Most Expensive Mistakes in All History

Human error is almost inevitable. Here are some of the most expensive mistakes in history.


Nobody’s perfect and human error is almost inevitable, but some monumental screw-ups can end up costing shed loads of cash. Here are some of the most expensive mistakes in history which should make you feel slightly better about your own slip-ups.

10. Seongsu Bridge Collapse

The Seongsu bridge over the Han River links two South Korean districts and is one of Seoul’s most popular commuter routes, but the 3805-foot structure was struck by disaster on the morning of October 21st, 1994.

The bridge struggled under the weight of the hundreds of people on their way to work in the early morning rush, and at around 7:40 am a 157-foot central chunk collapsed 65 feet into the river below along with cars, minibusses and a fully loaded bus.

Seongsu Bridge collapse

32 people lost their lives while 17 more were injured, and an investigation was launched into the freak accident. The bridge had already received complaints about unstable foundations which caused an unsteady swinging sensation, and the root cause was identified as a construction failure.

Reports noted that the steel trestle joints supporting the central suspension had been welded with an incorrect thickness of 8mm rather than 10mm, causing crucial connecting ‘pins’ to break under the immense pressure.

Seongsu Bridge Collapse

Although the bridge was designed to withstand a maximum 36.3-ton weight per car, vehicles weighing 47.3-tons were also using the bridge to commute. These combined factors cost the State Council $185,000 in compensation to the victims, while a complete rebuild set them back the equivalent of an extra $2 million, making this one costly human error.

9. Deadly Skyscrapers

In Spring 2014 London welcomed an ambitious new skyscraper to its financial district. The 525-foot-tall reflective building became known as the ‘walkie-talkie’ due to its distinctive curved design, but this shiny new tower was hiding a sinister secret.

As summer came around, citizens of London began complaining that the building's south-facing concave surface was causing powerful rays of sunlight at certain points in the day which could raise the temperature to an unheard-of 70°c.

walkie-talkie london powerful rays of sunlight

The highly concentrated beam was capable of melting tiles, causing a small fire on the doormat of a barbershop and melting a Jaguar XJ belonging to a local businessman – while one journalist even attempted to fry an egg in the extreme heat. The newly-nicknamed ‘walkie-scorchie’ had to be stopped!

A permanent sunshade known as a ‘brise soleil’ was attached to the building between the 3rd-34th floors over the course of 6 months, costing over $12 million –a hard pill to swallow considering the building already cost over $250 million to build.

Ironically, the architect Rafael Viñoly also designed the Vidara Hotel in Las Vegas which suffered a similar problem as it singed sunbathers, earning it the nickname the “death ray”.

architect Rafael Viñoly sun rays

Viñoly confessed that he knew this would happen, but that he didn’t have the tools to analyze just how bad it would be – someone needs to tell this guy to stop designing superweapons instead of buildings.

8. Lotus Riverside Disaster

The lotus riverside complex in Shanghai was an ambitious project which ended in a complete disaster because of one simple mistake. The residential complex was comprised of 11 new high-rise apartment blocks, but at around 5 am on 27th June 2009 one of the 13-story buildings suddenly collapsed, miraculously missing the surrounding blocks and avoiding a devastating domino effect.

Most Expensive Mistakes in All History

The incident killed one construction worker, but the fallout could’ve been much worse if the almost complete building had been occupied by its buyers. Investigations found that the freak accident was caused by non-compliance with construction standards and some seriously shoddy foundations.

The earth beneath the building was excavated to make a 15-foot underground car park and the soil had been piled up 32 feet on a nearby riverbank, which then burst under the pressure sending water gushing beneath. These muddy foundations caused the building to topple over in a southerly direction, but simply moving the earth elsewhere could’ve prevented the whole ordeal.

Most Expensive Mistakes in All History

This massive oversight caused a number of project investors to withdraw and request their money back, and the company suffered total economic losses of up to $30 million, including construction costs and compensation to the would-be homeowners of the $2,100-per-square-meter apartments.

7. Lake Peigneur Disaster

In 1980, a drilling exhibition commissioned by Texaco triggered a cataclysmic series of events which turned an 11-foot-deep freshwater body of water in Louisiana known as Lake Peigneur into a 1,300-foot-deep saltwater lake.

