building code

Fires in History: Binghamton Clothing Company

Binghampton Fire

 

The Scene

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.

The Fire

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.

 

The Aftermath

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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Fire at 30 Rock: Fires in History

30 rock fires in history

Writer:  Sarah Block,  Marketing Director at The Moran Group

The Scene

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

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.

 

The Aftermath

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.

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Fires in History: Hartford Circus Fire

Hartford Fire in History

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.

The Scene

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.     

 

The Fire

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.   

The Aftermath

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.

 

Quick Facts:

- 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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