Friday 1 February 2013

Criminal negligence in club fires (Part II)

Criminal negligence applies in cases where people who have a duty to make sure that those who are in their care are protected against harm and subsequently fail in their duty. This is a prime complaint in club fires where those who were in charge of the clubs had failed in their duty towards their patrons.

There are a number of reasons why so many people die in nightclubs that are on fire. The reasons include; lack of exit doors, pyrotechnics, flammable ceilings, no sprinklers or fire extinguishers and/or fire hoses and overcrowding. What follows are four more examples of these failings.


This was a fire in Natchez, Mississippi, United States on the night of April 23, 1940 that killed 209 people and severely injured many others. The dance hall, which was once a church and converted blacksmith shop, was located in a one-story frame building at 1 St. Catherine Street, blocks from the city's business district. 

Cause of the fire

The fire was caused by someone who carelessly threw away a lit match. Starting near the main entrance door, the fire quickly engulfed the structure due to Spanish moss that had been draped over the interior's rafters as a decoration. In order to ensure there were no bugs in the decorative moss, it had been sprayed with petroleum-based Flit insecticide. Due to the dry conditions inside the building, flammable methane gas was generated from the moss which then resulted in the destruction of the building within an hour.

It makes no sense to put petroleum in a can of insecticide. The manufacturers of that product were totally stupid for doing so. I imagine that people who had a barbecue in their back yards could use Flit insecticide to start the fires in their barbecues. 

Possible exits blocked

Windows had been boarded up to prevent outsiders from viewing or listening to the music. More than 300 people struggled to get out after the blaze began but alas, most of them were trapped inside the building. A handful of people were able to get out the front door or through the ticket booth, while the remainder tried to press their way to the back door which was pad locked and boarded shut. Blinding smoke made movement difficult. Many people died from smoke inhalation or by being crushed by the crowd trying to escape. Bandleader Barnes and nine members of his band were among the victims.

There doesn’t appear to be any record of the club owners being arrested. They should have been arrested considering the fact that they purposely blocked the windows and the rear exit.


This nightclub was Boston's premier nightclub during the post-Prohibition 1930s and 1940s. On November 28, 1942, this club was the scene of the deadliest nightclub fire in US history, killing as many as 492 people and injuring hundreds more. Many young soldiers perished in the disaster, as well as a newly-married couple. Some victims had ingested fumes so hot that when they inhaled cold air outside of the building, as one firefighter put it, they dropped like stones. Firefighters found several dead guests sitting in their seats with drinks in their hands. They had been overcome so quickly by fire and toxic smoke that they didn't have time to move.

The club was a former speakeasy and it was located at 17 Piedmont Street, which today is a parking lot in Boston's Bay Village neighborhood. Originally a garage and warehouse complex, the building had been converted to a one-and-a-half-story meandering complex of dining rooms, bars, and lounges. The club offered its patrons dining and dancing in a South Seas-like ‘tropical paradise’ created by artificial palm trees, rattan and bamboo, heavy draperies, and swanky satin canopies suspended from the ceilings, and a roof that could be rolled back in summer for dancing under the stars.

Cause of the fire

Official reports state that the fire started at about 10:15 p.m. in the dark, intimate Melody Lounge downstairs. A young pianist and singer, Goody Goodelle, was performing on a revolving stage, surrounded by artificial palm trees. It was believed that a young man, possibly a soldier, had removed a light bulb in order to give himself privacy while kissing his date. Stanley Tomaszewski—a 16-year-old busboy—was instructed to put the light back on by retightening the bulb. As he attempted to tighten the light bulb in its socket, the bulb fell from his hand. In the dimly-lit lounge, Tomaszewski, unable to see the socket, lit a match to illuminate the area, found the socket, extinguished the match, and replaced the bulb. Almost immediately, patrons saw something ignite in the canopy of artificial palm fronds draped above the tables although the official report doubts the connection between the match and the subsequent fire. If the match fell to the floor, than it couldn’t have started the fire but if he had the lit match near the overhanging palm fronds, then that may have started the fire.

Despite waiters' efforts to douse the fire with water, it quickly spread along the fronds of the palm tree, igniting decorations on the walls and ceiling. Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of patrons stumbling up the stairs. A fireball burst across the central dance floor as the orchestra was beginning its evening show. Flames raced through the adjacent Caricature Bar, then down a corridor to the Broadway Lounge. Within five minutes, flames had spread to the main clubroom and by then, the entire nightclub was ablaze.


