New York had three major fires that shaped the cities history and building codes. Learn more about New York’s little known three great fires.
What does the ancient city of Pompeii and a small lumber town in Wisconsin have in common?
Warning Signs. Time to evacuate. Fast moving disaster.
Read our fire in history feature on the Peshtigo, WI fire and learn how this small town is reminiscent of the 79AD tourist town of Pompeii.
On Sunday, October 8, 1871 - the same day as the Great Chicago Fire - a control burn was taking place in Peshtigo, WI. At the time, Peshtigo was a logging town near Green Bay with a small population of less than 1,200 people.
A terrible drought was plaguing the Midwest the entire summer and into the fall in 1871. The day of the fire, winds were high with an incoming storm. While the rain was much needed, the wind was the catalyst in this disaster.
When the winds (110 MPH) came in, the control burn was no longer being controlled. It immediately swept through the town of wood buildings, forest, and wooden sidewalks. Witnesses were recorded as saying that when the fire swept through, it sounded like a train.
The fire traveled through the forest, burning 1.5 million acres of land through Wisconsin and Michigan. It became the worst forest fire in North American history.
The fire became a fire whirl (fire tornado), throwing rail cars and houses into the air.
While Peshtigo wasn't the only town affected by the fire, it was the only one that was nearly destroyed.
Reverend Peter Pernin recounted that during the fire the survivors flocked to the bodies of water nearby. Pernin waded in a river all night with several other people.
"The flames darted over the river as they did over land. The air was full of [flames], or, rather, the air itself was on fire. Our heads were in continual danger. It was only by throwing water constantly over them and our faces, and beating the river with our hands that we kept the flames at bay. Not far from me, a woman was supporting herself in the water with a log. After a time, a cow swam past. There was more than a dozen animals in the river, impelled by instinct, and they succeeded in saving their lives. The [cow] overturned the log to which the woman was clinging and she disappeared into the water. I thought her lost, but soon saw her emerge from [the river] holding on with one hand to the horns of the cow, and throwing water on herself with the other [hand]."
The next morning, the townspeople emerged from the river, looking like zombies, searching for family.
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In the end, the fire killed between 1,500 and 2,500 people through Wisconsin and Michigan. However, 1,000 of the victims were from Peshtigo, which was hit the worst.
The fire overtook the town and the only means of communication available - a telegraph line. No one could communicate. The town had no fire crews, only a single horse-drawn fire cart. No one knew of the fire for days. Once the media learned of the fire, doctors started to come to the town to treat survivors.
This fire was a true tragedy in the town. Families were found bound together by the fire. A single tavern had 200 victims in it. Some people couldn't take the thought of dying by fire and took action for themselves and their family. Most of the people who flocked to the river, other bodies of water, and wells survived, but some died from hypothermia or drowning. There were so many dead in Peshtigo that 350 people were buried in a mass grave because no one was alive to identify them.
The fire concluded when it reached the waters of Green Bay. At that time, the winds died down and rain started to fall, ending the fire.
At the same time as the Peshtigo fire, other fires were destroying towns. The Great Chicago fire and a fire in Door Peninsula happened on the same day. The theory is that the drought, several control burns taking place, and high winds caused all of the fires.
This fire was one of the worst in American history, yet, not too many people know about it. The Great Chicago Fire took over the media, even though the death toll was 350 versus 1,500-2,500.
Writer's note: As I researched the Peshtigo fire, it reminded me of Pompeii. Like Pompeii, the people of Peshtigo had signs that they should evacuate. Peshtigo looked like it had snowed with ash for days before the fire grew out of control. In Pompeii, the skies grew dark from the eruption and ash fell throughout the town, but it took a full day for the disaster to hit, giving citizens time to evacuate. Just like Peshtigo's 110MPH wind storm causing the disaster, Pompeii had a 100MPH surge of superheated poison gas and pulverized rock. Like the Peshtigo fire, the Mount Vesuvius volcano swallowed everything in its path - people and buildings alike.
What fire in history interests you most? Maybe we'll feature it on our next Fire in History blog. Comment below.
On July 22, 1913, the 110-125 women working in the Binghamton Clothing Company, a former cigar company in Bingham, NY, were sweating through their clothes. It was a hot day, and windows were propped open throughout the factory. The cross-breeze was making the unbearable heat a little more livable.
Lunch time came and went, and it kept getting hotter in the factory. Young women were sneaking into the breezy stairwell for a smoke and some reprieve from the heat. It just kept getting hotter. Around 1pm, a worker noticed it was much hotter inside than outside. An hour later, she noticed smoke rising up from the stairwell.
At lunch, an employee was smoking in the stairwell, and dropped it down to the second floor landing. The landing was full of flammable, plush material. The fuel, along with the ventilation from the windows, and the ignition source (the cigarette) caused a massive fire that spread quickly.
