Suppose someone shoots down a missile from orbit, or something that causes a pressure wave. It doens't matter what, but lets assume:

  1. The explosion that causes the pressure wave does not kill the person inside (as in if a nuke goes off, this question is pointless if the person in (2) below would be vaporized).

  2. The glass is blown inwards into, say, the house, where a grown adult is standing. We can assume it's the standard glass we have in our houses nowadays.

How likely is someone to die or be permanently damaged from (2) above (ex: vision loss, amputation, etc), if we assume (1) does not kill them? I guess one could say there's always a non-zero chance because maybe a shard of glass could lodge itself in your neck and slice a critical artery and you bleed out.

Or maybe better, what if there's no medical services around? For example, if a missile from orbit does severe damage to the city, hospitals would be flooded and any affected characters in the story could not get medical help.

However, I am unsure how likely it is. For example, if I was to have someone die, the last thing I want is the reader to say "that would never happen" and lose immersion. I do not know if someone would be full of glass, and in a very painful state and susceptible to all kinds of problems after that (such as infection, lots of pain, etc).

From my research on explosions like grenades, shells, etc, it seems like its the pressure that tends to kill the most. Not much seems to be said about the fragments. Though they do seem to be dangerous, there was less information than I'd like and I was not able to evaluate whether the concept of being near a window of glass exploding inwards is very dangerous or not. I assume it is, but I'm not sure if I'm also grasping at straws and/or thinking of a scenario that realistically would not happen.

While this is not hard sci-fi that I'm writing, I don't want to do something unrealistic.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 3 at 3:14

There is a historic event that exactly matches your need:

The 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor.

Here's a nice writeup about it, on space.com

Some 1491 people were treated for injuries, the vast majority of them (98%+) due to window glass broken onto them by the overpressure wave from the meteor explosion. Many of these were standing at the windows looking at the spectacle, not understanding that the shockwave would only reach them many seconds later.
112 of these required hospitalization, 2 were in "serious condition". No fatalities from the glass, although 2 traffic fatalities may or may not have been caused by the distraction of the meteor.

  • $\begingroup$ You don't need anything as extreme as a meteor or a shell to cause serious injury. I've seen the result of two canal narrowboats (60 ft long, 7 ft beam, steel hulls, for people not familiar with UK canals) colliding with a relative speed of about 4 mph. Result: the entire galley area of one boat was covered in glass shrapnel from broken windows. Anyone in the galley at the time would have needed medical treatment to remove glass fragments. even if they didn't end up being blinded. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Aug 2 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ @alephzero Quite so. However the OP specifically asks about "something that causes a pressure wave", so I answered that. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Aug 2 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not disagreeing with your answer. Two floating 20-ton steel boxes colliding with each other also "cause pressure waves" - but the waves are travelling through the metal structure, not through the air. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Aug 2 at 17:40

In the last explosion that rocked a city; glass was (allegedly) the biggest killer.

We recently had a massive explosion rock a city - The Beirut port explosion. Here is a paper that blames...

... shattered glass from building facades and interiors to be the leading cause of most the 180+ deaths and 6000+ injuries that resulted from this tragic blast as has been witnessed in the emergency wards of treating hospitals.

An Australian 2 year old was killed by flying glass.

Here's a survivor who got pierced by glass and is in chronic pain nearly a year later.

The real question to answer is how are you people distributed?

Pressure waves are a big killer, and were the streets packed with people like sardines the Beirut blast would've killed tens of thousands of people directly.

However people were in their houses, on balconies, and in their offices. Many were looking at the fire, many with glass between them and ground zero when the blast hit, ready for the glass to be impaled into their bodies.

Why not both? You may also have deaths by both incorrectly attributed to the glass. If I see a dead body whose been subject to a pressure wave (giving fatal internal injuries) and is also impaled with dozens of glass shards, unless there's a full coroner report clarifying, I'm saying the glass killed him.


When I saw your question, I immediately thought of the Halifax explosion in 1917, caused by two ships colliding in harbor, with one of them carrying munitions for the ongoing war in Europe.

Many people had been watching the fire through their windows, which shattered during the explosion. As glass got into their eyes, 5900 people got eye injuries, and 850 were blinded, 41 permanently. This, in large part, motivated the founding of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind a few months later.

A total of 1782 people were confirmed dead in the disaster, though I haven't been able to find how many were specifically due to glass-related injuries as opposed to other debris, fires, or collapsing buildings.


Low probability

I have blown stuff up in the past, using a variety of explosives. Being fortunate enough to have only blown stuff up in the context of training exercises in a then peacetime military, I have had the leisure to wander around the range afterwards and look at the results in a leisurely fashion without anyone shooting at me.

The main observation of relevance here is that whenever there has been shrapnel damage, the shrapnel has been clearly identifiable as metal or other substances that were in contact with the explosive charge. For example, when you pack the inside of a roll of barbed wire with PE4 to make an improvised omnidirectional command-detonated mine, the fragmentation damage to targets around is clearly from bits of barbed wire. Targets that were within the lethal overpressure distance were frequently badly damaged or blown backwards, but never with enough force to embed them in other targets.

The takeaway here is that in order for any object to be propelled with enough force to be dangerous shrapnel it must be subject to much more than "just" lethal overpressure. As noted by @user535733 there is an enormous variety of glass in use in "modern" buildings, however for new construction the building codes in developed nations are likely to mandate toughened safety glass.

There are still options if you need someone to die or be maimed, especially if older glass can be brought into play through old construction or dodgy recycling of old material in newer buildings. The window blows in and fragments, the person takes a stumbling step to regain their balance, slips on fragments and falls forward so that their eye/neck/arm (as desired by the narrator) lands on the jagged fragments at the bottom of the window frame.

If you want some authenticity then modify an actual incident that occurred some years ago - an intoxicated person was standing on a table in the bar holding a bottle of spirits. He slipped and fell, the bottle smashed in his hand and severed a tendon. Thanks to the spirits the injury was sterilised, but it still required microsurgery. Change the circumstances so that instead of the fall being caused by intoxication it was due to the shockwave and you have a guaranteed plausible injury which is not life threatening but painful, partially disabling and will be way down the priority list for treatment by any remaining medical facilities.

  • $\begingroup$ The OP is not asking about shrapnel from the explosion itself, but from glass shattered by the overpressure wave. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Aug 2 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ @PcMan in practice the question is whether glass shattered by the overpressure wave is effective shrapnel. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 at 12:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And yet you lead your answer with the false statement of "the shrapnel has been clearly identifiable as metal or other substances that were in contact with the explosive charge". I can AB-So-Lutely guarantee you none of the glass fragments that sliced the citizens of Chelyabinsk were in contact with taht meteor. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Aug 2 at 13:10

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