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By learning about our nation’s history of tragic fires, you can best understand the fire safety regulations of today. These notorious fires from U.S. history taught fire protection professionals valuable lessons, and continue to shape the way we in the Fire Prevention Services office work to create a safe environment for the university community.
Iroquois Theatre Fire
December 30, 1903
The Iroquois Theatre Fire occurred during a musical matinee in Chicago, Illinois, in 1903. The play’s scenery consisted of many canvas backdrops decorated in highly flammable oil paints, and when a hot stage light ignited a velvet curtain the backdrops soon went up in flames. This eventually caused the deaths of 602 people, making this the most fatal single-building fire in U.S. history.
Although the lighting and scenery fire hazards started the fire, the high number of fatalities resulted from the theatre’s failure to take proper fire safety precautions. There were no automatic fire sprinklers for the stage, and the stage’s fire curtain did not close properly to contain the fire. In addition, there was no emergency lighting, the stage’s smoke and heat vents were not functional, and many exit doors were either locked or did not swing in the direction of travel.
New London School Explosion
March 18, 1937
The New London School Explosion took place in 1937 in New London, Texas, as the result of an undetected natural gas leak. The gas accumulated in a crawl space under the school and filtered through the building until it made contact with an electrical source, igniting an explosion that collapsed the structure. Estimated fatalities range from 296-319, making it the worst school disaster in U.S. history.
Natural gas is difficult to detect because it is invisible and odorless, but, had the leak been discovered soon after it began, the explosion could have been prevented. For this reason, Texas mandated adding mercaptans to natural gas to make it odorous, and make leaks detectable. This soon became standard practice worldwide.
Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire
November 28, 1942
The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire occurred in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942. The nightclub’s walls and ceilings were covered in paper palm tree decorations that caught on fire when someone lit a match, causing panic among the approximately 1,000 occupants. That night the club was filled to more than twice its 460 person capacity and 492 people died, making it the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.
The building did not have an automatic fire sprinkler system, so the fire quickly spread through the numerous combustible decorations and through the unenclosed stairway connecting the basement and ground floor. Escape was extremely difficult because the exit doors did not swing in the direction of traffic, many doors and windows were sealed shut, and the primary exit was a revolving door.
Hartford Circus Fire
July 6, 1944
The Hartford Circus Fire took place during a Ringling Brothers’ Barnum and Bailey Circus performance in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1944. The tent was coated with a mix of paraffin and gasoline (some sources say kerosene), which was a common waterproofing method of the time, and when a side wall of the tent caught on fire this combination caused the flames to spread rapidly. More than 100 of the 168 people killed were younger than 15.
The fast spread of the fire caused the tent to collapse, trapping circus spectators beneath the burning debris. Of the inadequate number of exits, many were blocked, and this, along with the overcrowding of the tent, made escape difficult.
Winecoff Hotel Fire
December 7, 1946
The Winecoff Hotel Fire occurred in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1946. After beginning early in the morning, the fire quickly spread through the building, trapping people in the upper floors, and causing many to jump out of windows to their deaths. There were 119 fatalities, making this the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history.
Escape from the upper floors was difficult because the building only had one exit stairway, which became impassable during the early stages of the fire. The fire spread quickly through that stairwell because many of its doors had been propped open, and there was no fire sprinkler system to stifle the flames throughout the building. In addition, the building did not have a fire alarm to notify people of the emergency as soon as the flames began.
Our Lady of the Angels School Fire
December 1, 1958
The Our Lady of the Angels School Fire occurred at a private catholic school in Chicago, Illinois, in 1958. A fire began in a cardboard trashcan in a basement stairwell, and the wooden staircase went up in flames, spreading the fire throughout the second floor and into the attic, and blocking the escape route on the second floor. The Chicago Fire Department rescued 160 children who were trapped on the second floor, but 92 schoolchildren and three teachers died.
The fire spread so quickly because the exit corridors had combustible walls and ceilings, and there was no automatic fire sprinkler system to stop the flames. In addition, there was no automatic fire alarm, the exit stairway was unenclosed, and the Chicago Fire Department was not notified of the fire immediately.
MGM Grand Hotel Fire
November 21, 1980
The MGM Grand Hotel Fire took place in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1980. It began with an electrical fire that spread through the building’s 26 stories, fed by PVC piping, wallpaper, and plastic mirrors. These burning materials created smoke and toxic fumes that contributed to the majority of the 87 fatalities and 700 injuries.
There was no automatic fire sprinkler system in the casino portion of the building, which had those hazardous wall and ceiling finishes, and the hotel section of the building contained many unprotected vertical shafts. There were also openings that allowed smoke to enter and fill exit stairwells, and doors locked people out of the building once they exited into these stairwells.
Station Nightclub Fire
February 20, 2003
The Station Nightclub Fire occurred in West Warwick, Rhode Island, in 2003. The fire began when the tour manager of Great White, the headlining band, set off pyrotechnics that spread through the soundproofing foam at the back of the stage. The flames quickly moved to the ceiling, creating billows of smoke and a panicked race for the front door. There was no automatic fire sprinkler system to put out the flames, and of the 404 nightclub occupants, 100 were killed and 200 were injured.
The club did not have an automatic fire sprinkler system to extinguish the fire, and most of the victims died at the primary entrance where the rush of frantic spectators created a logjam at the front door. Although the club was at capacity, it was not overcrowded, so failed escape attempts were not a result of the overcrowding of the nightclub. Instead, they resulted from the fact that people neglected to use exit routes other than the front door. For this reason, Campus Safety and Security and FPS have teamed with the Student Government, Texas State Fire Marshal’s office, and Lower Colorado River Authority in the Have an Exit Strategy campaign, to heighten awareness among nightclub and party goers that, “The best way out may not the be way in.”