Fire on Earth

Bitterroot Forest FireBehind the camera: John McColgan
Where: East Fork of the Bitterroot River on the Sula Complex, Bitterroot National Forest, Montana, United States
Photo Summary: An elk pauses to look at the Bitterroot Forest Fire
Picture Taken: August 6, 2000
This image is in the public domain because it was taken by a federal employee, John McColgan

NASA called it “Fire on Earth“, TIME called it “Inferno” while Wikipedia has given it the name, “Elk bath“. In the summer of 2000, there were 86 major wildfires in western America. One of these was out of control in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest. Fire behavior specialist John McColgan was tracking the Bitterroot Forest Fire that, on August 6, 2000, was showing no signs of slowing down. While analyzing the fire he was able to take this photo, on a bridge over the river, with a Kodak DC280 digital camera.

Taking the picture

Reporter Rob Chaney of the Missoulian was able to track down McColgan while he was in Fairbanks, Alaska where he lives with his family. When asked about the photo John McColgan remembers:

That’s a once-in-a-lifetime look there. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and it ranks in the top three days of fire behavior I’ve seen … [The animals] know where to go, where their safe zones are, A lot of wildlife did get driven down there to the river. There were some bighorn sheep there. A small deer was standing right underneath me, under the bridge.”

One of his co-workers emailed the photo to a friend and from there it spread and quickly went viral.


John McColgan took the photo while he was performing his firefighting duties as a representative of the federal government. As such the image is in the public domain and copyright free.

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Dresden Destroyed

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A statue on the Rathausturm overlooks a destroyed Dresden Richard Peters
Behind the camera: Richard Peter
Where: Dresden, Germany
Photo Summary: A statue on the City Hall Rathausturm or Tower overlooks a destroyed Dresden
Picture Taken: 1945
This image has some limited copyright rights reserved after it was released by the Deutsche Fotothek of the Saxon State Library / State and University Library Dresden (SLUB).

The logic behind the Allied bombing campaigns was that air attacks would force Nazi Germany out of the war. Working to this goal much of occupied Nazi Europe was laid waste by bombers manned by Allied airmen. One of the most controversial bombing raids was the Bombing of Dresden, Germany in World War II. Between February 13 – 15, 1945 over 1200 Allied bombers dropped their deadly payloads on one of Germany’s biggest cities. After the last bomber flew away the city was left in almost total ruins. It took years to rebuild and in 1945 photographer Richard Peter took this famous picture after scaling the city hall.

On the left Dresden in 1945 by Richard Peter and on the right Dresden in 2005 by Matthias Rietschel (AP)

On the left Dresden in 1945 by Richard Peter and on the right Dresden in 2005 by Matthias Rietschel (AP)

The Statue

The statue in the foreground overlooking the ruins of Dresden is often reported to be Peter Poeppelman’s “Allegory of Goodness” or “Allegorie der Güte” but the statue was actually carved by August Streimueller.

The Bombing Raid

The infamous Bombing of Dresden is still one of the most controversial actions of the Allies during WWII. Between February 13 and 15 1945 around 1,250 heavy bombers of the British and American air-forces dropping huge amounts of explosive and incendiary devices on the mostly wooden city. The resulting firestorm killed around 25,000 people and destroyed most of the historic city center. This happened even though Dresden was of questionable military value.

Richard Peter

Dresden 1945 and Now

Dresden 1945 and Now

Richard Peter was born in Silesia in 1895. While working as a smith and miner he was drafted into the army to serve in the trenches during WW1. After the war, he settled in Dresden and became a photojournalist for various left-wing publications. When the Nazis came to power he was blacklisted and used his skills with the camera to work in advertising before he was drafted into the German Army during WWII.

After the war he returned to Dresden to find the city totally destroyed including all his photo equipment. Using borrowed equipment he began to document Dresden’s literal rise from the ashes. Publishing his work in a book Dresden, eine kamera klagt an (Dresden, a photographic accusation).

Even with his pre-Nazi left-wing credentials, his life under the communist regime wasn’t much better. After investigating corrupt communist officials he was banned from government work but continued to make a living as a freelance photographer. He died on October 3, 1977, at the age of 82.

