Deadliest fires or explosions in the world

Excluding bombings and wartime attacks

Rank Event Date Number of deaths 
 1 Earthquakes resulted in fires that caused most deaths [1]
Tokyo to Yokohama, Japan
September 1, 1923 Most of 142,807 total deaths
 2 Earthquake resulted in fires that caused most deaths [1]
Tokyo, Japan
March 21, 1857 Most of 107,000 total deaths
 3 Nuclear power plant chemical explosion led to release of nuclear radiation [2]
Kiev, U.S.S.R.
April 26, 1986 31 immediate deaths plus 7,000-8,000 deaths of exposed clean-up workers
 4A Urban conflagration [5]
Constantinople (now Istanbul) Turkey
1729 7,000 deaths
 4B Fire [6]
Chiangking, China
September 3, 1949 7,000 deaths
 6 Pesticide plant explosion released deadly chemical fumes [3]
Bhopal, India
December 3, 1984 3,849 deaths by chemical fumes
 7 Uranium mine explosions [1, 6]
Johanngeorgendstadt, East Germany
November 29, 1949 3,700 deaths
 8 Gunpowder explosion in arsenal [5]
Brescia, Italy
1769 3,000+ deaths
 9 Office buildings collapsed due to fire started when airlines were flown into upper floors [4]
New York, New York, USA
September 11, 2001 2,749 civilian and firefighter deaths
 10 Riverfront conflagration. Reported as separate from #4B, which occurred the next day [5, 6]
Chungking, China
September 2, 1949 1,700 deaths
 11 Theater fire [3]
Canton, China
May 3, 1845 1,670 deaths
 12 Munitions ship explosion after collosion with relief ship [3]
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
December 6, 1917 1,654 deaths
 13 Coal mine explosion [6]
Honkeiko, Manchuria, China
February 12, 1931 1,549 deaths
 14 Steamship explosion
Mississippi River, USA
April 27, 1865 1,547 deaths
 15 City fire/conflagration [5, 6]
Hakodate, Japan
March 21, 1934 1,500 deaths
 16 Church fire [1]
Santiago, Chile
December 8, 1863 1,488-2,500 deaths
 17 Forest fire [4]
Peshtigo, Wisconsin, USA and environs
October 8, 1871 1,152 deaths
 18A Dynamite truck explosion [3, 4]
Cali, Columbia
August 7, 1956 1,100 deaths
 18B Refugee steamship explosion [5, 6]
East China Sea
December 3, 1948 1,100 deaths
 20 Coal mine explosion [1, 6]
Courrieres, France
March 10, 1906 1,060 deaths
 21 Steamship boiler explosion [4]
New York, New York, USA
June 15, 1904 1,030 deaths
 22 Fire spread from street market to army weapons depot, which suffered series of explosions [2]
Lagos, Nigeria
January 27, 2002 1,000+ deaths
 23 Gunpowder storehouse explosion [5, 6]
Salonika, Greece
August 4, 1898 1,000 deaths

Note: These are incidents known to NFPA from the sources cited and deemed to fit within the eligibility parameters, based on best available information. Terrorist incidents using explosives are excluded, but other terrorist incidents are not treated as wartime incidents and are not excluded. Incidents involving warships but not arising from conflict are not excluded.

Sources:

[1] Lee Davis, Man-Made Catastrophes, Facts on File, New York, 1993

[2] United Nations articles and reports

[3] The World Almanac 2003

[4] Fires in NFPA’s Fire Incident Data Organization (FIDO).

[5] James Cornell, The Great International Disaster Book, Pocket Books, New York, 1976.

[6] Various history websites.

Notes on excluded incidents with conflicting information: Several incidents would be eligible based on death tolls cited in some sources but are not included based on lower death tolls cited in what were deemed to be more reliable sources. A 2004 North Korea fuel train collision, explosion and fire has reported death tolls ranging from just over 100 to 3,000, with most sources citing the former, lower figure. The 1982 Salang Tunnel, Afghanistan fire has death tolls reported from 150 to 3,000, with less than 200 deaths apparently confirmed. A 1755 Lisbon, Portugal earthquake with 50,000 total deaths was said by one source to have had "thousands" of fire deaths within the total. An 1856 gunpowder explosion that destroyed a church on the Island of Rhodes, Greece, was said to have involved 4,000 deaths in one source but 800 deaths in another source. One source cites a munitions explosion in Bombay, India, 1944, as involving over 1,300 deaths but most sources put the death toll at 800 or less. One source cites a munitions ship explosion in a Russian harbor in 1917, killing 1,500, but it is not clear whether this was a wartime attack, occurring during World War I. The same source cites a 1946 naval ship fire in Haiphong Harbor, Vietnam, killing 6,000, but does not indicate whether this was due to a wartime attack.

Disclaimer: Death tolls are based on information in NFPA’s records. Please contact us at osds@nfpa.org to provide any updated information.    
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