Annals of Burns and Fire Disasters - vol. XX - n. 2 - June 2007


Cavallini M., Papagni M.F., Baruffaldi Preis F.W.

Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Operative Unit, IRCCS Galeazzi, Milan, Italy

SUMMARY. In the field of natural and man-made disasters, fire has played a predominant role. A report is presented of fire disasters in the twentieth century, with a chronological analysis of different worldwide typologies.


In the field of natural and man-made disasters, fire has played a predominant role.

The extrinsic effects of disasters caused by fire have progressively changed over the centuries, especially in the twentieth. As a result, owing to industrial, technological, and military development, as also to the increasing number of armed conflicts, there has also been a rapid change in the modalities and numbers of burn injuries.

For this reason a report is presented of fire disasters in the twentieth century, with a chronological analysis of different worldwide typologies.

From the classification point of view, as regards the data reported in the literature, a fire disaster is defined as an event involving more than 25 deaths. However, discrepancies exist as to the number of injuries in accidents.

Fire disasters from 1900 to 1969

The first accident in the period concerned occurred in 1900 in Hoboken, USA, with a high number of deaths (326) (Table I).

Date Incident Dead
30.6.1900 USA, Hoboken, New Jersey. Port 326
20.9.1902 USA, Birmingham, Alabama. Church 115
30.12.1903 USA, Chicago. Iroquois Theatre 602
4.3.1908 USA, Collinwood, Ohio. School 176
13.1.1908 USA, Boyertown, Pennsylvania. Rhoads Theatre 170
25.3.1911 USA, New York. Plant 145
14.10.1913 Glamorgan, Wales. Mine 439
13.4.1918 USA, Norman, Oklahoma. Hospital 38
12.10.1918 USA, Cloquet, Minnesota. Forest fire 400
20.6.1919 Puerto Rico, San Juan. Mayaguez Theatre 150
17.5.1923 USA, Candem, South Carolina. School 76
24.12.1924 USA, Hobart, Oklahoma. School 35
15.5.1929 USA, Cleveland, Ohio. Clinic 125
24.7.1931 USA, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Nursing home 48
23.4.1940 USA, Natchez, Mississippi. Dance hall 198
12.12.1942 Canada, St John’s, Newfoundland. Hotel 100
7.9.143 USA, Houston. Gulf Hotel 55
9.7.1944 USA, Hartford. Ringling Circus 168
5.6.1946 USA, Chicago. La Salle Hotel 61
7.12.1946 USA, Atlanta. Winecoff Hotel 119
12.12.1946 USA, New-York. Plant 37
5.4.1949 USA, Effingham, Illinois. Hospital 77
7.1.1950 USA, Davenport, Iowa. Mercy Hospital 41
29.3.1953 USA, Largo, Florida. Nursing home 35
16.4.1953 USA, Chicago. Metallurgy plant 35
17.2.1957 USA, Warrenton, Missouri. Nursing home 72
1.12.1958 USA, Chicago. School 95
16.12.1958 Colombia, Bogota. Depot 83
12.3.1960 Korea, Pusan. Chemical plant 68
14.7.1960 Guatemala, Guatemala City. Hospital 225
13.11.1960 Syria, Amude. Cinema 152
17.12.1961 Brazil, Niteroi. Circus 323
4.5.1963 Senegal, Diourbel. Theatre 64
23.11.1963 USA, Fitchville, Ohio. Nursing home 63
7.12.1966 Turkey, Erzurum. Barracks 68
22.5.1967 Belgium, Brussels. Depot 322
16.7.1967 USA, Jay, Florida. Prison 37
11.5.1968 India, Vijayawada. Saloon 58
18.11.1968 Scotland, Glasgow. Plant 24
2.12.1969 Canada, Notre Dame. Nursing home 54
Table I - Main fire disasters from 1900 to 1969.

