High Death-Toll Tragedies: What Can and Should Be Learned

As the saying goes, "Man is the only animal that trips over the same stone twice," and if we look at the history of high death-toll tragedies during the last four decades, "man" has been tripping with nearly every other step. Since 1970, there have been at least 80 major fires around the world that have caused 20 or more fatalities, plus 14 deadly incidents in which fire was not involved. The great majority of these tragedies occurred in places where large numbers of persons congregated, often surpassing the established capacities. These incidents have occurred in places for a wide range of activities: industry and manufacturing, travel, commerce, entertainment, sports, residences, and places of worship, but by far the highest numbers were in nightclubs, discos, and similar establishments.

The latest tragedy occurred in late January 2013 in the "Kiss" discotheque in the southern Brazilian city of Santa María. At the time the fire apparently started, between 02:00 and 02:30 a.m. local time, it is estimated that between 1,200-1,300 young university students were crowded into a site that had a real capacity of just below 700. The death toll one week after the tragedy exceeded 245 and may even pass that figure, as several survivors were in critical condition in area hospitals. Among the factors that directly contributed to this disaster were:

  • Overcrowding to almost double the venue's rated capacity
  • Insufficient exits: the locale only had two and one of these was locked
  • The establishment lacked fire detection and alarm systems
  • The only portable extinguisher on site was found to be inoperative
  • Highly combustible decorative materials, and
  • Pyrotechnics used by the musicians during the show.

Apparently, a flare-like device lit-off by a musician ignited flammable acoustic foam in the ceiling. The fire spread very rapidly generating thick, dark smoke and great quantities of toxic gases which quickly asphyxiated dozens of victims. Many of the victims were found in bathrooms where they had apparently taken refuge or had mistaken them for exits. Some 150 were injured by the stampede into the main entry/exit, which soon became totally blocked by piled-up bodies. Burns injured several more people and two of these died several days later.

According to local fire service officials, two important factors were decisive in this tragedy. One was the fact that the principal exit door was locked impeding rapid and sure evacuation, and second, security guards apparently trapped victims inside. This tragedy is Brazil's second most deadly incident for an entertainment event, only surpassed by the Niterói circus fire in 1961 that took more than 500 lives.

Less than a week after the disco tragedy in Brazil, an explosion ripped through the central office building of Pemex, Mexico's principal petroleum company, killing at least 37 and wounding more than 120 others. Let's look again at the circumstances and conditions that contributed to this disaster, and where these same situations appear again and again in similar tragedies around the world.

  • Overcrowding and exceeding rated capacity
  • Control of ages of persons entering either lax or not performed
  • Insufficient number and/or dimensions of emergency exits
  • Lack of fire detection and alarm systems, or if they are installed, are inoperative
  • Inadequate or insufficient manual firefighting materials, i.e. portable fire extinguishers and fire hoses
  • Lack of automatic fire extinguishing systems
  • Combustible materials used in decoration and soundproofing
  • Lack of emergency action and evacuation plans
  • Insufficient or negligent inspections by authorities, i.e. fire and/or police
  • Lack of correct permits for buildings and their use, or expired permits
  • Unauthorized or distinct use
  • Excessive presence of alcohol and/or drugs
  • Permitted use of pyrotechnic devices, i.e. flares and similar items
  • Stampedes by desperate persons trying to escape
  • Political influence or pressure, or tolerance of misuse/infractions

Many of these and other factors have been present in a vast number of tragedies all over the world during the last four decades. Also, there have been 14 major, deadly incidents in which there were no fires involved. The following is a breakdown by activity or specific characteristics of some 30 major life-toll fires and the 14 other incidents (list includes type of incident, number of incidents, and number of deaths). Except for very specific exceptions, no industries, schools, hospitals or places of worship are included.

