Saturday, March 24, 2012

Danger on the Road

I wanted to give a shout out to a blog by Rick Archer. Danger is not exactly a disaster web site but it tells about the worst roads in the world. Some of the roads cost a lot of lives in the building process. Others seem like a disastrous accident waiting to happen. Give it a look!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Explosion in Halifax Harbor

It was 1917, and France was fighting desperately to protect their country in World War I. Several French ships were sent to the United States to load munitions and explosives for the effort. The Mont Blanc was one of these ships. It was loaded in New York with every possible precaution taken for safety even down to have the men wear linen covers over their shoes to avoid having a spark of static electricity set off all the explosives being loaded onto the ship.

The Mont Blanc

 Once it was fully loaded with munitions from the decks to the deep holds of the ship, the Mont Blanc set out for Halifax Harbour to meet the convoy that would accompany it to Europe. All on board were grateful that they made the voyage to Halifax without any attacks by Germany submarines.

Two days earlier, the Belgium relief ship, Imo had arrived at the mouth of the harbor, and although somewhat delayed arrived at her mooring. Having had the ship's paperwork cleared, the captain of the Imo was in a hurry to move back out of the harbor and deliver the supplies on board. There was some confusion involved concerning when the Imo was cleared to move.

Halifax Harbour passed between two cities: Dartmouth and Halifax. It could be said that these cities were always in some danger from being located alongside a harbour that was so frequently used in the war times, but the residents did not think about that and instead enjoyed watching the ships moving through the harbour. After all, there were submarine nets and other precautions in place to prevent enemy forces from entering the harbour, and the city of Halifax had been built as a fortress from it's earliest days.

On December 6, the Imo and the Mont Blanc were both leaving the harbour. The Mont Blanc was in it's correct lane, but the Imo, moving fast, seemed to be confused as to which lane it should be traveling in. In desperation, the captain of the Mont Blanc tried to move to the lane opposite the Imo to avoid the impending collision, but the Mont Blanc was not able to turn in time, and the Imo struck it, ripping a hole in the ship and causing sparks to fly.

The people of Halifax felt that the fire was no threat and indeed many young people went down closer to the harbour to watch the excitement. Others watched from the windows of their houses. Even the dock workers at the harbour found the collision a great source of amusement. The only ones who quickly saw the danger were the captain and crew of the Mount Blanc and they quickly escaped in lifeboats heading as quickly as possible to the Dartmouth side of the harbour, and running up into a wooded area for safety. Waving wildly from a lifeboat the crew tried to warn the people of Halifax, and the smaller boats now approaching the ship to offer help (or just to view the fire), but the warning was not well understood since the crewmen spoke French. The Imo had seen two small explosions and moved back down the harbour for safety.

At 9:05, the explosion happened. It was massive. Large pieces of the ship were thrown as far as three and a half miles away. The harbour rose in an enormous wave. And much of Halifax was destroyed in a moment. Over 1,600 people died in that moment. 9000 were injured. So many windows shattered in houses outside the main area destroyed by the explosion that children and adults standing at their windows suffered horrific eye injuries as glass shards flew into their eyes. A telegrapher managed to warn off a train approaching Halifax, saving 500 lives, but losing his own life for his bravery. $16,000,000 of damage was reported in the city. A blizzard on the day after the explosion made it impossible to find all of the injured and those trapped in the rubble. More people were killed in the explosion than in all of World War I. It was the most massive explosive in history before the nuclear age.

A school destroyed in the explosion

Recovery work began within hours after the explosion. Temporary shelters were built at a rate of one an hour. Red Cross workers, doctors, nurses, and the survivors of the explosion quickly set up relief services and made preparations for medical treatment of survivors. Soldiers provided disciplined assistance. Prisons were emptied to provide shelter to survivors. A permanent commission was set up in Halifax to deal with the after effects of the disaster.Trains carried the injured to cities where more hospitals were available, and returned with supplies for the city. Eye doctors from Boston rushed to the scene to treat the large numbers of those who had shattered glass shards in their eyes. Many of those victims however were permanently blinded. 

The Canadian and British governments raised $33,000,000 in relief funds. Relief funds from as far way as New Zealand were gathered for the city.  Massachusetts also provide relief funds along with sending trainloads of supplies, nurses, and doctors to Halifax. Doctors and nurses also came from a number of Canadian cities.

After the identification of bodies and funerals, Hologonians began to view the damage to their city as a blank slate on which to build a new and beautiful Halifax. They worked to build a planned city with improved roads, better buildings, and garden areas.

