Flames erupt from the BP oil refinery plant in Texas City, Texas after an explosion.
Multiple-Death Fires for 2005
Proper use of fire protection equipment could have prevented most losses
By Stephen G. Badger
On September 21, storm clouds formed along the
Following evacuation orders, a nursing home in
One bus loaded with 38 patients and 6 health care workers left the nursing home at 3 PM. On board the bus were two patients using oxygen, 18 oxygen cylinders, wheelchairs, and walkers were stored below the passenger compartment. The second bus departed a short time later. Gridlocked highways turned the four-hour trip into a 15-hour to 16-hour ordeal.
Between 4 AM and 6 AM on September 23, one bus had a flat right rear tire and the driver pulled off the road. He called for assistance and the tire was fixed.
Once on the road, at 6:08 AM, a passerby flagged down the bus driver by pulling in front of the bus and slowing down, at which time another passerby informed the bus driver that the bus was on fire.
In his rear-view mirror, the driver saw fire coming from the right rear wheel well. He pulled over and exited the bus to examine the situation.
Then, he, the health-care workers and several passersby started to evacuate the patients. The oxygen cylinders exploded and fire spread very rapidly.
Tragically, 23 of the 38 patients died in the blaze, and many of the survivors were injured. The cause of the fire is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (See sidebar).
This was one just one of the 20 catastrophic multiple-death fires that killed 134 people (23 of them children under the age of six) in 2005 compared to 2004 when 32 fires killed 152 people. These 20 catastrophic-multiple fires and the 134 deaths are the lowest in recent years. The number of fires was down 12, or 38 percent, and the number of deaths down 18, or 12 percent. Catastrophic multiple-death fires are fires that kill five or more people in a residential property, or three or more in a nonresidential or nonstructural property.
Most of these fires, and the losses that resulted, could have been prevented with simple changes, including use and maintenance of smoke alarms and sprinklers.
Catastrophic Residential Fires
In 2005, the largest number of catastrophic multiple-death fires occurred in residential structures. These 13 residential fires consisted of 11 in single-family dwellings (two of which were manufactured homes), one in a two-family house, and one in a 50-unit apartment building. Residential occupancies accounted for 65 percent of the catastrophic multiple-death fires and their 80 deaths represent 60 percent of the total deaths in catastrophic multiple-death fires. Twenty-three children under the age of six perished in these fires.
Ten of the 13 catastrophic residential fires occurred between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Sixty-four people died in these fires, or 80 percent of all who died in residential catastrophic multiple-death fires. Table 1 shows the available details for each fire.
The largest loss of life residential fire killed 11 people, including three children under the age of six. This fire occurred in March in a two-story single-family townhouse.
A 14-year-old woke to find his bed on fire. Once he told his uncle, the uncle removed the blanket and attempted to extinguish the fire. He then moved the burning mattress downstairs in an attempt to throw it outside. A second adult relative also came downstairs and attempted to open the front door but was not able to because of a deadbolt lock with which the family was unfamiliar. The uncle placed the mattress on some packed cardboard boxes and attempted to open the door. As the boxes started to burn, fire and smoke forced the two to exit using a rear door, which they left open. A third relative, carrying a small child, exited the structure by way of a second-story window. The adults went around to kick open the front door, but fire was already quickly engulfing the front room and spreading up the stairway to the second story. The victims were all found in second-story bedrooms and a bathroom. The fire began when the bedding was exposed to a candle on the windowsill. The family was just moving into the house and the power was not yet turned on, so candles were used for light. It is unknown if there were any smoke
Another fire killed nine people. This incendiary fire, which occurred in May in a 2-story single-family house, was ignited after gasoline was poured throughout most of the first story. Once ignited, the fire spread rapidly to the second story, trapping the occupants upstairs. The house was equipped with smoke alarms that operated but were not in the area of origin, a factor because of the size and speed of growth of the fire. Due to the accelerant, the fire moved too rapidly for the smoke alarms to alert the occupants in time to escape.
Five fires killed six people each. The first fire broke out in the living room on the first story of a two-story single-family house and spread to the dining area and up the stairway to the second story. The cause of the fire is still undetermined. There were no smoke alarms in the house. Security bars on all doors and windows hindered the escape and rescue of the victims.
The second fire, started by smoking materials, broke out in a bedroom of a one-story single-family house. As the fire spread, it ignited a gasoline-powered scooter located in the kitchen, which fueled the fire. A person who escaped the fire yelled for neighbors to help. Attempts were made to enter a bedroom through a window, but rescuers were hampered by heat, smoke, and security bars. There was a smoke alarm in the house, but it had no battery. One of the victims was under the age of six.
The third fire broke out in a bedroom on the upper level of a split-level single-family house and spread throughout the dwelling, killing a family of four and two visiting children. The dwelling was destroyed and an exact cause could not be determined, although investigators were able to determine that it was unintentional. One smoke alarm was present on the ground level but it did not operate and the reason was not given. Two of the victims were under the age of six.
The fourth fire was caused by unattended cooking in a manufactured home. The fire spread throughout the structure, trapping four of the children in one bedroom, one in the living room and the mother in the hallway at the bedroom doorway. There were no smoke alarms present. Five of the six victims were under the age of six.
The last six-fatality fire occurred in a two-story house and the victims included two children under the age of six. No details were reported by the fire department.
Six fires killed five people each. The first fire broke out in an apartment on the top floor of a six-story 50-unit apartment building. There was no detection equipment present in the apartment. Two of the victims were under the age of six. No other information was reported on this incident.
