Writer: Sarah Block, Marketing Director at The Moran Group
On October 10, 1996, an electrical fire ignited at 30 Rockefeller Plaza at 4am, surprising an early morning television show taping and causing the cancellation of several shows.
At 3:59am, a civilian called 9-1-1 after seeing smoke billowing from a window on the fifth floor. Fire crews arrived, and came straight to the security station at the front desk. The arriving firefighters asked question after question, wondering where the fire was, how it started, what was the building layout. However, security crews had no idea that a fire had ignited in the building. No alarms went off. No one evacuated. No smoky tendrils drifted to the first floor.
The complex was made up of three buildings: one, a seventy-story structure; two, a sixteen-story structure; and three, an eleven-story structure. The buildings were solidly built with masonry exterior, concrete interior structure, and terra cotta tiles inside. The complex was classified as a mixed-occupancy with high-rise provisions, according to NFPA 101.
The fire started in the fifth floor electrical room, and moved through to five different electrical rooms. Because of the need for more and more electricity in a building with this type of unique need, the electrical cabling continued to be added and added without removing old cabling. It was squeezed tightly, leaving no clearance between cables or the I-beam. The burning cables burned through the electrical insulation and this caused a large flow of current to surge through to other electrical rooms, catching five different rooms on fire.
The fire took four hours to control due to several hindrances. Renovations were taking place during this fire and electricity was cut off to the fifth floor. This cut off the smoke and fire alarms on that floor as well. They never went off. The odd layout of the complex also made fighting this fire difficult. First responders reported that the building's security were little to no help with reporting the layout of the building. The smoke and multiple fires also led to a difficult fight.
Luckily, the building had very few people inside because of the hour. All occupants were able to evacuate safely.
NFPA and fire crews investigated this fire and found that the fire ignited and spread because of poor decisions. There was inadequate circuit protection, lack of adequate space for electrical conductors, unprotected vertical and horizontal penetrations, no fire sprinklers on upper floors (where fire occurred), lack of smoke detection in area of fire (turned off), confusing building layout, fire alarm failure, and multiple points of origin. If the electrical system was thought out more clearly, this fire wouldn't have started and it certainly wouldn't have caused five separate fires.
In the end, twelve firefighters were injured, five civilians were injured, and the property damage was in the millions from smoke, water, and electrical damage.
After a fire, the building owner's goal is to get occupants back into their building as fast as possible. A major television network was forced to relocate to New Jersey for a period of time while the building got the electricity back in order and renovated. In trying to do this quickly, cabling was run through holes made into fire barriers. If another fire were to occur, this would negate the barrier and allow the fire to spread. In addition, while the electricity was being fixed, unattended candles were being used, and stairways were propped open. It appears no lesson was learned.