4 Famous Fires and the Lessons They Taught Us

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October is Fire Prevention Month, but let's face it, fire is deadly and we should be vigilant every month, period. Fire damage to human flesh and property can be devastating, and we should be aware of potential fire hazards and property safety procedures every day of the year. To drive this point home, we now continue a series we started last year that details the not-too-pleasant consequences of fire, and what precautions could have been taken to prevent such a disaster.

1. Cocoanut Grove, November 28, 1942

Boston, Massachusetts

The Cocoanut Grove supper club was located on Piedmont Street, a narrow cobblestoned road near Boston's Park Square theater district. Built in 1927, the main bar (the Melody Lounge) was located in the basement and operated as a blind pig during Prohibition. Once liquor was legal again, the Grove was expanded and by 1942 the ground floor consisted of a large dining room, a bandstand, and several smaller bar areas off the main dining room.

Accident Waiting to Happen
The Cocoanut Grove was festooned with Casablanca-type décor: fake palm trees made of flammable material that doubled as lamps, with yards of lush fabric draped along the walls and from the ceiling (some of which obscured the exit signs). The main entrance to the club was a single revolving door. Many of the alternate exits had been locked to prevent patrons from sneaking out without paying their tabs. The posted maximum capacity of the club was 460, yet there were over 1,000 patrons in attendance the night of November 28.

The Fire

Even though the official report lists the origin of the fire as "undetermined," most eyewitness accounts report that at around 10:15 p.m. a 16-year-old busboy had been ordered by management to replace a light bulb in one of the "palm trees" in the basement Melody Lounge that had been removed by a patron. Unable to find the light socket in the dark, the busboy struck a match in order to illuminate his working area. Moments later, several patrons watching the busboy noticed the decorations changing color. Suddenly the palm tree burst into flames and several waiters attempted to extinguish it with seltzer bottles. Patrons started rushing for the four foot wide staircase that led to the main floor. The ceiling drapes and furniture quickly caught fire, and toxic fumes filled the room. When the door to the main floor was finally opened, a fireball rolled up the stairs and burst into the foyer. Cries of "Fire!" erupted and most of the crowd rushed to the revolving door in an attempt to flee. The door quickly became clogged with an influx of hysterical patrons, and rescue personnel would later tearfully describe the scene as "people piled up like potato sacks." Those who had managed to escape had done so by following Cocoanut Grove employees who were familiar with corridors leading to the few unlocked (and unmarked) exit doors. Even though the firefighting crews (26 engine companies and five ladder companies) responded very quickly to extinguish the blaze, the major human damage had already been done, thanks to toxic fumes. The fire claimed 492 lives and seriously injured 166 survivors.

The Aftermath
The Cocoanut Grove tragedy led to some medical advances as well as building code revisions. Penicillin had not yet been tried on non-test subjects at that time, but doctors used it on Cocoanut Grove victims in an attempt to ward off infection. Its success helped to accelerate production of the drug for further study. The influx of so many burn victims at major Boston hospitals at one time led to major advances in several sub-specialties of burn treatment, including fluid retention, infection prevention, and respiratory trauma. Structurally speaking, new laws were enacted nationwide that mandated all revolving doors must be fitted with two outward-opening doors on each side, and decorations for public buildings had to be non-combustible. In addition, laws regarding illuminated exit signs and unlocked emergency exit doors, kept free of blockage by tables or decorations or any other obstructions, were added to the books.

2. MGM Grand Hotel, November 21, 1980

Las Vegas, Nevada

The MGM Grand Hotel was located on the famous "Strip" at the corner of East Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard. It had opened in late 1973 and consisted of a large ground floor area that included the casino, show rooms, and several restaurants, and a below-ground "Arcade" level which housed shops, boutiques, a movie theater, service areas, and underground parking. The 26-story "high-rise" portion of the building was the hotel itself, which contained 2,083 guest rooms.

Accident Waiting to Happen
During construction, the hotel owners had skimped on, of all things, sprinkler systems. Installing sprinklers in the casino and the Deli restaurant (where the fire originated) would have added an additional $192,000 to the cost of the $106 million project. Savvy attorneys had found a loophole in the fire code: if an establishment was open for business 24 hours per day, ceiling sprinklers were not mandatory, because (supposedly) someone would always be in attendance to sound an alarm and initiate extinguishment. There were no smoke alarms or automatic fire alarms within the complex; there were manual pull-stations ("In case of fire, pull here") on each guest floor of the hotel, but they were rigged to contact the hotel switchboard, not the fire department.

