Looking back at 100 years of NFPA Journal
By NFPA Journal®, March/April 2007
By Art Cote, PE, FSFPE
The last deadly U.S. fire to claim 100 or more lives was also a place of assembly fire, the Station Nightclub fire, which occurred in 2003 in West Warwick, Rhode Island. In the 100 years between these two landmark fires, there have been five tragic place of assembly fires in the U.S. that have claimed 100 or more lives:
A review of these five deadly fires, which appeared in the Quarterly and Fire Journal, reveals many recurring factors in these tragedies. Those factors include uncontrolled ignition sources, inadequate exits, overcrowding, flammable interior finish/contents, and no automatic sprinklers.
As philosopher George Santayana so aptly observed: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
This is graphically demonstrated when analyzing place of assembly fires involving nightclubs and claiming 964 lives.
The Rhythm Club fire in 1940 that killed 207 black dance hall attendees in the small southern city of Natchez went largely unnoticed by the national media of the day. However, the July 1940 issue of the Quarterly contained an overview of the fire written by members of the Mississippi State Rating Bureau, which was an NFPA member. The report opened with “The utter disregard for ordinary fire preventive measures in a dance hall in Natchez, Mississippi, changed what was to be a gala, rhythm evening on Tuesday, April 23 last, into a grim catastrophe that wiped out the lives of 207.”
Two years later, 492 patrons were killed at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston. The two fires were strikingly similar, with flammable interior decorations, overcrowding, and inadequate exits the major factors contributing to the life loss. The Boston fire, however, received nationwide attention and triggered major changes in building codes across the country to regulate interior finish, increase exits, and require emergency lighting and automatic sprinklers in places of assembly.
Thirty-five years later, in 1977, the lessons of the Cocoanut Grove had been largely forgotten or ignored. The Beverly Hills Supper Club tragedy again demonstrated the deadly consequences of inadequate exits, overcrowding (twice the legal limit), flammable interior finish and contents, and lack of automatic sprinklers, resulting in 165 deaths. Richard Best, a member of the NFPA Fire Investigations Department, wrote of the fire in the January 1978 issue of Fire Journal. Best noted that following the fire, an examination and analysis of the facts revealed “many facility and operational deviations from national consensus fire codes and standards.” This fire triggered major changes in the NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, to require automatic sprinklers and fire alarm systems in both new and existing assembly occupancies when the number of occupants exceeds 300.
A quarter of a century later, in 2003, many of the lessons of the past were again ignored when the same combination of overcrowding, inadequate exits, flammable interior finish, and no automatic sprinklers led to the deaths of 100 patrons at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick. This fire also saw the reemergence of an old, previously eliminated contributing factor in a new configuration, an uncontrolled ignition source in the form of indoor pyrotechnics, which ignited the highly flammable foam plastic soundproofing on the walls. This fire resulted in increasing the requirements for automatic sprinklers in places of assembly in the Life Safety Code. All new assembly occupancies and all existing assembly occupancies that accommodate more than 100 people must now be sprinklered.
It’s only been three short years since the Station fire, but the horror of that night is already fading from the public’s consciousness. Many existing public assembly buildings across the U.S., especially small nightclubs, remain without automatic sprinklers.
Have we not learned from history? Are we doomed to repeat it?
Art Cote is the former chief engineer and executive vice president of NFPA.