On November 20th, a $5 million oil rig owned by drilling contractor Wilson Brothers accidentally damaged the dome of the underground Diamond Crystal Salt Mine following a miscalculation by Texaco regarding their exact location.

Lake Peigneur Disaster

Around 13 billion liters of water were drained from the lake, washing salt, soil and water into an immersible and ever-widening hole which created a powerful vortex sucking in the drilling platform, 11 barges, a tugboat, 65 acres of the surrounding terrain and even a small island in the center of the lake.

Lake Peigneur Disaster Texaco

The ensuing chaos destroyed most evidence of the accident as air escaping from the mine caused 400-foot geysers and the Delcambre canal reversed direction to flow into the whirlpool.

Miraculously no one was killed, but the real casualty was Texaco’s pride… and their wallet, as the company paid $32million to Diamond Crystal salt mine and $12.8million to a nearby plant nursery, making Lake Peigneur perhaps the most expensive manmade lake in history – setting Texaco and Wilson Brothers back over the equivalent of $140 million today.

6. The Baltic Ace

Catastrophic mistakes can happen anywhere, as proven by the Baltic Ace carrier ship which sank in just 15 minutes in the North Sea on December 5th, 2012.

The 23,500-ton ship was lost 65 km off the Dutch coast after colliding with Cyprian container ship the Corvus J, killing 11 of its 24 crew members and sinking over 1,400 new Mitsubishi cars which were being transported from Japan and Tokyo to Russia.

The wreck ended up almost 100-feet-deep in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, hindering a safe passage for marine traffic and risking the release of dangerous substances into the environment.

The Baltic Ace colliding with container ship the Corvus J

In March 2014, the company Rijkswaterstaat commissioned partners Boskalis and Mammoet Salvage to remove the wreckage, which began by extracting its 540,000 remaining liters of oil.

More than 18 ships and 150 people then took part in a huge operation to remove the sunken vessel which could only be achieved by lifting the irreparably damaged wreck in chunks. Starting in April 2015, the ship was cut into 8 sections with wire and bought to the surface in pieces. Here’s the bow, with all the cars inside ruined:

kees torn, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dutch police were unable to investigate the accident itself as it occurred outside of their territorial waters, but the mistake has since been speculated as a result of pure human error, as neither ship followed collision regulations.

The mammoth salvage operation alone cost 67 million euros, the equivalent of around 75 million dollars today. Add that to the cost of the Baltic ace, and the cost to repair the Corvus J, as well as the cargo they were carrying, and the driving error cost around $150 million in total.

baltic ace wreck

5. Mars Climate Orbiter

In September 1999, NASA’s 638-kilogram robotic space probe the Mars Climate Orbiter burned up and broke into pieces as it neared its destination after 10 long months of traveling.

The orbiter was designed to examine the climate of the Martian planet, but the reason for its failure to even touch ground lay entirely with the people who sent it into space, to begin with.

Mars Climate Orbiter disaster

The navigation team at Jet Propulsion Lab had used metric units – measuring in millimeters and meters – to indicate the planned altitude of the spacecraft, while Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver Colorado used imperial measurements in inches and feet and crucially failed to recognise that the measurements required conversion.

As a result, the trajectory of the climate orbiter is estimated to have been dangerously within 57km of the planet’s surface, where it skipped violently upon entry and was immediately destroyed.

This huge discrepancy was responsible for the failure of the entire mission, and the mission, worth just over $328 million in 1999 was lost forever. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of over half a billion dollars. I guess it pays to stick to one measurement system.

4. The S-81 Isaac Peral

Mistakes are easily made and it’s often too late to rectify the situation by the time someone notices, but that wasn’t exactly the case with Spain’s supposedly state-of-the-art submarine the S-81 Isaac Peral.

The submarine was commissioned in 2013 as part of a new quartet for the Spanish navy, but there’s just one problem with its modern design – once it’s submerged, the Isaac Peral may never be able to resurface again.

The S-81 Isaac Peral mistake

This is because a miraculously unnoticed flaw in its design means that the ship is around 75 to 100 tons overweight, which means Spain has essentially invested in a submarine which can only move in one direction… down.

