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Historic Hotel, Restaurant & Nightclub Fires Provide Common Threads For Developing Significant Subrogation Recoveries

June 27, 2016

This article was originally published in the Subrogator, a publication by the National Association of Subrogation Professionals, Spring/Summer, 2016. © Copyright 2016 by NASP. All rights reserved. Republished by Butler with permission from NASP.

Early tragedies, such as the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub and Winecoff Hotel fires, were the catalysts for the development of national fire safety codes and standards. Modern model codes and standards are promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association. They generally provide minimum fire protection standards.

Compliance with the codes and standards likely has saved countless lives over the decades. History tends to repeat itself, however, when lessons from the past are not learned, corners are cut, and the codes and standards are disregarded. For example, the 1980s witnessed no fewer than five major hotel fires. In November 1980, 87 people died at the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Nevada. One month later, in December 1980, 26 people died at the Stouffer’s Inn in New York. Three months later, in February 1981, a fire at the Las Vegas Hilton killed eight people and injured 600, hospitalizing 300 people. In March 1982, a fire at the Westchase Hilton in Houston, Texas, killed 12 people. On New Year’s Eve 1986, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a fire at the DuPont Plaza Hotel killed 97 people, caused over 140 injuries. These fires collectively resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of property damages.

The case studies below provide valuable insights for developing fire recovery theories. Clarence Darrow recognized: “History repeats itself, and that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.” Until history’s lessons are learned, hotel, restaurant, and nightclub fires will persist, and recovery opportunities abound!

Cocoanut Grove Nightclub (Boston, MA 1942)

The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub was one of Boston’s foremost clubs during the 1930s and 1940s. Tied to the mafia, the club’s owner routinely locked and concealed exits, and even bricked one emergency exit to inhibit scarpers. 

On Thanksgiving weekend in 1942, the club hosted a holiday party crammed at over triple the maximum capacity. Although causation was undetermined, reports state that a guest removed a corner light bulb. While reinstalling the bulb, an employee likely lit a match, igniting a decorative tree. The fire quickly spread along walls and flammable decorations, propagating upstairs and across the dance floor, engulfing the crowd within seconds.

The club did not have a fire suppression system, and there were no sprinklers or fire extinguishers handy. As guests fled, they found exit doors bolted shut or boarded. The only exit was a single revolving door, which people immobilized by pressing against both sides. The fire killed 492 people and injured countless hundreds more, becoming the second deadliest building fire in U.S. history.

The Titanic of Hotels: The “Absolutely Fireproof” Winecoff Hotel (Atlanta, GA 1946)

The Winecoff Hotel was constructed in 1913. The hotel’s stationery advertised the hotel as “absolutely fireproof.” Accordingly, the hotel owners did not install sprinklers, fire escapes, or an alarm system in the 15-story building. 

On December 7, 1946, the hotel was filled to capacity with more than 280 guests. According to reports, at approximately 3:00 a.m., an elevator operator smelled smoke on the fifth floor and descended to the lobby, exclaiming: “Fire!” By that time, floors three, four, and five were already engulfed in flames. The cause of the fire remains unclear, although there is speculation that a careless patron dropped a cigarette onto a mattress, igniting the blaze.

As designed, the hotel was a deathtrap. The stairwell and elevator shafts—the only means of egress—ran straight through the middle of the building. Doors leading to the stairwells on several floors and many transoms above guest rooms were open, forming a giant chimney and allowing smoke and flames to be pulled inward and upward rapidly through the middle of the perfectly square hotel. With the only exit impassable, guests fled back to their rooms, where many just hopelessly awaited their fate while other chose a quicker demise.

The Winecoff Hotel fire remains the worst hotel fire on U.S. soil. Nearly half of the guests—119 people—perished in the blaze.

Beverly Hills Supper Club (Southgate, KY 1977)

The Beverly Hills Supper Club was a popular nightspot, showcasing attractions from Hollywood, Las Vegas and New York. The club boasted a “non-combustible” frame and ceiling tiling, but substantially used wooden building materials and connecting joints. The carpeted club was adorned with highly flammable decorations and wooden wall paneling. Rooms were packed with wooden tables, supports, curtains, and other combustibles.

No sprinkler system was installed, and the contemporary local fire regulations did not require one. The club also lacked smoke detectors and fire alarms.

