Film in Flames

The Fox Film Corporation vault fire of 1937, Little Ferry, New Jersey

BY ANGELO VERZONI

Nitrate is found in everything from bacon to bombs, and up until the 1950s the chemical compound was used in making film for movies and photography. Nitrate film, also known as celluloid film, was the most popular film from the advent of cinema through the mid-20th century. But there was a problem with it: Nitrate film was so unstable that, when exposed to high temperatures or improperly stored, it could spontaneously combust.

That’s what happened on July 9, 1937, in a film storage facility owned by the Fox Film Corporation in Little Ferry, New Jersey. In the midst of a heat wave that drove daytime temperatures above 100 degrees F, a sudden ignition of nitrate film stored in inadequately vented vaults triggered a violent blast that claimed the life of a teenage boy and destroyed all of the film stored there.

According to an article published in NFPA Quarterly in October 1937, flames from the explosion shot high into the air and spread more than 100 feet from the vaults, engulfing three nearby houses. A 13-year-old boy who lived in one of the homes was severely burned as he tried to shield his mother; he later died from his injuries. The fire caused an estimated $150,000 in damage—over $2.5 million in today’s money—and wiped out the majority of the silent films produced by Fox prior to 1932, many of which had no copies. The oldest destroyed film dated back to 1912. In his 1992 book Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States, Anthony Slide describes the incident as “the most tragic of all American nitrate film fires in terms of both loss of life and loss of America’s film heritage.”

The Fox vault fire brought nitrate film fires into the spotlight and heightened awareness on nitrate film’s propensity to degrade rapidly and spontaneously combust. But it wasn’t for another two decades that acetate film, a safer alternative, became commonplace. Even with the adoption of acetate film, the storage of archived nitrate film continued to be an issue—and still is. For example, nearly 30 years after the Fox vault fire, on May 13, 1967, a similar fire occurred in a film storage facility owned by Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer in Culver City, California, resulting in the loss of many silent and early sound films.

Since 1910, NFPA 40, Storage and Handling of Cellulose Nitrate Film, has provided guidance on safely storing nitrate film. The 1937 NFPA Quarterly article stressed the importance of following this standard: “This fire, like other recent fires in nitrocellulose, illustrates most forcefully the necessity for compliance with the Regulations on this subject developed by the N.F.P.A. Committee on Hazardous Chemicals and Explosives and published by the National Board of Fire Underwriters.” The catastrophic outcome would likely have been avoided, the article continues, if the storage facility had included automatic sprinklers and a proper ventilation system, as required by NFPA 40.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Thinkstock