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5 Famous Fires and the Lessons They Taught Us

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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire happened more than 100 years ago. In this article, first posted in 2009, Kara Kovalchik looks back at what caused five famous fires. Each disaster led to more stringent laws or safety precautions, to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

1. TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY // MARCH 25, 1911


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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of a 10 story building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York City. The garment factory, which specialized in manufacturing women's blouses, would be called a "sweat shop" in today's terminology. The workers were mainly immigrant women (some as young as 12 years old) from Italy, German and Eastern Europe, who worked 14-hour daily shifts for approximately $70 $7 per week.

Accident Waiting to Happen
The factory had flammable textiles stored throughout the building, and scraps of fabric littered the floors and overflowed from bins. Designers smoked cigarettes at their desks and regularly tossed their butts into the scrap fabric bins instead of ashtrays. (Buckets of water were located throughout the factory to extinguish the bin fires that cropped up regularly.) Per company policy, several of the exit doors were locked during business hours; when employees left for the day, they had to line up by the few unlocked doors and leave single file under the careful gaze of a supervisor to make sure they weren't stealing any fabric or other supplies.

The Fire

The quitting time bell rang at 4:45 p.m., and while the women were putting on their coats and gathering their belongings, someone on the eighth floor yelled "Fire!" Flames leapt up from discarded rags on the floor between the first and second row of cutting tables. One man grabbed a bucket of water and threw it on the fire, but the flames had already spread to the paper patterns hanging overhead. It seemed like only seconds after the first cry of "fire" that the tables, partitions and ceiling were ablaze. Terrified employees crammed themselves into the single, small elevator and onto the narrow fire escape.

The fire quickly spread to the ninth and 10th floors. Some women were able to make it to the roof, where a professor at the New York University Law School next door used ladders left by painters to form a "bridge" between the two buildings and helped 69 Triangle employees to safety. Other workers were not so fortunate; when the fire escape collapsed from the stampede of panicked people, women began jumping from the windows. Engine Company 72 was the first on the scene, but the firefighters were torn between extinguishing the flames and trying to catch the jumpers in a life net. Once other fire departments reached the scene, it took 18 minutes to bring the fire under control, but not before 146 employees had lost their lives.

The Aftermath
The public outrage and the lawsuits filed by relatives of the dead led to the owners of Triangle Shirtwaist being tried for manslaughter (they were subsequently acquitted). A Factory Investigating Commission was formed, which examined the working conditions of all factories in New York City. Thanks to the findings of this Commission, 36 new laws were enacted to reform the state labor code. In addition, a Fire Prevention division was added to the city's fire department; its job was to inspect places of business and make sure they complied with the new laws, such as not locking doors during working hours and installing ceiling sprinklers.

2. THE HARTFORD CIRCUS // JULY 6, 1944

The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus set up camp on Barbour Street during their stay in Hartford, Connecticut. The matinee show they played on an oppressively hot Thursday afternoon was attended by approximately 6800 people—primarily women and children, since the men were either at work or overseas fighting World War II.

Accident Waiting to Happen
The Big Top tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline. The wooden chairs had many layers of oil-based paint on them. The few entrances (which also served as exits) were narrow and funneled patrons into single file via metal railings to prevent non-ticket holders from sneaking inside.

The Fire
Approximately 20 minutes into the performance: the Great Wallendas were performing their high wire act while animal trainer May Kovar was leading her big cats out of the tent to their cages. The first flame was small—most would later say about the size of a 50 cent piece—on one of the sidewalls of the tent. The actual cause was never determined, but was rumored to be a carelessly tossed cigarette. Several patrons noticed it, but no one raised an alert or exited the tent—they presumed that circus personnel were aware of the situation and would handle it. (NOTE: Sociologists have found that this is a typical reaction when disaster strikes at a large venue; adult Americans are conditioned to think that someone in authority already knows what is going on and will take care of the problem.)

The flames fed on the gasoline-lined tent and the fire spread very quickly. Merle Evans, the circus' band leader, spotted flames licking up the rear sidewall and immediately directed the band to play "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the universal circus distress signal. The performers heard the song and immediately abandoned their routines. Ushers began urging patrons to exit in an orderly fashion. Unfortunately, the fire spread so fast that soon people were stampeding toward the few exits. The death toll reached 168.

The Aftermath
One thing the burn victims had in their favor was that local Hartford hospitals were well stocked with bandages and plasma due to World War II (most major U.S. hospitals were in Disaster Preparedness Mode after Pearl Harbor). Not long after the Hartford disaster, most major circuses abandoned the use of the Big Top altogether and staged their shows in existing arenas and coliseums instead.