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Omayra Sanchez

Omaira Sanchez by Frank FournierBehind the camera: Frank Fournier
Where: Armero, Colombia
Photo Summary: 13-year-old Omayra Sanchez trapped in debris caused by a mudslide following the eruption of a volcano in Colombia
Picture Taken: November 16, 1985

On November 13, 1985 there was the Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado Del Ruiz. Ash blanketed the surrounding areas including the town of Armero. The volcano also sent huge mudslides of volcanic ash that swept the countryside around the volcano burying towns and villages under meters of mud. One victim trapped in the carnage was Omayra Sanchez. She was photographed by Frank Fournier hours before her death. The photo won on to win the World Press Photo of The Year award, in 1986.

Before the photo

In the Sahtander district of Armero, Colombia Omayra Sanchez sat with her parents, her brother and an aunt, Maria Adela Garzón in their house wondering about the ash raining down. With a loud crash tons of volcanic ash and water, that had mixed together to create a thick mud, slammed into the town. When the mudslide hit the home of 13-year-old Omayra Sanchez it buried her up to her waist in concrete debris from her own home and submerged her up to her neck in freezing water. Due to lack of supplies, rescuers were unable to free her and for three days she sat in the water waiting for help. Reporters arrived and photographed her throughout her ordeal bravely giving interviews while people vainly tried to help her.

Taking the photo

Frank Fournier was sent to cover the eruption and he set out to report on the disaster travelling by car for five hours and then walking for two and a half hours before arriving on the scene. He remembers that

I reached the town of Ameroyo at dawn about three days after the explosion. I met a farmer who told me of this young girl who needed help. He took me to her, she was almost on her own at the time, just a few people around and some rescuers helping someone else a bit further away…
I could hear people screaming for help and then silence – an eerie silence. It was very haunting. There were a few helicopters, some that had been loaned by an oil company, trying to rescue people.
Then there was this little girl and people were powerless to help her. The rescuers kept coming back to her, local farmers and some people who had some medical aid. They tried to comfort her.
When I took the pictures I felt totally powerless in front of this little girl, who was facing death with courage and dignity. She could sense that her life was going.
By this stage, Omayra was drifting in and out of consciousness. She even asked me if I could take her to school because she was worried that she would be late.
I gave my film to some photographers who were going back to the airport and had them shipped back to my agent in Paris. Omayra died about three hours after I got there.


When Fournier’s Paris Match magazine published the photo a few days later it caused outrage when it was learned that Fournier didn’t or couldn’t help the girl. Called a vulture he welcomed the controversy as it drew attention to the disaster, and was quoted as saying:

I felt the story was important for me to report and I was happier that there was some reaction; it would have been worse if people had not cared about it…
I believe the photo helped raise money from around the world in aid and helped highlight the irresponsibility and lack of courage of the country’s leaders. There was an obvious lack of leadership.

Frank Fournier

Born in 1948 at Saint-Sever France Frank Fournier was the son of a surgeon and actually studied medicine for four years before becoming a photographer. He moved to America and in New York worked in the office of Contact Press Images for a few years before becoming a staff photographer in 1982. He won the 1986 World Press Photo award for his picture of Sanchez
Sanchez family

Her father was killed under the rubble of the house but her mother and brother were able to escape. Omayra’s mother commented, “I will live for my son, who only lost a finger.” She expressed her feelings about Omayra’s death. “It is horrible, but we have to think about the living.” The eruption killed around 25,000 people.

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Bhopal gas disaster girl

Behind the camera: Pablo Bartholomew’s took the color picture, Raghu Rai took the black and white
Where: Bhopal, India
Photo Summary: Victim of the Bhopal Gas Disaster
Picture Taken: December 4, 1984

On the night of December 2-3, 1984 an explosion at the Union Carbide (UCIL) released an immense toxic cloud that spread into the surrounding metropolis of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. Over 2000 people were killed immediately, children and the sick were especially vulnerable; it remains the world’s worst industrial disaster. The next day people struggled to bury their dead family members. Two photographers Pablo Bartholomew and Raghu Rai were present and took this photo as someone was burying their loved one. Bartholomew’s image went on to win the 1984 World Press Photo of the Year.

Taking the photo

Photographers Pablo Bartholomew and Raghu Rai rushed to the city to document the disaster. Rai remembers that “There was a high possibility of journalists and photographers being physically affected by the chemical contamination. But then, there is always an element of risk in any assignment.” The came across a burying party and standing at different angles took a picture of an anonymous man burying a child. Wiping away the dirt to get one last look the two photographers captured the moment just before the grave was filled. In an interview, Raghu Rai said “So many bodies were being buried, and this child I photographed, I must have taken six, eight frames, and they were about to pour mud on it … I didn’t want [the moment] to be covered up and buried away because, for me, this expression was so moving and so powerful to tell the whole story of the tragedy.”

