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A seminal event in a story I'm working on requires a tragedy that will kill hundreds (or maybe even low thousands) of innocent bystanders. This occurs in a large American city (I haven't chosen one yet, and have no preferences as to which... if it is important to your answer, I can accept your pick as a constraint).

The supervillain is up to no good, but does not intend to kill anyone. He has no weapons of mass destruction nor any desire for that as a prime motivation. The superhero intervenes, and they fight. This fight can last awhile, if needed... the government has little ability to force either to stop (so we can figure they are invulnerable to some degree or another).

My first inclination is for a skyscraper to topple... but we all live in the post-9/11 world where we've learned a bit more about the extremes necessary to cause that. Perhaps we have learned a little more than we ever really wanted to know about it. I certainly have.

I don't think either of these superhumans will act as if he is burning jet fuel raining down from a high floor in a building for the better part of an hour. And it does not seem that a human-sized object of any density, being shoved/punched/launched through the side of a skyscraper could damage it in such a way as to cause it to fall. Are there any other superpower failure modes for large buildings that are plausible according to physics if impacts alone can't accomplish the trick?

Is this damage to the foundation of the building? Is it heat/energy applied to the steel frame of the building? Do the superhumans need to cause some change in some other building material? Are they slicing through it mechanically?

I have few details about the attempted crime because it's not essential to my story, only that the crime itself could feasibly succeed without much loss of life had things went according to plan. Heists, super-vandalism, doesn't matter so much to me (but it rules out super-powers like "the villain can kill people by thinking about it" since it'd be difficult for that to be used as I require).

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    $\begingroup$ Just for reference: if you tell a good story, people will suspend their disbelief for almost anything (the MCU comes to mind). On the other hand, if you tell a bad story it won't matter how accurate your facts are. On a more worldbuilding note: you appear to be asking us to brainstorm godlike powers without any limitiations, conditions, or restrictions. That's contrary to the help center. How would you judge between "telekenisis tears apart buildings, throws cars, and kills hundreds" and "their cold power kills hundreds" or "laser vision kills hundreds?" $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 5, 2022 at 1:42
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    $\begingroup$ @ooak I have limited them quite well. These are things that blow up or knock down skyscrapers. Telepathy won't do it, nor flying, nor the ability to freeze things. Not sure what your problem is, I guess some people just like to attack attack questions. How could this be any more narrow? $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Nov 5, 2022 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ You don't seem to have fully settled on knocking down a skyscraper, and there are so many possible alternatives. Knocking down one jumbo jet would be a lot easier, for several hundred casualties. Or perhaps causing the collapse of a major bridge. Causing catastrophic failure of a major dam might not be easier than knocking down a skyscraper, but it could be significantly more devastating. $\endgroup$ Nov 6, 2022 at 5:21
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    $\begingroup$ @John ..We learned those skyscrapers rely on a grid of columns - usually built in the form of steel pillars. Let one of your superfigures throw the other enough times through the building thereby cutting enough pillars (assuming abilities similar to superman). if those cut pillars are in one half of the building), the weight will do it. This how the planes crashIng brought the former twin towers down, The involved extreme heat played their part in destroying a critical number of pilllars. AND the debris kept people trapped in the building until gravity brought the towers down. $\endgroup$
    – eagle275
    Nov 7, 2022 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ About bridges - the lanes of Golden Gate and similar are carried by relatively thin vertical wires. A hero like superman could eyebeam enough of said wires and suddenly large sections of the lanes are on the ocean floor. BUT a bridge is much easier to escape than a building where the stairs are destroyed or blocked (elevators / lifts likewise out of order). $\endgroup$
    – eagle275
    Nov 7, 2022 at 16:20

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Combatants are big.

ultraman

https://maroonersrock.com/2020/07/ultraman-day-10-shows-and-movies-to-ease-into-the-franchise/

Giant combatants always battle downtown! I used to work in Angel Grove, California so I know this well. And when you battle downtown buildings get knocked over because a good hard whack pushes kaiju and giant heroes backwards into buildings and then the whole thing falls down.