Today, Halifax is a beautiful city and a testament to the work to recover from the explosion.

Halifax Today
Books used for this article:

Janet F. Kitz. Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery

Websites used for this article:

The Halifax Explosion in 1917 ( - Canada Online)

The Halifax Explosion (

The Halifax Explosion (Maritime Museum of the Atlantic)

Halifax Explosion - This one minute YouTube video shows the fire, people in Halifax being warned by a messenger from the harbour master's office warning people to get away from the shore, the city after the explosion, and graphic images of the wounded in hospital.

Halifax Explosion - This four minute video on YouTube is a slide show of images of the damage from the explosion, and a celebration of what a miraculously beautiful city Halifax is today.

The Halifax Explosion - Nearer My God to Thee is a four minute slide show on YouTube showing scenes of the Mont Blanc burning and the subsequent condition of the city.

This Day in History: The Great Halifax Explosion

The Halifax Explosion: In the Blink of an Eye is a comprehensive source of information about the explosion, and the rescue work, relief, and rebuilding following the disaster.

The CBC Halifax Explosion Site

Other recommended sources:

A three hour move, Shattered City is available at Amazon. It provides a fictionalized account of one family's experiences following their survival after the explosion.

Halifax Explosion Link List - This page lists names of 362 people in Halifax at the time of the explosion and links each to their documents in the 1901 census and in the Halifax Explosion Book of Remembrance.

A digitized copy of the Book of Rememberance lists over 1,900 killed that day. It can be found at The Nova Scotia Archives

Nova Scotia in Film Trailer: At War - This YouTube video is of life in Halifax before the explosion.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Fire at the Winecoff Hotel

At fifteen stories high, the Winecoff Hotel was considered one of the first skyscrapers in Atlanta in 1913. It also claimed to be a fire proof building. Among those staying in the Winecoff on the night of December 7, 1946, were teenagers affiliated with Tri-Hi-Y, a Christian group, who had come to the capital city to participate in a mock legislature. Also in the hotel were families who had come to town to do their Christmas shopping and see movies, veterans returning from World War II, and at least one group of unruly men gathered to play poker for money.

Several features of the building belied the claim that it was fireproof. There were no fire escapes, no sprinkler system, no fire doors and no alarm system. The only stairway in the hotel was wrapped around the elevator in the center of the building and it immediately became unusable. The outer shell of the building was fireproof, but the interior of the Winecoff was decorated with wallpaper, and other decorations that definitely were flammable, and with a design that made escape through the hallways in such a fire impossible.

The 119 victims of the fire died mainly in three ways. Some slept through the beginning of the fire and suffocated from the smoke. Others jumped to the ground in hope of survival, only to die on impact. Still others tried to jump into the nets the firemen were holding, only to land off-center and strike their heads on the edge of the nets. Those who tried to escape using sheet ropes sometimes died and sometimes lived.

More of those killed were in rooms with shuttered windows. These included boys from Rome, Georgia who were in town for the mock legislature. Since escaping through windows was the only way to escape they died with no egress from the fire. The woman in this picture burned to death while waiting for help in a shuttered room.

As people jumped from their rooms, many struck wires, awnings and the marquee. Their bodies had to be retrieved after the fire. One jumper's life was saved because (as horrible as it sounds) her fall was cushioned by other bodies already on the ground.

The group of gamblers playing poker and other card games were in a suite on the third floor. A mattress in the hallway outside their suite that may have been set afire by a disgruntled gambler leaving the game is the most often stated cause of the fire although there are many questions how a mattress fire could have caused the inferno that resulted. The gamblers, along with some other guests, survived because their location allowed a relatively short jump to the roof of an adjacent building.

Hotel guests who opened their doors long enough to smell the fire said that the smoke smelled like burning gas or tires which would indicate that an accelerant other than just the mattress caused the fire. Those who believe that an accelerant was the cause said that the fire may have started at the base of the steps to the fourth floor. This provides the best explanation for why the stairway so quickly became a chimney of fire and smoke. This starting location was not near the mattress.

Firefighters valiantly fought to extinguish the fire and to rescue the trapped from their windows, but it was impossible to save everyone.Many bodies were burned beyond recognition and had to be identified by rings and other items found on the body.

The outer walls of the Winecoff did not burn (they were the fireproof part of the building) and the building was later used to house other businesses.

As a result of this fire, enhancements in the building and fire codes require hotels and other buildings to have improved methods of exit, safer interior finishes, fire alarms and sprinklers. The next time you are annoyed by a "no smoking allowed" room in a hotel where lighting a cigarette will set off an alarm remember that it is an important lesson from what happened to the Winecoff on that terrible December day.

