieutenant Taylor indicate that Taylor became disoriented midair due to faulty navigational equipment. As the flight continued, each of the aircraft slowly began to run out of fuel and the airmen began to panic. One of the flight's last transmissions was Lieutenant Taylor ordering the crew of each aircraft to ditch together. After this, there was no indication that this order was executed, where it was executed, and what happened to the airmen of Flight 19. To this day, neither the Avengers nor the airmen have been found.

A creepy fact? One of the crewman for the Avenger aircraft FT-87, piloted by Forrest Gerber, refused to join the mission and was given permission to sit it out on the ground. His reasoning? He had a strong premonition of danger.

"Ghost Ship" by Brian Hicks

I have a special penchant for maritime disasters, as you might have noticed in my hub on cannibalism at sea. It just seems so wrong for such a horrible accident to happen on a huge body of water where there is no one to help you, no matter what that accident might be. In the Mary Celeste's case, she didn't suffer a conventional ship's death, such as sinking after striking an iceberg; no, she was definitely still afloat when they found her with no one aboard.

What happened to this 100-foot brigantine? Unfortunately, no one really knows the entire truth. This is largely because of the circumstances in which the Mary Celeste was discovered in 1872- no one on board, no outward signs of struggle, no structural damage, and no pilfered cargo. This eliminates several popular maritime destinies to which other great vessels have succumbed, including pirate raid and sea monster attack. Despite the mysterious and disturbing circumstances, this novel will take you back to the Mary Celeste before her mind-numbing fate, and will lay before you the facts of what exactly might have gone wrong to render this vessel without a crew and without any sign of what had become of them.

An interesting note- the wreck of the Mary Celeste was located off the coast of Haiti in 2001, providing more clues in to what might have befallen her.

"Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer

I have recently come from a mountain-climbing disaster bender, in which I fervently read several books about the disasters that have occurred on mountains throughout the world. There's just something about the altitude, what it does to the human body before and after death, and the preservation of things that have been found on those dark, distant summits that really does it for me.

Jon Krakauer's telling of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is a standalone for one reason- he was actually there and survived the ordeal that killed five other climbers. Supposedly, "Into Thin Air" is his attempt to clear his conscience from survivor's guilt and is written along the lines of a confessional, testifying to the circumstances that claimed lives on the mountain on that fateful day.

This certainly isn't the most devastating disaster that had taken place on a mountain's summit. In 2008, eleven climbers were killed on K2, the earth's second highest mountain. To date, this has been deemed the worst single accident in the mountain's entire history. But Krakauer's take on his own personal situation is simply heartwrenching, and he forces you to relive the perils that claimed the lives of five of his fellow climbers. This is a tale of courage, human perseverance, and resilience in the face of Mount Everest's complete and utter doom.

"Gone at 3:17" by David Mark Brown and Michael Wereschagin

On March 18, 1937, a natural gas leak at the London Junior-Senior High School in Texas caused an explosion that killed more than 300 students and teachers and caused hundreds of others to be trapped in the debris. A result of poor decision-making on behalf of the school administration, the explosion leveled one of the most modern schools in America at that time, leaving behind little more than a few walls still standing and countless numbers of families who lost loved ones in the disaster.

This is book is lengthy at 328 pages, but it includes eyewitness testimonials and interviews to bring together a devastating story that most Americans most likely have never heard of. It is a testament to the severe consequences that "cutting corners" can have on a public institution, and the accident itself spurred forward the initiative to force gas companies to add odor to their natural gasses. Had that fateful March 18th was just another normal day at school, 300 people would have survived and one of the deadliest school disasters of all time would have never come to pass.

"The Buffalo Creek Disaster" by Gerald M. Stern

I recently reviewed this particular incident in a graduate class on depression and resilience, as it was a disaster that was absolutely devastating not only on those who lost their lives, but on the survivors as well. In 1792, the dam in Man, West Virginia burst after days of heavy rain, sending 130 million gallons of water into the Buffalo Creek town down river. The residents of Buffalo Creek had no warning beforehand, and 125 people were killed instantly as the floodwaters reached their unprotected hollow at the base of the dam. More than 1,000 people sustained injuries, and more than 4,000 residents lost their homes to the water. What ensued was a legal battle of epic, unprecedented proportions and an overwhelming emotional cost exacted on the survivors, which can still be observed even 45 years later. This is a terrific account of one of the worst disasters for collateral damage in American history, and is an in-depth perspective into the role that human perseverance has in light of a disaster.

"Desperate Passage" by Ethan Rarick

I believe the title of this book to be inadequate, and for those who know the intimate details surrounding the fate of the Donner party, this belief is understandable. For those who aren't so familiar, the Donner party comprised one of the last wagon trains headed for the West during the Great Migration. Due to extenuating circumstances, their wagon had left behind schedule, and the members of the party found themselves racing against the impending doom of winter. Cutting a path through the Sierra Nevada mountains and entirely unaware of a deadly storm headed directly for them, the Donner party- consisting of 81 men, women, and children- found themselves trapped in the blizzard conditions without adequate food, water, or extra supplies for the duration of the winter. Eventually, the surviving members had to turn to their former companions for reasons other than companionship, and rumors of cannibalism have circulated about this disaster since its occurrence in 1846.

This novel really gets into the nitty-gritty details of what happened to the Donner party. As the reader, you'll enjoy the opportunity to meet each of the party members and share their sorrows and sacrifices firsthand. It is a story of both courage and cowardice, of loyalty and resilience, and of the human's tendency to hope even in the most devastating of circumstances. This particular testimony of the Donner party tragedy outdoes every other, including those that have been made into historically-inaccurate movies ("The Donner Party" was wildly fictitious). All in all, this is one of the most famous disasters of all time, and this novel presents it in both beautiful and disturbing detail.

"The Terrible Hours" by Peter Maas

I read this book many, many years ago and the horror of it still remains. Imagine being trapped underwater in a submarine, slowly running out of oxygen, and struggling to comprehend that you might never see the sunlight again....

The most epic type of maritime disasters is a type of shipwreck that trumps even the great and ill-fated Titanic. It is the wreck of the submarine, a vessel that defies even the most logic of thought for many of us unfamiliar with its technology. This novel in particular brings the story of the submarine Squalus, America's newest vessel in 1939, out of its depths and onto the pages in front of you where you'll read a step-by-step account of the 33 crew members who miraculously survive a crippling flood. In addition, you'll learn all about their only salvation- a man who would attempt the impossible in order to save their lives.

"The Terrible Hours" was a fantastic read, and one that I couldn't put down. It accompanies you through the ensuing rescue attempt of the survivors that lasted for 39 hours as the loved ones of the crew members waited eagerly above without news.This is an extraordinary adventure and is a must-read for fellow maritime disaster lovers. Its details will make you cringe as you wait for those 39 hours with each of the crew members as their collective fate nears one of three endings- the flooding of their submerged and crippled vessel, the spending of all breathable oxygen, or survival at the hands of their rescuers.

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Jennifer


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