The single deadliest single-building fire in the United States occurred 110 years ago in Chicago at the then newly-opened Iroquois Theater (the space is now occupied by The Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre).
The fire killed over 600 people.
Of the 300 actors, stagehands, and dancers in the theater at the time, only five perished in the fire, which started onstage.
The victims of the fire were primarily audience members. Fire escape exits were hidden behind draperies and equipped with decorative "bascule locks" - unfamiliar locks to most patrons and most people in general. For that reason, the doors could not be opened. Patrons attempting to exit from the higher levels of the theater found that the fire escapes were unfinished, and many of these people jumped or fell to their deaths.
Another impediment to exiting the building were the large iron gates blocked access to the stairways; these were designed to prevent movement between sections during the performances.
Because of the number of deaths, this fire raised awareness on the necessity to improve the functional accessibility of fire exits.
The second deadliest single-building fire occurred on November 28, 1942 in Boston at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub.
The space had an occupancy maximum of 460 people. Reports estimate that approximately 1000 people were packed in the bar at the time of the fire. The number of deaths exceeded the occupancy limit by 32 people.
Its decorations were highly flammable.
Many doors were bolted and locked. It is estimated that approximately 1000 people were packed in the bar at the time of the fire. In the panic of the fire the rotating door ultimately became jammed shut by the pressure from both sides; other doors were rendered useless for egress because they opened inward.
The nightclub owner was found guilty for manslaughter.
In 1946, the Winecoff Hotel, at 15 stories, was the tallest hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. The Winecoff was advertised as a "fireproof" hotel.
On December 7, 1946, fire visited the Winecoff. The only means of escape was a single stairwell. To date, the Winecoff, fire took more lives than any hotel fire in American history.
On November 21, 1980, a fire struck the newly built MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada. The fire took the lives of 84 people and injured another 679.
The fire was caused by defective wiring behind the deli at the resort. The fire spread at a rate of 19 feet per second. There were no sprinklers installed in the building. It would have cost the hotel under two hundred thousand dollars to install a sprinker system that could have abated the fire and saved lives. The hotel wound up paying over 200 million in settlements. It was reported that the state of Nevada developed the toughest sprinkler laws after this incident.
On Halloween night in 2006, 12 people perished at the Mizpah Hotel in Reno, Nevada in a fire that ultimately destroyed the entire hotel.
There was no sprinkler system installed in this hotel. The fire was originated by arson, but the presence of numerous mattresses along the hallway was found to produce an increased fuel load in the area.
Fires will continue to catch us by surprise: but when they do, how will they judge us - will the fires find us prepared or unprepared, will we have done everything in our power to protect the lives of people from death by fire. The fires that will surprise us the most will be those where we have our guard down so to speak, when we are vacationing at a hotel, at theater, or in a bar or club drinking.
Since fire is an ancient threat, fire prevention is not a new concept to this nation. Well before the 1900s, fire safety had been integrated into the design of buildings through city codes and ordinances. The first fire sprinkler system was developed and put into use in the 1870s. Some building codes for fire prevention remain relatively lax, some are not well enforced, and many are violated regardless. The lack of reasonable decision making with respect to fire safety and poor planning has cost us too many lives.
Follow these links to learn more about wrongful death and burn injury cases. If you or a loved one has suffered because of a building fire, and you would like to discuss your legal rights, call our experienced injury attorneys at 877-724-7800.
This is post #2 in a 4-part series about fire safety in the United States. To read post #1, click here.