Only a few survived the Calamity; the victims are turned into petrified ash that disintegrates upon contact.
It is speculated that the Calamity fractured the surface of the world, literally tearing it to pieces.
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The Calamity was the result of an official Mancer project.
The Mancers were secretly developing a weapon, an emergency "final solution" in the event of another Ura-Caelondian conflict. The weapon would "redirect the Tazal Terminals to the stars." It is heavily implied that the Mancers' project was intended as a pre-emptive strike, as the Ura continued to abide by the post-war Treaty.
The Calamity itself is attributed to Venn, a brilliant Ura Mancer and Zia's father. Horrified by the Mancers' genocidal intentions, Venn sabotaged the project and wrote all he knew in a journal before resigning from his post. He was compelled to return once his daughter Zia was framed for treason. His last words to his daughter were a warning to hide herself in their underground Ura-style home.
Rucks suggests that Venn himself was forced to activate the project. In a last act of defiance, he targetted Caelondia itself, rather than the peaceful Ura.
When the weapon was initiated, both Zia and Zulf were hidden in Ura-style dens, and thus survived the Calamity. It is unclear why the Kid or Rucks survived.