5 Famous Fires and the Lessons They Taught Us
Fire safety is something many people take for granted until it’s too late. In honor of National Fire Safety Month, here are some stories of tragic fires, each of which contains typical “what went wrong” elements that could have lowered the death toll. Each disaster led to more stringent laws and/or safety precautions, to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
1. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, March 25, 1911
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of a 10 story building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York City. The garment factory, which specialized in manufacturing women’s blouses, would be called a “sweat shop” in today’s terminology. The workers were mainly immigrant women (some as young as 12 years old) from Italy, German and Eastern Europe, who worked 14-hour daily shifts for approximately $70 per week.
Accident Waiting to Happen
The factory had flammable textiles stored throughout the building, and scraps of fabric littered the floors and overflowed from bins. Designers smoked cigarettes at their desks and regularly tossed their butts into the scrap fabric bins instead of ashtrays. (Buckets of water were located throughout the factory to extinguish the bin fires that cropped up regularly.) Per company policy, several of the exit doors were locked during business hours; when employees left for the day, they had to line up by the few unlocked doors and leave single file under the careful gaze of a supervisor to make sure they weren’t stealing any fabric or other supplies.
The quitting time bell rang at 4:45PM, and while the women were putting on their coats and gathering their belongings, someone on the eighth floor yelled “Fire!” Flames leapt up from discarded rags on the floor between the first and second row of cutting tables. One man grabbed a bucket of water and threw it on the fire, but the flames had already spread to the paper patterns hanging overhead. It seemed like only seconds after the first cry of “fire” that the tables, partitions and ceiling were ablaze. Terrified employees crammed themselves into the single, small elevator and onto the narrow fire escape.
The fire quickly spread to the ninth and 10th floors. Some women were able to make it to the roof, where a professor at the New York University Law School next door used ladders left by painters to form a “bridge” between the two buildings and helped 69 Triangle employees to safety. Other workers were not so fortunate; when the fire escape collapsed from the stampede of panicked people, women began jumping from the windows. Engine Company 72 was the first on the scene, but the firefighters were torn between extinguishing the flames and trying to catch the jumpers in a life net. Once other fire departments reached the scene, it took 18 minutes to bring the fire under control, but not before 146 employees had lost their lives.
The public outrage and the lawsuits filed by relatives of the dead led to the owners of Triangle Shirtwaist being tried for manslaughter (they were subsequently acquitted). A Factory Investigating Commission was formed, which examined the working conditions of all factories in New York City. Thanks to the findings of this Commission, 36 new laws were enacted to reform the state labor code. In addition, a Fire Prevention division was added to the city’s fire department; its job was to inspect places of business and make sure they complied with the new laws, such as not locking doors during working hours and installing ceiling sprinklers.
2. The Hartford Circus, July 6, 1944
The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus set up camp on Barbour Street during their stay in Hartford, Connecticut. The matinee show they played on an oppressively hot Thursday afternoon was attended by approximately 6,800 people—primarily women and children, since the men were either at work or overseas fighting World War II.
Accident Waiting to Happen
The Big Top tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline. The wooden chairs had many layers of oil-based paint on them. The few entrances (which also served as exits) were narrow and funneled patrons into single file via metal railings to prevent non-ticket holders from sneaking inside.
Approximately 20 minutes into the performance: the Great Wallendas were performing their high wire act while animal trainer May Kovar was leading her big cats out of the tent to their cages. The first flame was small—most would later say about the size of a 50 cent piece—on one of the sidewalls of the tent. The actual cause was never determined, but was rumored to be a carelessly tossed cigarette. Several patrons noticed it, but no one raised an alert or exited the tent—they presumed that circus personnel were aware of the situation and would handle it. (NOTE: Sociologists have found that this is a typical reaction when disaster strikes at a large venue; adult Americans are conditioned to think that someone in authority already knows what is going on and will take care of the problem.)
