Firefighters walk through debris after battling a fire in an abandoned warehouse, seen in the background, in New Orleans. Authorities say the blaze killed eight homeless people who were burning wood in a barrel to stay warm during the night.(Photograph: AP/Wide World)
Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires in 2010
Twenty-nine incidents kill 175 people, including 29 in a West Virginia coal mine explosion and fire
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2011
By Stephen G. Badger
Read the full list of 2010 Multiple-Death Fire Incidents
Get NFPA's 2010 Multiple Fire Death report
Headlines from around the country during 2010 read a lot like these: "Two children survive fire that kills rest of family"; "Adult care home fire kills three"; "Motel fire kills four college students," and so on. If they sound familiar, it’s because they could have been written in any previous year. When it comes to these kinds of fires, history truly repeats itself.
According to "U.S. Fire Loss for 2010," firefighters in the United States in 2010 responded to an estimated 1,331,500 fires, 384,000 of which were in residential structures, 98,000 of which were in non-residential structures, and 849,500 of which were outside of structures. These fires accounted for an estimated 3,120 deaths, 2,665 of which occurred in residential structures, 90 in non-residential structures, and 365 in fires outside of structures.
Twenty-nine of the fires were categorized as catastrophic multiple-death fires, defined here as fires or explosions in homes or apartments that result in five or more fire-related deaths, or as fires or explosions in all other structures, as well as outside of structures such as wildfires and vehicle fires, that claim three or more lives.
These 29 fires accounted for 175 fire deaths, including 30 children under the age of six. They accounted for 0.002 percent of the total estimated fires and 5.6 percent of the total fire deaths for 2010. By comparison, there were 21 catastrophic multiple-death fires in 2009, resulting in 103 deaths, including 26 children under age six.
The largest loss of life in a fire or explosion in the United States in 2010 was a mine explosion. At approximately 3 p.m. on April 5, 2010, a powerful explosion occurred in a coal mine almost 1,000 feet (305 meters) below the surface of the Coal River and mountains in West Virginia, killing 29 miners and seriously injuring at least one other. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the State of West Virginia, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, and the United Mine Workers of America conducted a joint investigation, and the Governor’s Panel report (see nttc.edu/ubb/) identified several mining system failures that led to, and contributed to, the devastating explosion and fire. "The company’s ventilation system did not adequately ventilate the mine," the report found.
"As a result, explosive gases were allowed to build up. The company failed to meet federal and state safe principal standards for the application of rock dust. Therefore, coal dust provided the fuel that allowed the explosion to propagate through the mine. [Also], water sprays on equipment were not properly maintained and failed to function as they should have. As a result, a small ignition could not be quickly extinguished."
The mine had been closed on April 4, which was Easter Sunday, and re-opened the following day, with 45 workers underground by 7 a.m. During what seemed to be a "normal and typical" day, several problems that arose were reported and being dealt with by the miners before the explosion occurred.
The conclusion reached by the Governor’s Panel was that "the ignition point for the blast was the tail of the longwall [the machinery for shearing off coal from the wall]. As the shearer cut into the sandstone mine roof, the resulting sparks ignited a pocket of methane, creating a fireball. The fireball in turn ignited the methane that had accumulated in the gob [an area filled with rock waste] during the Easter weekend and leaked onto the longwall face. The fireball traveled into the tailgate area, where accumulations of coal dust provided fuel for a second, more deadly, force. This dust-fueled blast ricocheted in multiple directions, traveling across the longwall face, into the tailgate entry, and through more than two miles [3 kilometers] of the mine."
According to MSHA, several miners who were near the portals were able to evacuate when the explosion occurred. Those who could not ranged from 20 to 61 years old. It was several days before conditions in the mine were safe enough for the bodies to be removed, and several weeks before the conditions were safe enough for investigators to enter the mine.
Catastrophic Home Structure Fires
Two-thirds, or 65.5 percent, of the catastrophic multiple-death fires occurred in homes. Of the 19 such fires in these properties in 2010, 15 occurred in single-family homes, five of which were manufactured homes; one occurred in a duplex; three occurred in apartment buildings, one of which had six units, one of which had four units, one of which occurred in a building whose size was not reported. This is an increase of nine from 2009. There were 101 deaths in these catastrophic multiple-death home fires in 2010, up from 59 in 2009. Of the 101 fatalities, 28 were children under six, three more than 2009.