The main reason for most of the disasters in the period was the lack of prevention and safety regulations. This is testified by certain accidents such as the fire in 1903 in the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago (602 deaths), where no fire system was installed, and the fire at Lakeview Elementary School in Ohio in 1908, when the absence of a fire detecting system and fire and safety equipment caused 176 deaths, mostly of children.

Hospitals were often involved in fires, including a case in 1929 in Cleveland, USA, due to the accidental burning of X-ray film, causing 123 deaths.

Accidents in nightclubs without safety regulations caused serious disasters, including one at the Coconut Grove nightclub in Boston in 1942, when 500 people died.

After the Second World War, industrial and econo-mic development, together with a progressive improvement in the quality of life, diversified the nature of fire disasters, and flammable liquids were more frequently involved. This is reflected in the great number of accidents in various parts of the world due to the explosion of oil depots, refineries, and vehicles transporting flammable materials.

There were significant and singular accidents in circuses, including one in 1944 in Connecticut, with 144 deaths and more than 450 injured, and one in 1965 in Niteroi (Brazil), with over 400 deaths and 600 injured.

These accidents demonstrate how the lack of prevention and safety regulations caused serious disasters. Fire was a constant and singular presence in hospitals, where the lack of prevention programmes and organized evacuation plans led to many burn accidents.

Fire disasters from 1970 to 1979

Wih regard to this decade it is possible to see the involvement of the entire world in diversified accidents (compared to the former period, when the USA and Europe were mainly involved). This has been attributed to changing political and social changes conditions (particularly as regards accidents in the UK during periods of racial protest) and to considerable increases in industrial productivity (Table II).

Date Incident Dead
9.1.1970 USA, Marietta, Ohio. Nursing home 27
1.11.1970 France, Grenoble. Dance hall. 145
20.12.1970 USA, Tucson, Arizona. Hotel 28
6.3.1971 Switzerland, Burghoezli. Psychiatric clinic 28
20.4.1971 Thailand, Bangkok. Hotel 24
25.12.1971 South Korea, Seoul. Hotel 162
5.7.1972 England, Sherborne. Hospital 30
13.5.1972 Japan, Osaka. Night club 116
6.2.1973 France, Paris. School 21
6.11.1973 Japan, Fukui. Train 28
29.11.1973 Japan, Kumamoto. Commercial centre 107
2.12.1973 South Korea, Seoul. Theatre 50
1.2.1974 Brazil, Sao Paulo. Bank 189
30.6.1974 U.S.A, Port Chester, New York. Disco 24
3.11.1974 South Korea, Seoul. Disco 88
12.12.1975 Saudi Arabia, Mina. Camping site 138
24.10.1976 USA, New York. Social club 25
25.2.1977 USSR, Moscow. Rossija Hotel 45
9.6.1977 Côte d’Ivoire, Abidjan. Night club 41
28.5.1977 USA, Southgate, Kentucky. Night club 164
14.11.1977 Philippines, Manila. Hotel 47
14.7.1979 Spain, Saragossa. Hotel 80
31.12.1979 Canada, Quebec, Chapais. Social club 42
Table II - Main fire disasters from 1970 to 1979.

Even if there was a reduction in the number of accidents, the failure to standardize all safety regulations caused serious disasters.

This decade saw the first approach to organized first-aid emergency plans, although no official project has been found in the literature.

Fire disasters from 1980 to 2000

Since the 1980s the diversity of reasons for burn accidents has been linked to various human activities - one which has increased considerably is the number of fire disasters caused by terrorist criminal activities (Table III).

