Articles

STOP THIS FIRE DEATH SACRIFICE!

FRED BODSWORTH November 15 1949
Articles

STOP THIS FIRE DEATH SACRIFICE!

FRED BODSWORTH November 15 1949

STOP THIS FIRE DEATH SACRIFICE!

FRED BODSWORTH

THE FLAMES which roared through the 36-year-old pleasure steamer Noronic at Toronto’s Pier 9 just under eight weeks ago brought an agonizing, fiery death to 139 people. They also brought a heartache and a desperate urgency to the mere handful of men and women in Canada who are trying to awaken the country to the definite danger of similar holocausts in hundreds of our public buildings.

Investigators and committees of enquiry were still busy working over the tragic whys and wherefores of the Noronic nightmare as this was written and official causes had not been established. But this can be read from the shocked survivor stories: the flames roared along the long chimneylike passageways of the ship at express-train speed; the many coats of paint on the old vessel burned like gunpowder; the installed fire-fighting equipment could not control the blaze (said a passenger: “They might have been trying to put out hell with their fountain pens.”).

And fire-prevention experts solemnly warn that, as you read this, fire hazard conditions exist in unnumbered Canadian hotels, hospitals, institutions, public halls, schools, and theatres which could bring the horror of a Noronic disaster to your town, to any town.

How many people must be sacrificed before all Canada will follow the lead of the few authorities who have recognized, and dealt with, this danger? After every tragedy there is a flurry of investigations as public indignation demands action. Reports are made, often shelved when costly reconstruction is involved. And when the screams of the burning victims are forgotten, the fire hazards creep back, the firetraps are baited again.

Let’s look at Canada’s recent fire history. At midnight, December 8,1946, in Saskatoon’s Barry Hotel a kitchen assistant, preparing for the morning rush, picked up a fuel can and began filling a small gasoline stove. A flash of blue flame shot up.

A waiter grabbed the flaming can and tried to run with it to the street. A panicky guest, trying to beat him to the entrance, bumped into him. The can, spouting flame, rolled Continued on page 34 into the lobby. A river of fire trickled across the thick carpeting.

After the Noronic nightmare a new round of firetrap probes got under way. How many more must die before Canada acts?

In many hotels this fire could have been confined to the lobby, but in the Barry there was an open stair well from the lobby to the roof three floors above which opened with no enclosing doors onto the corridor of every floor. Flames were caught by the updraught of this stair well, raced to the roof and mushroomed out into each floor as they passed. An hour later 11 were dead, and 18 injured when they jumped from windows.

The Barry had been known as a “fireproof” hotel. But investigators combing through the ruins said ils oldfashioned open stair well made it actually a firetrap enclosed merely in fireproof walls.

Modern safety devices and fire prevention know-how could have prevented the Barry death toll. Forty to 50 Canadians die every year in fires in public buildings because public apathy, haphazard inspections and inadequate laws permit scores of firetrap buildings to continue opening their doors each day to thousands of Canadians.

Many of these are so-called “fireproof” buildings. (The Barry Hotel correctly merited this title.) Actually few people know what this word means. Fireproof construction is a child of the fire insurance business which is primarily interested in property damage— not lives. Fireproof means that fire can rage within at a temperature up to 2,000 degrees for four hours before roof or walls are in danger of caving in. That’s not much comfort for the people inside. A consultant of Underwriters’ Laboratories has said: “A furnace

is fireproof. But it would make a hot bedroom.”

Ten Floors in Three Minutes

Open stairways such as the Barry’s, frequently tinderboxes of veneer trim and varnished railings, and elevatorshafts coated with grease and dust are the commonest and most serious fire hazard in public buildings. They act as huge wind funnels through which the fire whistles at express train speed—as it did through the long hallways of the Noronic.

The National Fire Protection Association in a recent study of 546 fatal Canadian and U. S. fires in apartments and hotels summed up: “Structural conditions which permitted fire and smoke to spread through the buildings before occupants could escape (open stairways, elevator shafts, laundry chutes, and dumb waiters) were responsible for more than four fifths of the 1,107 deaths in these properties.”

Fire can shoot up a wooden stairway 10 floors in three minutes. Some Canadian municipal bylaws prevent such structures being built. But the laws are rarely retroactive. They either exempt existing buildings or merely require stairs and elevator shafts to be fireproofed “the next time extensive repairs are undertaken.” A witness at the Noronic federal enquiry charged that the ship was exempted from certain safety regulations so as to spare the owners expense.

