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Top 10 Deadly Fires in Modern History


Fire is one of the most destructible forces in nature.  When fires begin to burn, spread,
and thrive off of oxygen, they are unstoppable.  On more then one occasion in history
entire cities were completely destroyed by massive fires.  Since the 20th century, growth
in human technology, expansive fire departments, and water access have greatly reduced
the amount of massively devastating fires.  Here is a list of the Top 10 most destructive
and deadly fires in modern history.

10. Station Nightclub Fire

Location - West Warwick, Rhode Island, U.S. 
Date - February 20, 2003


On February 20, 2003 the hard rock band Great White was set to perform at Station
Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island.  The band was using pyrotechnic sparks for
visual effect.  As they started their set a flash fire began when the stage props were set
ablaze.  Fire alarms were sounded and a crowd of over 400 people all rushed towards
the front exit.  People were panicking and a crush formed in the small and narrow
hallway leading to the exit.  This completely blocked the passage.  The entire club was
engulfed and burned to the ground in six minutes.  100 people were killed by the fire,
230 were injured, and only 132 made it out unharmed.
It is considered the fourth deadliest night club fire in United States history.  This tragedy
has greatly influenced national model building and fire safety codes in the United
States.  The building did not have a sprinkler system, which could have prevented
numerous deaths.  Following the fire both the club owner and band manager were
charged with 100 counts of criminal-negligence and manslaughter.  They were both
convicted and sentenced to 15 years, but have since been released from prison.


9. Four Courts Fire & Bombing

Location - Dublin, Ireland 
Date - April, 1922


The Four Courts in Dublin is the Republic of Ireland's main courts building.  It is the
location of the Supreme Court, High Court, Central Criminal Court and Dublin Circuit
Court.  The building was constructed between 1796 and 1802 by renowned architect
James Gandon.  The Four Courts was seized by Commandant Ned Daly’s 1st Battalion
during the Easter Rising in 1916, but survived British bombardment that destroyed
much of the city centre.  In April of 1922 the Four Courts was occupied by Republican
forces led by Rory O'Connor who opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty.  The Provisional
Government attacked the building in order to remove the rebels and it provoked a week
of fighting in Dublin.

When the anti-Treaty contingent became surrounded in the west wing of the building
they set off a bomb and deliberately started fires in hopes of destroying the building.
The fire was enormous and it engulfed the Irish Public Record Office destroying it
completely.  Nearly one thousand years of irreplaceable historical archives were
destroyed in this fire.  In 1932, Four Courts was rebuilt, remodeled, and was opened
again, although the exterior still shows signs of the events of 1922, with its façade
containing bullet holes.  The fire at Four Courts was so influential because it destroyed
so much valuable and irreplaceable world history.

8. Windsor Tower Fire

Location - Madrid, Spain

Date - February 12, 2005


The Windsor Tower was built in 1979 in the financial center of Madrid, Spain.  The
office building was 106 m high and had 32 floors, which made it the 8th tallest building
in Madrid.  Around midnight, on Saturday, February 12, 2005, a fire was detected on the
21st floor of the building.  It quickly spread to every floor in the building above the
2nd.  It took firefighters around 24 hours to distinguish the blaze.  There was extensive
slab damage to the structure and the building was totally destroyed by the fire.  It was
not equipped with sprinklers.  Seven firefighters were injured and nobody was killed in
the blaze.  The estimated cost of the damage was €22 million.  The Windsor tower fire
is considered one of the worst in the long history of Madrid.

It was initially thought that the fire was the result of an electrical fault, but some facts
have since come to light suggesting that it may have been arson.  Different amateur
videotapes showed two figures in silhouette inside the blazing building more than two
hours after it was supposedly evacuated.  The figures appeared to be moving about eight
floors below the core of the fire.  Some other videos show lights inside the building
after electricity was thought to have gone out.  Police also discovered that someone had
forced a door open that led to the underground garage of Windsor Tower.  The Windsor
Tower was a reinforced building with a concrete central core.  It was completely gutted
and burned for around 24 hours, although no full collapse occurred.  This has raised
many suspicions about the sudden collapse of the steel structured World Trade Centers
after only 1 hour of inferno.


7. Niterói Circus Fire

Location - Niterói, Brazil

Date - December 15, 1961 


Niterói is a municipality in the state of Rio de Janeiro, southeast region of Brazil.  The
state was founded on November 22, 1573 by the Tupi Amerindian chief Araribóia.  On
December 15, 1961, the Gran Circus Norte-Americano was performing in Niterói.  The
circus was a popular show and routinely sold out.  The organizers would set up multiple
huge tents for each act.  On this evening, one of the tents caught fire.  Within minutes
the entire tent was consumed by the flames and 323 people were killed by the blaze.  It is
one of the worst tragedies in Brazilian and circus show history.  Upon investigation the
case was determined to be arson, as a disgruntle employee lit the ten ablaze.  I could not
discover this individuals name or what happened to him.  I included a picture of the
1944 Hartford, Connecticut circus fire that killed 170 individuals.