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    $\begingroup$ Ultraman looks like he came from the sea. Which means he would taste nice chopped into rings and deep fried. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 4, 2022 at 23:10
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Throw him Through the Leaning Tower of Pisa

enter image description here

I have seen enough disaster movies to know that the aliens or asteroids always target beloved national landmarks. This is because (a) It is immediately obvious which city we're in and (b) They are old and easier to destroy.

You want to knock down a building full of people. But these new-fangled modern buildings, with their deep foundations and steel girder superstructures are hard to knock down just by throwing a superhero at it. You get a skyscraper with a hole and a big cloud of dust. If you are lucky the superhero hits something expensive on the way through. Like in Justice League:

enter image description here

So I suggest you throw your superhero at a more primitive building. The Leaning Tower is made of stone and has bad foundations. It might just fall over if you blast a hole through the base.

The tower then collapses on top of the adjacent Pisa Cathedral, smooshing everyone inside. The cathedral was full because it was a wedding. Now all those people are pancakes. The bride and groom. Their families. Friends. Well Wishers. The Choirboys. Even the pet dog!

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If we imagine that we have one of the combatants with a power similar to that of the X-Men character Cyclops, who can shoot highly destructive beams of energy.

If such a character was to lose control of their destructive beam weapon while spinning rapidly in a plane tilted significantly away from parallel to the ground (45° from the horizontal or more), the damage done to a skyscraper might be such that the top portion would slide off the bottom portion despite any irregularities of the cut.

We even see such an event occur in one or more of the X-Men movies in at least two occasions, one in a school building, the other in a nuclear power plant's cooling tower.

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There could be Liquefactor (villain) and Reflector (hero)

Liquefactor has the power to send directional shockwaves that he can tune to the exact frequency that kills or destroys its target. Like an opera singer shattering a glass, or an earthquake liquefying the ground around the foundations of tall buildings.

Reflector can create a perfect shockwave reflector, that he can shape like a convergent, flat or divergent parabola. He can basically send back focalised shockwaves at Liquefactor, or deflect or disperse energy.

Both meet downtown in the daytime, and skyscraper sinking and falling is inevitable while they fight. By night Reflector generates a large 150m diameter parabolic mirror to act as a telescope and watch the stars with Liquefactor who also likes watching the stars through this amazing magical masterpiece of optics.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for this answer. It's definitely something to knock a skyline down with. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Nov 7, 2022 at 2:19
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If your story allows for the existence of anything as miraculous as superpowers, toppling a skyscraper doesn't have to be a strength move.

Your hero could cast a blob of self-replicating and destructive nanites toward the supervillain in an attempt to turn the evildoer into grey goo, only to hit the high-rise by mistake! Foundations turn to goo along with the steel beams!

Insert thousands of doomed office workers' screams here as the building falls over while the hero kneels, his own ragged roars of guilt choked off by his sobs. Or something like that.

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The Villian is a "Last Avatar" Earth Bender, he can shape the earth around him into projectiles, shields, earth elementals maybe. Maybe he's the advanced bender who can bend metals.

Against law enforcement, outside of cities he can use very little earth and metal to get the upper hand, but when forced to fight in an urban settings against a lot of super-firepower, desperate to hit his adversary below the belt, he'll use more and more of the earth and metal under/in lower floors of buildings. Being unused to doing so, he'll be surprised when buildings start crashing, but really for an Earth Bender this isn't much of a threat.

There goes the neighborhood!

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for this. I had not considered that sort of power at all. It does seem like it would do the deed, and I can see how it could even be that the villain does this without quite meaning to. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Nov 7, 2022 at 2:18
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I only saw after writing this that an excellent comment suggested the same kind of disaster. I've added some comments to address the OP's concerns about plausibility.