This touching event caused both photographers to break down in tears at the site. Had the two not come to cover the disaster the carnage of the toxic might never have been recorded. There is no video coverage or other photos of the event other than those taken by the two photographers. The two did not ask the identity of the man burying his daughter and no one has claimed to be her relative. Her identity remains unknown.


Around midnight of the night of December 2nd and 3rd, a large flow of water entered tank 610, containing 42 tonnes of methyl isocyanate, at the Union Carbide factory. The presence of water in the tank set off a series of chemical reactions that drastically increased the pressure in the tank. This pressure triggered the emergency venting procedure which released a large volume of toxic gases into the atmosphere. Aziza Sultan a Bhopal resident remembers the following:

At about 12.30 am I woke to the sound of Ruby coughing badly. The room was not dark, there was a street light nearby. In the half light I saw that the room was filled with a white cloud. I heard a great noise of people shouting. They were yelling ‘bhaago, bhaago’ (run, run). Mohsin started coughing too and then I started coughing with each breath seeming as if we were breathing in fire …
The toxic cloud mixed with elements in the poorly made factory plumbing spread to the surrounding city exposing over 500,000 people. Two to three thousand people were killed immediately. One week after the disaster another 6000 died and over time another 8000 would die due the effects of the poisonous gas. Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Information and Action group claims that, “Even now, there are at least 150,000 people with chronic illnesses of the lungs, of the brain, of the stomach, of reproductive system, people with a range of mental health disorders.”


Pablo Bartholomew went on to become a successful and independent freelance photojournalist. With the coming of the digital age of photography and merging of photo agencies, Bartholomew developed an online photo delivery system that allows photographers to remain independent of the big agencies.

Raghu Rai is still a successful photographer and still seeks justice for the Bhopal victims. In 2002 he did a Bhopal photo report for Greenpeace.

Magnum Photos: Bhopal gas disaster girl

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Challenger Explosion

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Behind the camera: NASA Tracking Camera
Where: Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Photo Summary: Space Shuttle Challenger breaking up soon after takeoff
Picture Taken: Jan 28, 1986
This image is in the public domain because it was taken by a federal employee

The Challenger crew on that Jan 28, 1986 morning was a PC dream team. Two white women (Sharon Christa McAuliffe and Judy Resnik), an Asian American (Ellison S. Onizuka), an African American (Ron McNair), and three white men (Greg Jarvis, Michael J. Smith, and Dick Scobee). McAuliffe was the first citizen astronaut, a teacher, who won a place on board Challenger by beating out a group of 11,000 other entrants. During the mission, she was going to broadcast live a lesson to millions of school children across the country. When the seven boarded that morning they had to step carefully as they entered the shuttle, as the boarding platform was covered in ice from an unusual Florida deep freeze. It was this same cold weather that would ultimately doom their launch.

Canadian Cold Front

Ice formed on the Challenger

Icicles on the day of the launch

The odd cold front had come down from Canada putting much of Florida well below freezing. Ice-covered the shuttle while it was waiting for take-off at the Kennedy Space Center. These cold temperatures, which dropped to –5 C (20 Fahrenheit), raised concerns in the control room and after the astronauts had entered the shuttle, the launch was delayed to allow the temp to increase. Some of the concerns were about the two booster rockets, more specifically the two booster rocket’s O-rings that helped seal together the different segments that made up each rocket. Engineers had come to the conclusion that the O-rings’ design was flawed in extremely cold conditions like those reached on Jan 28. When the temperature dropped the O-rings became brittle and they would not expand to prevent ignited rocket fuel from bursting out through the seals.

Previous launches had come dangerously close to Challenger’s fate with much higher take-off temperatures, the lowest up to that point was 12 C (53 Fahrenheit). Roger Boisjoly, an engineer at, Morton Thiokol the contractor who built the booster rockets, became so concerned that he and his co-workers tried to stop the cold weather, Challenger launch. NASA managers listened to their concerns and told the group they had 45min to prove the launch would fail, “We had 45 minutes to prepare for the most important meeting of our lives,” Boisjoly said. After the presentation NASA still refused to delay the launch, putting the O-ring issue in the acceptable flight risk category. Morton Thiokol company managers also backed down. Perhaps fearing that any delays might damage their upcoming contract renewal they made a “management decision” overriding their engineers and refused to take the issue any farther.
Oblivious to all this, the seven astronauts patiently waited for the go-ahead. After a 2 hour wait, the green light was given. The following are excerpts from the timeline that started at 11:38 a.m. EST, Jan. 28, 1986 when the solid rocket ignition command was sent.


