Stay Alert to Survive a Public Fire

Large-loss fires are due to oversights in public safety; professionals must design buildings in compliance with applicable codes; authorities must verify proper construction; owners and staff must maintain safe environments; and individuals must be aware of their surroundings. People, such as patients or inebriated patrons, are not always expected to be responsible for their preservation. In these situations, responsible parties must thoroughly understand their role in occupant safety. The following are samples of large-loss fires in assembly spaces. They demonstrate the consequences of oversight in public safety and have led to major changes in regulation to prevent the reoccurrence of such tragedies.

Iroquois Theatre

On December 30, 1903, the deadliest building fire in United States history occurred in Chicago, Illinois. An overpacked Iroquois Theatre caught fire, resulting in the death of over 600 people.1

The fire began high above the theater’s stage when a lamp sparked and ignited a nearby curtain. Flames quickly spread throughout the fly gallery as occupants started to flee. When performers and stagehands escaped through the stage’s exterior doors, a blast of air rushed into the building to fuel the fire. Vents above the stage were fastened shut and the stage curtain was stuck open. Thus, fire and hot gases jetted into the audience viewing room. Patrons who attempted to flee the theater were hindered by improper means of egress. Including exits that were hidden, locked shut, and secured by cumbersome door hardware. Patrons who got to the fire escapes realized they were exposed to fire. According to Cooke, when the fire escapes’ doors were opened, they themselves became obstacles. This prevented continued descent by those upstream of each door, trapping people in place.

Current codes require stages to be equipped with fire curtains and roof vents. During a stage fire, a stage should effectively become a chimney, shielding occupants and exits from fire, hot gases, and smoke. Current codes also require exits to be well marked. Exits serving an occupant load greater than 99 people must also incorporate panic or fire exit hardware. Nowadays, only select existing occupancies use fire escapes.

Cocoanut Grove

On November 28, 1942, the second deadliest building fire in United States history occurred in Boston, Massachusetts. The popular Cocoanut Grove nightclub caught fire, resulting in the death of at least 490 people.2

Although the source of ignition was never verified, it’s known that the fire started in the basement of the one-story building. In an area known as the Melody Lounge. The fire was first seen in a fake palm tree. It rapidly spread throughout the room, along the underside of a false ceiling, until it reached and ascended a nearby stair to the first floor. Per Reilly, there was a deficiency of oxygen in the lounge, resulting in incomplete combustion. The fire spread quickly throughout the club as partially burned gases were throttled to the nearest available outlets by temperature and pressure differentials. The threat of such a fast-moving fire was compounded by light failure, crowded table arrangements, and improper means of egress. Exits were equipped with panic hardware. However, some were hidden by drapery and others were chained shut to prevent customers from leaving without paying. Furthermore, the main exit was comprised of a revolving door that become clogged as patrons succumbed to fire and toxic gas.

According to Reilly, tables and chairs were tossed as patrons tried to exit the club. Current codes require design professionals to submit seating layouts. Thus, patrons are provided adequate aisles and aisle accessways to reach the means of egress. Current codes don’t consider revolving doors as exits. Nowadays, codes require revolving doors to be accompanied by exits with side swinging leaves. Current codes also prohibit the padlocking of exits.

The Station Nightclub

One of the most well-known building fires in recent history is the Station Nightclub. It occurred on February 20, 2003, in West Warwick, Rhode Island, and is responsible for the death of 100 people.

The heavy metal band “Great White” was performing when pyrotechnics ignited the soundproofing behind the stage. The nightclub contained a hazardous mix of building contents and was not protected by an automatic sprinkler system. Thus, the fire spread at a rapid pace, engulfing the facility in a matter of minutes. Once the danger was realized, occupants moved to the main entrance where they plugged the entryway and succumbed to fire and toxic gas.

Current codes require nightclubs and large assembly occupancies (with occupant loads exceeding 300 people) to be equipped with automatic sprinkler systems. Such systems aid to prevent flashover and provide time for occupants to escape a fire. Nowadays, crowd managers are required to be present at assembly occupancies. These persons are responsible for understanding the duties specific to a venue’s emergency plan.


Codes continuously evolve to include the most recent understanding of fire and life safety design. Professionals and authorities use standards to the best of their abilities to ensure safe building layouts. However, life safety systems are only as good as they are maintained. It’s the responsibility of owners and staff to maintain safe and operational means of egress. It’s then the responsibility of individuals to be aware of their surroundings. When entering a place of assembly, locate the nearest exits. Most people are programmed to run out the same door they entered. This can lead to bottlenecking and plugging of exits, as demonstrated by tragedies such as the Station Nightclub fire. Evacuations are much more efficient when people disperse through multiple egress points, as intended by general building design.

Written By: Mark Richards, PE

1 Cooke, Judy. “Website Devoted to 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago.” Iroquois Theatre. 2016. 22 May 2017 <>

2 Reilly, William A. Report Concerning the Cocoanut Grove Fire. Boston: Boston Fire Department, 1943. Print

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