The cause or origin was reported for just five of these 19 fires. One fire was deliberately set. One each involved abandoned or improperly disposed of smoking materials, combustibles too close to a heat source, a short circuit in a damaged electric cord, and defective wiring in a ceiling. Fifteen of the fires broke out between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., resulting in 81 deaths, including 22 children under age six.
In 14 cases, the cause and origin was listed as undetermined. In some cases, this was due to destruction of the property. In others, fire investigators were unable to determine the cause or eliminate all potential causes. In four incidents, the authorities provided no details.
The largest loss-of-life fire in a home killed seven people, including two children under age six. This arson fire was set on the first floor of a two-story apartment building of unprotected wood-frame construction. There were smoke alarms, which operated and alerted occupants. It was not reported why the occupants were unable to escape.
Four fires killed six people each. The first fire broke out on the second floor of a two-story, six-unit apartment building of unprotected ordinary construction that had a business on the ground level. This fire killed three children under age six. The building had some smoke alarms, but they did not operate for an unreported reason, and others had been removed. The victims were all found on the second story.
The second fire, which killed two children under the age of six, broke out on the first floor of a two-story, single-family home of unprotected wood-frame construction. The cause was not determined, and no information was reported on the presence or absence of smoke alarms. One child was found in a first-floor bedroom, and the other fatalities were found on the second story. Three other people in the house were injured.
The third fire, which killed two children under age six, broke out in a two-story, single-family home of unprotected wood-frame construction. No information was reported on smoke alarms. The fire was electrical in nature and broke out in the first-floor living room.
The fourth fire broke out in a one-story, single-family home, killing two children under age six. No other additional information was reported
Fourteen fires killed five people each. Seventeen children under age six died in these fires; one fire alone killed four children. These fires occurred in 12 single-family homes, five of which were manufactured homes; one duplex; and one apartment building, with an unreported number of units. In eight of these fires, the buildings had no smoke alarms. In two fires, smoke alarms were present. In one of the two, the victims were under the influence of drugs, and in the second, the family was trying to open doors and windows and became trapped. No information on smoke alarms was reported in four fires.
Catastrophic Non-Home Structure Fires
Eight of the 29 fires occurred in non-home structures. There was one fire each at a chemical manufacturer, a refinery, a care-for-the-aged facility, a motel, a coal mine, a tool shed, a vacant building, and a building under construction. These accounted for 63 of the 175 deaths, compared to 20 in 2009. None of the victims was under age six. In 2009, there were five fires in the non-home category. Part of the large increase in deaths was due to the West Virginia coal mine explosion and fire that killed 29 people, or 46 percent of the deaths in this category.
Seven of the properties were operating to some extent, and the status of the eighth was not reported. The cause — a mechanical breakdown — was reported for just one of the fires.
The largest loss-of-life incident was the coal mine explosion and fire. Eight people were also killed in a vacant warehouse that was being used by the homeless for shelter and sleeping, but no further information was reported.
Seven people were killed at a hydrocarbon refinery when a heat exchanger ruptured, releasing hydrocarbon and naphtha vapors that ignited almost immediately. The heat exchanger, which was almost 40 years old, was being returned to service after maintenance. The rupture occurred at cracks in welds caused by the stresses that heat exchangers experience over years of operation.
Six people died in an explosion and fire in an electric power generation plant that was under construction. The explosion occurred as a large quantity of natural gas was being used in a blowout being conducted to clean out pipes.
Four people died in a two-story motel. No information was released due to ongoing civil suits.
Three people died in each of three incidents. The first, whose cause and origin were not reported, occurred at a one-story chemical manufacturing plant. The second, also of unknown cause, occurred in a one-story, 144-square-foot (13-square-meter) tool shed. The third fire broke out in the living room of a one-story, 2,100-square-foot (195-square-meter) care-for-the-aged facility. The cause of this fire was undetermined and is still under investigation.
