Non-fiction Review: Catastrophes and Heroes: True Stories of Man-Made Disasters, by Jerry Borrowman

book coverSynopsis

A century of the industrial age saw unprecedented leaps in technology and engineering, from the first flight of an airplane to the first flight of humans to the moon. But alongside these awe-inspiring achievements were horrible disasters caused by faulty engineering or careless judgement. Fortunate Survivors explores eight such disasters and recognizes the unheralded heroes who stepped up to save others in times of great danger.

Included in this collection are the stories of female phone operators who, despite being in the path of destruction after the Los Angeles St. Francis Dam collapsed in 1928, stayed on the job to warn others to evacuate, Ernest Hemingway, who assisted survivors in his own boat after a hurricane destroyed the Florida East Coast Railway in 1935, and Ernest Betts who, though knowing little first aid, saved thirty people after the streamliner train The City of San Francisco crashed in the Nevada mountains in 1939.

Filled with little-known stories and historical insights, this book explores the rich history of the marvels of engineering and technological advances in the span of a century and reveals how the perils, though disastrous, gave rise to heroism and compassion at a time when machines were supposed to do it all.


Disclaimer: Although I downloaded an Advance Reader’s Edition of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, the words and opinions below are my own.

If you’ve watched shows such as Engineering Catastrophes on American cable television, chances are you’ll be familiar with the eight events that author Jerry Borrowman includes in his latest book. The difference is that while the show looks at the actual engineering, here the emphasis is on the human element.

Each chapter focuses on five aspects of the disaster. First, there’s the general overview; second, the choices made by human minds in the lead up to the disaster; third, the unintended consequences such as the dam’s failure or the bridge’s collapse; next, the heroic efforts made in the aftermath by both those first on the scene and then by others in courts and corporations; and finally, the lessons learned by all concerned.

What I found most powerful about the book were the witness reports and the names of the deceased. I don’t recall having seen these in the television documentaries. Including names of some of the victims – instead of merely counting the numbers of the deceased – humanizes the disaster. These people saw what happened, they experienced what happened, and that makes the corner-cutting and other cost-saving measures mind-boggling. How can you repeat those actions when you have a report that says you’re to blame for the deaths of named individuals?

This is not an in depth look at the eight disasters featured. Look elsewhere if that’s what you want. What is different about this book is the author’s final thought. While subjective, these pages look at the motivations of all those at fault or to blame. Borrowman puts them into three categories: those who acted out of malice, those motivated by cost-cutting and greed, and the men who were probably a little too confident in their own knowledge and skills.

Notes and a full bibliography are included.

Author Information

author photoJerry Borrowman is an award-winning author of historical fiction and nonfiction. He has written about World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, and the Vietnam War, and about how four feet of plywood saved the Grand Canyon. He is the recipient of the George Washington National Medal from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. Jerry and his wife, Marcella, raised four children and live in the Rocky Mountains.

Jerry Borrowman’s Website


Product Information

Publisher: Shadow Mountain

Publication Date: 05 May 2020

Book Information


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