The mistake is said to have been a result of a pesky decimal point placed in the wrong place during calculations, and it’s a single dot which could cost an extra $9.7 million per meter of the hull which is extended to regain its balance.

The S-81 Isaac Peral overweight

Considering $680million has already been invested in this single ship as part of a total of $3 billion for all four subs, this is hardly a screw-up which can be brushed under the rug. Although the S-81 is now estimated to join the Spanish fleet in the 2020s – it’s unclear whether it’ll ever see the light of day…literally.

3. Berlin Brandenburg Airport

Berlin Brandenburg Airport – designed and built to mark Germany’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin wall – is set to be the third busiest in Germany and one of the fifteen busiest in Europe. it’s fitted with modern terminals, bold structures and even a working railway station, but not a single passenger has ever passed through its gates until October 2020.

The costly airport was supposed to open in 2012, but all you could find there were operating baggage tracks with no bags and a single ‘ghost-train’ kept running to encourage airflow – but why?

Berlin Brandenburg Airport Terminal 1
Arne Müseler, via Wikimedia Commons

The global financial crisis of 2007-8 reduced the chances of contractor and investor involvement, so various politicians pitched in using public money with conflicting ideas.

At one point, the capacity inside the terminal building was doubled after construction had already begun, and after the airport company realized the designer had not accounted for any shopping whole new retail floors were ordered.

After such setbacks, invitations for the grand opening were sent out in 2012, but the ceremony was canceled after the entire fire-prevention system was found to be inoperable.

A new evaluation of the airport by officials discovered 550,000 faults which needed fixing before it could be considered for use, from incorrect lightbulbs to entire cable systems installed wrong. With millions spent each month to maintain the disused building, the airport has now cost upwards of $6.5 billion – over three times its original budget.

2. The Vasa

This monumental mistake dates back to 1624 when the Swedish king ordered one of the most spectacular warships the world has ever seen. The Vasa – a new flagship of the Swedish navy – was unveiled on 10th August 1628, but to the horror of thousands of excited onlookers, it barely left Stockholm’s bay before it sank 105 feet below the surface.

the sinking of The Vasa

With the first gust of wind the warship immediately capsized, humiliating the King who blamed the long-dead designer Henrik Hybertsson for its failures. In the ‘Kings Currency’ the ship cost more than 200,000 Rex Dollars to build – which amounted to over 5% of Sweden’s gross national product for the year.

In other words, 1/20th of the nation’s annual income suddenly lay at the bottom of the Stockholm harbor.

©Be Amazed

If the equivalent percentage of Sweden’s GNP was spent on a single ship today, that would equal 25.6 billion dollars! Lengthy recovery of The Vasa began in 1956 and continued until 1990 when the restored 17th-century ship was displayed in The Vasa museum in 98% of its original glory.

Although official salvage costs were unrecorded and partly funded by the navy, modern estimates for the recovery of a ship of its size are between $55-110million – and the worst part is that archeological examination suggests that poor design was in fact to blame, as the gun deck was far too heavy.

1. Sale of Alaska

If you’re selling something, you should probably be 100% sure that there’s no value left in it for you first – and the sale of Alaska should be enough to prove it. Alaska was originally owned by Russia and had been a fairly lucrative source for fur as well as tea and ice, but in 1867 the Russian emperor Alexander ll no longer saw any profit in keeping the territory.

Harsh weather conditions made it hard to farm and its distance meant it was hard to protect from an invasion, so Russia settled an agreement to sell the region to the US for $7.2 million.

At first, the Americans thought nothing of Alaska either, until in 1896 a major gold deposit was discovered in the Yukon; signaling its true potential as a gateway to a plethora of natural resources like oil and gold.

a major gold deposit was discovered in the Yukon, Alaska

As the ratio of the Russian Ruble to the dollar was almost equal back then, not much profit was gained from the sale – but the US has earned its share back 100 times over.

Economists now estimate the value of its oil and gas reserves alone to be worth around $200 billion, meaning this is one mistake which definitely has the Russian emperor turning in his grave.

Sale of Alaska mistake

If you were amazed at the most expensive mistakes in history, you might want to read part 2 of this series. Thanks for reading!

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