How Boston's 1919 molasses flood turned so deadly

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The Molasses Flood of 1919 wreaked havoc on Boston's North End neighborhood, killing 21 people. A new experiment suggests wintery temperatures were partly to blame for the sticky flood's deadliness.

In January of 1919, a tank containing two million gallons of molasses burst open, unleashing a sticky flood onto Boston's North End. The 25-foot high wave of goo oozed over the streets at 35 miles per hour, crushing buildings in its wake and killing 21 people.

A number of factors are thought to have contributed to the disaster. The steel of the take, where the Purity Distilling Company was fermenting molasses into alcohol, was only half as thick as it should have been. And that January's relatively balmy, 40-degree Fahrenheit weather may have increased pressure as carbon dioxide built up inside. Now, research by Harvard fluid dynamicists suggests cold temperatures also added to the deadly mix.

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The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919
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The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

Coverage from The Boston Post after the disaster.

(Photo via The Boston Post/Public Domain)

BOSTON - JANUARY 19: Page One of the January 16, 1919 Boston Daily Globe. Headline: Molasses Tank Explosion Injures 50 And Kills 11. (The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The molasses tank prior to bursting. 

(Photo via The Bostonian Society/Public Domain)

(Original Caption) Elevated train structure is a twisted mass of metal on Atlantic Ave. after the 'Great Molasses Flood of 1919'. A huge tank containing more than 2-million gallons of the sticky liquid collapsed sending an avalanche of death. 21 persons were killed in the flood and 40 more injured.
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Before the rupture, the molasses inside the tank was likely 5 degrees Celsius warmer than the surrounding air, thanks to a fresh shipment of syrup from the Caribbean. The higher temperature may have helped the molasses spread over the Boston waterfront at such an alarming pace. But once exposed to the nearly freezing winter temperatures outside, the goo cooled and became much thicker and stickier. The higher viscosity may have trapped people caught in the flow, and likely hampered rescue and cleanup efforts, according to the researchers.

Researchers gained new insight into the disaster by studying historical accounts of the accident, century-old maps, and weather data. The researchers also built their own mini molasses flood inside a walk-in refrigerator. Using corn syrup as a stand-in for molasses at this smaller scale, they studied the goop's flow properties at wintery temperatures.

The main purpose of the research, the Harvard scientists admit, is to raise interest in fluid dynamics. Dare we say a career in fluid dynamics might be pretty sweet?

Related: Look back at some of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history:

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Worst U.S. natural disasters
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Worst U.S. natural disasters
16th July 1937: Early morning whirlwinds rising from finely tilled, eroded dusty soil in Walla Walla County, Washington. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JULY 16: A Cook County medical examiner pushes a gurney 16 July carrying the body of one of 116 people killed by heat related causes in Chicago after record hot weather hit the Midwest for several days in a row. The death toll could rise to about 300 because many of the victims were not dicovered until after the worst weather had passed and are being stored in refrigerated tractor trailers. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read BRIAN BAHR/AFP/Getty Images)
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[Newswise via New York Times]

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