On February 12, 1947, fire started in an elevator motor in the St. Louis Hotel, Quebec City, shot up the shaft for six stories and mushroomed out through upper floors and a wooden roof. Most guests were absent attending the opening of the legislature and the few inside escaped. But fire officials said

scores would have been trapped if the fire had occurred at night.

There was no such good fortune when St. Patrick’s Orphanage, at Prince Albert, Sask., burned on the night of February 1, 1947. Fire from an overheated furnace swept up open stairways. Six children and one adult died.

Stairways caused the loss of two lives in the Lindenlee apartment fire of Winnipeg, on December 22, 1944.

Said H. E. Puttee, Manitoba fire commissioner: “It simply wasn’t built

for the safe evacuation of so many occupants.”

In Edmonton, in April, 1941, another apartment with open stairway was swept by fire. Two died.

The odds were stacked against fire departments which rolled out to these fires, as they will be in future against other fire departments in other towns where open stairways exist.

Some recent U. S. fires illustrate even more tragically the threat of the open stairway. This construction was chiefly responsible for the death of 119 persons in the Hotel Winecoff in Atlanta, December 7, 1946. When a small fire in Chicago’s LaSalle Hotel in June of the same year broke into an open stairway 61 persons died, some of them 20 stories above the fire’s source.

Hall Exits Were Locked

In December, 1942, fire in a hostel at St. John’s Nfld. killed 99 people. A horrified Canadian public began hurriedly looking over its own public halls. Inspectors trembled at what they found. In hundreds of dance halls paper streamers hung amid zoot-suiters who jitterbugged with a girl in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Halls usually had surplus exits locked, some even nailed shut. One had four of its five exits nailed with six-inch spikes. (Seven years later Noronic survivors told investigators they found some of the burning ship’s exit doors and windows jammed.)

Scores of halls across the country were closed. Toronto checked 97, closed 25. Vancouver levied stiff fines against four operators who were tardy in carrying out inspector’s orders. Decorations were raised, fireproofed. Exits were fitted with panic locks. Gradually the closed halls were allowed to reopen.

In Hamilton, Ont., Mayor William Morrison confidently announced: “We have inspected all our halls and made them safe. It can’t happen here.” That was early 1943. On May 23, 1944, dairy employees were holding a dance in Hamilton’s second - floor Moose Temple. Revelry was suddenly tragedy. A flash fire swept through the hall “like the explosion of a box of matches.” The hall had one exit, a narrow stairway, and no fire escapes. In seconds a dance floor jammed with people became an inferno. Human torches leaped from windows. Ten persons burned to death, 41 were injured.

Once more the cry went up: “It must never happen again.” Though less than two years had passed since the cleanup of fire hazards following the St. John’s fire, an Ontario royal commission found that scores of Ontario halls had already reverted to firetraps. One witness testified that in hundreds of small communities no one was responsible for inspecting public halls. Municipal police commissions said that under the law they had no authority to refuse hall licenses “unless the applicant was not of good character.”

A fire prevention engineer described 16 Ontario halls which he considered firetraps. Many had only one exit, with others locked. A Barrie dance hall proprietor claimed his emergency exit was ready for immediate use, but the inspector found it latched with a bolt seven and a half feet above floor level. A small Whitchurch township hall was decorated with 1,400 rolls of crepe paper.

The most tragic fires occur often in hospitals, homes for the aged and nursing homes. Though most large hospitals are safe scores of smaller hospitals and homes for the aged are hazard-ridden tinderboxes of wooden partitions and open stairways with inadequate alarm and extinguishing equipment.

In 1948 Canada had 73 hospital fires; in 1947, 76; 1946, 81; 1945, 95. Six Canadians died in these fires during 1947, three in 1946, seven in 1945. An inspector of the Canadian Underwriters’ Association told me: “Every hospital in Canada could now be made practically fireproof with automaticsprinklers and other fire prevention devices. It would be expensive, but in many cases reduced fire insurance premiums would cover the cost in 10 to 20 years.”