The flames fed on the gasoline-lined tent and the fire spread very quickly. Merle Evans, the circus’ band leader, spotted flames licking up the rear sidewall and immediately directed the band to play “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the universal circus distress signal. The performers heard the song and immediately abandoned their routines. Ushers began urging patrons to exit in an orderly fashion. Unfortunately, the fire spread so fast that soon people were stampeding toward the few exits. The death toll reached 168.
One thing the burn victims had in their favor was that local Hartford hospitals were well stocked with bandages and plasma due to World War II (most major U.S. hospitals were in Disaster Preparedness Mode after Pearl Harbor). Not long after the Hartford disaster, most major circuses abandoned the use of the Big Top altogether and staged their shows in existing arenas and coliseums instead.
3. Our Lady of the Angels, December 1, 1958
Located in the Humbolt Park area of Chicago’s west side, Our Lady of the Angels was a two-story Catholic school originally built in 1910 which taught classes from kindergarten to eighth grade.
Accident Waiting to Happen
Because it was a parochial—rather than public—school, OLA was not legally bound to retrofit their building to comply with 1958 fire codes. As a result, the school had no sprinkler system, the fire alarms rang only on school grounds and were not hooked up to the local fire station, and the fire extinguishers were stored in wall wells seven feet above the floor, out of the reach of most adults. In addition, the interior was made almost entirely of combustibles—the stairs, walls, floors, and doors were all constructed of wood. The floors had been coated and re-coated many times with flammable petroleum based waxes. The roof was coated with several layers of tar paper. Fire doors at the head of stairwells were propped open.
The fire started (later believed to be the result of arson) in a barrel of oily rags in the basement of the school. It smoldered at the bottom of a stairway for some time before a window finally burst and gave it oxygen. Smoke seeped up the stairs and superheated gases caused the wooden staircase to burst into flames.
Luckily, the first floor had a heavy fire door which prevented the blaze from infiltrating. Instead, it followed the path of oxygen up to the second floor, where there was no fire door. The fire spread along the corridors of the second floor and also reached the attic. Classes were scheduled to be dismissed at 3:00PM; at about 2:25, two boys designated to haul wastebaskets to the basement saw the smoke and notified their teacher. The teacher pulled the fire alarm and classrooms on the first floor began exiting, thinking it was a fire drill.
Meanwhile, on the second floor, transoms over the classroom doors started spontaneously exploding, allowing thick black smoke to billow into the rooms. Some of the students were able to leave via the one fire escape, but most of the students and teachers gathered around the windows and gasped for air. When the fire department was finally summoned, they’d been given the wrong address. When the first trucks eventually arrived at the school, they found that their ladders didn’t reach to the second floor. Desperate students jumped from the windows as parents (who’d run to the school after seeing the smoke) watched helplessly from the ground. By the time the blaze was finally extinguished, 92 children and three nuns had perished.
The OLA disaster sparked sweeping reforms in school fire safety, and the new rules applied to every school, whether public or private. Almost 17,000 schools across the country were ticketed and forced to be brought up to code. Mandatory fire drills were put in place, and all fire alarms in schools were required to be wired directly to a fire station.
4. Beverly Hills Supper Club, May 28, 1977
Located in Kentucky just six miles south of Cincinnati, Ohio, the Beverly Hills Supper Club was a sprawling complex of banquet rooms and service areas that attracted the same entertainment acts one might find in Las Vegas or Atlantic City.
Accident Waiting to Happen
The owners of the club had added on to it in piecemeal fashion over the years with disregard to the current fire codes. The carpets and seat cushions they used were highly flammable and emitted toxic fumes when ignited. There were no fire doors at the tops of stairways. The architect who’d made most of the additions to the building was not licensed in the state of Kentucky. Much of the building utilized aluminum wiring, which, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is a fire hazard. Many of the exit signs were not illuminated.
The actual cause and origin of the fire is still under dispute. What is known as fact, however, is that as guests exited a wedding reception being held in the Zebra Room they complained to management that the room seemed unusually warm. The doors to the Zebra Room remained closed after all the guests had left, and a little before 9PM two waitresses entered the room to begin clearing the tables. They noticed smoke hovering just below the ceiling and alerted management. The first fire engine arrived at 9:04PM, while employees haplessly tried to extinguish the flames that had suddenly burst into the Zebra Room.