Date Incident Dead
20.5.1980 Jamaica, Kingston. Nursing home 157
21.11.1980 USA, Las Vegas. Grand Hotel MGM 84
9.1.1981 USA, Keansburg, New Jersey. Hotel 30
13.2.1983 Italy, Turin. Cinema 64
17.12.1983 Spain, Madrid. Disco 83
21.4.1985 Philippines, Tabaco. Cinema 44
26.4.1985 Argentine, Buenos Aires. Hospital 79
11.5.1985 England, Bradford. Stadium 53
31.12.1986 Puerto Rico, Dupont. Hotel Plaza 96
6.5.1987 Northern China. Forest 193
17.11.1987 England, London. Underground 30
25.3.1990 USA, New York. Social club 87
10.10.1990 India, Ghatkesar. Train 47
28.12.1990 Bangladesh, Dacca. Textile plant 55
9.4.1991 Turkey, Istanbul. Coach. 36
6.5.1991 Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. Fireworks plant 150
19.9.1991 Indonesia, Honai. Village 38
19.1.1993 Taiwan, Taipei. Restaurant 30
14.2.1993 China, Tanghsan. Shopping centre 78
19.4.1993 South Korea, Seoul. Hospital 34
19.4.1993 USA, Waco, Texas. Church 72
10.5.1993 Thailand, Bangkok. Toy factory 240
2.11.1993 Vietnam, Quang Nihn. Pipeline 39
19.11.1993 China, Kuiyong. Toy factory 81
13.12.1993 China, Fuzhou. Textile plant 60
20.8.1995 South Korea. Seoul. Penitentiary 38
28.10.1995 Azerbaigian, Baku. Underground 300
23.12.1995 India, Dabwali. Elementary school 400
18.3.1996 Philippines, Manila. Disco 185
28.3.1996 Indonesia, Bogor. Shopping centre 78
22.11.1996 Hong Kong. Shopping centre 39
23.2.1997 India, Baripada. Church 164
17.4.1997 Saudi Arabia, Mina. 343
13.6.1997 India, New Delhi. Cinema 60
11.7.1997 Thailand, Pattaya. Hotel 90
29.9.1997 Chile, Colina. Hospital 30
29.10.1998 Sweden, Gotenborg. Disco 70
24.3.1999 Italy-France. Mont Blanc Tunnel 40
30.10.1999 South Korea, Inchon. Karaoke 55
13.5.2000 Netherlands, Enschede. Fireworks plant 20
Table III - Main fire disasters from 1980 to 2000

Some examples are the terrorist attacks in Dublin (1981), Bologna (1985), Barcelona (1987), and London (1988), which were the most devastating to occur in Europe.

There have also been serious attacks in Palestine in recent years due to ethnic, political, and religious reasons.

Analysis shows an increase of fire disasters caused in different ways after air accidents, with a variety of injured persons involved (most of them burned).

Also in this period, fire disasters due to the explosion of flammable material constituted a considerable portion of the total number of accidents.

The worst fire disasters in the period 1980-2000 were in 1984 (LPG explosion in Mexico, with 550 deaths and 7000 people injured, of whom 625 were burned) and in 1989 (gas container explosion on a bridge following a railway accident in the Urals region, with 2200 deaths and 3000 injured, including 800 burned).

Despite improvements in rescue techniques and treatment in such emergencies, no specific organizational model for fire disasters has been identified.


Throughout history, fire has always played a fundamental though conflictual role. For if on the one hand fire has enabled mankind to improve the conditions of everyday life, affording protection and developing technology and industry, on the other hand it has represented a danger to be defended against.

This historical analysis of fire disasters in the twentieth century shows the need to devote more attention to the control and prevention of fire-related accidents. Currently few specific international organization assistance models for serious emergencies are available.

RESUME. Le feu a toujours joué un rôle important pour ce qui concerne les désastres soit naturels soit causés par l’homme. Les Auteurs présentent un rapport sur les désastres par feu qui se sont vérifiés pendant le vingtième siècle, avec une analyse chronologique des différentes typologies dans le monde.


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This paper was received on 1 December 2006.
Address correspondence to: Dr Marco F. Papagni, Unità Operativa di Chirurgia Plastica e Ricostruttiva, IRCCS Galeazzi, Milan, Italy. E-mail: