Deadliest Hospital Fire in U.S. History

Deadliest Hospital Fire in U.S. History

On May 15, 1929 a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire, killing 125 people. Between 11am and 12pm, the busiest part of the day, the fire began with 250 patients and staff in the building at the time. This clinic was an outpatient facility, performing examinations, diagnosis, or minor operations. Due to the nature of an outpatient facility, the majority of people present at the time of the fire were not regularly in the building, so they were unaware of exits or fire safety equipment. It can be assumed that patients were only aware of the main stairways and exits, which is where most lost their lives. This incident brought to light the importance of fire sprinklers in x-ray departments.

The Scene

The Cleveland Clinic was made up by offices, library, examination/treatment rooms, laboratories, pharmacy, small surgeries room, art department, and x-ray department. It was in the x-ray department where the fire ignited. According to reports, the facility was very well maintained. The x-ray department was blocked off by an approved class A fire door; electricity and heating was well maintained, save an ill-placed incandescent lamp in the film room; and the cleanliness was above par. However, a series of events led to the deadliest healthcare fire in U.S. history.

The Event

A leak was discovered in the high pressure steam line within the film room. It shot three feet of steam directly into the film. This leak was quickly found and a steam fitter was called. The steam fitter quickly arrived, removed 14 inches of the insulation, shut of the steam, and drained the line. He left to allow the pipe to cool and returned at 11am when he discovered a cloud of yellow smoke in the film room. He sprung into action, grabbing the extinguisher and spraying the general area of the smoke. However, the fumes were too much and he passed out. A few minutes later he awoke to a small explosion and rushed to the maintenance man. Together they left the building through a window. The most widely accepted source of the fire was the ill-place incandescent lamp heating the film, causing a gaseous explosion.

The Result

The fire department began working to extinguish the fire on the west and rear side before reaching the east where over a hundred people were clamoring to get out of the windows. An attempt was made to go inside the building for rescue, but the gases were too strong. A fire fighter prepared for rescue, extending his ladder to the east windows when an explosion erupted, blasting off the skylights and several windows. The explosion ignited fires throughout the facility. When the skylight blew, it transferred the gas outside, and even more people ran to the windows for air. This is the first time anyone realized how many people were trapped inside the building. Within 90 minutes from the initial ignition, everyone alive was out of the building. Rescuers discovered masses of people dead or dying piled on top of each other in the stair landings, mostly on the third floor.

The cause of death and destruction was not the fire itself, it was the gas that was created from it. The burning of the film created a composition with 30% carbon monoxide, suffocating its victims. The NFPA concluded that the use of fire sprinklers in the film room would have prevented this tragedy. Water will absorb a large number of the nitrous fumes and will cool the other gases to the point of extinguishment. During the time of this event, carbon monoxide detectors were not available, but if this event happened today in a building up to fire safety code, it is likely that no deaths would have occurred. Learn more about alarm and sprinklers here.