The Fire
The Deli, a restaurant located at the east end of the Casino level, was open 24 hours a day when the MGM Grand first opened, but had since reduced its operating hours. Around 7:00 a.m. on November 21, an employee arriving for work cut through the then-closed Deli as per his usual routine and heard a "crackling" sound. He stepped in further and saw flames shooting up from a service station to the ceiling. He dialed security from a nearby phone and was asked, "Is it enough to roll the fire department?" he responded in the affirmative and then broke the glass to a nearby emergency fire hose and started to unwind it when a security guard rushed in and advised him against using water on an electrical fire. (It was later determined that the fire had started inside a nearby wall by faulty wiring used to refrigerate a food display cabinet.) In that short time, the smoke had become so thick that the two were forced to leave the building via some nearby fire exit doors. The flames spread rapidly, fed by the glue used for the decorative wallpaper and tiles throughout the building, which in turn filled the casino and hotel corridors with toxic fumes. The "eye in the sky" tunnel above the casino—used to house surveillance cameras—lacked any smoke dampers, which enabled black clouds to quickly permeate the building's air circulation system, spreading deadly fumes into the high-rise section of the complex. Of the 84 people who perished, only four died from burns; the rest died of smoke inhalation, many in their sleep (due to the lack of audible alarms).

The Aftermath
Investigators concluded that, at first ignition, the MGM Grand incident would have been a "one sprinkler fire" had proper equipment been in place. That is, the flames would have been contained and extinguished if The Deli had been outfitted with a sprinkler system. As a result, a new law went into effect in Las Vegas that required every casino to be retro-fitted with sprinkler systems. Additionally, stricter regulations were put into place regarding functional smoke dampers in all ductwork, as well as a proviso mandating that all public facilities in Clark County undergo a thorough fire safety inspection every two years.

3. Iroquois Theater, December 30, 1903

Chicago, Illinois

Located on W. Randolph Street, between State and Dearborn, the majestic six-story Iroquois Theater was described in promotional literature as a "virtual temple of beauty" and "absolutely fireproof." the latter description might seem like an unusual boast today, but at that time many folks in Chicago still had vivid memories of the Great Fire which had swept through their city 35 years prior. The Iroquois had three large audience levels and seated 1,790 people.

Accident Waiting to Happen
Despite the theater management's fire safety guarantee, a Chicago fire department captain noticed during a pre-opening inspection that the building had no sprinkler system, no water connections, no fire extinguishers, and an inadequate number of exits. Most of the decorative trim was made of wood and the only firefighting equipment on hand were six canisters of a powdered chemical called "Kilfyre," which was commonly used on household chimney fires. He reported his findings to the Fire Marshall, who told him to forget about it: even if the information was relayed to the "syndicate" that owned the building, nothing would be done. The theater held its grand opening as scheduled on November 23, 1903.

The Fire
It was bitingly cold that Wednesday afternoon. The matinee show on December 30 was "standing room only," meaning that the theater had oversold the tickets and there were almost 2,000 people in the audience, many literally standing in the aisles. Headliner Eddie Foy would later remember that his first impression when he took the stage that day was that there seemed to be nothing but women and children in the audience, which made sense since it was a weekday afternoon—the school kids were on their Christmas break and most of the men were at work. The second act of Mr. Bluebeard had just begun at 3:15 p.m., and the chorus was on stage singing and dancing while the pit orchestra played "In the Pale Moonlight." High above the stage, out of sight of the audience, thousands of square feet of painted canvas scenery flats hung suspended by ropes. A stagehand noticed one of those flats brush against a hot reflector behind a calcium arc spotlight. When a small flame erupted, he tried to douse it with Kilfyre, but the fire was just beyond his reach. Within moments the fire spread, spraying rivulets of flame onto the velvet stage curtains and flammable props. Crew members tried to lower the protective asbestos curtain, but it got caught on a special wire that had been strung near the ceiling (for use in a Peter Pan-type flying fairy act in the show) and wouldn't budge. Actors rushed to exit via the stage doors, and when those doors were opened, the sudden burst of cold air that rushed in forced the fireball from the stage into the audience area. The doors leading from the balcony to the downstairs area had been locked to prevent patrons from sneaking down to better seats. Many of the exit doors on the main floor were concealed by heavy drapery, and those doors that the panicked audience members did find opened inward, so they were useless against the crush of the crowd. Firefighters extinguished the blaze within 30 minutes, but when rescue personnel eventually managed to get the various theater doors open, they were stunned to find bodies stacked seven feet high. The initial blaze killed 575 people, and an additional 27 people succumbed to their injuries during the week following the fire.