At 2:30pm, Reed Freeman, the owner of the building, raised the alarm and began pouring buckets of water on the fire. However, most of the women sat. They didn’t move from their machines. Why? The fire drills the women had been doing used a gradual alarm that changed for every stage of the fire drill, but this alarm was continuous. Because it wasn’t recognizable, it went ignored by many.
Nellie Connor, who was known as the “mother” of the workers, helped guide women out of the building. She worked for the company for 31 years. She went back in to help more, but the building collapsed within 20 minutes of the alarm sounding.
Sidney Dimmock, a 15-year foreman at the company, carried two women out of the building and went in for more. He was also inside the building when it collapsed.
Fire crews in Bingham were at another fire when they got the call for the factory fire. By the time they arrived, the fire was out of control. They couldn’t enter the building or attempt rescue. They attempted to keep the fire away from the other buildings, but the water pressure was too low due to drought.
By 4pm, the property was destroyed and thirty-one women died.
After the fire, witnesses took the stand to determine who was at fault for the tragedy. The owner said that materials were always picked up and put away at night. By code, flammable waste needed to be put in fireproof receptacles and removed 2+ times a day. However, a witness said that flammable materials, cuttings, and rubbish were all over the floor.
The staircase was not fireproof and acted like a chimney, shooting smoke and fire into the air. At the time of the fire, the State Factory Investigating Commission drafted a bill to make staircases fireproof, but it hadn’t been voted on yet.
This fire in combination with other major fires of the time led to three code changes in Building Exit Code (NFPA 101-T) 1927.
1. Changes in construction for stairways and fire escapes.
2. Code for fire drills in various occupancies.
3. Construction and arrangements for exits in factories.
The reports were adopted by NFPA and published as “Outside Stairs for Fire Exits” in 1916 and “Safeguarding Factory Workers from Fire” in 1918.
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Written By: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
The worst disaster in pre-atom bomb history may have been an event you never heard of: The Halifax Explosion of 1917. Why haven't you heard of it? While it wasn't war-related, it took place during WWI and got lost in the madness of the time and slipped from history. Despite the event being shrouded in a mass of violence and devastation, this event alone killed 1,800 people, injured 9,000, blinded 200, and destroyed a city.
On December 6, 1917, the Mont-Blanc was sailing to France from Canada carrying munitions in support of WWI. The ship was carrying 2,300 tons of pictric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of high-octane gasoline, and 10 tons of gun cotton. Needless to say, the ship owners were nervous. Usually, ships carrying munitions added other cargo so the ship wasn't completely filled with explosive cargo; however, it was a desperate time. They couldn't sail with a red flag, for fear of submarines taking the ship down, so it was very incognito. No one other than the crew knew what the ship was holding.
The ship owners took great precautions because of this. A few weeks prior, the owner had wood added as a lining with copper nails to prevent sparks. Wooden partitions were added to separate the cargo. The crew was banned from smoking, carrying matches, or having liquor on the boat.
None of that mattered when the ship called Imo came along. Imo was running behind and quickly turned into the Narrows that the Mont-Blanc was occupying. The captain of the Mont-Blanc saw the Imo coming and blew the whistle once, indicating that the Mont-Blanc had the channel and the Imo should go another way. The Imo captain blew his whistle twice, which indicated that he would continue his course. If something didn't change, the boats would barrel into each other.
At the last minute, both ships tried to veer away from each other, but the Imo, ultimately, struck the Mont-Blanc, cascading sparks along the deck. It wasn't a bad crash by any means, but it did spark what came next.
Almost as soon as the Imo hit the Mont-Blanc, the spray of sparks ignited fuel that was being transported on the deck. The fire drew a crowd at the harbor, just off the bustling business district in Nova Scotia. They watched as the ship burned. Soon, barrels ignited and exploded, shooting into the air and raining shrapnel down on the crowd.
The captain of the Mont-Blanc had to think quickly. He ordered the crew to abandon ship. They did and tried to warn the crowd. However, they were speaking French and the crowd spoke English. No one understood their warning. The crew gave up and, knowing what could happen, hid in the woods.
A local general store owner called the fire department, which arrived at the scene just in time for the explosion. At 9:05am, the heat from the fire ignited the fuel on the ship and a massive explosion blew the ship to pieces. The explosion caused an immediate shock wave that produced over 5,000C of heat and was equivalent to 2,989 tons of TNT. It travelled at 1,500 meters per second. The heat and pressure pushed a fireball of hot gases and debris everywhere. The explosion had such pressure it started a tidal wave 16 meters high that ran through 3 city blocks. Immediately, 1,600 people were killed. More were to join.
The shrapnel from the explosion rained on the community. It killed, maimed, and injured people who were gathered in the area. While approximately 200 died of their wounds later, 1,600 were killed that day. Another 9,000 were injured. Ships and buildings were reduced to rubble. The entire area of Richmond was destroyed. The city needed to be completely rebuilt.
Almost immediately, the citizens of Richmond were calling for answers. Who was to blame for this devastation? The case went in front of a judge no less than four times. The first time, the Mont-Blanc was determined to be solely responsible due to "violations of the rules of navigation." The Mont-Blanc disagreed and appealed. In the second case, they had the same judge and lost again. The Mont-Blanc appealed again. This time, five judges were present: two determined it was the fault of Mont-Blanc; two determined it was the fault of the Imo; and one said both ships were at fault. The Mont-Blanc appealed one more time. In the final court case, it was determined both ships were at fault and equally to blame because of "violations of the rules of navigation" and "gross negligence."
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Written By: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
On July 6, 1944, a carelessly flicked cigarette incinerated 167-169 people in a matter of 8 minutes on a lovely day at the circus. A combination of low staffing, due to World War II, unsafe waterproofing, hastily thrown together circus grounds, and one cigarette caused the worst fire disaster in Connecticut’s history.
Only a few days after Independence Day, wives, with their husbands off at war, and their children came in hoards to the circus grounds in
Hartford, CT. It was a hot day with light summer clothing draped on the sweaty guests. The circus was especially busy that day. They had arrived the day before, late from being understaffed due to the war (1,300 employees were working the circus instead of their standard 1,600), and had missed their first show of the day – a circus superstition of bad luck. The crowd grew to 7,000 in the biggest big top at that time - Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. The big top had a capacity of 9,000 people! This large big top was covered with 1,800 pounds of paraffin wax and 6,000 gallons of gasoline to waterproof it.
Ringmaster Fred Bradna was just exiting the big cats from the stage, about to bring on the Flying Wallendas (tightrope walkers), when the band was directed by the band leader Marle Evans to play “The Stars and Stripes Forever” – a song that was code for distress. A fire had ignited close to the band, and only Evans noticed. Bradna immediately got on his mic, urging the audience to be calm, but the power went out and no one heard him. The crowd began a mad dash for the exits.
A small fire simmered in the corner near the band, going unnoticed for a small time. That is, until Marle Evans noticed the fire and began playing the song of distress, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It quickly grew to two feet high and then more and more until it reached the ceiling of the Big Top. Once it reached the ceiling, BOOM, the fire shot across the entire ceiling. The paraffin wax and gasoline took the fire and ran with it.
It didn’t take long for strips of burning canvas to rain down on the fleeing patrons. The fiery canvas charred the light, summery fabrics and burned its victims. This fire was one of the few that had more deaths from burning than suffocation/smoke inhalation.
The definitive cause of the fire was never determined, but a carelessly discarded cigarette is the favorite theory. Another possibility is arson.
Within eight minutes, somewhere between 167-169 people died and over 700 were injured. Many of the dead had already escaped, but fought their way back into the tent to look for loved ones. Others died from being trampled because two exits were blocked with the big cat chutes and they couldn’t escape. While other patrons, throwing chairs out of their path, blocked victims from their escape. Those that fell during the trampling, but did not die from being crushed, were suffocated under the piles of people. While a few lucky ones survived because the bodies on top of them blocked the flames from reaching them. Other patrons that were high in the bleachers died from jumping 9-12 feet to try and go underneath the side of the tent.
For the next few weeks, Hartford was a town of funerals. Every fifteen minutes a funeral would take place.
Following the initial investigation, five top Ringing Brothers Barnum and Bailey employees were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Within a
few days, the circus settled and agreed to pay the full financial responsibility. The circus ended up paying out $5 million to the 600 victims and victims’ families. All circus profits between 1944 and 1954 were set aside for the victims.
Four of the five employees charged were convicted and sentenced to prison. However, they were allowed to continue with the circus until they were able to help set up the business post-disaster. By the time they finished helping the circus set up, the men were pardoned. In fact, one of the pardoned men went on to represent in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next 24 years.
The fire also spurred major changes in code. Following the fire, circuses and commercial tents needed fire departments on standby for all performances with hose lines charged, a dedicated fire watch during all performances, aisles need to be free of seating, the big top needed to have flame retardant treatment, and tents needed to adhere to NFPA 102: Standards for Grandstands, Folding, and Telescopic Seating, Tents, and Membrane Structures. Many circuses moved to arenas. Because of these strict standards, there has not been a tent fire in the United States since that day.
This event was horrific for not only Hartford, but the entire country. It spurred much needed code changes for commercial tents and temporary structures that had little regulation. These changes, inspired by the fire, have saved an innumerable amount of people. There has not been a tent fire in the United States since that day.
- Hartford had won a fire safety award only weeks before this fire.
- There were twenty 2.5-3 gallon fire extinguishers and 30 small fire extinguishers as well as a fire truck at the circus that day, but with the haste of set-up, the extinguishers and truck were not available for use.
- The building code required 22-inch units of exit space for every 100 people, but the tent had only 43 units when 91 units were required.
- The band continued to play until the last pole fell, crashing the tent down (but, unlike the Titanic, this band was able to escape through a side exit).
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Written by: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
It was bitterly cold on December 30, 1903 in Chicago. Mothers and their children were occupying their time with the theater on their winter break, and the biggest show was "Mr. Blue Beard" at the Iroquois Theater. The show was so packed that with only 1,600 seats, the theater packed in an estimated 2,100-2,300 people with standing room only seats. An additional 400 people were backstage, creating a packed house for the matinee show.
Soon after act two was set to begin, those that survived the next fifteen minutes were outside in fifteen degree weather searching for their loved ones among hundreds of corpses stacked in an alley.
Mr. Blue Beard was playing at the newly opened Iroquois Theater. It opened for the first time just five weeks earlier, boasting a "fireproof theater" in advertisements. Architect Benjamin H. Marshall wanted to make a fireproof building. He studied a number of fires, noting what went wrong. He tried to make every provision possible. He had 25 exits added, so the theater could be evacuated in 5 minutes. He added an asbestos curtain to block a stage fire from the audience. Yet, with the rush to open before the holidays, many building elements that would have made it virtually fireproof were still being added or were cut short.
The theater was the best in the country. Marble, plate glass, mahogany, and gilding adorned the interior with 60-foot ceilings in the foyer. The theater was widely considered the most efficient, convenient, and safe of the time - that is, until the investigation turned up some unsavory behavior.
Days before the theater opened, Fireproof Magazine toured the theater and noted the "absence of an intake, or stage draft shaft; the exposed reinforcement of the arch; the presence of wood trim on everything and the inadequate provision exits." The fire inspector was warned about these inadequacies, but ignored them.
"Mr. Blue Beard" was starting its second act when the wiring in a light sparked and caught some gauzy drapery on fire. In the theater in the early 1900s, fires were common. The stagehands grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to extinguish it themselves without thinking much about it. However, the fire extinguisher was a "kilfyre" extinguisher, used for chimney fires at residences - not enormous theaters. Kilfyre extinguishers worked by "forcibly hurling" the contents within the extinguisher onto the fire. It was inadequate, unable to reach the fire that was near the ceiling, and the fire continued to spread.
Within a few minutes, the audience could see the fire. Someone shouted "fire!" in an overcrowded theater, which caused mass panic. "Shouting fire in a crowded theater" is a common phrase used as a synonym for saying something that could cause mass panic. In fact, in 1913 someone falsely shouted fire in an Italian hall and caused a mass panic that killed 73 people. In 1902. Over 100 people died at the Shiloh Baptist Church when someone misheard the word "fight" for "fire" and a mass panic caused a stampede. Shouting fire at the Iroquois Theater had the same effect.
Within a few minutes the fire had grown so big only a fire hose or fire sprinklers could extinguish it. However, there were no fire sprinklers or fire alarm boxes. The automatic ventilators were never completed, so smoke was filling the auditorium. There also was no escape. The exit signs were turned off so guests wouldn't be distracted and the doors were locked to avoid crashers. The only fire protection in the theater at the time was an asbestos curtain that was meant to block the fire from reaching the audience. An actor in the show, Eddie Foy, shouted for the curtain to be let down; however, it got stuck on some wiring for a flying scene coming up in the second act. The curtain came down to a few feet before the floor, partially blocking the audience. However, as it turned out, the asbestos curtain wasn't fireproof. It was made of cotton and other combustible materials and went up in flames with everything else.
Within eight minutes, two explosions occurred and nearly 3,000 people tried to make their way through locked doors and unfinished fire escapes. Hundreds of people tried to escape through a fire escape that led to a hundred foot drop into an alley. Painters at Northwestern University's new dentistry school saw what was happening and rigged together a ladder and a few wooden planks to try and help people cross into the next building. About twelve people were saved by traveling across the makeshift bridge. An unknown number of people fell to their deaths while attempting to cross the bridge. Hundreds of corpses were piled in that alley later on, so an official count of deaths from falling was never known.
Because of the lack of a fire alarm box, a stagehand who escaped needed to run around the block to a pull box and alert firefighters to the fire. When firefighters arrived, it appeared nothing was wrong. It took fifteen minutes for smoke to be seen from the street. The firefighter tried to open the theater door and finally found what was wrong. Piles of bodies were jamming the door closed. Firefighters used a pike pole to pry bodies from the door, so they could open it.
It only took about fifteen minutes for firefighters to extinguish the fire, but it took five hours to carry the dead out. By the end of the fire, 572 people died in the fire with 212 being children. Following the fire, the death toll went to 602 from people who succumbed to injuries.
The next day, newspapers dedicated pages to name the known dead after medical examiners spent the entire night trying to identify them. Mayor Carter Harrison Jr banned all New Year's Eve celebrations and closed night clubs for the night. On January 2, 1904, the mayor instituted an official day of mourning.
An investigation followed the tragedy, and what was found was astounding.
• Two roof vents that were supposed to be added to filter out smoke and gas were nailed shut to keep out snow and water. Anyone who didn't die from the fire would die from suffocation.
• Management bolted the doors shut to keep non-paying customers out. This trapped all of their patrons inside the burning building.
• The asbestos curtain was mostly made of cotton and other combustibles.
• The 25 exit doors only opened in, so when people fell in front of the doors, the doors became jammed.
• The patrons in the balcony seats were locked in so they couldn't sneak into better seats.
• The fire escape was never finished and went to nowhere.
• The fire alarm box was never installed.
• The exit signs were turned off during the show.
• The fire inspectors took bribes in the form of theater tickets to overlook code violations.
With 602 dead Chicagoans, the city was in an uproar and wanted someone to pay. Throughout the next few years, several people were charged with crimes - including the mayor. However, all were dismissed based on technicalities except for one pub owner who was convicted of grave robbing.
This fire inspired several new regulations and one invention.
• Exit signs must always be on.
• Exit doors must push open, not pull in.
• Inventor, Carl Prinzler, was supposed to be in the audience that day, but couldn't go to the show. He was haunted by the tragedy and decided to do something about it. He worked with Henry DuPont to create a mechanism that would allow a door to open in an emergency, even if it's locked. That mechanism is called the panic bar, and is still used today.
The Iroquois Theater fire has shaped not only Chicago, but the entire theater industry. One traveling stagehand said, "I've taken several shows in Chicago venues. I've always been impressed with the attention that the local crews pay to fire safety, in all the venues in that city. A few years ago I took a big show into the Ford Center, which I did not realize was standing on the footprint of the Iroquois [Theater]. One of the local stagehands gave me this book which kept me up all night reading it. I used to wonder why in Chicago, before the house opens to the public, all the ushers go to their assigned exit, open the door, and practice yelling, "This way out!" After reading this book, I now wonder why that only happens in Chicago."
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When a 32-story high-rise in the center of the financial district quickly turned into a towering inferno, it showed just how important fire protection truly is. As it so happened, that building was undergoing an extensive fire protection renovation that had not yet been completed. The fire caused $72 million in damage to the building. Fire sprinklers reduce property damage by 70% on average and extinguish the fire in less than half the time it takes for fire crews to arrive in many cases. So, if the fire protection had been completed, it is fair to say the outcome would likely have been different.
In 1979, the eighth tallest skyscraper was built in Madrid, Spain within the financial center of the city. The Windsor Tower boasted 106 meters and 32 floors. At the time it was built, fire protection measures were lacking, so, to meet new building code, the Windsor was undergoing fire protection upgrades on February 12, 2005, when a fire detected on the 21st floor destroyed the building.
The 32-story concrete building with reinforced concrete core had a two-way spanning 280 MM waffle slab supported by the concrete core, internal RC columns with additional 360 MM deep steel I-beams, and steel perimeter columns. Floor by floor, fire protection was being added to the building, starting at the bottom floor. The three year project included fire protection to the perimeter steel columns using a boarding system, fire protection to the internal steel beams using a spray protection, a sprinkler system, and a new aluminum cladding system. At the time of the fire, the fire protection for all floors below the seventeenth were close to complete, except floors 9 and 15. The gaps between the cladding and the floor slabs had to be sealed with fireproof materials still. In addition, the fire stopping to voids and fire doors to vertical shafts were not fully installed and the fire sprinklers were just beginning to be installed.
The building was adopting an open floor plan concept, so fire compartmentation could only be done floor by floor. Vertical compartmentation couldn’t fully be achieved because of the lack of firestop systems in floor openings and between the original cladding and floor slabs.
The fire started on the 21st floor of the Windsor Tower at midnight. It spread quickly, first driving up to the 32ndfloor and then traveling down to the 2nd floor – all within 1 hour. With no fire stops yet installed, the fire easily devoured the building.
Firefighters arrived soon after midnight. It took 24 hours to extinguish the blaze. This fire was named the worst fire in Madrid’s history.
The fire was originally thought to have been started from an electrical short-circuit; however, police discovered that a door was forced open. Additionally, amateur video footage shows what appears to be people moving throughout the eighth floor, below the fire. Other video footage shows lights inside the building, after it was thought that the lights went out. It is still unclear what the true cause of the fire was.
It took 24 hours to completely extinguish the fire. The fire caused $72 million (pre-renovation) in damages.
Following the fire, it was determined that the following factors lead to the rapid growth of the fire:
· Lack of effective firefighting measures, such as automatic fire sprinklers.
· Open floor plan.
· Failure of vertical compartmentation measures in the façade system and floor openings.
· The fire protection on the existing steelworks below the 17th floor had been completed, except for the 9th and 15th floors. When the fire moved to the unprotected floors, the columns buckled, but did not cause a collapse.
The Windsor Tower fire acts as an excellent example of why high-rise fire protection is an absolute necessity. If the fire protection was completely installed at the time of the fire, it is likely that the fire would have been contained to the floor of origin, greatly reducing the amount of damage to the building.
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Written by: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
The sparks of aluminum wiring in the walls could have been smoldering for hours by the time the smoke lingered along the ceiling line. It only took the introduction of some oxygen into the room to create a ball of fire shooting through the large entertainment venue, killing 165 people.
It was a packed house at the Beverly Hills Supper Club on May 28, 1977 in Soulgate, KY. A wedding was going on in the Zebra rooms, the bars were full, and the Cabaret Room was past full capacity for all those waiting to see Jim Teter and Jim McDonald. There were between 900 and 1,300 people in the Cabaret Room alone and about 3,000 in the entire Beverly Hills Supper Club. According to Kentucky Building Code, only 1,500 patrons should have been in the entire building.
The Beverly Hills Supper Club was a split level with dining rooms, 18 private party rooms, bars, and a cabaret nightclub. The location was maze-like with additions being added without thought of fire code and without a Kentucky licensed architect. There were only 16 exits - and some were hidden in corridors or behind multiple doors - when over 27 were needed for the capacity the club saw that night.
At 8:30pm, family and friends attending a wedding in the Zebra Room complained that it was too hot, and left a half hour earlier than the scheduled time. Around 9pm, two servers entered the room to clear tables. Smoke lingered along the ceiling. Soon after, the receptionist opened the doors because of a smoke smell complaint. Minutes later a flashover took over the property.
The flashover spread quickly. There was no audible alarm, so wait staff ran room to room to tell patrons about the fire. Walter Bailey, a teenage busboy, was the first to see the fire. He ran straight to the Cabaret Room, went on the stage, grabbed the mic, and told the patrons to evacuate calmly, pointing to the exits, which were not lit. Some people began to evacuate. Others thought that it was part of the comedy act and stayed. Soon after Bailey's warning, the flash fire shot into the Cabaret Room. People screamed and ran toward the exits. The power went out and soon no one could see the exits. A stampede proceeded with people falling and blocking off the exits. Others would then jump on top of the pile and make it higher and higher. When firefighters arrived, they couldn't enter the room.
"When I got to the inside doors, which is about thirty feet inside the building, I saw these big double doors, and people were stacked like cordwood. They were clear up to the top. They just kept diving on each other trying to get out. I looked back over the pile of - it wasn't dead people, there were dead and alive in that pile - and I went in and I just started to grab them two at a time and pull them off the stack and drag them out," said Bruce Rath, Fort Thomas Volunteer Fire Department.
Some inside tried to find alternative ways out, only to find two exits blocked by fire and doors leading to nowhere.
In the end, 165 people died and 200 were injured.
The fire was the third largest nightclub fire in U.S. history. The Governor of Kentucky ordered a special investigation into the disaster. After a thorough investigation, it is believed that the fire started from faulty electrical wiring. Following this fire, a new state law was established, banning aluminum wiring. Two additional laws were added because of the fire. It became mandatory to have emergency lighting in public venues. Additionally, public venues needed to use non-toxic fabric coverings for seats and floors.
In the aftermath of the fire, the following issues were found to have contributed to the quick expansion of the fire and high death toll.
• Inadequate fire exits (the club had 16, when at least 27 were required).
• Faulty wiring with multiple, wide ranging code violations.
• No firewalls, allowing the fire to spread and draw oxygen from other areas of the complex.
• Poor construction practices
• Safety code violations - no fire sprinkler or automatic fire alarm
A local attorney said, "I can't believe that any of this was ever inspected."
This fire inspired new laws to become established.
• Fire sprinklers are required in nightclubs and public assembly areas over 300 capacity.
• Aluminum electrical wiring became banned.
• First fire scene to be preserved for investigation.
• In 1970, a fire destroyed the property. They re-built and doubled the size, but added no fire protection.
• Some believe that the fire was not caused by the electrical wiring, but arson.
• Third deadliest nightclub in United States history.
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Today, assisted living facilities have strict fire protection code. Occupants need to be able to stay in place in the event of a fire. Residents may be bedridden, have physical impairments, or have cognitive issues that can affect their ability to evacuate in the event of a fire. However, in 1953, that was not the case. It wasn't until 2002 that government agencies began taking a closer look at the fire protection needs of assisted living facilities, following several deadly senior living fires. In 1953, when the Littlefield Nursing Home burned, fire codes were barely existent - and the results show below.
On Sunday, March 29, 1953, the nursing home residents at the little A-frame home known as Littlefield Nursing Home had no idea what was ahead of them. Patients ranged from 55 to 94 years old with 57 patients in total – twenty-five lived to see the next day. They were asleep at 3:15 am when smoke crept into the women’s dormitory, accompanied by flames, only to move swiftly to the men’s quarters.
The owners of the property lived there and awoke to smoke and fire. They doused the flames with a fire extinguisher, only to find it made no impact. The husband and wife team pivoted and started evacuating residents.
They tried to call the fire department, but the wiring in the home had already burned through. There were no lights and no phone service. When firefighters were alerted, they were faced with many difficulties. The home was in an unincorporated area of Pinellas County, Florida. There was no water supply and the nearest city was two miles away. The fire department brought in tankers filled with water, fighting through the black halls to try and fight the fire. They kept running out of water, and having to travel two miles back to the city to fill back up.
Another issue was the evacuation. Many of the residents had dementia or were bedridden. Instead of evacuating, they resisted and stayed put in their beds. Many residents were found lifeless, burnt to their beds.
"There were injuries to firemen and extreme heroism. Volunteers went into the building to pull people out," said Charlie Harper of the Largo Historical Society. It was the biggest fire in the history of Pinellas County. One hero was Nurse Gertrude. She carried a patient out of the residence and went back in for more. She never came out, becoming trapped by the flames, she became a victim of the Littlefield fire.
By the time the fire was extinguished, 32 people had died in the fire. Most of them women. Another man was killed in an automobile accident trying to bring a victim to the hospital.
A cause was never found, despite it going to court. There are theories, however. Sheriff Sid Saunders believes the fire ignited from a freezer motor in the supply room from defective wiring. The owner, W.L. Littlefield rationalized that the fire started in a front bedroom, likely from a resident. Littlefield's son in law asserts that a resident snuck matches into the facility. Despite these theories, a true conclusion was never found.
The fire did result in fire protection reform. Then-Governor Dan McCarty extended state fire protection regulations to private assisted living facilities and nursing homes, bringing a semblance of purpose to this tragic event.
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Written By: Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education
On November 28, 1942, the Cocoanut Grove fire killed 492 people in Boston, MA. In one night, that fire inspired change in building code across the country, advanced medical treatment for burn victims, popularized the use of penicillin, and put the mob on display. It became the deadliest nightclub fire in history and the second deadliest building fire in U.S. history, it follows the Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago with 602 victims.
The Cocoanut Grove nightclub was the hot spot in Boston. It opened in 1927, owned by mafia Gangboss Charles "King" Solomon. Solomon was killed in 1933, and his attorney Barnet "Barney" Welansky took over the club.
Welansky ran a tight ship. He saved money wherever he could. His workers were either young teens that would work for low wages or men with mafia ties who worked as bouncers/waiters. He feared that customers would leave without paying and hid exits. They were bricked off or hidden behind drapery.
The club itself had a tropical feel. The roof rolled back to allow patrons to dance under the stars. The club was covered in faux leather, rattan, bamboo, satin, and heavy drapery. The ceilings were covered in canopies of silk. Even the support columns were wrapped in fabric and made to look like palm trees with light fixtures that hung down looking like coconuts. The nightclub consisted of a main room and several smaller bars and lounges.
A week before the fire, the Boston's Fire Prevention and Safety Department conducted an inspection. They determined that the wall coverings and other décor was not flammable. They also reported that there were enough exits and fire extinguishers.
With the fire taking place the week of Thanksgiving, it was very crowded that night. It is estimated that 1,000 Thanksgiving tourists, wartime servicemen, football fans, and others were in the club that night. The occupancy limit was set at 460 people.
At 10:15pm, the fire ignited in the Melody Lounge. A piano lounge off the main room. Eye witnesses say that a young man unscrewed a light bulb to steal a private moment with his date. A busboy was asked to screw the bulb back in. It was so dark that the teenager sparked a match to find the bulb. The match quickly ignited the faux palm trees and spread to the other décor. The fabric draped from the ceiling began burning and sending sparks and burning shards of fabric raining down on the patrons.
The fire spread through the business when a fireball burst through the front entryway and hit the caricature bar (where famous patron's pictures were displayed). It went through the caricature bar, down to the Broadway Lounge, across the restaurant and to the dance floor in a few minutes. Only one exit was usable and visible.
As patrons stampeded to the only visible exit, a revolving door, it was rendered useless as people fell and piled on top of each other. The pile grew and grew until the door broke. The sudden burst of oxygen caused a fire ball that burned all of the people trying to get out.
Following the fire, officials testified that if the doors were outward swinging, about 300 people would have been saved. This fire inspired several fire safety laws to become a national requirement. It became illegal to have only a revolving door as the main entrance. Revolving doors now need to be able to fold and open manually or be flanked by doors that open outward.