3. OUR LADY OF THE ANGELS // DECEMBER 1, 1958

Located in the Humbolt Park area of Chicago's west side, Our Lady of the Angels was a two-story Catholic school originally built in 1910 which taught classes from kindergarten to eighth grade.

Accident Waiting to Happen
Because it was a parochial—rather than public—school, OLA was not legally bound to retrofit their building to comply with 1958 fire codes. As a result, the school had no sprinkler system, the fire alarms rang only on school grounds and were not hooked up to the local fire station, and the fire extinguishers were stored in wall wells seven feet above the floor, out of the reach of most adults. In addition, the interior was made almost entirely of combustibles—the stairs, walls, floors, and doors were all constructed of wood. The floors had been coated and re-coated many times with flammable petroleum based waxes. The roof was coated with several layers of tar paper. Fire doors at the head of stairwells were propped open.

The Fire
The fire started (later believed to be the result of arson) in a barrel of oily rags in the basement of the school. It smoldered at the bottom of a stairway for some time before a window finally burst and gave it oxygen. Smoke seeped up the stairs and superheated gases caused the wooden staircase to burst into flames.

Luckily, the first floor had a heavy fire door which prevented the blaze from infiltrating. Instead, it followed the path of oxygen up to the second floor, where there was no fire door. The fire spread along the corridors of the second floor and also reached the attic. Classes were scheduled to be dismissed at 3:00PM; at about 2:25, two boys designated to haul wastebaskets to the basement saw the smoke and notified their teacher. The teacher pulled the fire alarm and classrooms on the first floor began exiting, thinking it was a fire drill.

Meanwhile, on the second floor, transoms over the classroom doors started spontaneously exploding, allowing thick black smoke to billow into the rooms. Some of the students were able to leave via the one fire escape, but most of the students and teachers gathered around the windows and gasped for air. When the fire department was finally summoned, they'd been given the wrong address. When the first trucks eventually arrived at the school, they found that their ladders didn't reach to the second floor. Desperate students jumped from the windows as parents (who'd run to the school after seeing the smoke) watched helplessly from the ground. By the time the blaze was finally extinguished, 92 children and three nuns had perished.

The Aftermath
The OLA disaster sparked sweeping reforms in school fire safety, and the new rules applied to every school, whether public or private. Almost 17,000 schools across the country were ticketed and forced to be brought up to code. Mandatory fire drills were put in place, and all fire alarms in schools were required to be wired directly to a fire station.

4. BEVERLY HILLS SUPPER CLUB // MAY 28, 1977

Located in Kentucky just six miles south of Cincinnati, Ohio, the Beverly Hills Supper Club was a sprawling complex of banquet rooms and service areas that attracted the same entertainment acts one might find in Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

Accident Waiting to Happen
The owners of the club had added on to it in piecemeal fashion over the years with disregard to the current fire codes. The carpets and seat cushions they used were highly flammable and emitted toxic fumes when ignited. There were no fire doors at the tops of stairways. The architect who'd made most of the additions to the building was not licensed in the state of Kentucky. Much of the building utilized aluminum wiring, which, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is a fire hazard. Many of the exit signs were not illuminated.

The Fire
The actual cause and origin of the fire is still under dispute. What is known as fact, however, is that as guests exited a wedding reception being held in the Zebra Room they complained to management that the room seemed unusually warm. The doors to the Zebra Room remained closed after all the guests had left, and a little before 9PM two waitresses entered the room to begin clearing the tables. They noticed smoke hovering just below the ceiling and alerted management. The first fire engine arrived at 9:04PM, while employees haplessly tried to extinguish the flames that had suddenly burst into the Zebra Room.

Walter Bailey, a teenage busboy who'd seen the fire, ran down the long corridor toward the main stage, the Cabaret Room, poking his head in various rooms along the way and shouting warnings. When he arrived at the Cabaret Room, the comedy team of Teter and McDonald were onstage warming up the crowd for headliner John Davidson. Bailey strode onstage, grabbed the microphone and alerted the crowd of the emergency situation. He pointed out the exits in the room and asked them to evacuate quickly but calmly. Some patrons immediately followed his instructions, but the majority of the audience thought that Bailey was part of the comedy act and remained seated. Two minutes later a fireball exploded into the Cabaret Room and panic ensued. The room was enveloped with thick smoke, and the crowd tripped over the maze of tables and chairs as they scrambled in search of the poorly lit exits. The club had no emergency lighting, and the thick black smoke (filled with toxic fumes) made it almost impossible to find alternative exits. Firefighters had difficulty gaining entry into the building because bodies were "stacked like cordwood" in front of the main entrance doors. In the end, 165 people lost their lives in what is considered the third deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.

