Author(s): Mary Elizabeth Woodruff. Published on May 2, 2016.

Lodging’s annus horribilus

THE HOTEL FIRES OF 1946 » Chicago, Illinois; Dubuque, Iowa; and Atlanta, Georgia.


JUNE 1946 WAS A PARTICULARLY devastating month for hotel fires, when 80 people died and dozens more were injured in two major blazes. In December of that year, a third and even more devastating hotel fire occurred, prompting national calls for improved fire protection.

On the night of June 5, a fire broke out at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago and smoldered for an unknown length of time. Once it was detected there was a delay of up to 15 minutes before the fire department was notified. Open stairways ran from the hotel’s basement to its nineteenth floor, allowing smoke and heat to spread throughout the upper levels of the building. Recent renovations to the building created additional hazards; exhaust ventilation for a newly refurbished cocktail lounge was created by cutting a hole in the elevator shaft, which acted like a chimney for the fire and further spread smoke and heat. The newly renovated spaces also included highly flammable materials. In tests conducted following the blaze, fire spread on the face of the new walnut veneer paneling five times faster than on plain red oak panels. There were more than 1,000 guests and employees in the hotel that evening, and most exited via fire escapes on the exterior of the building. Even so, the fire killed 61 people. Neither automatic sprinklers nor automatic fire alarm systems were present.

On June 19, 19 people died and dozens were injured in a fire at the Hotel Canfield in Dubuque, Iowa. The blaze shared many similarities with the LaSalle Hotel fire: highly combustible furnishings helped the fire spread; smoke and heat moved unchecked via open staircases; and fire doors did not operate quickly enough to save lives. There were no sprinklers or fire alarms.

But those fires were dwarfed by the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta on December 7. Of the 304 guests in the hotel that night, 119 died—many by jumping from the upper floors of the 15-story building—and 65 were injured. In its aftermath, advocates called for a new push to strengthen safety standards. “If real results are to be accomplished . . . steps must be taken to prevent fire and panic in all places where numbers of people live or congregate,” read an NFPA statement. “The measures to protect all such places should be taken before the disaster and not after.”

In 1947, President Truman called for a National Conference on Fire Prevention. “The serious losses of life and property resulting annually from fires cause me deep concern,” he said. “The substantial progress made in the science of fire prevention and fire protection in this country during the past 40 years convinces me that the means are available for limiting this unnecessary destruction.” Provisions that emerged from that conference and others, such as protected means of egress and self-closing fire-resistive doors, were incorporated into NFPA’s Building Exits Code—the precursor to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®—which served as a model for safety legislation adopted around the country.

MARY ELIZABETH WOODRUFF is the manager of Library and Informational Resources at NFPA. Top Photograph: AP/Wide World