An old persons’ home at Medicine Hat, Alta., burned in January, 1948, and five crippled inmates, all over 70, lost their lives. Fire Commissioner A. E. Bridges admitted that the onestory building, a converted RCAF barracks, was improperly laid out for fire safety. Walls and ceilings were highly inflammable and an unbroken 150-foot hallway permitted flames to sweep the full length of the building.

Today the building has been reconstructed with noncombustible ceilings and partitions; the hazardous hallway has been cut off with fireproof partitions to check the spread of any future fire. But five persons had to die first.

In December, 1945, in the little hospital at Maple Creek, Sask., fire broke out in a dumb waiter, swept up the shaft, gutted the building. Seven elderly third-floor patients, too weak to move, died in their beds.

At the Saskatoon hotel fire which took 11 lives an attempt was made to arouse guests by the fire alarm system. According to the report of the National Fire Protection Association, it didn’t work—the batteries were dead.

A Canadian underwriter’s inspector told me that recently in a large Ontario school he found an electric fuse which had blown out during an evening meeting and was then short-circuited by the caretaker with two lengths

of wire to restore lights. The caretaker intended to obtain a new fuse next day, but had never thought of it again. Hundreds of pupils were sitting for months atop an overburdened network of wiring which might have flashed into flame at any moment.

Fire Marshal Sam Hill inspected Toronto hotels in 1947 and found hundreds of minor, easily corrected fire dangers. Of 122 hotels, 48 had inwardopening exit doors. Scores lacked exit lights or had lights in which bulbs were burned out. In 42 there were no fire extinguishers in the kitchens. In 36 fire escapes opened off private rooms to which doors were locked, or off windows too tight to open. There were 15 stairways and passageways blocked with boxes, baby carriages or furniture. In 18 kitchens stove canopies or fans were clogged with inflammable cooking grease.

In 40 hotels Hill found toilet seats of a substance so inflammable that a spark could ignite them. “You’ll find them in hotels and theatres across Canada,” Hill told me.

Despite the harsh and tragic lessons of experience the fire hazard picture across Canada today still isn’t one to be proud of. Here are some of the blind spots, from Halifax to Vancouver;

THE MARITIMES: Newly ap-

pointed P.E.I. Fire Marshal D. H. Saunders says there are two wooden hotels in Charlottetown and two in Summerside, each of three or four stories, only one of which has an outside fire escape. Most P.E.I. schools have open stairways.

In 1944 the Home and School Associations of Saint John, N.B., labeled fire conditions in the schools as “frightening.” They found assembly halls on top floors with single exits and narrow wooden staircases; inward-opening exit doors which could jam shut and imprison fire-panicked children; windows leading to fire escapes nailed shut. Some corrections have been made hut Saint John’s schools, some of t hem 60 and 70 years old, are still criticized by worried parents. Some Saint John hotels have coils of rope in each room in lieu of fire escapes. Says one insurance executive: “In the winter when they put storm windows on with small panes, Houdini himself couldn’t escape that way.”

New Brunswick’s Parliament Building has been called a firetrap. Its interior is wooden, old, tinder-dry and a wooden circular stairway runs from ground floor to dome. Its sprinkler system protects only those spots where fire is most likely to start.

But N. B.’s Fire Marshal H. M. Armstrong says churches are the biggest fire hazard: “Some are in very bad shape. But when we try to get them to reduce the hazard we are told they haven’t any money.”

QUEBEC: When Maclean’s polled underwriters and fire chiefs the general opinion was that 50% of this province’s public buildings lack adequate fire protection. Quebec has more churches and institutions than any other province. Practically all such buildings outside of Montreal that are more than 15 years old have wooden interiors and open stairways.

An inadequate water supply in many of Quebec’s small towns where religious orders operate large hospitals and nursing homes adds to the danger.

The situation is better in Montreal where lower insurance rates have encouraged the installation of sprinkler systems, but authorities say that 15% of Montreal’s hotels, hospitals and institutions are still hazardous.

ONTARIO: A 1943 architect’s re-

port on Toronto public schools disclosed that 58 out of 87 had open stairways “providing openings in all floors for the quick spread of fire and smoke.” In 48 schools every passageway was open, leaving hundreds of pupils no protected escape-way. Says ex-Fire Marshal Hill: “There has been little improvement since 1943.”

In St. Thomas, Ont., firemen four years ago condemned an old hospital wing. Its wooden interior, open stairway and elevator shaft with grillwork doors made it a firetrap. The building is still in use. “It’s still the same except for one new fire escape,” a St. Thomas fire inspector told me. “Doorways and halls are often blocked with beds. I shudder every time I inspect it.”