Many patrons attempted to exit through the main entrance, the same way they had entered. The building's main entrance was a single revolving door, rendered useless as the panicked crowd scrambled for safety. Bodies piled up behind both sides of the revolving door, jamming it to the extent that firefighters had to dismantle it to enter. Later, after fire laws had tightened, it would become illegal to have only one revolving door as a main entrance without being flanked by outward opening doors with panic bar openers attached, or have the revolving doors set up so that the doors could fold against themselves in emergency situations.

Other avenues of escape were similarly useless: side doors had been bolted shut to prevent people from leaving without paying. A plate glass window, which could have been smashed for escape, was boarded up and unusable as an emergency exit. Other unlocked doors, like the ones in the Broadway Lounge, opened inwards, rendering them useless against the crush of people trying to escape. Fire officials later testified that, had the doors swung outwards, at least 300 lives could have been spared. Nowadays, all doors of buildings swing outwards.

Unusual event

Fate has an unusual way of occurring. Here is an example of the phenomena. Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson went back in no fewer than four times in search of his date who, unbeknownst to him, had safely escaped. Johnson suffered extensive third-degree burns over 55% of his body but survived the disaster, becoming the most severely burned person ever to survive his injuries at the time. After 21 months in a hospital and several hundred operations, he married his nurse and returned to his home state of Missouri. Fourteen years later he burned to death in a fiery truck crash.


Barney Welansky, the owner of the nightclub whose connections had allowed the nightclub to operate while in violation of the loose standards of the day, was convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter (19 victims were randomly selected to represent the dead). Welansky was sentenced to 12–15 years in prison. He served nearly four years before being quietly pardoned by Massachusetts Governor Maurice J. Tobin, who had been mayor of Boston at the time of the fire. In December 1946, ravaged with cancer, Welansky was released from Norfolk Prison, telling reporters, "I wish I'd died with the others in the fire." Nine weeks later, he was dead.

Busboy Stanley Tomaszewski, who survived the fire and later testified at the inquiry, was exonerated, as he was held not to be responsible for the flammable decorations or the life safety code violations. He was still ostracized for much of his life because of the fire. He died in 1994. Wads he exonerated simply because no one actually saw what he did with the match?

As a result of that terrible tragedy, major changes were made in the fire codes. In the year that followed the fire, Massachusetts and other states enacted laws for public establishments banning flammable decorations and inward-swinging exit doors, and requiring exit signs to be visible at all times (meaning that the exit signs had to have independent sources of electricity, and be easily readable in even the thickest smoke). The new laws also required that revolving doors used for egress must either be flanked by at least one normal, outward-swinging door, or retrofitted to permit the individual door leaves to fold flat to permit free-flowing traffic in a panic situation, and further required that no emergency exits be chained or bolted shut in such a way as to bar escape through the doors during a panic or emergency situation.


This fire in Southgate, Kentucky was the third deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. It occurred on the night of May 28, 1977, during the Memorial Day weekend. A total of 165 persons died and over 200 were injured as a result of the blaze.

The Beverly Hills was a major attraction, less than two miles (3 km) outside Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River in Southgate, Kentucky. It drew its talent from Las Vegas, Nashville, Hollywood and New York, among other places. The site had been a popular nightspot and illegal gambling house as early as 1937. Actor, Dean Martin had been a blackjack dealer there at one time.

Cause of the fire

A wedding reception in the Zebra Room had ended at 8:30 p.m. Some guests complained that the room was becoming overheated, though no smoke was evident yet. The doors of the Zebra Room were closed after the reception ended, and the fire continued to smolder in that room undetected for another 25 minutes. Two waitresses looking for tray jacks entered the Zebra Room at about 8:56 p.m. They saw dense smoke hanging near the ceiling and notified management immediately. A phone call was placed to the fire department at 9:01 p.m., and the first fire engine arrived in only three minutes. Meanwhile, the management used two fire extinguishers inside the Zebra Room, but to little effect. The fire had taken hold and could no longer be contained inside the room.

On October 28, 2008, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear appointed a panel to investigate claims that arson may have been the cause of the fire. In March 2009, the panel, in recommending that the investigation not be reopened, characterized the new accusations as “a very tiny shred of evidence of arson and a huge mountain of conjecture, unsupported speculation, and personal opinion.”

In a letter dated late June, 2011 from the Attorney General of Kentucky to a retired member of the State Police of Kentucky, some 30 boxes of color slides taken the day after the fire, including pictures of the club's basement during the aftermath, were ordered to be returned to the State archives for public accessibility, as per the Freedom of Information Act. According to the club's former busboy and witness, David Brock of Northern Kentucky, the slides were intentionally kept privately stored and away from the public since they were taken and the slides proved that the fire was caused by arson. The slides depicted unethical wiring, timers and other devices, which were intentionally placed in the club's basement leading to the Zebra Room in the days prior to the fire and was as such, an intentional and malicious act of sabotage. “We are possibly looking at one of the worst mass-murders in America,” according to Glenn Corbett, a high-profiled fire and safety trainer on the East Coast, who testified to US Congress after his inspection of the 9/11 tragedy in NYC in 2001.

