6 Most Famous Fires in History and Their Stories

It has been well established that fire is a destructive force of nature that can leave nothing but ashes in its wake. While protection from fire damage and tactics to keep fire under control have excelled in recent years, the fact still remains that the element can spread out of control in a quick manner. Recent events have even shown that the most cherished of locations are susceptible to the standard flame.

This is a lesson that has been taught throughout the years in different places, under different circumstances, as well as with various outcomes in the end.

Let’s explore the six most famous fires in history and the stories behind them:

1. Notre-Dame de Paris (Fire in 2019)

An important thing to remember about fire is that it can conquer anything, no matter how beloved and strong a structure may seem. The world got a stark reminder of this on April 15, 2019, when the Notre-Dame de Paris was engulfed in flames, threatening centuries of history as it blazed. This is one of the most famous fires in recent history.

It has been officially stated that the fire was the result of mishaps that occurred during renovations. A simple, yet costly mistake that grew out-of-control in a quick manner, but was eventually taken care of by the hard work of local firefighters and experts.

During the fire, it admittedly looked really bad, but the cathedral managed to get luckier than many structures and suffered relatively little damage while also only injuring three people. Experts are confident that the Notre-Dame Cathedral can be restored, but the incident still serves as a warning that fire can and will claim anything it has a chance to.

2. The Hartford Circus (Fire in 1944)

Getting a chance to see The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in person would be a difficult opportunity to pass up. This sentiment was shared by about 6800 people on the day of July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut. Unfortunately, the circus simply didn’t have fire safety in mind during that incredibly hot day. The tragic events led to one of the most famous fires in history.

As was custom for the circus, the Big Top tent that held the main show had been waterproofed. The waterproofing process involved a potent mixture of paraffin and gasoline that would help absorb any water that may make itself onto the tent. As a bonus to that incredible idea, the many wooden chairs within the circus were coloured in layers of oil based paint. To make matters even worse, there were only a few entrances into the tent, which naturally served as exits, as well.

It has never been determined what actually started the fire, but most signs and assumptions point towards a carelessly tossed cigarette as the origin. All of the factors mentioned beforehand and the assumption that circus officials would have maintained the fire led to a death toll of 168. This tragedy would present several points of reasoning behind the careful fire safety standards that the world holds today.

3. Tokyo (Fire in 1923)

While you can equip yourself with fire safety materials and protocols, there are some events that you will simply be unable to foresee or prepare for. On September 1, 1923, Tokyo, Japan was in no way prepared for the series of events that would result in a horrific death toll of approximately 142,000 people.

The event is known as The Great Kanto Earthquake, and happened around lunchtime when most people were cooking. The earthquake was devastating, leaving thousands of people trapped and injured in rubble across the densely populated city. Unfortunately, the timing of the earthquake resulted in fires starting all across Tokyo.

While people were attempting to get a good grasp on the devastation that just occurred, the flames swiftly carried across 570,000 homes and businesses. To make matters worse, an unbelievable 1.9 million people were left homeless in addition to the high death count. This was known as one of the most famous fires in Japanese history.

4. Chicago (Fire in 1871)

In October of 1871, a small fire started in the barn on the O’Leary property. Sources say that Mrs. O’Leary’s beloved cow knocked over a lantern, igniting some nearby hay. However, that story was simply a spin on a reporter who wanted to make the event a bit more “colourful.”

Colourful isn’t exactly the right word to use for the fire that left 90,000 people homeless and secured a spot in history. Luckily, the death toll was counted at approximately 300 due to the relatively slow spread speed of the blaze. As you can imagine from the previous entry, the casualty count could have been far worse, but it was still one of the most famous fires back in the day.

This incident led to some major firefighting reforms not only in Chicago, but in most large cities, as it prompted everyone to take a closer look at fire safety protocols and how fire emergencies are handled.

5. The Station (Fire in 2003)

While so many fire related tragedies have happened throughout history, there are still incidents that happen to this day due to the ignoring of fire safety regulation. On the evening of February 20, 2003, the town of West Warwick, Rhode Island would suffer a devastating blow due to carelessness.

The Station was a popular nightclub that was hosting a band known as Great White. Apparently, people were excited to get a good look at the musicians, as the club was dangerously beyond capacity at the time of the fire. The building was licensed for a total of 404 people, but there were an estimated 462 in attendance.

While that was bad, the real trouble started when pyrotechnics mixed with egg crate foam material that lined the stage. Meant primarily for soundproofing, the foam material was exceedingly flammable. What’s worse was that the structure was built in 1976, which meant that owners were technically not required to install simple ceiling sprinklers.

This famous fire resulted in a chaotic scene in a tight, claustrophobic space that claimed 100 lives and severely injured many more. This also led to the technicality regarding ceiling sprinklers to be negated, as well as tighter regulations on pyrotechnic displays.

6. Halifax (Fire in 1917)

Fire can be a big catalyst for butterfly effects, as has demonstrated many times over the years. A little known occurrence of this effect was on display in Halifax, Nova Scotia on the morning of December 6, 1917. This is where a small fire resulted in the largest man-made explosion to happen on accident in history so far.

A cargo ship, Mont-Blanc, was navigating the tight waterways of Halifax harbour when it had a violent collision with a Norwegian freighter. Unfortunately, the Mont-Blanc was fully loaded with ammunition needed for the war in Europe. Naturally, the collision sparked a fire on the ship that could simply not be contained quickly enough. The flames came into contact with the extremely volatile and dangerous ammunition on-board, setting off an explosion that rocked the entire area.

The explosion was so powerful that it is estimated to have been on par with the force of three kilotons of TNT. The sheer force of the incident even created a tsunami in the harbour, coupled with a pressure wave that snapped trees, bent iron rails, devastated buildings, and even carried debris from the Mont-Blanc for miles.

Known as one of the deadliest and most famous fires in history, the death toll of this explosion was estimated at 2000 people lost, and around 9000 people injured. It also rendered the harbour largely unusable for years.

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