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Human Error

Disasters Caused by People


Based on the Sheepdog Church Security Training Course “Severe Weather and Natural Disasters.”[1]

In the Bible

Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:4)

“The bricks have fallen, but we will build with dressed stones; the sycamores have been cut down, but we will put cedars in their place” (Isaiah 9:10).

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed” (Luke 5:37)

In the News

Taft, California, January 21, 2020 - A leak of acrolein (propenal) in a factory prompted authorities to order persons within a six-mile radius to evacuate or shelter in place. An evacuation center was established by the Red Cross at a local church.[2]

Lawrence County, Ohio, October 13, 2019 - Gas leaking from a propane tank caused an explosion in the fellowship hall of a country church while members were in a Sunday evening service. The fellowship hall is in a separate building, and no one was hurt.[3]

Orange County, California, September 21, 1992 - A church van carrying 18 passengers was hit by a pickup truck. As the van spun, the rear door flew open and several passengers were ejected. Two bench seats in the rear were not bolted down and there were no belts in place. Eleven persons, mostly youth, were killed and eight injured. Other churches in the county started examining their vans for safety.[4]

Amber, Pennsylvania, July 17, 1856 - An excursion train with over a thousand passengers collided head-on with another train. There were 59 to 67 persons killed and over 100 seriously injured. Most of the dead were Sunday School children from a Philadelphia church on their way to a picnic.[5]

Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, December 10, 2016 - At least 160 persons died when a church roof collapsed. Faulty construction practices and corruption are blamed for this disaster.[6]

Church Rock, New Mexico, July 16,1979 - A uranium mine's tailings pond dam split, dumping toxic, acidic, and radioactive materials into a river flowing into Navajo territory in Arizona. Slow response and a language barrier hampered communication of warnings to endangered Navajos. Contributing factors included the pond not being lined and a weakened dam not being repaired.[7]

Brunswick, Ohio and Stratford, Ontario, 2019 - A church in Brunswick and another in Stratford became cyber-crime victims. Someone posing as the building contractor stole $1.75 million from the building fund of the Brunswick church. In Stratford, a criminal pretending to be the pastor of the church, sent an email to parishioners asking them to buy gift cards for a charity and send him the serial numbers.[8]

United States and the World, 1918-2020 - There have been several pandemics (world-wide epidemics) since the middle of World War I. Notable is the 1918 Influenza Pandemic (1918-1920), which killed about 50 million persons around the world and 675,000 in the U.S.[9] A variation of this virus (Swine Flu) caused the 2009-H1N1 Pandemic ninety years later.[10]

In 2003, the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) Epidemic broke out in China. The virus, a Coronavirus variety, was labeled SARS-CoV. Quick work by many national health agencies kept it from becoming a pandemic.[11]

Currently, there is worldwide concern over the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Epidemic in China, which has paralyzed an entire province. Many cases have been identified in other countries. Agencies, such as the CDC, are working on developing treatments and a vaccine.[12]

Special Resource for Severe Weather and Natural Disasters

Disasters can be both natural and the result of human activity. Those in the latter category are largely preventable, and therefore regrettable. Some are more likely to impact our church because of its location. We need to be ready for those.

To help you be prepared, we have a free download - "Emergency Supply List Recommendations (Essential supplies to have on hand in a disaster or emergency event)." To receive this free download, click here. [13]

Human-Caused Disasters

Some disasters are just not natural. They are caused by human activity. There are several kinds of human-caused disasters. Here are a few:

These disasters can affect churches in one way or another. We'll cover a few of these as examples of what can happen and how we can prepare for them.


Spills are common. They can range from simply wasteful to damaging to dangerous. Here we are primarily concerned with hazardous spills. Most spilled materials are flammable, corrosive, or toxic. Other materials can cause hazardous walking or driving conditions by making surfaces slick or sticky.

Some spills are from leaking or toppled tanks. Open or faulty valves cause many spills. Sometimes a container overflows.

A flammable spill makes immediate evacuation necessary. Toxic spills may require sheltering in place. The Kern County Fire Department explained how to shelter in place:

You can prevent spills on church property by ensuring that all containers are properly closed and stored and are in good condition. This includes fuels, paints, solvents, and cleaning products. Also prevent water leaks, since these may cause slippery surfaces and damage property.


Natural gas and propane are the most common causes of explosions in homes, businesses, and churches. Another cause is closed containers close to heat sources, followed by steam explosions when the safety valves on water heaters and boilers won't work.

If you are aware of an explosion close to the church, warn members of danger if an activity, class, meeting, or service is scheduled. Check the church property for damage or debris. If you find any, leave it alone and report it to the authorities: it is evidence they will use in an investigation.

For prevention, have all gas appliances checked regularly and adjusted or repaired if needed. Check safety valves on water heaters and boilers annually or biennially.


There are all kinds of wrecks on highways, streets, and railways. Some of these wrecks may affect churches.

Autos & Trucks

Roadway accidents are the most common wrecks. Since churches are by or close to public roads and streets, these are the wrecks most likely to involve a church. Vehicles have gone off the road and into church buildings or into a playground. Some involve church vehicles. Also, wrecks can cause hazardous spills.

What is the liability a church may have in a wreck? Vehicles used by a church can be involved in wrecks. Liability may include church members taking persons not in their families to a church event if they were acting for the church, such as if they were asked to provide transportation. Check with your insurance provider about your state's laws on this. Keep all church vehicles in safe condition.

