The Strangest Disaster of the 20th Century, pt. 1

I collected this story from, who in turn collected it (with permission) from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader: Wonderful World of Odd.

Side note: if you do not have at least one Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader in your bathroom, you must rectify the situation ASAP.

The sun dawned on August 22, 1986 much as it did every morning previous in Cameroon. A man (unnamed) decided to take advantage of the daylight. He hopped on his bicycle and began the trip from his village, Wum, toward the village of Nyos.

On the way, he noticed an antelope lying dead along the side of the road. “Why let it go to waste?” he asked himself as he strapped it to his bicycle (somehow). He continued to Nyos, passing two dead rats, a dead dog, and other deceased animals.

He wondered if they had all been killed by lightning – when lightning strikes, it’s not uncommon for nearby animals to die of the shock. He pulled into a group of huts, planning on asking the locals if they knew anything, but as he drew closer he saw dead bodies strewn everywhere. He checked the huts – there wasn’t a living soul in sight.

The man tossed his bicycle aside and ran all the way back to Wum.

When he arrived, the survivors of whatever had decimated Nyos and the surrounding villages were staggering into Wum. With them came strange tales of an explosion, rumbling noises, strange smells, and passing out only to wake up 36 hours later and find everyone around them dead.

When medical teams arrived two days later (Wum and Nyos exist in a very remote part of Cameroon), they discovered that in the course of one night, something had killed nearly 1,800 people, in addition to more than 3,000 cattle and numberless others creature – essentially, every living thing for miles around.

And by all appearances, the killer had disappeared as suddenly as it had come.

Scientists from all over the world traveled to Cameroon to assist in the sleuthing. The remains of the victims were of little help. There were no signs of bleeding, physical trauma, or disease, and no evidence of exposure to radiation, chemical weapons, or poison gas. And none of them showed signs of suffering or “death agony.” Apparently, they all just fell over and died.

The distribution of death gave the scientists their first clue – they had all died within 12 miles of Lake Nyos. Some local tribes refer to the lake as the “bad lake.” A legend exists which says that years ago, an evil spirit had risen out of the lake and killed all the people living at the water’s edge.

The lake itself gave scientists their next big, but perplexing, clue. The water, which was normally a pure blue, had  transformed into deep, murky red. Apparently, there was more to the legend of the “bad lake” than anyone had realized.

Lake Nyos is a “crater lake” – it formed when the crater of an extinct volcano filled with water. But was the volcano really extinct? Maybe it had come back to life and released enough poison gas to kill every living thing in the area.

As compelling as that theory was, an eruption of that magnitude would have been accompanied by major seismic activity. None of the eyewitnesses mentioned earthquakes and nearest seismic recording station reporting nothing of interest happening that night.

This was backed up by the fact that in all of villages, goods were still piled neatly in homes where every living thing had been killed. The houses also offered one more interesting clue: The oil lamps had all be extinguished, even the ones still full of oil.


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