A seminal event in a story I'm working on requires a tragedy that will kill hundreds (or maybe even low thousands) of innocent bystanders. [...] My first inclination is for a skyscraper to topple...

In case you're willing to consider other kinds of events:

Supernatural weather conditions, power disruptions, or plant growth—or even just a super strong punch—could break a large, poorly maintained dam, like the one that holds back Atlanta's Reservoir No. 1, or the Willett Pond Dam near a suburb of Boston. You can refer to the dam's emergency action plan for guidance on what might happen next. In the case of Reservoir No. 1, the AP reports that "If the dam were to catastrophically fail, the water could inundate more than 1,000 homes, dozens of businesses, a railroad and a portion of Interstate 75." In the case of Willett Pond, they report that "If the dam were to give way, it could send hundreds of millions of gallons of water into the heart of the city of nearly 30,000 people." This is really bad—and if the setting of your story has even more development in the path of the flood wave, the potential for injury will be even worse. City planners should try to prevent risky development like this, but they'll have little power to stop unscrupulous builders with city councilors in their pockets, or desperate people with nowhere safer to sleep.

Could the combatants plausibly cause this kind of failure? If the dam is already in danger of breaking, I'd imagine that a strong impact could set off a failure cascade. An especially dangerous situation, mentioned in the AP article, is when the water level behind the dam is too high, and problems with the dam's spillways make it impossible to let water out fast enough. This can lead to—and, unfortunately, has led to—spontaneous failure. The AP article also mentions other conditions—"leaks that can indicate a dam is failing internally; unrepaired erosion from past instances of overtopping; holes from burrowing animals; [and] tree growth that can destabilize earthen dams"—which I'd imagine could put a dam in danger of breaking even at nominally safe water levels.

The combatants' powers could contribute to a catastrophic dam failure in very subtle ways. For example, someone with power over weather might attract heavy rain around them while they fight. This wouldn't normally put anyone in danger, even during an hours-long fight near a reservoir; after all, the dam has spillways to handle flooding! If the spillways aren't working because of poor maintenance—or because the other combatant's electricity-disrupting powers have put the control systems out of commission—it might not be apparent until it's too late. As another example, a fight involving someone with power over plants could agitate nearby trees, causing them to shake and writhe. Tree growth, as the quote above says, can destabilize earthen dams—and some of the dams the AP read about were "so overgrown with vegetation that they couldn’t be fully inspected."

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Perhaps one of your super-combatants has some control over certain plants or fungi. It could be as simple as dropping seeds/spores around and spraying nutrient mixture where plants are desired. Perhaps the other combatant unwittingly has a power that accelerates or somehow enhances this plant growth. Perhaps the fight takes place during heavy rain.

Plant growth could cause a building to fail by exceeding the load bearing capacity of the building's material. I am not an engineer, but I imagine this could in rare occasions make the building fall to the side if the load is distributed unevenly, such as with vines growing on only one side of the building.

Alternatively, plant growth can cause building failure by displacing earth around the foundations or deflecting the foundations beyond allowable tolerances. Curiously, this failure need not happen at the exact same time as the fight; there could be weeks between the fight and the building failing.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or the ivy could dig roots into the mortar holding the bricks together and bring down the building. (Which is why some "ivy league" colleges are removing the ivy from their buildings.) $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Nov 6, 2022 at 14:42
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Well, one of the super guys throws the other guy right through a skyscraper. The trajectory is such that the thrown super guy cuts through one complete row of load bearing columns. Not good, if it is a narrow building - there aren't that many rows.

If the fight goes on, this may happen several times to the same building. Perhaps the evil guy prefer to fight near a vulnerable building - hoping to get away when/if the hero notices the danger. Which he doesn't do in time during this fight.

The building may have its own problem. Existing damage from other events (recent terrorism, fire, war, meteor strike, ...) or perhaps corrupt builders saved too much money on thinner steel and bad concrete. Maybe someone installed a way too big roof pool. The building is dangerously overloaded before the fight starts, and easy to bring down.

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