Smoke billows from a sugar refinery fire in Georgia that sent 36 workers to the hospital and killed 14 in February, 2008. The fire resulted from a massive dust explosion. (Photo: AP/Wide World)
Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires in 2008
Last year saw the fewest catastrophic fires, and the fewest related deaths, since 1987.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2009
By Stephen G. Badger
Read the full list of 2008 Multiple-Death Fire Incidents
Get NFPA's 2008 Multiple Fire Death report
In early February, a massive dust explosion ripped through a Georgia sugar refinery. The plant and complex covered 160 acres (65 hectares), and the building of origin was nine stories high, covered 75,000 square feet (7,000 square meters), and was constructed of brick, cement, and metal. A second explosion soon followed, igniting fires on several floors of the plant, as well as in two silos and the product distribution warehouse. The explosions destroyed the plant and three sugar elevators.
Firefighters responding to calls about an explosion arrived to find fires burning in several structures, as well as massive destruction of the plant and nearby structures. Many workers were injured, and many were trapped in debris. The fire department requested emergency medical units, air units, a triage doctor, and nursing staff shortly after arrival. Search and rescue crews entered the first and second stories of the packing section and removed several injured employees. Due to the extent of damage, poor visibility, and the possibility of further structural collapse, suppression crews were kept outside the structures. In the following days, firefighters continued to battle the blaze. Search teams recovered the remains of eight additional plant workers over the next week.
At the time of the explosions, 121 people were working in the plant; 36 of them were injured and transported to hospitals. Nineteen of the 36 were sent to a burn center in the area. Over the next month, six more victims died of burns and traumatic injuries, bringing the death toll to 14.
The cause of the initial explosion is still under investigation. The secondary dust explosion entered the dust handling system of the packing section of the plant, setting fires throughout the plant and destroying the electrical and fire alarm systems, as well as the wet- and dry-pipe sprinkler systems, which operated after the first explosion.
This explosion and fire was just one of the 1,451,500 fires and explosions that firefighters in the United States responded to in 2008. Of these, 403,000 were in residential structures. Civilian fire deaths totaled 3,320 in 2008, including 2,780 in residential structures.
Nineteen of these incidents are classified as catastrophic multiple-death fires, defined as a fire in which there are five or more fire-related deaths in residential properties, or three or more fire-related deaths in nonresidential or nonstructural properties. Of the 19 incidents, 13, or 68 percent, occurred in residential properties, three occurred in nonresidential properties, and three occurred in nonstructural properties. These 19 fires killed 114 people, including 12 firefighters and 26 children under the age of age six. These fires represented 0.001 percent of the total fires, and the 102 civilian deaths represented 3.1 percent of the total civilian fire deaths in the United States in 2008.
Nineteen is the smallest number of such fires, and the 114 deaths are the fewest in such fires, since this study was begun in its current form in 1987. Those numbers are especially noteworthy considering that the threshold for a multiple-death incident was increased to five deaths in residential properties in 1987. In the past 10 years, the average number of catastrophic multiple-death fires annually has been 34. Last year, the number of fires was 44 percent below the average. The average annual loss of life in catastrophic multiple-death fires in the past 10 years has been 193 deaths. Last year, the number of deaths was 41 percent below the average.
Catastrophic residential structure fires
Of the 13 catastrophic multiple-death fires that occurred in residential properties, 11 were in single-family homes, including four manufactured homes, and two were in apartment buildings, specifically a three-unit building and an 18-unit building. This figure is 24 percent lower than the 17 residential structure fires in 2007, indicating the sharp decline in total multiple-death fires was concentrated in nonresidential and nonstructural properties. There were 79 deaths, which make up 69 percent of the total, in these fires, which is 28 percent lower than the number of deaths in 2007. Of these 79 victims, 26, or 23 percent of the total, were under the age of six. This is nine fewer than in 2007. All of the residential fires broke out between 10:55 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Catastrophic nonresidential structure fires
The three catastrophic multiple-death fires in nonresidential properties occurred in a sugar refinery, a pulp storage tank, and a restaurant with a living area attached. Two of the incidents were explosions, one with an after-fire and one without.
These incidents compare to eight in 2007, a decline of 67 percent. There were 20 deaths in catastrophic nonresidential multiple-death fires. This was down 59 percent from the 34 deaths in 2007. None of the 20 victims was under age six.
Catastrophic nonstructural fires
There were three nonstructural multiple-death fires in 2008, which represent a 75 percent decline from the nine that occurred in 2007. There were 15 deaths, 32 fewer than in 2007, or a 68 percent drop. Two of these were wildfires that resulted in aircraft crashes. For the purpose of this study, those incidents fall in the wildland category because all 12 victims were firefighters responding to fires or returning to camps when the crashes occurred. A third incident was an aircraft crash followed by fire at an airport.
The role of smoke alarms and sprinklers
Information on detection equipment was reported for 11 of the 13 residential fires. Five of the properties had at least one smoke alarm. The alarm in one fire operated, but it was not in the area of ignition or where the victims were located. It was not reported if this had any effect on the fatalities. Alarms in three fires did not operate; in two, the batteries were missing, and in one, the alarms were disconnected and the backup batteries were missing. In the fifth fire with alarms present, the performance of the alarms was not reported. Six properties had no coverage at all. In these fires, 35 people died.
Information on property protection was only available for two of the three nonresidential structures. One of the two had no detection or sprinkler protection. The other had a partial-coverage heat and smoke alarm system and a complete-coverage combination wet- and dry-pipe sprinkler system. Both systems activated after the initial explosion but were destroyed by the second explosion.
Smoke alarms have been proven effective in reducing the risk of death in home fires. The most effective arrangement is to use interconnected multiple-station smoke alarms that have hard-wired AC power and battery backup. Alarms should be located outside each sleeping area, on each level, and in each bedroom. Homeowners should routinely test their smoke alarms according to manufacturers’ recommendations. NFPA recommends testing home smoke alarms at least monthly. Batteries should also be replaced according to manufacturers’ recommendations but at least yearly in the case of conventional batteries.
All occupants should be familiar with the sound of a properly operating smoke alarm and should follow a practiced escape plan that includes two exits from any location in the home and a designated meeting place. Smoke alarms are only effective if occupants leave the building when they sound.
Exit drills in the home are part of many school curricula. Practicing the plan helps families determine if children and others readily waken to the sound of a smoke alarm, and that, along with assistance for family members who require it, can be factored into the plan. Practicing fire prevention principles could have prevented many of the deaths in the 2008 residential multiple-death fires.
Where we get our data
NFPA obtains its data by reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A news clipping service reads all daily U.S. newspapers and notifies the NFPA Fire Analysis and Research Division of catastrophic fires. Once an incident has been identified, we request information from the local fire department or the agency having jurisdiction. NFPA’s annual survey of U.S. fire experience and mailings to state fire marshals are additional, although not principal, data sources. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in the investigation of such fires. The diversity and redundancy of these sources enable us to collect the most complete data available on catastrophic fires. We understand that in many cases, a department cannot release information due to ongoing litigation. In some cases, departments have been unable to determine the information we request.
NFPA wishes to thank the U.S. fire service and medical examiners for their contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. The author would like to give a special thanks to Rita Fahy, Norma Candeloro, and his co-workers for their guidance in the completion of this report.
Read the full list of 2008 Multiple-Death Fire Incidents
Stephen G. Badger is a fire data assistant in NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, and is retired from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department.