Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on September 1, 2011.

Rescue workers aid fire victims at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, on April 21, 1930. (Photo: AP Wide World Photos)

More than 300 inmates perished in a 1930 Ohio prison fire

NFPA Journal®, September/October 2011 

"It seemed like a thousand men were yelling and beating on the bars. I could hear one voice that was very shrill, screaming, ‘For God’s sake, let me out. I’m burning — I’m burning!’ It was too much for me, and I ran away from the building. When I came back 15 minutes later, most of the cries had stopped."

The building he ran from was the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, and the speaker, quoted in the New York Times, was the operator of a filling station near the southwest corner of the prison. The day was April 21, 1930, when more than 300 inmates died in what is still the single deadliest prison fire in United States history.

The fire, which officials believed was started by several convicts bent on escaping, started after the inmates returned from dinner around 5:30 p.m. and were locked in their cells for the night. The first alarm was sounded at 5:50 p.m., and within the space of about an hour, according to the Times, the fire "swept through four cell blocks and wiped out the lives of more than 300 men."

City firefighters who rushed to the prison were met with a scene of almost unimaginable horror, as hundreds of convicts trapped by the encroaching fire cried for help. Their only means of escape was through the locked cell doors — and, according to survivors quoted in the Times, a guard "told the convicts that he had no authority to release them from their cells, explaining that he had to wait for the command from his superiors." Eventually, the cell doors were unlocked, but for hundreds of prisoners it was too late.

As the chaos grew, Warden Preston Thomas called for state and federal troops to help control the released men. The Associated Press reported that, outside the overcrowded prison, "National Guardsmen stood rigid, facing the prison walls. At the main gate, the regular army troops stood with bayonets affixed to their rifles." Columbus policemen patrolled the streets nearby. 

Outside the penitentiary walls, guards trained machine guns on the prison windows. When they heard men screaming in the burning cellblocks, however, "guards and convicts forgot their positions and joined hands in the common effort to save the men who were trapped," according to the Times.

The final number of dead was placed at 319. Property damage was estimated at $11,000.

— Kathleen Robinson