INCIDENTS IN WHICH FIRE WAS THE MAJOR CAUSE OF DEATHS

  • Nightclubs, dance halls, discos: 18, 1,780 deaths
  • Hotels: 7, 629 deaths
  • High-rise buildings, offices, and hotels: 7*, 485 deaths

 

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  • Shopping malls, department stores: 6, 1,314 deaths

 

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  • Theaters and movie houses: 4, 828 deaths
  • Subways: 3, 522 deaths
  • Road tunnels: 1, 43 deaths
  • Sports events: 1, 53 deaths
  • Amusement parks: 1, 51 deaths
  • Airport terminals: 1, 16 deaths
  • Mountain railway: 1, 156 deaths
  • Nursing homes: 1, 153 deaths

 

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  • Camping grounds: 1, 243 deaths
  • Area surrounding a military compound: 1, 1,000 deaths
  • Urbanized surroundings of a petrochemical operation. Plant: 1 **, 750 –1,500 deaths

* not including the 2,900 victims of the World Trade Center on 9/11

** 750 was the official count; on scene estimates exceeded 1,500

INCIDENTS IN WHICH THERE WERE NO FIRES

  • Sports events: 9 (all soccer stadiums), 1,041 deaths
  • Music festivals: 3 (one with 100,000 attendees), 24 deaths
  • Nightclubs and discos: 2, 23 deaths

In at least two of the fires and three of the non-fire incidents, either police or security personnel were partially responsible for many deaths, either for using firearms or other devices to intimidate people intent on exiting, or by closing and locking exit doors.

A more detailed listing of these tragedies is available as a PDF HERE.

One of the most significant factors contributing to the high numbers of fatalities, both in incidents with fire as well as those in which fire was not present, is panic. The vast majority of victims that suffered crush trauma were intending to get out and away from apparent danger. There were several of these tragedies in which had panic been controlled, the human losses may well have been considerably reduced.

PANIC -- A sudden overwhelming state of fear or anxiety, with or without cause, that affects individuals or an entire group and that can easily spread quickly through the group, producing hysterical or irrational behavior. The state of anxiety may often result in irrational attempts to escape from the proximity of the supposed cause of this altered state, provoking stampedes of persons.*

When panic takes hold of people in situations of extreme stress and anxiety, more often than not their reactions produce disastrous results. Some of these panic situations have been visually recorded in real time, for example the Heysel Stadium avalanche in Brussels, Belgium in 1985, and the Madrid Arena tragedy in Madrid, Spain in 2012.

Are there any solutions? What can be done to reduce or avoid these tragic losses in the future? While quite likely there are no absolute solutions to all of the contributing factors, many of these can, should and must be corrected, either by proprietors, event promoters, or public authorities.

  • Limiting and controlling public access to the established capacities.
  • Performing rigid access controls (screening for people's age, knapsack contents [which might possibly contain flares, alcohol, drugs, etc.])
  • Performing rigorous inspections to ensure that proper and adequate emergency exits exist and are totally accessible, that proper fire safety equipment and installations are in place and operative, and that emergency action plans are implemented and rehearsed.
  • Providing adequate training to personnel in emergency response actions, including incipient fire suppression and evacuation.
  • Ensuring that establishments comply with building codes, and that permits are up-to-date and that the establishments are used according to the permits
  • Strict control of building and decorative materials, and the requirement of non-combustible materials
  • Prohibiting the presence and use of pyrotechnic devices

Far too often during investigations of some of these disasters it has come to light that local authorities have proven to be tolerant and permissive in regards to enforcing codes, ordinances, or other legal restrictions and obligations. There are examples of authorities overlooking out-of date permits or even permitting promoters to contract and operate despite the fact that may be in irregular or even illegal situations due to debts, infractions, and even involvement in judicial actions.

Fortunately, following a number of these tragedies, many municipal and even national authorities revised their fire safety standards and regulations, creating and implementing new and far more stringent legislation, and reorganizing their inspection processes and compliance requirements.

Hundreds of the victims of these tragedies were teenagers and young adults. These are children of families like ours or our friends or relations. Those of us who serve in public emergency response entities; fire and rescue, and emergency medical service should look into where we can contribute to the reduction of these losses.

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