The 1978 Tug Of War Tragedy

Samuel Reason

On June 23, 1978, in a sleepy Pennsylvania suburb the whole alumni of Harrisburg middle school turned up with one mission in mind: break the tug of war world record. Over 2,300 students lined up in the schoolyard, with the idea of setting a new Guinness World Record. They were going after the largest tug of war game ever played, record. It sounds like a lot of fun, a harmless game of tugging the rope, but instead of laughs, it became a whole new world of disaster and tragedy.

Around 12 minutes into the match, the 2,000-foot long braided nylon rope could no longer handle the force and suddenly snapped. This meant the rope was now recoiling with several thousand pounds of stored energy being released at once. Shannon Meloy who was just 14 years old at the time remembers it sounding as if someone pulled the string of a party cracker or even a firecracker going off. She remembers that she smelt something burning, thinking it was the rope, but then realized that it was the flesh of her hands burning.

Suddenly there was blood everywhere and students were either on the ground or completely out of it, dazed and confused about the whole situation. Over 200 students played on the floor wounded and five of them lost their fingertips. One student was less lucky and had severed their thumb. Not to mention the hundreds of more students who all faced second-degree burns on their hands.

Later they would tell the Gadsden Times that the idea was to just play the game, they just wanted to see how many students could all be involved in one game of tug of war. Nobody knew that it would end so badly. The rope had been intended to withstand over 13,000 pounds of stress, little did anyone know that a group of students over 2,000 would cause this amount of power.

Actually, this is one of the first known tragedies that happened because of playing tug of war, but there have been many more – with even worse injuries. In Taiwan during the 1997 celebrations of the Retrocession war, over 1,600 participants took part in a massive game of tug of war, again the rope snapped and this time the rebounding force was so strong it tore off the left arm of two contestants. So remember, never play tug of war.

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