The Aftermath
Dozens of people, from the theater owners to the mayor of Chicago, were indicted after the fire but all of their cases were eventually dismissed on technicalities. The mayor ordered 170 theaters, churches, and public halls closed for several months so that all could be inspected and retro-fitted with such safety devices as outward-opening doors, illuminated exit signs, and steelfire curtains. None of the victims' families ever received any sort of financial compensation after the tragedy, and many of them faced further financial hardship when the mayor's forced closing of so many venues left 6,000 people unemployed.

4. Haunted Castle, Six Flags Great Adventure, May 11, 1984

Jackson Township, New Jersey

The Haunted Castle was a walk-through dark ride designed to frighten customers. Visitors had to feel their way along a dimly lit maze of corridors and were confronted en route by spooky props, monstrous mannequins, and park employees dressed as Dracula and other scary creatures.

Accident Waiting to Happen
While the actual human toll in this case is a mere fraction of other famous fires, it deserves mention because it occurred in a very common type of venue that is frequented by millions of visitors every year, and one where most of us have seen people disobeying "no smoking" signs or tinkering with equipment to amuse their friends. Certainly none of the parents who bid their teens good-bye that May afternoon thought that would be the last time they'd ever see them. What could happen at an amusement park?

Even though the Haunted Castle had been in place for five years, it was still considered a "temporary structure" by township authorities since it was comprised of several inter-connected semi-trailers. As a result, the Castle was exempt from most of the fire laws applied to permanent structures. It was not equipped with sprinklers or smoke or fire alarms. The mazes inside the trailers were constructed of plywood and tar paper, and the various props were made of foam rubber, fabric, and wax. Some of the walls in the darkest parts of the maze were covered in polyurethane as a cushion, since so many patrons bumped into them. Vandalism became an increasing concern; so many of the actors (employees dressed in costume) had been assaulted by rowdy teenagers that a clause promising criminal prosecution for such an act was added to the posted rules of the Castle. The illuminated signs over the emergency exits had been destroyed so many times by vandals that the park had stopped replacing them. The alcoves where certain costumed actors (like the Hunchback) lurked were eventually fenced in, to prevent visitors with hijinks in mind from climbing inside. Sadly, these same alcoves were equipped with emergency exits which, due to the next protective grating, were inaccessible by the general public.

The Fire
To avoid congestion and bottlenecks, Castle employees at the entrance only allowed small groups of patrons in at one time, then waited several minutes before letting the next group proceed. There were 25 visitors and four employees inside the castle at 6:35 that Friday evening. A 14-year-old boy, whose name has never been released publicly, was using a cigarette lighter to illuminate the way down a darkened corridor for himself and a companion. The pair stumbled in the blackness and bumped into the protective foam padding, which caught fire from the lighter. The boy tried to beat down the flame with his hands, but it spread quickly, fueled by the flammable accoutrements and the oxygen pumped via the air conditioning vents, and he and his friend ran back toward the entrance and escaped. Their cries of "Fire!" prompted an employee to go inside and investigate. (It wasn't uncommon for mischievous visitors to set off smoke bombs in the Castle, which is why an emergency alarm wasn't sent out immediately.) The actor playing "The Butcher" smelled the smoke, jumped from his post, and led a group of patrons outside to safety. A group of nine high school friends who were deeper inside the attraction at first thought the smoke was part of the show. But when the fumes became overwhelming, they dropped to their knees and attempted to crawl toward an exit, even though visibility was nil. One of the group, 14-year-old Suzette Elliott, managed to grope her way close enough to the entrance, where an employee found her and carried her out to safety. Once the fire had been extinguished, rescue workers found the bodies of eight teens in two groups inside one of the trailers, all with their faces pressed against the air conditioning grates cut into the floor.

The Aftermath
During the resulting criminal trial, several Castle employees testified that they'd complained to management about the safety hazards inside the attraction—the missing light bulbs, the torn crash pads on the walls that were spilling exposed foam rubber. The two park executives who'd been charged with manslaughter avoided trial by agreeing to attend an intervention program which prescribed them a lengthy stretch of community service. The year following the fire Six Flags Great Adventure management assured prospective patrons that the $5.2 million worth of sprinklers and computerized smoke and heat detectors that had been newly installed in all their enclosed attractions would prevent another such tragedy.

It probably can't be repeated too many times — if you live in a dorm or apartment building and you see bikes and other clutter being stored on a landing near an exit door, report it. If you see some prankster smoking where they're not supposed to, or propping open a fire door, or disabling a smoke alarm in a common area, be that cranky spoilsport and report it. Being that "hey you kids, get off my lawn" guy now is better than having to grope your way to a blocked exit through toxic black smoke while breathing superheated air later.

October 27, 2010 - 4:36am
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