Catastrophic Non-Structure Fires
There were two non-structure incidents, one in a passenger vehicle crash and fire, and the other in a gas distribution system. The incidents killed 11 people, two under age six. This is four fewer incidents than occurred in this category in 2009 and 10 fewer deaths.
Vehicle crashes and fires are included in this study if the fire in the vehicle caused the crash or if the local coroner or medical examiner confirms that the victims died of thermal injuries or inhalation of products of combustion, rather than from impact injuries.
One of the fires killed eight people. An explosion and fire erupted in a natural gas distribution system when a 30-inch (76.2-centimeter) gas transmission pipeline developed a leak under a street in a residential area. An unknown source ignited the explosion of approximately 47 million cubic feet (1,331,000 cubic meters) of natural gas. The fire destroyed 38 homes and damaged 63 others. The victims were at various locations in the area.
Three members of one family, including two children under age six, died in a multi-vehicle crash and fire on an interstate highway when a tractor trailer struck their passenger car from behind, pushing it into another tractor trailer. Fuel from a breach in the car’s fuel system, as well as fuel from a saddle tank on the tractor trailer that hit the car, was ignited by heat from the tractor’s engine. Another family member in the car died of blunt force trauma.
The Role of Smoke Detection and Suppression Equipment
In 12 of the 19 home fires, information was available on automatic smoke detection equipment. Four were equipped with smoke alarms. Two systems operated, one didn’t, and it was not known if the fourth did or not. The reason the occupants failed to evacuate in one home that had operational smoke alarms was not reported. The other fire in which operational smoke alarms were present occurred in a four-unit apartment building where the fire department reported the exits were blocked by smoke and flames. Eight structures had no smoke alarms at all. In these fires, 40 people died, including three children under the age of six.
Information on detection equipment was reported for only one of the eight non-home structures. The care-for-the-aged facility was equipped with smoke alarms that operated and alerted the residents. The fire department reported that the age of the victims was a factor in preventing escape.
Smoke alarms have been proven effective in reducing the risk of death in home fires. The most effective arrangement is interconnected, multiple-station smoke alarms that are supplied by hard-wired AC power with a battery backup. These should be located outside each sleeping area, on each level, and in each bedroom. Homeowners should routinely test smoke alarms according to manufacturers’ recommendations; NFPA recommends testing home smoke alarms at least monthly. Batteries should also be replaced according to manufacturer’s recommendations; conventional batteries should be replaced at least yearly. If an alarm "chirps," a warning that the battery is low, the battery should be replaced right away. All smoke alarms, including alarms that use 10-year batteries and hard-wired alarms, should be replaced when they are 10 years old or sooner if they do not respond properly when tested.
Smoke alarms are only effective if occupants leave the building when they sound. Children should be familiar with the sound of a properly operating smoke alarm and follow a practiced escape plan, one that emphasizes two exits from any location, as well as a designated meeting place once they have evacuated the structure. Exit drills in the home are part of many school curricula. Practicing the plan helps families determine whether children and others readily waken to the sound of a smoke alarm if it sounds during night, and that, along with assistance for family members who require it, can be factored into the plan. Practicing escape plans, as well as basic fire prevention principles, might have prevented many of the fires and deaths included in this report.
No suppression equipment was reported to have been present in any of the fires. This is unfortunate, because sprinklers are proven life-saving systems across many different kinds of properties, including homes. The risk of dying in a reported fire in your home decreases by about 80 percent when sprinklers are present, and sprinklers reduce the average property loss by 71 percent per fire. More information about home fire sprinklers is available at firesprinklerinitiative.org.
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 data sources, although not principal ones. 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 in the United States. We understand that, in many cases, a department cannot release information due to ongoing litigation. In other cases, departments have been unable to determine the information we request.
NFPA wishes to thank the U.S. fire service and the 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 Norma Candeloro and to his co-workers for their guidance in the completion of this report.
Stephen G. Badger, a fire data assistant with NFPA’s Fire Analysis & Research Division, is retired from the Quincy, Massachusetts, fire department.