Transportation Incidents

Key Points

  • This section covers all major transportation modes: aviation, surface (road, rail, and pipeline) and marine.  It covers incidents where a vehicle accident is the primary impact.

  • Some of Seattle's deadliest disasters have been transportation accidents, but all occurred more than 50 years ago when transportation systems were much less reliable. While there have been huge gains in the safety and reliability of transportation systems, these accidents remind us that transportation incidents can be very dangerous. The 1998 shooting of a King County Metro driver that caused his bus to plunge off the Aurora Bridge was another reminder. Only the driver and the shooter died. It could have been much worse. In 2008, a similar accident was narrowly avoided when a tour bus slid down a snowy Capitol Hill street, crashed through a barrier over I-5 and came to rest with its front third overhanging the freeway.

    • The sinking of the Dix off of Alki in 1906 that killed 42 people.

    • The 1943 crash of a B-29 bomber that killed 32 people.

    • Another bomber crash in 1951 that killed 11 people.

  • Seattle's transportation systems have become busier, more congested, more tightly interdependent and lacking in substantial reserve capacity. Disruptions in one part of the system can produce large consequences far from the site of the disruption and can spread from one transport mode to another.

  • Aviation: The direct hazard for Seattle is a large aircraft crashing into a crowded part of the city. The odds of such a crash are low. Since 2001, 74 commercial aircraft have crashed during flight in the U.S. despite more than 10 million flights annually[i]. Crashes are most likely to occur near flight corridors within two miles of an airport. Approaches and departures for SeaTac and Boeing Field, the country's busiest general aviation airport, take aircraft over the city.

  • Marine: Seattle has a large port and ferry system. While incidents in the waters surrounding Seattle could be severe, incidents that directly impact Seattle directly are the greatest hazard. There have been no disastrous marine incidents in the past fifty years, but there have been a number of large ship fires and collisions.

  • Rail: Seattle has an active rail system that until recently mostly transported freight but now included growing commuter rail and light service. The main hazards are derailments, collisions and tunnel incidents. Seattle has several miles of tracks that are exposed to landslides. A freight train was knocked into Puget Sound in 1997.

  • Motor vehicles: Several recent bus accidents nationally have resulted in tragic loss of life and focused attention on highway accidents. Seattle has experienced two bus incidents and several tanker truck fires.

  • Pipeline: A spur of the Olympic/BP pipeline runs from Harbor Island to Renton, mostly along the City Light power transmission right-of-way. This pipeline carries mostly gasoline. Part of the same pipeline exploded in Bellingham killing three children.

  • Transportation incidents can cause infrastructure failure. Bridges are especially vulnerable. Barges and ships have collided with several Seattle bridges. The First Avenue South Bridge had to be rebuilt after a strike. Fires can also damage bridges. In 1975, the Alaskan Way Viaduct was damaged in a fuel tanker explosion.

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[i] Forbes.com.  America's Most Dangerous Airports.  http://www.forbes.com/2007/02/22/airports-americas-deadliest-biz-cz_mt_0223airports.html accessed 12/7/2009