During a Cabaret Room show on May 28, 1977, the club hosted 3,200 guests, about 1,500 over capacity. A small, smoldering fire—likely a result of faulty electrical wiring—began in a dropped ceiling where a wedding reception was taking place. Once wait staff opened the door to allow guest to enter, oxygen flooded the room, causing flashover. The fire engulfed the room, spreading rapidly along the wooden ceilings and walls. The flashover was so fast that guests were found in their seats with drinks in their hands.

The club did not have a fire alarm, so news of the fire spread through word-of-mouth as employees sprinted to distant ends of the large building. The limited number of exits prevented escape, and many people perished due to smoke inhalation at the doorways leading away from the Club. The fire killed 165 people and wounded over 200.

MGM Grand Hotel (Las Vegas, NV 1980)

The MGM Grand Hotel was a 23-story luxury hotel and casino. On November 21, 1980, the hotel hosted approximately 5,000 people. That morning, a fire broke out in the “Deli,” a hotel restaurant. The fire quickly spread through the casino and smoke spread into the hotel tower. Most of the damage was to the second floor casino and adjacent restaurants.

The fire and smoke killed 87 people (many in their sleep) and injured 700. Most deaths occurred on the upper floors of the hotel, caused by smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning.

The investigation revealed that an electrical ground fault inside a wall socket at a pastry display case caused the fire. The fire spread through the lobby, igniting wallpaper, piping, glue, and plastic. The fire spread through the casino at a rate of 15 to 19 feet per second because there were no sprinklers. The hotel believed that sprinklers were not necessary, because the hotel was open 24/7. The speed of the fire spread resulted in a massive fireball blowing out the main entrance on the Vegas Strip.

Openings in vertical shafts, such as elevators, stairwells, and seismic joints permitted smoke and toxic fumes to spread to the top floor. Faulty smoke dampers in the ventilation duct system exacerbated the spread of poisonous gases through the hotel’s air circulation system. Locked doors in stairwells trapped people in toxic fumes.

The fire was contained within the casino and restaurant areas. Damage was minimized in areas where the money was kept, which had functioning sprinkler systems.

Prior to the fire, the building inspector exempted the casino and restaurants from having sprinklers because they were supposed to be occupied 24 hours a day. When the fire broke out in the restaurant, however, it was no longer open 24 hours a day. At the time of the fire, it was closed and unoccupied.

Dupont Plaza Hotel (San Juan, Puerto Rico 1986)

The Dupont Plaza Hotel was a 22-story resort hotel and casino.  The hotel included a 17-story tower with 423 guest rooms.

On December 31, 1986, at approximately 3:00 p.m., arsonists set fire to a six-foot pile of plastic-wrapped chairs, dressers, and packing material in an empty, first-floor ballroom, where there were no smoke or heat detectors, alarms, or sprinklers. The hotel housed more than 400 employees and about 1,000 guests, over 250 of whom were gambling in the second floor casino. Within 20 to 30 minutes of the fire’s ignition, 97 people had died and over 140 others were injured. The fire department did not receive a call from the hotel until 3:40 p.m.

A hotel executive first noticed the fire when he saw smoke billowing up a stairwell. The executive descended to the lower level and discovered the ballroom ablaze. The fire ignited the carpeting and wall covers. It spread through gaps between the structural and drop ceilings, hiding from view flames and toxic smoke that surrounded the casino. The inferno broke windows between the ballroom and foyer. The breakage occurred during a flashover, which allowed dense smoke to flow into the foyer and reach the lobby and casino. Thick smoke and heat extended from the lobby to the casino, blocking the casino’s main exit, where many gamblers congregated.

It was estimated that the fire swept through the lobby and the casino in about eight minutes after it was discovered. The oxygen released from windows broken by people escaping fueled the flames. Virtually every combustible in the fire’s path ignited within 20 seconds, as the flame front swept through the casino at a rate of about six feet per second. At 1200 degrees, people literally exploded.

The hotel’s air conditioning unit exacerbated the fire, as clouds of smoke particles built up and ignited suddenly. The air itself exploded.