Windsor authorities recently revealed that most schools, and two out of the city’s four hospitals, have open stairways.

THE PRAIRIES: Winnipeg’s wooden Amphitheatre is sprinklered only in part. Frequently 5,000 people jam into it while firemen stand watch.

Edmonton’s fire chief James Macg rçgor says that all but a few of the newest hotels, apartments and schools in his city contain hazardous; fire-spreading open stairways and nonfireproof elevator shafts. Only two Edmonton hotels boast properly fireproofed stair wells. The housing shortage keeps several small frame hotels—admitted firetraps—running full blast. About. 15%. of the city’s hospital patients are in older wings where officials recognize the fire hazard is serious.

Four Ways to Safety

The one bright spot on the prairies is Saskatchewan which, since the tragic lesson of the Barry Hotel holocaust, has cleaned up many longstanding fire hazards. (The open-stairway threat has been practically eliminated from Saskatchewan hotels.)

BRITISH COLUMBIA: Although B. C. is enforcing stricter regulations, especially in public halls and hotels, Major E. A. Young, fire prevention officer for veterans’ hospitals, declared in August that there are no fireproof hospitals in the province and that many older, smaller hospitals are serious hazards.

“1 lie awake at night wondering how we could evacuate patients in case of a big hospital fire,” he told a convention of B. C. fire chiefs. They nodded in agreement.

What must we do to cut the toll of public building fires? There are four

requirements: 1, Eliminate open stairways and elevator shaft dangers; 2, Make fuller use of modern prevention devices, principally automatic sprinkler systems; 3, Centralize and bring up - to - date Canada’s present fire prevention machinery which, excepting possibly Saskatchewan’s and British Columbia’s, is a haphazard redtape-bound muddle of inadequate laws and conflicting municipal and provincial authorities; 4, Develop a keener public awareness that most public building fire tragedies are preventable.

Saskatchewan and British Columbia are proof that dangers of the open stairway and elevator shaft can be eliminated quickly when the public demands it. Sometimes it involves costly renovations but the resultant drop in insurance costs goes a long way toward defraying the cost.

Ceiling sprinkler systems, which automatically douse a fire with water when fierce heat causes them to open (sometimes also ringing in an automatic alarm), are a reliable and highly effective safeguard when kept in repair. Sprinklers for the Noronic were once discussed by Canada Steamship Lines, never installed.

Insurance experts say that if sprinklers were required by law in all older institutions with wooden interiors a large percentage of fires would be extinguished before life was threatened.

The Public Must Wake Up

A study by the Canadian Underwriters’ Association of 2,001 fires in hotels with sprinkler systems over the past 20 years reveals that 97% of the fires were prevented from becoming serious blazes by the ever-ready sprinklers. The three per cent of failures were due to neglect in upkeep or to the fact that the sprinkler system covered only part of the building involved.

Canada’s present fire prevention setup is still too loosely organized. Municipal fire departments, building departments, city fire marshals and provincial fire marshals all have a finger in the pie and one finger doesn’t know what the other finger is doing. Conflict between different agencies, political interference and buck - passing are weakening our fire prevention effort.

Last year a Toronto fire prevention inspector checked the Royal Conservatory of Music, gave it a clean bill of health. A few months later a provincial inspector looked it over, called it hazardous, ordered $30,000 be spent enclosing stairways and installing alarm system. (This has been done.)* Said Ontario Fire Marshal William J. Scott in a letter to Toronto Fire Chief Peter Herd: “Either your system of fire fire inspection is crazy or ours.”

But before Canada can have anything like complete fire safety in its public building the public must be made to see the existing unnecessary hazards and demand improvement.

Fire Marshal H. M. Armstrong, of New Brunswick, told me: “The chief cause of fire deaths is the fatalistic view taken by the public that nothing much can be done. The same view was taken years ago about some of mankind’s worst diseases, but we learned that with a little common sense and knowledge these diseases could be prevented. This applies also to fire prevention.”

And the National Fire Protection Association of Canada and the U. S., pointing out recently that 500 Canadians and Americans die every year in hotel fires alone, said: “Conditions

which make such a record possible would not be tolerated if the public rightly understood the reasons for such disasters.” ★