“Early in June  the Chief Quartermaster became alarmed for the safety of his house on the point of the hill…the slide having extended to within about 90 feet of the building.”
Huge landslides, mainly in Culebra Cut, confounded Canal engineers. The slides were of two types. Gravity slides were caused by porous, saturated material sliding down slopes of firmer, more impervious rock or clay. Deformation slides were caused by unstable rock brought down primarily by overly-steep slopes. Not only did slides dump millions of cubic yards of material back into the Canal, some slides created bulges that pushed up material from below the bed of the Canal. As the Cut deepened and the slopes grew steeper, the slides grew larger and more frequent. The only remedy was to excavate a wider channel and make the slopes less steep. Millions more cubic yards would need to be cleared from the slopes.
Though most landslides crept slowly into Culebra Cut, they could sometimes come without warning and bury men and equipment. The screams of accident whistles brought workers running, heading onto risky ground to try to dig out workers that might still be alive.
In October 1907, a slide at Cucaracha in the Cut was the first the Americans experienced. After days of heavy rain, a mud avalanche fell into the Cut. More mud continued to move, glacier-like, at an average of 14 feet a day for 10 days. In all, 500,000 cubic yards of material slid into the Cut. Slides continued to bedevil Lt. Col. David Gaillard, the engineer in charge of the Culebra Cut, throughout the Canal construction. In January 1912, when yet another destructive slide at Cucaracha completely blocked the Canal, Gaillard, at his wits end, asked Chief Engineer Goethels what to do. Goethels replied, “Hell, dig it out again.”
Slides were not the only danger. Racing trains, swinging cranes, explosions, drowning, and falls from scaffolds were just some of the ways a man could die or be maimed at the Canal. Surrounded by the noise, dust, and smoke from locomotives, steam shovels, blasting, and hundreds of rock drills, staying alert was not easy.
Working with explosives was one of the most dangerous occupations on the Canal. Chief Engineer Goethals blamed the frequent accidents on worker incompetence, but explosives could become unstable because of the climate, lightning could ignite a blast, and steam shovels sometimes hit unexploded charges. A phenomenon known as “hot rock,” caused by sulfurous blasts of hot air from iron pyrite oxidation or water vapor from moving rock, could also ignite charges. Or, there might be no satisfactory explanation, as was the case in the worst accidental blast at Bas Obispo in 1908 that killed 26 men and wounded 49.
Records from the American period of construction document 5,600 deaths, of those, 350 were white Americans and 4,500 were non-white, mostly West Indians. However, the number of West Indian deaths is likely underreported because many lived in the cities outside the Canal Zone and some causes, typhoid fever for example, were not always included in the statistics.
*Title of a popular work song of the day.