Hartford, Connecticut Circus Fire

Read More About the Hartford Circus Fire

6. Cedar Fire

Location - California, U.S.

Date - October 2003


The Cedar Fire was a human-caused wildfire which burned out of control through a
large area of Southern California in October 2003.  The blaze was driven by Santa Ana
Winds and burned 280,278 acres, 2,820 buildings, and killed 15 people including one
firefighter.  It was the largest recorded fire in California history.  The Cedar Fire was
one of 15 fires throughout Southern California in October of 2003.  The collection of
fires burned
721,791 acres of land. 
The Cedar Fire forced the evacuation of the main
air traffic control facility for San Diego and Los Angeles, shutting down all commercial
air traffic in the area and disrupting air traffic across the United States.
It was started by Sergio Martinez of West Covina, California, who claimed he was
hunting in the area and had become lost.  At first he stated that the fire was started
accidentally by a gunshot, but later said he started the fire to signal rescuers.  He was
convicted of lying to a federal officer and sentenced to six months in jail.  The total cost
of damages from the 15 fires in October of 2003 was around 2 billion dollars.


5. L'Innovation Department Store Fire

Location - Brussels, Belgium

Date - May 22, 1967


The L'Innovation Department Store fire took place on May 22, 1967 in Brussels,
Belgium.  On May 5, 1967, an exhibit featuring American merchandise had begun in the
L'Innovation Department Store.  It created outrage among a pro China group named
"Action for the Peace and Independence of Peoples."  Leading up to the fire, picketing
outside of the store had taken place.  L'Innovation Department Store caught ablaze with
over 1,000 people in the store.  The structure lacked a sprinkler system and the entire
building burned to the ground in ten minutes.  Many customers rushed to the windows
and were forced to jump, as thick black smoke encompassed the main stairway.
322 people were killed in the fire and the event became a source of Cold War
controversy.  The origin of the fire is a source of confusion, with the store management
first stating that the inferno began in the first-floor children's wear department, but that
contradicted witness accounts that reported seeing exploding butane canisters in the
third floor camping department.  More controversy followed when one witness claimed
to have heard a person shout “I am giving my life for Vietnam” as the blaze began.  The
fire marked one of the worst catastrophes of the 20th century.

4. Cocoanut Grove Fire

Location - Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.

Date - November 28, 1942


The Cocoanut Grove was a nightclub in Boston, Massachusetts.  On the evening of
November 28, 1942, the club was filled with around 1,000 people, which was well
above the buildings official capacity of 460.  The structure was decorated in a
Casablanca tropical style.  The restaurant, bars, and lounges inside contained flammable
paper palm trees, cloth draperies covering the ceiling, flammable furniture, and other
flimsy decorations, some of which obscured exit signs.  Official reports state that piano
player Goody Goodelle removed a light bulb in a corner of the club in order to give him
and his date some privacy.  While replacing the bulb Goody dropped it and could not
find it, so he lit a match, which ignited palm fronds draped above the tables.

The blaze quickly spread and a fire ball burst across the central dance floor.  The entire
club was on fire in five minutes.  Many patrons attempted to exit through the main door,
which was a single revolving door and quickly became useless as a human crush
formed.  The Cocoanut Grove fire remains the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, as
492 people were killed and hundreds more were injured.  It is the second deadliest
single-building fire in U.S. history, followed only by the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903.
The tragedy shocked America and briefly replaced World War II news headlines.  Like
most influential fires it directly led to a reform of all buildings fire codes and safety
standards.  The club’s owner was the mafia linked Barney Welansky, who was
eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter.


3. Happy Valley Racecourse Fire

Location - Happy Valley, Hong Kong Island

Date - February 26, 1918


Happy Valley Horse Racing Track is one of two tracks in Hong Kong.  It is located in
Happy Valley on Hong Kong Island.  It was first built in 1845 to provide horse racing
for the British in Hong Kong, but the sport soon became popular with Chinese citizens.
The track made its racing debut in December of 1846.  On February 26, 1918, the
grounds suffered an enormous and historic fire which killed around 600 people.  It is
unclear how the fire began, but it quickly spread and the structure was an entire loss.
Many people became trapped, as construction of the building did not include well
positioned exits.  The Happy Valley Racecourse Fire produced one of worst disasters
and highest number of casualties in Hong Kong history.  The track was rebuilt in 1995
and has since become a world-class horse racing facility.  In Happy Valley, several
football, hockey, and rugby fields are encircled by the horseracing track.  It is a unique
place and in the dead of the night some ghostly phenomenon have been reported in the

2. Iroquois Theater Fire

Location - Chicago, U.S.