The hotel’s 17-story tower did not have sprinklers, and the fire alarm system did not work. Although the smoke from the casino fire billowed up the tower, many of the guests were not aware of the fire until they saw it, smelled it, heard someone shout “Fire,” or heard firefighters responding. No smoke detectors or sprinklers were located in the corridors leading to guest rooms. There were no smoke detectors, sprinklers, or alarms in guest rooms. Elevators were not equipped with fire department access or recall doors, smoke detectors, or sprinkler protection. One stairway did not have a door separating it from the main lobby, allowing heat, smoke, and fire to infiltrate it.

The first and second floors of the hotel, especially the ballroom, foyer, lobby, and casino, suffered the most damage. Although adjacent to the ballroom, the tower was mostly undamaged by fire, but suffered significant smoke and soot damage.

Station Nightclub (West Warwick, RI 2003)

On February 20, 2003, the Station Nightclub was hosting a heavy metal band performance. The intoxicated, youthful crowd well exceeded capacity. During the band’s opening song, devices sprayed sparks to enhance visuals. Almost instantly, the acoustic foam lining the stage ignited. The fire on the extremely flammable urethane and plyethlyne foam spread quickly, engulfing the crowd in thick sheets of toxic smoke.

When the fire alarm sounded, the revelers stampeded towards the only available exit. Video footage depicts a deadlock at the door due to pressure from individuals pushing from behind. One hundred people lost their lives, with over 230 others injured by burns or smoke inhalation. The local fire code required a sprinkler system, but no sprinklers were installed during renovations due to improper paperwork that ignored local codes and misled officials.

Collectiv Nightclub (Bucharest, Romania 2015)

Most recently, an October 30, 2015 fire at the Collectiv Nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, killed 63 people and wounded over 180. Like the Station Nightclub fire, a heavy metal band’s pyrotechnics ignited the club’s flammable polyurethane acoustic foam. The fire spread rapidly throughout the club, covering the walls and ceiling. Thick, black smoke caused immediate suffocation and many individuals fell in their tracks.

The overly-packed crowd stampeded towards the single, narrow exit, which the crush of people largely blocked. The fire suppression system consisted of a single fire extinguisher, no sprinklers, and no emergency exits.

The Common Thread: Fire Spread

Besides the extreme tragedy and immense loss of life and property, all of these events have something in common. They illustrate how even small fires can become large fires with astounding speed. They are examples of how the failure to employ proper fire detection, fire proofing, suppression, and containment allows fire to spread at unbelievable rates.

The common thread to each of these events is fire spread due to the failure to suppress the fire. Automatic sprinklers are paramount to fire suppression. Properly installed and maintained automatic fire suppression systems likely would have limited fire spread. Adequate sprinkler systems generally suppress fires before they reach fatal intensity levels by significantly diminishing the changes of exceedingly high temperatures, as they cool the room. When sprinklers go off, the fire could not be concealed in its early stages; there would be no build-up of heat, no flashover, and no inferno.

Sprinklers go hand-in-hand with fire detection and containment. State of the art systems can operate through a central computer, monitoring thousands of locations within an establishment and initiate hundreds of life safety actions.

When assessing subrogation potential after a fire, consider the issue of fire spread. Even if the cause of the fire is undetermined or your insured is at fault, recovery opportunities loom if the fire spread is a result of inadequate or improperly maintained fire suppression and detection systems, or inadequate containment and excessively flammable materials.

Subrogation investigations should consider the work performed by the companies responsible for designing, installing, and maintaining the fire protection systems. For example, the investigation should explore whether the system was designed properly for the layout and function of the facility; whether the proper types of sprinkler heads and detection equipment were installed and done so properly; and whether the systems were properly maintained through proper testing, including any necessary integrated testing. In some instances, the contractor responsible for ongoing maintenance has the duty to inform the insured of inadequacies in the system, even if the contractor did not originally design the system or is not ultimately responsible for implementing changes.

Winston Churchill once said that “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” As restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs get larger, more popular, and overly crowded, history must be the best fire safety teacher for the owners and operators. Fire codes and standards are meant to curb property damage and to save lives. If codes and standards are ignored, history will, as it did in 2015 in Bucharest, repeat itself with tragic deaths and substantial property losses. Being mindful of such recurring fire safety and protection failures is vital in developing significant subrogation recovery opportunities for hotel, restaurant and nightclub fires.