0.000 – Solid rocket ignition command is sent.
Astronaut Judy Resnik, intercom: “Aaall Riight!”
1.000 – Shuttle pilot Michael Smith, intercom: “Here we go.”
3.375 – Launch commentator Hugh Harris, NASA-SELECT television: “… Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”
11.000 – Smith, intercom: “Go you mother.”
15.000 – Resnik, intercom: “Shit hot!”
19.000 – Smith, intercom: “Looks like we’ve got a lot of wind here today.” Shuttle commander Dick Scobee: “Yeah.”
22.000 – Scobee, intercom: “It’s a little hard to see out my window here.”
28.000 – Smith, intercom: “There’s 10,000 feet and Mach point five.” The shuttle is 10,000 feet high travelling at half the speed of sound.
40.000 – Smith, intercom: “There’s Mach 1.”
59.000 – Challenger passes through the region of maximum aerodynamic pressure, experiencing 720 pounds per square foot.
59.262 – A continuous “well defined intense plume” of exhaust is seen on the side of the suspect booster by tracking cameras. This is clear evidence of an O-ring joint burn through.
59.753 – First visual evidence of flame on the right-side booster. 70 mm tracking camera closeup: A flickering tongue of flame appears on the side of the right-side booster away from the shuttle and quickly becomes continuous.
60.000 – Smith, intercom: “Feel that mother go!” Unknown, intercom: “Wooooo Hooooo!”
64.660 – The plume from the burn through changes shape suddenly, indicating a leak has started in the shuttle’s liquid hydrogen tank to fuel the fire.
64.705 – A bright, sustained glow is photographed on the side of the external fuel tank.
65.000 – Scobee, intercom: “Reading four eighty six on mine.” This is a routine airspeed indicator check. Smith: “Yep, that’s what I’ve got, too.”

66.764 – The pressure in the shuttle’s external liquid hydrogen tank begins to drop, indicating a massive leak. Smith had real-time readings of pressure in the liquid hydrogen tank, but it is doubtful he noticed anything unusual because of the rapidity of the failure. It made no difference, ultimately, because even if Challenger’s pilots had suspected an SRB problem there was nothing they could have done about it. While the shuttle separates from its external fuel tank shortly before reaching orbit, it does so with no engines firing and in a benign aerodynamic environment. As Scobee and Smith well knew, separating from the tank while the SRBs were firing would drive the shuttle into the bottom of the fuel tank.
68.000 – Mission Control spokesman Steve Nesbitt in Houston: “Engines are throttling up. Three engines now at 104 percent.”
Dick Covey, mission control: “Challenger, go at throttle up.”
70.000 – Scobee calmly responds, air-to-ground: “Roger, go at throttle up.”
73.000 (approximate) – Smith, intercom: “Uh oh…” This is the last comment captured by the crew cabin intercom recorder. Smith may have been responding to indications on main engine performance or falling pressures in the external fuel tank.


The booster Orings

On the ground, onlookers who had braved the cold watched in horror as the O-rings failed and superheated ignited fuel from inside the booster rocket acted as a blowtorch and igniting the huge external fuel tank. A fireball exploded across the sky as metal flew everywhere and the two booster rockets free of the shuttle spiralled off into the sky. In the stands the children of pilot Mike Smith at first stared in shocked silence and then started screaming, “I want my father! I want my father! He told us it was safe!” AP reporter Howard Benedict dictated the breaking news over the phone to the New York office, “There was no immediate indication on the fate of the crew, but it appeared that nobody could have survived that fireball in the sky.”
Yet, Howard Benedict was wrong. Years after the crash, officials acknowledged that the crew cabin of the shuttle survived the shuttle break-up, intact. There was no real explosion, no detonation of the huge amounts of fuel carried by the shuttle. As the shuttle structure was broken down from the leaking flaming booster rocket it was torn apart by incredible aerodynamic forces outside the supersonic shuttle. At 48,000 ft., the shuttle ripped apart freeing the crew section, which still under great momentum flew to a peak altitude of 65,000 ft before returning back to earth. As the crew compartment flew higher, released fuel from the External Tank (ET) and shuttle burned in seconds creating the huge fireball seen below. The force that tore apart the rest of the shuttle wasn’t great enough to destroy the crew compartment, in part because air density at that height is much lower. Recovered flight recorder data revealed that Shuttle computers still functioned after the break-up, even shutting down the engines when sensors showed there was no fuel.

