Toll less than feared, but still highest in history

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Though the death toll from Tuesday's terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon appears to be less than originally feared, the loss of life is still expected to be the worst in the history of U.S. domestic disasters.

It will far exceed such epic tragedies as the San Francisco earthquake, the Chicago fire and the Johnstown flood.

Initially it had been feared that 20,000 or more might have perished in the destruction of the twin New York office buildings and another 800 in the attack on the Pentagon.

On Thursday, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani reported 4,763 people missing, including as many as 300 firefighters and 57 police officers. So far, there are 94 confirmed dead. A total of 266 people died in the crashes of the four passenger jets used by the terrorists. The initial death toll at the Pentagon was reported to be 190, including 126 people who were in the Defense Department at the time of the crash and 64 on the downed jet.

Even with the anticipated toll reduced to about 5,000, the slaughter is apparently the deadliest disaster the United States has ever suffered.

An estimated 3,000 people died in or immediately after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. More than 17,000 buildings were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but the death toll was just 250. The worst fire in American history--the 1871 blaze in Peshtigo, Wis., that took place the same night as the Chicago conflagration--caused 1,182 fatalities.

The nation's deadliest flood, the 1889 Johnstown, Pa., disaster was caused by the collapse of an earthen dam at a recreation lake; it wiped out 2,209 American lives.

The worst aviation disaster on record, the 1977 collision between Pan American and KLM 747s at Tenerife Airport in the Canary Islands, produced 583 fatalities. The sinking of the Titanic cost 1,522 lives.

In terms of military provocations, the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks compare to 2,403 dead in the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The 1915 sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania by a German submarine killed 2,295 crew and passengers--123 of them Americans--and started a turn in public opinion that eventually led to American entry into World War I.

The 1898 explosion that sank the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor killed 252 officers and crew and brought on the Spanish-American War.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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