Books used in this article:

The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire by Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin

The Bleak December is a fictionalized story of the fire by David R. Kelly that includes his rather convoluted theory of how and why the fire was set.

Websites used for this article:

My Firefighter Nation

The Winecoff Hotel (and Fire)

Peachtree Burning 

A Firefighter's Own Worst Enemy

Other websites:

A list of victims with their hometowns is available at Winecoff Hotel Fire Memorial.

A video remembrance of the victims from Bainbridge High Shool is available at The Winecoff Hotel Fire.

An eight minute documentary on the fire can be found at The Winecoff.Org

If you wish to further research the Winecoff fire, note that it was also known as the Peachtree Fire since the main street in front of the hotel was Peachtree Street.

How Does a Fire Behave?

According to the website Journey to Firefighter there are four stages to a fire:

The first stage is a very small fire, known as the ignition (or incipient point) which may go out on its own. In the case of the Cocoanut Grove, this would be mostly closely represented by the instant when the first palm tree caught fire.

The next stage of any fire, called the growth stage, is when the fire finds additional fuel in the form of structures and oxygen. This is the time when a deadly flashover can occur. In the Cocoanut Grove fire, the ignition of the entire faux ceiling would represent this stage.

When the fire reaches its third stage it is considered fully developed. This is the hottest and most dangerous stage of any fire. Once the fire in the Cocoanut Grove had spread to the main floor and then throughout the different lounges it was fully developed.

The final stage of a fire, called decay, is when the consumption of all possible fuel and oxygen causes the fire to die. By the time this stage was reached through the work of firemen on the scene, the Cocoanut Grove was destroyed and 495 people had died.

Fire at the Cocoanut Grove

The Cocoanut Grove Night Club was a favorite entertainment spot among the citizens of Boston...until the fire on November 28, 1942 when it became an inferno of agony and death.

Nine exits were available on the main floor of the Cocoanut Grove, but most customers only knew of the way that they had entered the club--through the revolving door. Also many of the other exits had doors that may have been locked. All doorways in the club opened inward, meaning that panicked patrons would press against a door holding it shut, ultimately causing a deadly and gruesome pile up of bodies.

The Melody Lounge was on the lower level of the club. It had two exits, but one of them was in the kitchen and most customers were unaware of it. A few customers did see it, and escaped the building that way. Others were able to break windows (except for the glass block windows and those with security bars on them). The main floor of the club was divided into several lounges with a maze of corridors between them. No fire doors were installed between the various lounges because the owner felt they would be an encumbrance and would cost too much.

Most of the lounges were decorated in a "Tahitian" style with paper palm trees and other very flammable materials. These included leather coverings on the walls which emitted particularly noxious fumes.

The club had a capacity of 500 people but 800-1000 people were in the club on November 28th, 1942. Smoking was allowed in the club, but the commonly accepted cause of the fire was that a waiter who had been sent to replace or repair a burnt out bulb lit a match to see the bulb. Evidently the match struck a paper palm tree and set it ablaze. At first the tree burned slowly while employees struggled to pull it away from the wall but they were ultimately unable to do so, and the faux ceiling made of paper and designed to look like a night sky caught fire. In search of a source of oxygen, the flames headed straight to the only exit patrons were aware of. It was a winding staircase similar to the meandering corridors in the upper level. Patrons escaping from the lower level were on fire, and and as they ran through the main level they spread the fire there.

The revolving door jammed almost immediately with customers pushing to move it in both directions, causing an unimaginable pile up of dead, crushed and burned bodies that would be found when firefighters were finally able to remove the revolving door.

In the final count, a horrifying 495 of the 800-1000 people in the club died. Some who failed to act quickly enough died suffocating at their tables. Bodies wedged against doors were burnt beyond recognition and/or trampled to death in the stampede. Entertainers in the club were able to escape by a stairway to the roof.

You can thank the Cocoanut Grove tragedy (and others) for the lighted exit signs and properly designed exits in public buildings today. So, the next time you enter a nightclub or theater, be sure to notice the posted exits and know how you could quickly reach them in a fire.

Books used for this article:

Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy and Its Aftermath by John C. Esposito. This is the single best source of information on the fire. A special section of the book is reserved for images of the nightclub before, during, and after the fire.

The Greatest Disasters of the 20th Century by Frances Kennett includes articles on several disasters including one about the Grove, and might be an especially good choice to buy since it includes equally good information on other disasters besides the fire at the Grove.

Websites used for this article:

Celebrate Boston

Important Fires in History.