Date - December 30, 1903


The Iroquois Theater was located in North Chicago and opened on November 23, 1903.
The building was actually advertised as “Absolutely Fireproof" on its playbills.  On
December 30, 1903, an enormous fire occurred during a matinée showing of the
popular musical Mr. Bluebeard starring Eddie Foy.  The theatre was packed with 2000
viewers.  The majority of the audience was women and children who were on holiday
break from school.  During the viewing an arc light shorted out and ignited a muslin
curtain, which then spread to the backdrops, high above the stage, where thousands of
painted canvas scenery flats were hung.  The theatre quickly became engulfed in flames.
The blaze took the lives of 602 people within 20 minutes.  It remains the deadliest
single-building fire in U.S. history.  The theatre was not built to sustain fire and many of
the fire exit doors in the auditorium were hidden behind curtains and were not marked.

The metal doors of the fire exits were equipped with bascule locks.  Bascule locks were
used in European theaters but were virtually unknown to Americans and required the
operation of a small lever.  Most of the lobby doors were locked.  The balcony stairs
were blocked by locked gates.  The unfinished fire escapes of the six-story tall building
prevented many people from escaping alive, over 100 bodies lay in the alley after the
fire, but their bodies ending up saving the lives of many as they cushioned the landing of
those who were pushed or jumped.  The fire resulted in the development of the first
panic exit device by the Von Duprin exit device company.  Panic exit devices are now
required for high-occupancy spaces.


1. The World Trade Center Fires

Location - New York, U.S.

Date - September 11, 2001


Some of the most infamous fires in history are the ones that brought down the World
Trade Centers on September 11, 2001.  On the morning of 9/11 two hijacked aircrafts
crashed into the World Trade Centers.  Fire consumed numerous floors of the
buildings.  The Twin Towers completely collapsed 56 and 103 minutes after the plane’s
impact.  In all 2,974 people died in the attacks.  Studies by the U.S. Government
concluded that the heat from the fires melted the infrastructure and caused numerous
floors to pancake and collapse upon each other.

It was determined by investigators that the fireproofing on the Twin Towers' steel
infrastructures was blown off by the initial impact of the planes.  The fires weakened the
trusses supporting the floors, making the floors sag.  The sagging floors pulled on the
exterior steel columns to the point where the exterior columns bowed inward. With the
damage to the core columns, the buckling exterior columns could no longer support the
buildings, causing them to collapse.  You might wonder why the building fell at almost
a free fall, as the lower levels were not damaged by fire.  I can’t answer that one?  It was
the first time a steel structure completely gave way and collapsed from fire and not
controlled demolition.  


Here’s One More

1967 Tasmanian Fires

Location - Tasmania, Australia

Date - February 7, 1967


The 1967 Tasmanian fires were an Australian natural disaster, which became known as
the Black Tuesday bushfires.  In November of 1966, Tasmania began its driest eight
month period since 1885.  By February 7th, 125 separate fire fronts were ablaze in the
area.  A very strong wind from the north-west led to disaster.  Around 2,640 square
kilometres (652,360 acres) of land in Southern Tasmania burned within the space of
five hours.  The fire destroyed forest, public infrastructure, and properties all over the
area.  The worst of the fires was the Hobart Fire, which landed upon the city of Hobart.
In total, the fires claimed 62 lives and 52 people died in the Hobart area.
Property loss was also extensive with 1293 homes and over 1700 buildings being
destroyed.  The fires destroyed 80 bridges, 4800 sections of power lines, 1500 motor
vehicles, and over 100 other structures.  It was estimated that 62,000 livestock were
killed, with the total damage reaching $45 million in 1967 Australian dollar values.
Thousands of Australian citizens were left homeless by the 1967 Tasmanian Fires.  It is
considered one of the worst disasters in Australian history.


Anonymous - September 10, 2009 at 9:19 AM
You forgot the bombing of Tokyo, which killed, oh I dunno, 100,000 or so people?  Seems like it
should be on the list of the "Top 10 Destructive and Deadly Fires in Modern History."

Bryan - September 11, 2009 at 1:21 PM
I agree that was a horrible incident in wartime history.  The firebombing of Tokyo definently created
some of the most destructive and deadly fire chains in modern history.  This list focused more on
single building and mass brush fires, but many other tragic incidents could have been included. 

Grovemaster - July 20, 2010

Oops. Your summation of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire of November 28, 1942,
is basically correct.  But, Goody Goodelle had nothing to do with the start of the
fire.  He was actually a she, a female pianist/singer, and she was playing the song
'Bell Bottom Trousers' at the bar piano when the blaze began.  The individual who
unscrewed the small bulb to have more privacy with his date was a serviceman in
uniform, who was never definitively identified.  Also, the official count of dead was
not 492 as is often misreported, but 490 - three of which were passing rescue
workers.  Few fire laws were changed because of this horrible tragedy, but
greater emphasis was placed on enforcement of existing laws.

Storm - July 23, 2010
The Shirtwaist Fire in New York had a huge death toll due to the fact the manager
wouldn’t let people out.  There was also a fire in a nightclub/ Gay church in New

Copyright The List Blog - Top 10, All Rights Reserved, Posted August 22, 2009