The second fire occurred in the living room on the first story of a two-story townhouse. Hot smoke spread via the stairway, which acted as a chimney to the upper floor where the victims were located in one bedroom. The remains of a smoke alarm were found in the first-story hallway with its battery missing. There was a workable alarm on the second-story, but it was not known if it functioned properly. The cause of this fire was listed as unintentional. One of the victims was under the age of six.
The third fire started in the living room of a single-family manufactured home and spread rapidly, trapping the residents. The family was spending their first night in the dwelling and investigators believe they were unfamiliar with the layout, which possibly contributed to their deaths. There was no smoke alarm present. The cause is undetermined. Two of the victims were under the age of six.
The fourth fire broke out in a two-story single-family town house. A lighter was used to start the fire in a second-story bedroom closet. All five victims, children between the ages of six and ten, were trapped in bedrooms on the second story. Four adults who were in the home at the time tried unsuccessfully to rescue the children. There was no smoke detection equipment present.
The fifth fire broke out in a two-story, two-family house. The fire began in the area of a couch in a second-story living room, and spread through the second-story unit of this duplex. The cause is still under investigation. There was full coverage smoke detection system present, but there is conflicting information about its operation. One resident who escaped said he heard a detector sound, but others say they heard nothing. Upon arrival of the fire department, none was sounding.
The final five-fatality fire occurred in a two-story single-family row house and the victims included two children under the age of six. No details were reported by the fire department.
Catastrophic Nonresidential Fires
Two catastrophic nonresidential structure fires killed 18 people. One fire occurred in a refinery and the other in a plant that processed acetylene. Both these incidents were explosions followed by fire. Table 2 shows the details for these fires.
The largest loss of life explosion and fire in nonresidential properties killed 15 people and injured almost 200 others. This occurred at an oil refinery. A flammable hydrocarbon liquid and vapor release from an atmospheric vent in the isomerization unit was ignited by an unknown source. The Chemical Safety Board is still investigating and reviewing the incident. The board expects to release the final report by the end of the year (see www.csb.gov).
An explosion and fire in a one-story shed in an acetylene manufacturing plant killed three people. A faulty seating of a seal allowed acetylene to flow back past a check valve by way of an open water drain in a shed. As the acetylene built up in the unventilated shed, it was exposed to a propane heater and exploded. The victims were outside the shed at the time of the explosion.
Catastrophic Nonstructural Fires
There were five catastrophic fires outside of structures, all in vehicles. These fires killed 36 people, down from 2004 when 10 such fires that killed 37 people. A medical examiner's office or coroner’s office verified that the deaths in crashes with ensuing fires were due to fire, not impact.
The largest loss of life incident in nonstructural properties was the bus fire mentioned earlier that killed 23 people.
One fire killed four people. This occurred on a highway when a heating oil tanker truck collided with several other vehicles. An explosion and fire ensued, involving the leaking oil and gasoline from the vehicles. No information was reported by the fire department.
Three fires each killed three people. The first incident occurred when a box of fireworks exploded as it was being transferred from a trailer where it had been stored into another trailer for transportation. That explosion ignited the rest of the fireworks. The cause of the initial explosion was not known. The last two incidents involved motor vehicle crashes and fires on highways. Although officials verified that all of the deaths were due to fire and not impact, no additional information was available.
Role of Smoke Alarms and Sprinklers
Information on detection equipment was reported for 10 of the 13 residential fires, with 58 of the 80 deaths. In five of the properties, there was no automatic detection system present. In these structures, there were 27 deaths. Five residential structures had smoke alarms. One system operated properly, but in a home where an incendiary fire was set throughout the first story, leaving no time for smoke alarms or occupants to react before fire reached them. This fire killed nine people. Two homes had systems that did not operate, resulting in 12 deaths. In one of the two homes, the only smoke alarm was missing its battery. In the other home, the smoke alarm on the ground floor did not have a battery and the operation of the smoke alarm on the second story could not be determined. In the other two fires, with 10 deaths, the operation of the smoke alarms was not known. None of the residential occupancies had any residential sprinkler systems installed.
Information on detection equipment and sprinkler systems was reported for only one of the two nonresidential fires. This property had no smoke detection equipment or sprinkler equipment present.
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 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. Occupants 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 manufacturers’ recommendations, but at least yearly.
Smoke alarms are only effective if occupants exit the building when they sound.
Children should be familiar with the sound of a properly operating smoke alarm. They should follow a practiced escape plan that emphasizes two exits with a designated meeting place outside.
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 not, assistance for family members who require it can be factored into the plan.
Practicing fire prevention principles could have prevented many of these fires. These principles include keeping matches and lighters away from children; using deep, sturdy ashtrays; choosing fire-safe cigarettes if you smoke; and making sure cigarettes and ashes are out cold before disposal in a safe location. These principles also include “Watch What You Heat,” the safe-cooking theme for this year’s Fire Prevention Week.
Window Security Bars
In 2005, security bars over windows and doors hindered or prevented escape of the occupants in at least one of the fires in residential structures. This fire resulted in six deaths.
In a second fire, also resulting in six deaths, there were bars on most windows but it was unknown whether they hindered escape or rescue. In both buildings, the bars were non-releasing and/or non-code compliant. Many of the security measures used to keep criminals OUT are trapping residents IN during emergencies, and they work to keep firefighters from getting in to attempt rescues. NFPA’s Public Education Division recommends that all security bars be installed with quick release devices and family members know where and how to use these devices.
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
NFPA wishes to thank the
Stephen G. Badger is a Fire Data Assistant in NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, and is retired from the
In this Section:
|U.S. Multiple-Death Fires for 2005
In the U.S., there were an estimated 1,602,000 fires and 3,675 fire-related deaths in 2005. Most of these fires, and the losses that resulted, could have been prevented with simple changes, including use and maintenance of smoke alarms and sprinklers.