Did the crew survive the explosion?

The G-Forces from the breakup and descent back to earth may have rendered the crew unconscious but it was revealed that on the trip down at least some of the crew where awake. Of the four emergency oxygen tanks, called Personal Egress Air Packs or PEAPs, that were recovered from the ocean, three had been turned on. One of the PEAPs was identified as Smith’s and because the switch was located on the back of his seat investigators believe either Resnik or Onizuka, who sat behind Smith, had the presence of mind after the shuttle break up, to turn it on. It wasn’t until what was left of the shuttle smashed into the ocean at 200 mph some 2 minutes and 45 seconds after the disaster that the compartment was crushed and all inside killed instantly.
The fact that the crew wasn’t killed when the shuttle came apart wasn’t revealed until years after the crash. NASA officials still don’t like to talk about the fate of the crew after the 73-sec mark when the spacecraft broke up. Their resistance to making public such things as photos of the wreckage, autopsy reports, and other data recording sparked a number of conspiracy theories on the internet. One such viral email included a faked transcript of the final minutes and rumors that some of Challenger crew even survived the ocean crash but died at the bottom of the sea while waiting for a rescue.


Challenger wreckage still washes up

Efforts to find the wreckage in the waters off Florida were at first hampered by falling debris. Soon Navy and coast guard ships were helping in the search for shuttle remains. It took months to get all the wreckage that was recovered but efforts were complicated by the huge search area 1165 square kilometres (450 square miles), water depths of 15 to 365 meters (50 to 1,200 feet), currents of four to six knots, and the sheer number of shuttle pieces. In all 15 tons of debris was pulled from the ocean. 55% of Challenger, 5% of the cabin crew and 65% of the satellite cargo still lies on the ocean floor; occasionally some of it washes up on Florida beaches. The US government still owns the wreckage and under Title 18, United States Code, Section 641 charges anyone who is in possession of Challenger Debris. After the investigation, all recovered pieces of the space shuttle were moved to two abandoned Minuteman Missile Silos at Complex 31 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Whitehouse Pressure?

Ronald Reagan was supposed to give his State of the Union address the night of the launch. After the crash, a number of rumors surfaced that the Whitehouse pressured the shuttle to launch over NASA concerns because Reagan wanted to incorporate the astronauts in his speech. The rumors were taken seriously enough to be investigated by commissions into the cause of Challenger crash but no evidence of Whitehouse pressure was found. That evening instead of the State of the Union address Reagan gave a national address on the Challenger disaster. At the end of the speech he quoted a poem that was a favorite of aviators and astronauts, “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” Weeks after the crash all seven bodies were recovered from the water. Remains that could be identified were returned to their respective families on April 29, 1986. Dick Scobee and Michael Smith’s families chose to bury their bodies in Arlington National Cemetery. Body parts not able to be identified were buried together at a Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Arlington on May 20, 1986.


The Challenger crash was not the result of design flaws in the booster rockets. The crash also had nothing to do with the replacement of the original asbestos-bearing putty in the booster seals. The O-ring seals performed better than the asbestos putty and they would have functioned safely IF the weather conditions that cold Jan day were warmer. NASA operated under the idea of acceptable risk, and problems that weren’t deemed urgent were put aside to be dealt with in the future. Management forgot the “principles of safely operating on the edge of extreme hazards.” After the shuttle tragedy, problems that had concerned NASA engineers in the past were brought forward. Among the 400 changes made before the next launch of the space shuttle Discovery, 32 months later, on September 29, 1988, was the addition of electric heaters installed in the O-rings to keep them at maximum performance.
Challenger crashed because management at NASA concerned with Challenger’s many launch delays and the effect of the delays on congress’s funding chose to suppress pre-launch valid safety concerns. Post-Challenger NASA had safety personnel and representatives from the major contractors included in the mission management team, the group that gives the green light to shuttle launches and shuttle flight operations. Some tried to spin the Challenger tragedy by saying that the loss of human life was the price for expanding into space but this is only true of disasters that are unpreventable. The loss of the space shuttle Challenger and its seven crew was due to incompetent management, not unpreventable events. The disaster was unnecessary.

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