The Lady of Our Angels School Fire

On December 1st 1958 shortly before the students' dismissal from school for the day a fire broke out at Our Lady of The Angels school in Chicago.

The fire may have burned unnoticed for up to 30 minutes, consuming the trash barrel and then setting fire to the steps to the first floor. The superheated gases from the fire shattered a window in the stairwell giving the fire a new source of oxygen that greatly increased its power. Heavy wooden doors blocked the fire from entering the first floor corridor so the fire took the only other exit it could by moving up the space between the walls and from there to the attic. The fire blew through the ceiling into the second floor corridor moments before the students would have been dismissed for the day. The teachers and students did not know the fire was burning until they touched a door and found it the handle to hot to touch or opened the door momentarily, only to be forced back into the room by the noxious smoke and fire. At that point the students were left with two choices: stay in the room and pray, or go to the windows for fresh air and the possibility of escape by jumping from the second story windows. As the fire ate through the ceilings into the classrooms the situation worsened. There were then many more students in each classroom than we are used to today: between 50 and 65 students in each room, and so the windows were crowded and students had to and did viciously fight to get to a window for fresh air.

The fire department was delayed in getting to the school because the call they received told them that the fire was either in the church or the rectory not the school. When they reached the school they were faced with a locked iron gate that prevented them from having immediate access to the best location to fight the fire and to save the children who were in the classrooms. By that time students were already jumping out of windows, dying or sustaining severe injuries on impact. Parents rushed to the school looking for their children. The school had received repeated warnings from the fire marshal, but had not heeded any of the recommended changes that would have shortened the the arrival of the fire department. It would have been a simple solution to replace the fire alarm bells that rang only in the school building to ones that ring not only in the school but also summon the fire department, but it had not been done.

Of the 1,600 students, nuns and lay teachers in the building 195 died, all in the second floor of the north wing.
In the book, The Fire That Will Not Die by Michele MacBride, she tells of her experiences in the burning inferno that was the school: "I watched in horror as children stopped struggling for air and started laughing. It was not a friendly, joking laugh, but the snarling bray of a hyena. Their heads were thrust back, their mouths wide open and gagging, as spit streamed down their fear stricken faces."

Another, even more horrifying quote from the same source is, "A bright orange doll appeared and curled up in the most grotesque manner. The straw doll and I were falling...I screamed. The 'straw doll' was Lisa."

There are safety methods in our schools today that have been inspired by this and other disasters. They include: alarms that sound both in the school and at fire departments and other rescue services; the institution of regular fire drills; and buildings designed to be fireproof (or as fire-resistant as possible.) Sadly many schools are still open today that were built as much as a century before. Some schools have been retrofitted to be as fireproof as possible; others have not been; but all could still be possible sites for disastrous fires.

Books used for this article:

To Sleep With the Angels: The Story of a Fire by David Cowan and John Kuenster. An excellent overview of the fire and includes pictures of Our Lady of the Angels during and after the fire. The book is available at

Remembrances of the Angels: 50th Anniversary Reminiscences of the Fire No One Can Forget by John Kuenster. A book of personal memories from those who survived the fire, from journalists who witnessed the fire and others who were present that day. Used copies of the book can be found at

The Fire That Will Not Die
by Michele McBride. A personal collection of memories from one badly burned survivor of the fire. It includes not only the author's memories of the fire, but also her experience as burn patient.The book is available at, and is highly recommended for further reading.

Chicago Calamities (IL): Disaster in the Windy City
by Gayle Soucek includes coverage of many Chicago disasters including the fire at Our Lady of the Angels School.This book is also available at

Websites used:

Our Lady of the Angels School Fire, December 1, 1958.

A Firefighter's Own Worst Enemy.

How I First Became Interested in Disasters

The book that started it all:
Years ago I purchased the book, Darkest Hours by Jay Robert Nash. It includes brief summaries of a large number of disasters, and longer essays on many of the disasters. It is the book that first introduced me to the idea that while disasters are fascinating and horrifying they also bring about changes that benefit the world.  
Darkest Hours was just the first purchase in my library of disaster books that continues to grow each day. It was printed in 1976, and I hope to continue its legacy by including here disasters that have happened since that date, and by gathering additional information about the events I first came to know by reading there.
If you wish to learn more than this blog can ever cover, Darkest Hours is the first disaster book you should buy. The book is out of print, but used copies are available on AbeBooks and Amazon.
I will also note sources for my research in each of my blog entries, and hope that these citations will guide you to websites and books that provide more information than I have included.
Thank you for being a reader of Disasters That Changed the World.