Saturday, January 13, 2007

This Date in Fire History - Jan 11, 12, 13

Jan. 11: The second devastating fire in 24 years ripped through Savannah, GA, destroying 463 houses in about 8 hours (the first fire, in 1796, destroyed 2/3 of the city). The city virtually ceased to exist, according to The fire started in a livery stable and spread quickly, due to a months-long drought, the explosion of stored gunpowder, and the wooden structures prevalent in the city. From the Savannah-online article:

The bright orange flames, set against the black night, would have been a beautiful sight if not for the misery and destruction they created.

The fire and a subsequent yellow fever outbreak had claimed 695 lives by the end of the year.

One of the major changes to come from the fire was the establishment of new fire companies and the purchase of firefighting equipment. Two of the companies – the Union Ax and Fire Co and the Franklin Fire Engine and Hose Co – were formed by 75 “free men of color,” making them probably among the earliest black fire brigades. The first primarily white fire companies weren’t formed until 1845.

After a reorganization in 1826, the firefighters were paid a stipend of “121 cents per hour,” an unheard-of amount for blacks in those days.

Jan. 12: A little more than four years after the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago killed 602, another fire claimed 170 at the Rhodes Opera House in Boyertown, PA.

Because of Boyertown’s size, this fire had a much greater impact on its community than the Cocoanut Grove or Iroquois fires had on their respective cities.

According to an analysis by Arup Fire for the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, some of the factors contributing to the death toll were locked exits, flammable interior finishes, and “crowd crush” or panic… some of the same factors that contributed to the deaths in the 2003 fire at The Station Night Club. In the ten largest loss-of-live fires in theatres, stretching from 1811 to 2003, all of them – every one of them – involved flammable interior finishes. Other sobering findings:

  • Eight of the ten involved blocked or hidden fire exits
  • Five had locked exits
  • Seven had insufficient exit capacity
  • Seven involved panicked crowds
  • Three – including the Station – had exits doors opening into the building – against the flow of exiting persons.

Jan. 13: A coal mine fire in Wilburton, OK, killed 91 in 1926. According to one account, one cemetery had at least 50 open graves one Saturday, awaiting those to be interred. One survivor, “Sam”, a mule, was finally rescued after 168 hours in the shaft.

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