Lessons we’ve learned from fires in the USA.
Every major fire teaches its own lessons. We learn from catastrophe and it’s a pity that it can take loss of life to make buildings safer.
This week, we’ll look at five major fires in the USA. We’ve written about them separately before, but never in one article.
In a second article we’ll look at some major UK fires that have also influenced fire regulations around the world.
The first was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 New York. It occupied the top floors of a ten-storey building.
The company made clothing, and there were flammable textiles everywhere. People were allowed to smoke, and the fire was most likely caused by a discarded cigarette.
The fire took hold quickly, but there was only one narrow fire escape, which soon collapsed. The fire killed 146 people.
In its wake a Commission was formed which led to 36 new laws being introduced, including all places of business being inspected by the fire department.
A second major fire was in a circus tent in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944.
The Big Top itself had been waterproofed with paraffin and gasoline. The chairs had layers of oil-based paint, and there were limited exit routes.
Again, a discarded cigarette was most likely to blame, but the fire spread rapidly in the fire-trap big tent. The final death toll was 168.
It focused minds on fire safety in places of entertainment, and the kinds of materials that could be allowed.
The third fire was at Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago in 1958, a Catholic school, which had no sprinkler system. Fire extinguishers were situated nowhere near the fire, and the fire alarm was inadequate.
Making things worse, the school interior was made almost entirely from wood, with the floors coated with flammable wax.
There were fire doors at the top of stairwells but – surprise, surprise – they were propped open. 92 children and three nuns died.
It led to sweeping changes in school fire safety, with schools having to meet certain standards, carry out fire drills and have fire alarms linked to their fire department.
The fourth fire we’ll look at was the Beverley Hills Supper club fire in Kentucky in 1977.
It was a complex of banqueting and other areas, but had been added to with little regard for fire regulations.
Carpets and seats were flammable, with a lack of fire doors, and wired with flammable aluminium wiring. Exit signs weren’t illuminated.
When the fire was discovered, many chose to ignore the danger. When they did realise, without adequate emergency lighting and in thick smoke, many found it impossible to escape. 165 people lost their lives.
As aa result several news laws came into effect to, among other things, ban aluminium wiring, install emergency lighting and have non-toxic fabrics for seats and floors.
The last fire I’ll look at was at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003 which, because it was built before 1976, did not need a sprinkler system.
The band that was performing used controlled sparks in their act, which set fire to soundproofing. Sadly, many in the audience thought this was part of the act and didn’t immediately evacuate.
To compound the problem, when they did realise what was going on, most tried to exit by the way they had come in. Familiarity blinded them to the fact there were other fire exits. 100 people died.
In the aftermath, all public facilities were required to fit sprinkler systems, and rules on pyrotechnic displays were changed.
There have been, of course, many other fires in the USA, and around the world, that have changed the course of fire regulations.
But two things are key. Where possible, contain the fire at source and provide safe escape routes.
That’s our business at Wrightstyle, and we’re proud that our advanced glazing systems are safeguarding people and buildings across the world.
In our next article we’ll look at some UK fires that have changed fire and building regulations.