Governor Julian Carroll's report on the fire called the club's wiring an ‘electrician's nightmare’, and alleged multiple, wide-ranging code violations. The fire may have simply started because of an electrical short.


Although seating charts recovered from the club after the fire show that the Cabaret Room (the largest facility in the club) normally held between 614 and 756 people, a hostess who had worked at the club for several years estimated occupancy on the date in question to be well over 925.


Full occupancy of the entire complex was estimated to be roughly 2,750, which under Kentucky law would require 27.5 exits. The club only had 16.5 exits, many of which were not clearly marked or easily reached. Some exits could only be reached by passing through three or more interior doors and corridors. Many victims perished in dead ends and after becoming lost. Some doors were locked to keep non-paying people out of the club.

Other failings in the construction

The lack of firewalls allowed the fire to spread, and in addition, it allowed it to draw oxygen from other areas of the complex. Further, the club had been built piecemeal with inadequate roof support, no common ceiling space, and highly flammable components.

Lack of fire protection

There was no sprinkler system and no audible automatic fire alarm.


I don’t think anyone was charged with a crime relating to the fire but there was a class action against the club. The building was never rebuilt.


The fire that occurred in Luoyang, Henan, China on December 25 in 2000. A fire at the Dongdu building broke out at 9:35 p.m. local time, trapping construction workers on the second and third floors. It was extinguished by 12:45 a.m. Some 800 police officers and firefighters and 26 fire engines rushed to the scene after receiving the call. Leading government officials of Henan Province and the city of Luoyang, including Governor Li Keqiang, went to the scene to direct rescue work.

A total of 309 people were killed in the fire—135 male and 174 female. Among the dead were both construction workers working on the second and third floors and nightclub patrons who were attending a gala celebration for Christmas Day at a dancing hall on the fourth floor. By the time the blaze was extinguished at around 12.45 am, most people in the building had died from smoke inhalation. Of those at the disco, it is thought that no more than a dozen survived. 

 The top floor housed an unlicensed but popular nightclub, which was hosting a special Christmas disco on the night of the fire. The majority of those killed were teenagers celebrating at the disco and building workers refurbishing the supermarket. They were trapped inside the building without any means of escape.

Cause of the fire

The fire broke out at 9.35pm in one of the basement levels. Government authorities have alleged the fire was started by "carelessness" on the part of workers renovating the basement floors. Four welders had confessed to causing   the fire from sparks during the welding.

Lack of fire protection

The reason for the high number of fatalities was the lack of safety standards in the building. Without any sprinkler system, the fire rapidly spread to the first and second floors. The building had no fire alarms or smoke detectors, thereby delaying the arrival of emergency services and leaving people on the upper floors unaware of the fire for some time.                                                                               

The intensity of the blaze prevented firefighters entering the lower floors while the ladders on some fire trucks could not reach the upper windows. This is one of the reasons why nightclubs should never be on an upper floor of a building.


An escape route was not available to most of the people in the club. The majority of the windows were too small for people to pass through. If they could have passed through them, they could have jumped on the air cushions below them. The emergency exit to the roof from the disco was locked. Of two other exits, one was filled with smoke while the other was concealed behind a bar. The elevators did not work due to a power failure. On the third and second floors, potential escape routes through corridors and exits were blocked by construction material and merchandise.


The Dongdu Building in Luoyang had failed fire safety inspections repeatedly over the previous three years. In 1997 it was ranked among the 40 most dangerous buildings in Henan province.

The Chinese authorities should never have permitted the building to be used until the fire precautions were successfully completed. A Luoyang government official told Reuters that the building management had been asked to make improvements. Nevertheless, authorities did nothing to prevent the leasing of space to the disco and other unlicensed operators.

There had been a previous fire in China. In November 1994, as many as 234 people died in a fire at a nightclub in Fuxin, Liaoning province. The emergency exits had been locked so the victims were trapped in the fire.

The police detained up to 12 people in connection with the Lioyang nightclub fire.  The building manager was among them. I don’t know if they were charged with any crimes relating to the fire.


As you can see, the deaths in these fires were caused by negligence. The dead victims would have lived through the fires if the people operating the clubs or the buildings the clubs were in had conducted themselves properly with respect to fire safety precautions.

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