FIRES

A list of some of the world’s worst fires and the criminal trial proceedings which followed them.

Warning: The video clips here do contain distressing scenes. Not to be viewed by children or those of a sensitive disposition.

BEVERLY HILLS SUPPER CLUB, KENTUCKY – 1977

On 28 May 1977 a fire broke out at the Beverly Hills Supper Club, a popular entertainment venue just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in Southgate, Kentucky. The guests enjoyed banquets and cabaret shows. The fire claimed the lives of 165 people. An investigation discovered the Cabaret Room was filled to double its capacity and there were a number of fire code violations in the building. The club’s owners, the Schilling family, were never prosecuted in a criminal court but did face several civil lawsuits. In 2012 author Robert Webster published a book which claimed the fire was actually arson, started by the mafia after the Schillings refused to sell them the lucrative club. In 2020 the Cincinnati-based Vision Realty Group were given permission for a $65m housing project on the site, despite the objections of victims and first responders.

CLUB COLLECTIV, BUCHAREST – 2015

On 30 October 2015 a fire broke out in the Colectiv club in the Romanian capital, Bucharest. A band called Goodbye to Gravity used a pyrotechnic display but the club’s polyurethane acoustic foam caught alight. The band’s guitarists Vlad Țelea and Mihai Alexandru, as well as drummer Bogdan Lavinius and bassist Alex Pascu were among the 27 who died on the night. Another 37 people died from wounds which became infected in hospital as a result of corruption and malfeasance. The Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta resigned on 5 November as a result of the fiasco. The club’s owner Alin George Anastasescu and two associates, Costin Mincu and Paul Cătălin Gancea, were arrested on 2 November for negligent homicide. They still have not gone on trial as of Nov 2020. The corruption, especially in Romanian hospitals, which was revealed by the fire was highlighted in the documentary Collective.

LAME HORSE NIGHTCLUB, PERM, 2009

On 5 December 2009 a pyrotechnics display in the Lame Horse nightclub in the Russian city of Perm went wrong, catching light to the roof. The fire spread rapidly and video footage showed the 300 people in the club desperately tried to get out. In the video the MC, who had been compering a competition, suddenly says: “We are on fire. Please leave the premises.” Around 111 people died that night, and another 45 succumbed to their injuries in hospital over the next few days. The Russian government reacted quickly to the disaster, forcing the resignation of officials in the city of Perm and prosecuting the club’s owner Anatoly Zak and several others.In April 2013 Zak was jailed for nine years and several others held culpable were also sent to prison.

THE STATION NIGHTCLUB, RHODE ISLAND – 2003

In February 2003 a rock band, Great White, set off pyrotechnics at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island, US, leading to a fire which killed 100 people. Great White’s tour manager, Daniel Biechele, 26, from Florida, pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and was jailed for 15 years, 11 of them suspended. The Station’s owners, Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, pleaded no contest. Michael Derderian received 15 years in prison, with 11 suspended. Jeffrey Derderian received a 10-year suspended sentence, three years’ probation, and 500 hours of community service. Litigation by the families of the victims led to $115 million being paid out by various insurers.

IROQUOIS THEATER, CHICAGO 1903

In the early part of the 19th century the theater industry was booming in the United States with millions of Americans flocking to see shows not just on Broadway but in all the major cities. But it took a horrific fire at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago, which killed 602 people, before politicians realised that many of these auditoriums were death traps. The fire on 30 December 1903 began when the stage curtain caught fire and it spread rapidly. Many in the audience died in their seats, asphyxiated by the acrid smoke. The theater had 30 exits but 27 of them were blocked or opened out into mid-air. Many victims died after trying to jump to safety. State and federal legislation was introduced in the wake of the blaze which introduced maximum seating capacities, ventilation and fire exit improvements, regular inspections and tougher penalties for flouting the law. These were copied by many European countries.

JOELMA TOWER BLOCK, SAO PAULO, 1974

In February 1974 a fire at the Joelma Building in Sao Paulo claimed 179 lives. The full horror of the fire, which was triggered by a spark from a malfunctioning air conditioner, was brought home by television cameras which showed residents on the upper floors of the 25-storey building climbing onto their balconies as they tried to escape the flames. The majority of the 756 people in the building escaped but it was the worst tower block fire of the 20th century and happened only weeks before the Hollywood film The Towering Inferno, starring Steve McQueen, came out. The fire helped to erode confidence in Brazil’s military government, which would finally restore democracy in 1979.

COCOANUT GROVE NIGHTCLUB, BOSTON, 1942

Nightclubs have sadly seen many disasters over the years but the worst of them all was the blaze at the Cocoanut Grove in Boston in 1942.The owners, in their greedy search for maximum profits, had scrimped on safe exits and used highly flammable materials in the basement bar, which was where the blaze started. They also ignored the safety capacity of 600 and on the night of the fire an estimated 1,000 people were inside. The fire tore through the club in less than 12 minutes, killing 492 people. One of the major lessons learnt from the fire was the lethal flaw in having revolving doors at the exit. Almost half of the deaths resulted from people being unable to operate the revolving doors at the main entrance because of the panic and the crushing. The fire led to major changes in fire safety legislation and building codes.

MGM GRAND, LAS VEGAS, 1980

On 21 November 1980 a small fire broke out in a kitchen in the giant MGM Grand casino resort in Las Vegas around breakfast time. The fire spread rapidly and 87 people died, mostly from smoke inhalation. Dozens of others were dramatically rescued from the rooftop by helicopters but the fire brigade could not reach countless others as their ladders only reached the ninth floor. The MGM Grand later moved to its present location and the site became a Bally’s casino.

GRENFELL TOWER, LONDON, 2017

Just after midnight on 14 June 2017 a fire broke out in a refrigerator in a fourth floor flat in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey block in North Kensington, London. The fire rapidly spread up the side of the building and most of those who died were on the top floors of the tower. The fire caused 72 deaths, including those of two victims who later died in hospital. More than 70 others were injured and 223 people escaped. The Metropolitan Police, led by Commander Stuart Cundy, are currently investigating possible criminal malpractice by those involved in the 2016 refurbishment of the tower, which involved putting on a flammable exterior cladding. The Grenfell Inquiry is also hearing witnesses on what caused the fire.

 

TRIANGLE FACTORY, NEW YORK, 1911

Nowadays New York’s main industry is the financial sector but before the First World War it was a thriving manufacturing centre. Downtown Manhattan was full of factories producing everything from clothes to furniture. But many of these places were little more than “sweatshops” and they used buildings which had not been designed as factories and had numerous safety flaws. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied three floors of a 10-storey building and when a fire broke out there one day in March 1911 it led to the deaths of 146 workers, mainly women who had immigrated to the US. The factory’s owners had locked most of the exit doors to prevent workers pilfering material and an inspector’s recommendation of regular fire drills had been ignored. After the fire a commission was set up to introduce factory working conditions and the city also set up the first fire prevention bureau.

KYOTO ANIMATION, JAPAN – 2019

On 18 July 2019 Shinji Aoba, 41, walked into the offices of Kyoto Animation, one of Japan’s most popular producers of manga and anime. He sprayed petrol around the office and then ignited it. The blaze killed 33 people and another 36 ended up in the hospital with burns or smoke inhalation. Kyoto Animation (or KyoAni) produced hit shows like K-On!, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and A Silent Voice. Aoba, who also suffered burn injuries, fled the scene but was arrested near Rokujizo station. He confessed to starting the fire and claimed the company had plagiarised his ideas in an animated novel, Tsurune. Kyoto Animation later revealed they had received a draft novel from Aoba but had rejected it and they denied copying any ideas from it. Aoba spent months recovering from his injuries in hospital and in May 2020 was finally well enough to be formally charged with murder and arson. He has a history of mental illness and it is thought unlikely he will face the death penalty if convicted.

 

DREAM CITY, LONDON, 1994

On 26 February 1994 a fire broke out in the illicit Dream City cinema in Clerkenwell, central London. The unlicensed cinema – also known as New City – showed pornographic movies and operated on the second and third floors of the building. At the time of the fire it was showing gay porn and the 11 men who died were all believed to be homosexuals. Because of its illicit nature the cinema was not subject to fire inspections. The fire was started by David Lauwers, known as Deaf Dave, a homeless man who held a grudge with a doorman at the venue who insisted he had to pay the entry fee again when he left and then returned. Lauwers returned with a can of petrol and set fire to the entrance area. Eight men died at the scene, seven from smoke inhalation and one from injuries sustained from jumping from a high window. Three others died in hospital later. Lauwers initially pleaded not guilty to manslaughter but changed his plea at the end of the prosecution case and was jailed for life.

COCOANUT GROVE, BOSTON – 1942

The death toll from the worst nightclub fire in history was 492 but the blaze at the Cocoanut Grove in Boston barely registered as a news event because it happened right in the middle of the Second World War. US troops were engaged in the six-month Battle of Guadalcanal, which would claim 7,000 American lives, so there was little sympathy for those civilians who died on a fun night out at home. The fire started when a busboy lit a match too close to the decorations in the club’s basement. An artificial palm tree burst into flames and the fireball hurtled up the stairs. Those who died succumbed to burns, smoke inhalation or stampede injuries. One of the reasons the death toll was so high was that the club had revolving doors at the entrance and these got stuck during the panic to escape.

HAPPY LAND, BRONX, 1990

On 25 March 1990 an unemployed Cuban immigrant, Julio González, set fire to the ironically named Happy Land nightclub in New York’s Bronx district, killing 87 people. González started the fire after a row with a bouncer who had thrown him out after he argued violently with his girlfriend Lydia Feliciano, a hat check girl. Only six of those in the club made it out alive, one of whom was Lydia. The club had no fire escapes, sprinklers or alarms and New York city council had failed to enforce building codes. González was jailed for life and died in prison in 2016, aged 61, of a heart attack.

GOTHENBURG DISCO, SWEDEN – 1998

On 29 October 1998 a fire broke out in an industrial building on Hisingen island in Gothenburg which had been hired by the Macedonian community for a Halloween party. It was originally assumed that the arsonists were xenophobic racists. But it later turned out they were four Iranian migrant youths. Shoresh Kaveh, Housein Arsani, Mohammad Mohammadamini and Meysam Mohammadyeh had got angry after being refused entry and poured petrol over the emergency stairwell leading from the disco. The fire spread rapidly and 63 people died, with 250 injured. The teenager arsonists were given sentences of no more than eight years in jail, which led to an outcry.

DENMARK PLACE, LONDON – 1980

 In the 1970s and early 1980s London’s Soho district was very different than it is today. It was seedy and sleazy and contained dozens of unlicensed drinking establishments and brothels. 18 Denmark Place, just off Charing Cross Road, was once such place. Known as The Spanish Rooms, it houses two illegal bars El Hueco and Rodo’s, which were frequented mainly by Colombians and other Latin American immigrants. At 3am John Thompson, a 42-year-old Scotsman nicknamed Punch, accused the barman of overcharging him for a drink and was slung out by a bouncer. Thompson, who was high on drugs, happened to find an empty jerry can nearby and took a cab to Camden where he filled it up with petrol and returned to Denmark Place where he torched the Spanish Rooms. The blaze killed 37 people and Thompson was jailed for life, dying in prison in 2008. The fire is largely forgotten, probably because most of the victims were Spanish or Latin American.

WHISKEY AU GO GO, BRISBANE – 1973

On 8 March 1973 the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in the Australian city of Brisbane was firebombed. Fifteen people died after two men lit petrol at the entrance. James Finch and John Stuart both claimed they were innocent and while in jail Stuart went on hunger strike, leading to his death after just six days. Finch appealed his conviction and was released in 1988. He was deported to Britain and then gave a TV interview in which he admitted the pair had been responsible for the fire. He retracted that statement after being warned he faced extradited back to Australia for prosecution. A new inquest into the fire is pending and in March 2019 77-year-old Billy Stokes claimed the mastermind behind the fire was a Brisbane businessman.

BLUE BIRD CAFE, MONTREAL – 1972

 On 1 September 1972 a building containing the Blue Bird Cafe in Montreal, Quebec, caught fire. The building housed the cafe on the ground floor and a Wild West themed bar called the Wagon Wheel on the upper floor. Three men – James O’Brien, Gilles Eccles and Jean-Marc Boutin, who had been turned away from the Wagon Wheel by a doorman, returned drunk and set fire to the stairwell with petrol. They hoped the commotion would get the bouncer fired but the blaze quickly took hold and 37 people died. Eccles was arrested an hour later but the other two fled to Vancouver. All three were eventually jailed for life but were all paroled after just 10 years. In August 2020 O’Brien was accused of violating the terms of his parole. The bar owner Leopold Paré was sued for allowing the fire exit to be blocked.

NEW CROSS PARTY, LONDON – 1981

On Saturday 17 January 1981 Yvonne Ruddock invited friends over to her home in New Cross, south-east London, to celebrate her 16th birthday. In the early hours of the following morning someone started a fire inside the house. It quickly spread and 13 of the 100 guests were killed. All were black and between 14 and 22. A survivor committed suicide two years later. The police were accused of a shoddy investigation and nobody has ever been charged in connection with a fire, despite a reinvestigation in 2001. Linton Kwesi Johnson composed a song, in patois – New Crass Massakah – about the tragedy.

UPSTAIRS LOUNGE, NEW ORLEANS – 1973

On 24 June 1973 a fire broke out in the UpStairs Lounge in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The fire killed 32 people, most of them from the city’s homosexual community. The prime suspect Roger Nunez, who was himself gay, committed suicide a week later. He had been ejected from the club and bore a grudge. Yes, that old story again.

STARDUST, DUBLIN – 1981

In the early hours of 14 February 1981 – St Valentine’s Day – a fire took hold in the Stardust nightclub in the Artane district of Dublin. There were 800 people at the club, a converted former factory, 48 died – including Susan Morgan from Londonderry and James Millar and Robert Hillock from Twinbrook, in west Belfast – and 200 people were injured. A tribunal, chaired by Mr Justice Ronan Keane, was held in 1982 and concluded the cause was “probably arson”, which was contested by the victims’ families. The suggestion of arson meant the victims could not get compensation from the owners of the building, the Butterly family, despite claims about blocked fire exits. The Butterly family claimed £3m in compensation from Dublin Corporation. In 2009 an independent examination into the tribunal reported there was no evidence to support Mr Justice Keane’s finding that the fire was started deliberately near the ballroom. In 2019 the Republic of Ireland’s Attorney General decided a new inquest would take place.

GULLIVER’S NIGHTCLUB, PORT CHESTER – 1974

On 30 June 1974 a fire broke out in a bowling alley discotheque in Port Chester, about 20 miles north of New York city. It spread to a neighbouring discotheque and 24 people died. The culprit was Peter Leonard, 33, who had started the fire as a distraction while he burgled the bowling alley. Leonard was originally jailed for life for murder but his conviction was overturned when he claimed the police beat a confession out of him. He eventually served 12 years for reckless manslaughter. The judge said to him: “You’re certainly not an all-American boy, but you’re not a vicious killer either.”

SUMMERLAND, ISLE OF MAN – 1973

On 2 August 1973 a fire broke out in Summerland, a state-of-the-art leisure centre which had been opened in Douglas, Isle of Man, only 18 months earlier. Fifty people died, including five members of a family from Essex. The shiny new venue – designed for holidaymakers to use on rainy days in the great British summer – was designed to hold 10,000 people on five floors and included swimming pools, amusement arcades and a subterranean discotheque. At around 7.3opm the blaze broke out in a disused kiosk – reportedly after three boys discarded a cigarette while surreptitiously smoking. The fire spread quickly and was exacerbated when acrylic glass sheeting called Oroglas turned molten. It was dubbed “horrorglass” in the press. A public inquiry chaired by Mr Justice Joseph Cantley published a report in May 1974 and returned a verdict of death by misadventure.

VALLEY PARADE, BRADFORD – 1985

On 11 May 1985 Bradford City, who had just been promoted to the third tier of English football, were playing at home to Lincoln City in an end-of-season match at their historic old Valley Parade stadium. Before the game Trevor Cherry’s team had been awarded the Fourth Division trophy and fans were in celebratory mood. The game was approaching was half time when commentator John Helm noticed a small fire had broken out in the wooden stand on the opposite side of the ground to the TV cameras. As the game continued the fire spread at an astonishing pace under and down the stand as football fans tried to get out through the back of the stadium. Hundreds more came onto the pitch. Within minutes the whole stand was in flames. The fire, which was blamed on a discarded cigarette, killed 56 spectators and another 265 suffered burns or smoke inhalation. As a result of the fire smoking was banned in all English football grounds and wooden stands were gradually replaced with steel or concrete constructions.

WESTLAKE APARTMENTS, LOS ANGELES – 1993

On 3 May 1993 a fire destroyed the Westlake apartment building in Los Angeles, killing 10 people, including seven children and two pregnant women. Three gang members – Ramiro “Greedy” Valerio, Joseph “Droopy” Monge and Johanna Lopez – were indicted for arson in 2017. They had set the fire after the complex manager prevented the 18th Street Gang from dealing drugs in the stairwell. Monge and Valerio pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Feb 2020. Lopez is still awaiting trial.

WINECOFF HOTEL, ATLANTA – 1946

In the early hours of 7 December 1946 a fire broke out in the Winecoff Hotel in downtown Atlanta, killing 119 people. Among those who died were the owner, W.F. Winecoff and his wife, who died in their penthouse suite. The fire brigade’s ladders reached only to the eighth floor of the 15 storey building and their nets were not strong enough to hold people who jumped from the upper storey windows. One of the most enduring images of the fire was a photograph of a woman who had jumped from the 11th storey. She was never identified but after her death in 1992 it was revealed she had been Daisy McCumber, and she had survived despite breaking both legs, her back and her pelvis. The Winecoff fire led to numerous changes to US building codes, most importantly the one which insisted that every building has a fire escape.

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