Walter Bailey, a teenage busboy who’d seen the fire, ran down the long corridor toward the main stage, the Cabaret Room, poking his head in various rooms along the way and shouting warnings. When he arrived at the Cabaret Room, the comedy team of Teter and McDonald were onstage warming up the crowd for headliner John Davidson. Bailey strode onstage, grabbed the microphone and alerted the crowd of the emergency situation. He pointed out the exits in the room and asked them to evacuate quickly but calmly. Some patrons immediately followed his instructions, but the majority of the audience thought that Bailey was part of the comedy act and remained seated. Two minutes later a fireball exploded into the Cabaret Room and panic ensued. The room was enveloped with thick smoke, and the crowd tripped over the maze of tables and chairs as they scrambled in search of the poorly lit exits. The club had no emergency lighting, and the thick black smoke (filled with toxic fumes) made it almost impossible to find alternative exits. Firefighters had difficulty gaining entry into the building because bodies were “stacked like cordwood” in front of the main entrance doors. In the end, 165 people lost their lives in what is considered the third deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.
Richard Whitt of the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé on the overcrowding and fire code violations of the Beverly Hills Supper Club. As a result of his writings, the Governor of Kentucky ordered a special investigation of the disaster. Several new state laws (which eventually were adopted nationwide) were enacted as a result, including the banning of aluminum wiring, mandatory emergency lighting in public venues as well as requiring non-toxic fabric coverings for seats and floors.
5. The Station, February 20, 2003
The Station was a West Warwick, Rhode Island, nightclub that specialized in heavy metal music. On Thursday evening, February 20, 2003, the headlining band was Great White, who’d had a Top 5 hit in 1989 with their cover of the Mott the Hoople classic “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.” By some strange quirk of fate, a news team from WPRI happened to be in the house, filming a piece on nightclub safety.
Accident Waiting to Happen
The “egg crate” foam soundproofing material which lined the stage was flammable. The band’s manager reportedly did not get a pyrotechnics permit. The wooden structure was built prior to 1976, which “grandfathered” it out of the law that required ceiling sprinklers.
Great White took the stage just moments after 11:00PM. They opened with “Desert Moon,” which was accompanied by three different “gerbs,” or controlled sprays of sparks. The sparks ignited the soundproofing behind the drummer and erupted into flames. Seconds after the flames first erupted (approximately 11:07) the band stopped playing and lead singer Jack Russell uttered “This ain’t good” into the microphone. The band dashed offstage at the same time the club’s fire alarm started blasting. The majority of the audience stood in place, thinking that this display was part of the show. Seconds later, when black smoke started billowing throughout the club, chaos erupted. Even though three other exits were open and marked with lit signs, the majority of the crowd stampeded to toward the entrance doors.
(NOTE: Another sociological phenomenon—studies have shown that in times of panic, when quick egress is necessary, people tend to instinctively not look for alternate means of escape but instead automatically flee to the place from whence they entered.) One hundred people died as a result of this disaster, and many more sustained life-altering injuries.
The Aftermath: Fire officials noted after the fact that a sprinkler system would have probably spared many lives, so the previous “grandfather” clause was negated and all public facilities over a certain capacity were required to install automatic sprinkler systems. Likewise, the regulations regarding pyrotechnic displays were similarly tightened and more strictly enforced.
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People who have survived a fire have several things in common. Whenever they go to a movie theater, concert hall or club, they always make note of where all the exits are. If they notice a person sneaking a cigarette in a no smoking area, they alert someone in authority. We’ll add a few precautions to that list: wherever you live, make sure you and your family are aware of the escape routes in case of emergency. Forget about your possessions; get the humans out first. A throw rug or carpet is ideal for wrapping up an infant or child in order to carry him through smoke-filled rooms or corridors (or, if need be, to toss him from a window to rescuers below). Feel free to add any additional fire safety tips that we haven’t mentioned. Above all, we urge you to stay fire-conscious and safe not only in October, but during every month of the year!