During the investigation, the busboy who lit the fire was exonerated because he was not responsible for the flammable décor or life safety violations. Barney Welansky, the bar owner, was convicted of 19 counts of manslaughter (the court picked 19 victims at random) and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison in 1943. He was pardoned 4 years later by Massachusetts Governor Maurice Tobin (who was mayor of Boston at the time of the fire) when Welansky became riddled with cancer. When he was released he said that he had wished that he died in the fire with the other victims. He died 9 weeks later.
In February 1942, 21 months before the fire, NFPA released and approved new fire codes. Boston did not adopt them and it was proven that many of these codes would have saved hundreds of lives in the fire.
• Exits available in reasonable travel distance
• At least two ways out remote from each other - additional exits according to the number of persons and relative fire danger.
• Exit path marked, unobstructed, and lit.
• Plain view of favored types of emergency exits.
• Evacuation drills that are well-planned and frequently practiced.
• Only collapsible revolving doors on required exits.
In addition, William A. Reilly made the recommendations below based on the Cocoanut Grove fire.
• Installation of automatic sprinklers in any room occupied as a restaurant, nightclub, or place of entertainment.
• Prohibition of the use of basement rooms as places of assembly, unless provision is made for at least two direct means of access to the street with installation of metal-covered automatic closing fire doors being required in any passage of existing between basement floor and first floor.
• Requirement of defined aisle space between tables in restaurants, such tables to be firmly affixed to the floor to prevent upsetting and obstruction of means of egress.
• Exit doors in places of assembly to have so-called panic locks and no others. Such exits to be marked by illuminated "EXIT" signs with the minimum candle power to be specified in the law, and supplied by an electrical system. Such system might also be permitted to serve a few recessed of box-type fixtures, for emergency use as a guide light in the event of failure of the main lighting system.
• Absolute prohibition in any place of assembly of the use of any suspended cloth false ceiling.
• Window openings of sufficient area, equipped with louvers secured by a fusible link so as to open automatically when subjected to heat, for the purpose of drawing flames or gases, should be required in basement rooms used as places of assembly.
Boston adapted this code in May of 1943. However, it was not retroactive and only applied to new construction.
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On April 21, 1930, one of the worst prison disasters in American history occurred. The disaster didn't have one defining factor that brought the disaster to the level it became, but a cluster of issues that caused a catastrophe. The fire that ignited was the death blow to an already broken facility.
The Ohio State Prison was built in 1834 with a capacity of 1,500 inmates. Between the years of 1834 and 1984, when it closed, the prison saw horrific conditions. The overcrowding reached 5,235 prisoners at its peak. At one point in the 1950s, cancer cells were being injected into prisoners for medical experiments. A cholera epidemic wiped out 121 convicts in 1849. The prison was even used for execution. Between 1897 and 1963, 315 prisoners were executed there. In summary, the prison had a long history of injustices and mistreatment.
On April 21, 1930, construction work was being completed at the prison. Scaffolding was up. The prison was being expanded because it was, at that time, at a capacity of 4,300 prisoners - well over double the legal capacity. The scaffolding was in a cell block that held 800 prisoners. How the fire started is up for debate. One thing that all parties can agree on, is a candle was left on scaffolding with oily rags and a fire ignited. One party believes 3 specific prisoners lit the candle with the intention of starting the fire. The other party believes that the candle was left, forgotten, and prison staff tried to cover the negligence up with the story of the prisoners lighting it. Whichever way the fire ignited is moot because it did ignite and hundreds of people were killed.
The fire came slow, and then fast. At first, the oily rags burned, unnoticed by the 800 people in the cell block, that was, until the black, toxic smoke began to spread. Prisoners began to bang on their cell gates, and beg the guards to let them out. The smoke was suffocating them. The guards refused to let them out.
The fire soon spread to the roof. Some guards began to help rescue prisoners, but not all guards, and the worst offenders were in the cell block the fire began. The roof caved in and 160 people were killed instantly.
Firefighters began to show up, and the prisoners rioted, angry that they were locked up. They pelted them with stones. Within 30 minutes, guards were on towers for a vantage point, 500 soldiers from Fort Hayes came to the scene, machine guns were propped on the walls, and bayonets were fixed to the wall with troopers ordered to shoot to kill.
At this point, a few guards were letting prisoners out of their cells, allowing them to escape with guards. A prisoner heard the screams from the locked up prisoners who were still locked up and stole the keys from a guard, unlocking cells and helping in the rescue of 50 prisoners before it became too dangerous. He had to escape from the toxic smoke and growing fire.
In the end, the fire resulted in the death of 320 people and injury of approximately 130 people.
This fire led to reform in the prison system as well as in building code. The law requiring a minimum sentence was repealed, as it aided in the overcrowding of prisons. The year after the fire, a parole board was established and 2,300 prisoners were released from Ohio State Prison. A building code was added that would allow a large row of cell doors to be unlocked from one location.