The Aftermath
Richard Whitt of the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé on the overcrowding and fire code violations of the Beverly Hills Supper Club. As a result of his writings, the Governor of Kentucky ordered a special investigation of the disaster. Several new state laws (which eventually were adopted nationwide) were enacted as a result, including the banning of aluminum wiring, mandatory emergency lighting in public venues as well as requiring non-toxic fabric coverings for seats and floors.

5. THE STATION // FEBRUARY 20, 2003

The remnents of the 'The Station Nightclub' after a 2003 fire
What remained of 'The Station' nightclub after the deadly 2003 fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island
Douglas McFadd/Getty Images

The Station was a West Warwick, Rhode Island, nightclub that specialized in heavy metal music. On Thursday evening, February 20, 2003, the headlining band was Great White, who'd had a Top 5 hit in 1989 with their cover of the Mott the Hoople classic "Once Bitten, Twice Shy." By some strange quirk of fate, a news team from WPRI happened to be in the house, filming a piece on nightclub safety.

Accident Waiting to Happen
The "egg crate" foam soundproofing material which lined the stage was flammable. The band's manager reportedly did not get a pyrotechnics permit. The wooden structure was built prior to 1976, which "grandfathered" it out of the law that required ceiling sprinklers.

The Fire
Great White took the stage just moments after 11:00PM. They opened with "Desert Moon," which was accompanied by three different "gerbs," or controlled sprays of sparks. The sparks ignited the soundproofing behind the drummer and erupted into flames. Seconds after the flames first erupted (approximately 11:07) the band stopped playing and lead singer Jack Russell uttered "This ain't good" into the microphone. The band dashed offstage at the same time the club's fire alarm started blasting. The majority of the audience stood in place, thinking that this display was part of the show. Seconds later, when black smoke started billowing throughout the club, chaos erupted. Even though three other exits were open and marked with lit signs, the majority of the crowd stampeded to toward the entrance doors.

(NOTE: Another sociological phenomenon—studies have shown that in times of panic, when quick egress is necessary, people tend to instinctively not look for alternate means of escape but instead automatically flee to the place from whence they entered.) One hundred people died as a result of this disaster, and many more sustained life-altering injuries.

The Aftermath: Fire officials noted after the fact that a sprinkler system would have probably spared many lives, so the previous "grandfather" clause was negated and all public facilities over a certain capacity were required to install automatic sprinkler systems. Likewise, the regulations regarding pyrotechnic displays were similarly tightened and more strictly enforced.
People who have survived a fire have several things in common. Whenever they go to a movie theater, concert hall or club, they always make note of where all the exits are. If they notice a person sneaking a cigarette in a no smoking area, they alert someone in authority. We'll add a few precautions to that list: Wherever you live, make sure you and your family are aware of the escape routes in case of emergency. Forget about your possessions; get the humans out first. A throw rug or carpet is ideal for wrapping up an infant or child in order to carry him through smoke-filled rooms or corridors (or, if need be, to toss him from a window to rescuers below). 

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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Animals
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
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crime
Meghan Markle Is Related to H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer, According to New Documentary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network

Between staging paparazzi photos and writing open letters to Prince Harry advising him to call off his wedding, Meghan Markle’s family has been keeping the media pretty busy lately. But it turns out that her bloodline's talent for grabbing headlines dates back much further than the announcement that Markle and Prince Harry were getting hitched—and for much more sinister reasons. According to Meet the Markles, a new television documentary produced for England’s Channel Four, the former Suits star has a distant relation to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

The claim comes from Holmes’s great-great-grandson, American lawyer Jeff Mudgett, who recently discovered that he and Markle are eighth cousins. If that connection is correct, then it would mean that Markle, too, is related to Holmes.

While finding out that you’re related—however distantly—to a man believed to have murdered 27 people isn’t something you’d probably want to share with Queen Elizabeth II when asking her to pass the Yorkshire pudding over Christmas dinner, what makes the story even more interesting is that Mudgett believes that his great-great-grandpa was also Jack the Ripper!

Mudgett came to this conclusion based on Holmes’s personal diaries, which he inherited. In 2017, American Ripper—an eight-part History Channel series—investigated Mudgett’s belief that Holmes and Jack were indeed one in the same.

When asked about his connection to Markle, and their shared connection to Holmes—and, possibly, Jack the Ripper—Mudgett replied:

“We did a study with the FBI and CIA and Scotland Yard regarding handwriting analysis. It turns out [H. H. Holmes] was Jack the Ripper. This means Meghan is related to Jack the Ripper. I don’t think the Queen knows. I am not proud he is my ancestor. Meghan won’t be either.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified his comments via his personal Facebook page:

In the 130 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, hundreds of names have been put forth as possible suspects, but authorities have never been able to definitively conclude who committed the infamous murders. So if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could have done it, why not the distant relative of the royal family's newest member?

[h/t: ID CrimeFeed]

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