Writer: Sarah Block, Marketing Director at The Moran Group
If you were in Indianapolis and you were someone, you stayed at the Indianapolis Athletic Club. Frequented by Presidents, Olympians, and entertainers, this establishment was the epitome of excellence - that was, until February 5, 1992. A fire, sparked by a barroom mini-refrigerator, grew out of control and killed three people because of a perfect set of terrible circumstances.
Built in 1922, the Indianapolis Athletic Club was an elegant, private hotel and athletic club for the elite. It was 9 stories with 23 banquet rooms, 4 stairways, several lounges, and athletic facilities that included a basketball court, racquetball court, squash court, jogging track, swimming pool, and fitness center. Guests stayed on floors 5 through 8 and office and meeting rooms were on floor 9.
Because the building was built in 1922, it was exempt from many of the building and life (fire) safety codes of the time. After some investigation, the NFPA determined that had they met the life safety codes of the time, the fire would likely have been contained or extinguished at the point of origin. It was a mixed occupancy, and would have needed to meet chapters 8 & 17, Existing Assembly Occupancies and Existing Hotels and Dormitories.
The fire began on the third floor, where the McHale Room, Barroom, and Large Dining Room were located. The rooms were decorated with 3/16 inch paneling, wood trim, and had wood shelving. The space had wooden tables with wooden chairs and foam padded seats.
The building had some fire protection measures. Fire extinguishers were provided throughout the building. A wet standpipe systems and occupant hose cabinets with 1.5 inch valves. One of the hose cabinets was in a utility closet in the McHale Room. Lastly, the building had fire detection and alarm equipment including a manual pull box and audible alarm appliances. When the alarm was activated, it would alert the front desk, who would then contact the fire department. The alarm system did not have an automatic notification to the fire department or any way of telling where the fire was located.
A spark. That's all that was needed to start a fire that took the lives of two firefighters and a civilian. A spark caused by an electrical fault in a small refrigerator used to store and cool beer and soft drinks killed three people.
At 12:06am on February 5, 1992, the Indianapolis Fire Department received a 9-1-1 call from the desk clerk, alerting them to the fire. There is no saying when the fire initially started. Four engines, two truck companies, a rescue company, one district chief, and a shift commander were the first responders.
When Engine 7 (EG7) arrived, they reported seeing smoke and hearing the alarm from the lobby. The person manning the front desk told the arriving officers that the alarm panel said that the fire was coming from the basement. The crew split up, half in the basement and half to the second floor for good measure. The firefighters that went to the basement saw nothing. The firefighters that went to the second floor saw water coming from the ceiling and moved on to the third floor.
By 12:17am, firefighters spotted the fire. They said it was in a dumbwaiter on the third floor (what they actually saw was not a dumbwaiter, but Dutch doors going to the dining room). At this point, the smoke was light and they entered the room without breathing apparatuses. At 12:20am, firefighters found the fire in the bar at the refrigerator. The bar was fully engulfed by the time they found it. The crew went to the hose cabinet and attempted to disconnect the occupant hoseline and replace it with the fire department hose; however, it was stuck, so they added their hose to the occupant hose. At this point, 4 fire departments were on the third floor and the other departments were working on other things such as setting up the apparatus for aerial operations.
At 12:23am, the fire department hose disconnected from the occupant hose and the fire crew had to retreat. Once they reestablished their connection, they attempted to re-enter the bar area but it had spread to the McHale Room by this point. The men were able to fight it back to the barroom before two firefighters had to evacuate due to low oxygen levels.
At 12:27am, the district chief's aide noticed that heavy smoke had migrated to the Large Dining Room. A fire broke out less than a minute later. He reported the incident and noted that he and the other firefighters were trapped and would need to leave by aerial ladder.
The two men that were alerted to their low oxygen levels followed their hoseline through the McHale Room when a flashover occurred. The men lost each other. One of the men was found collapsed in the third floor corridor. The other firefighter fell down Stairway 1 and was found by another officer. An officer and a firefighter were working to help the collapsed firefighter in the third floor corridor when the flashover from the McHale Room spread to the corridor. The men became separated.
At 12:31am, the men requested a second alarm. The fire in the Large Dining Room dramatically increased. Two more engines arrived at the scene. At 12:52am, a firefighter from EG4 found one of the missing officers on the third floor by the elevators. He was resuscitated, but died on the way to the hospital. At 1:20am, the fire was reported under control, and at 1:30am, it was reported extinguished.
By 1:30am, three men's lives were lost. Two firefighters and one civilian died of smoke inhalation. Four civilians and four firefighters were injured. The NFPA assessed the situation and determined that these deaths could have been prevented. The loss of life was caused by a lack of approved automatic fire sprinklers, unprotected penetrations in wall and ceiling assemblies, concealed spaces, and combustible interior décor.
The Barroom, McHale Room, and Large Dining Room were gutted by the fire.
According to the NFPA, the most common deficiencies in existing buildings that underwent a modification were penetration of fire barriers, introduction of combustible interior finishes, and creation of both combustible and non-combustible concealed spaces that can trap fire gases. All of these deficiencies were found at the Indianapolis Athletic Club.
Many times, properties choose to meet the minimum fire protection requirement. If a building was built before a certain year, depending on the state, they are frequently exempt from meeting modern fire sprinkler requirements. In the unfortunate event of a deadly fire, it is usually proven too late that if the building was brought to modern code, no loss of life and minimal damage would have occurred. Our series of "Fires in History" is meant to serve as an example and show the importance of going above and beyond on fire protection minimal requirements.