An iffy issue is whether the church is contributing to collisions on their street. Low corner signs could hamper visibility of drivers at the intersection. So could overgrown shrubbery. You never know when a driver in an accident will claim blocked visibility in a lawsuit.


Not every church is close to a rail line, but some are. However, the danger for most churches from a train wreck is a hazardous material spill. There may be an explosion. Some train wrecks have started wildfires. There's not much the church can do but evacuate if needed and be prepared to treat injuries.

Structural Failures

Many people throughout history have been killed by structural failures. Thousands died when Samson literally brought down the house (Judges 16:29-30). Hundreds of years later, about 20,000 died when a hastily-built stadium near Rome collapsed.


In Europe, churches and cathedrals have collapsed. They learned the hard way how to build big and make it last.

In some countries with poor building inspection (often involving bribery), structural failures are common. Such was the case in Nigeria in the news story.

Bribery by contractors also happens in some places in the United States. Some contractors cheat on materials. If your church has a building project, do what you can to ensure that it is done right. That is one way to protect the flock.


Dams can be a blessing. They can store water for irrigation or city water, make lakes for recreation, generate hydroelectric power, and provide flood control. But if a dam fails, it can destroy property and lives downstream. If a waste-impoundment dam breaks, as the one in Church Rock, it can contaminate a large area.

We cannot prevent a dam from failing, but we can heed advisories and warnings and get our people out of the way as a dam is about to fail, such as the Oroville Dam in California.[14]

Technological Failure and Cyber Crime

Face it. We do not have perfect technologies. Otherwise, why are they always being improved and upgraded? Computers can and do fail. It is wise to back up all the church's records on remote devices, especially off-site. That way, if for some reason the records in the church are destroyed, they can be replaced from the back-up devices.

We also need to guard against cybercrime. Thieves try to break into churches' computers. Scammers try to defraud the church or its members. Guard your system by using strong passwords. Limit access to system administration. Use added-factor authentication. Install self-updating anti-virus and anti-malware applications. Monitor activity on the church's computer system.

Ransomware viruses can encrypt all or most of the church's data and demand payment before letting you have your data back. If all your data is safely backed up, you can just reformat and clean up the system, then download your data from back-up. The computer system should be in contact with back-up only when you are backing up or restoring data.

Epidemics and Pandemics

Does the thought of an epidemic or pandemic make you sick? We do not want them to literally make us sick. There are precautions a church can take to protect its members and guests.

Knowledge - Know what is going on (and going around). Practice preventing transmission. Wash hands, Sanitize surfaces, especially those many people touch. Use hand sanitizers. Remind people to cover mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing. Encourage members to stay away if they may be contagious. Urge them to seek medical attention if they become ill. Sometimes it may be prudent to cancel services to block the spread of infections. Listen to the advice of medical authorities.

Keep yourself healthy - Use good nutrition and hygiene. Use care in food handling. Dogs and cats may be cute and loving, but they can also contaminate food if we are not careful. Not everyone will be as careful. In the case of a local highly-contagious disease outbreak, avoid carry-in dinners. I know this will be unpopular with some persons.


We can prevent some human-caused disasters. We can protect ourselves and the church from others when they do happen. We can be prepared to help people when they are hurt or displaced.

There Is More

In this series on Severe Weather and Disasters are five articles. The other four are "It Ain't Over 'til It's Over" (Winter, That Is), "Twisting in the Wind" (Tornadoes, Thunderstorms, and Lightning), "A Burning Problem" (Wildfires, Drought, Extreme Heat), and "Tectonic Terror" (Earthquakes and Volcanic Activity),


  1. Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Church Security Training Courses, "Severe Weather and Natural Disasters" --
  2. Training Bundle (Classroom) [];
  3. Individual Training (Online) [].
  4. Liz Kern, "Evacuations Underway Near Taft After Chemical Spill," KMJ Now News Talk Radio, January 21,2020, Update Jan. 22, 2020 [].
  5. John Lowe and Chad Hedrick, "No injuries in church explosion," WSAZ, October 13, 2019, Updated October 14, 2019 [].
  6. Eric Bailey, "Van in Crash Failed Safety Check: Tragedy: Church vehicle involved in deadliest Orange County collision had even been ordered off the road," Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1992 [].
  7. Wikipedia, "Great Train Wreck of 1856" [].
  8. Associated Press in Lagos, "Nigerian church collapse kills at least 160 worshippers - reports structural failure follows similar tragedy in 2014 in a country where construction standards are compromised by corruption," The Guardian, December 10, 2016 [].
  9. Wikipedia, "Church Rock uranium mill spill" [].
  10. Howard Solomon, "Cyber Security Today: Churches as cyber victims, Outlook attacks, a phony Android game site, news on password managers," IT World Canada, May 3, 2019 [].
  11. Anon, "1918 Pandemic," Centers for Disease Control (CDC), n/d [].
  12. Anon, "2009-H1N1 Pandemic," Centers for Disease Control (CDC), n/d [].
  13. Anon, "SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), World Health Organization, n/d [].
  14. Anon, "Coronavirus Disease 2019," Centers for Disease Control (CDC), n/d [].
  15. Kris Moloney, "Emergency Supply List Recommendations (Essential supplies to have on hand in a disaster or emergency event)," Sheepdog Church Security, Resources, [].
  16. Wikipedia, "Ororville Dam crisis" [].