Author(s): Matthew Foley. Published on March 1, 2020.


The 1930 Ohio State Penitentiary fire 


On April 21, 1930, inmates housed in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, enjoyed an Easter Monday meal before being locked in their cells. The prison was notorious for overcrowding—at the time, about 4,300 inmates were packed into the facility, which was designed for a third of that number. There was no evacuation plan. The warden would later say that, in the event of a fire, he hoped the guards would use their common sense.

Around 5:30 p.m., a prisoner noticed smoke near the ceiling. He cried for help, but the guards assumed it was a prank and ignored the warning. Within minutes, the wooden roof was engulfed in flames. Inmates screamed and rattled the bars that trapped them, watching helplessly as the fire spread from cell to cell. But the master key-keeper refused to free them, fearing what the men might do.

Warden Preston Thomas’ top priority was to prevent escapes, and National Guard troops, along with Columbus City Police, were called to surround the prison. As the warden’s daughter distributed machine guns and ammunition to the extra security forces, screams from the trapped inmates echoed through the prison yard. Arriving firefighters were denied entry; only when all four sides of the prison were surrounded were they finally allowed to enter the building.

Inside, several guards frantically sought the approval to release prisoners, while others made the choice to unlock cells in an attempt to save lives. “They were literally being burned alive before our eyes” recounted one guard in a 1980 Firehouse article. Rather than attempt escape, many of the freed inmates tried to save those still locked behind bars. One prisoner, known as “the Deacon,” seized the prison radio system and shared live updates through the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). “After watching my fellow prisoners during the height of the horrors, I am glad to call them brothers,” he said during the live broadcast. He later received $500 from CBS, which thanked him for his first-hand reporting.

The fire killed 320 people, according to NFPA records, and injured 133 others, making it the deadliest prison fire in US history. Many people had believed the prison was fireproof despite its wooden roof. When Warden Thomas was asked why the building did not include any fire protection systems, he explained that the Columbus Fire Brigade could reach the prison in a matter of minutes “and therefore prison fire protection was unnecessary,” according to Firehouse.

The legacy of the fire lives on in today’s building codes, most notably through the requirement of automatic sprinkler systems in jails and prisons. However, there is still much work to be done. Between 2010 and 2014, only 56 percent of these occupancies where fires were reported were protected by automatic sprinkler systems.

MATTHEW FOLEY is a former junior applied researcher at NFPA. Top photograph: AP/Wide World