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City on fire: 8 infamous blazes in history

Each fire provided lessons on fire safety and preventive measures to avoid another tragedy


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If you open up a history book, you’re sure to find a plethora of chapters involving great fires — with the first dating back to 587 B.C. More recently, December’s Ghost Ship fire in Oakland was a harsh reminder that large-scale fires are not a thing of the past.

And while each disaster led to untimely deaths and injuries, they also taught the fire service valuable fire safety lessons and preventative measures to avoid another tragedy from occurring.

Here’s a list of eight of the most destructive and deadly fires in U.S. history.

8. Station Nightclub Fire

Location: West Warwick, R.I. Date: Feb. 20, 2003 What happened: Pyrotechnics for Great White, a rock band, started the fire at a nightclub called The Station. More than 200 people were injured and 100 were killed. The Station nightclub was beyond capacity when the fire occurred. It was licensed for 404 people, but 462 people were in attendance.
7. Beverly Hills Supper Club

Location: Southgate, Ky. Date: May 28, 1977 What happened: The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire killed 65 people and injured more than 200. The nightclub was beyond capacity when the fire occurred. Several factors, including insufficient fire exits and lack of sprinklers, contributed to the fatalities and injuries.
6. Our Lady of the Angels school fire

Location: Chicago, Ill. Date: Dec. 1, 1958 What happened: The blaze broke out right before classes dismissed for the day. The fire started in the basement of the private Catholic school near a stairway. A total of 92 students and three nuns died; firefighters rescued 162 children trapped on the second floor.
5. Hartford Circus Fire

Location: Hartford, Conn. Date: July 6, 1944 What happened: The fire took place during a Ringling Brothers’ Barnum and Baily Circus performance. A side wall of a tent caught fire and collapsed; more than 100 of the 168 people killed were under the age of 15. Overcrowding and an inadequate number of exits made escaping difficult.
4. Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire

Location: Boston, Mass. Date: Nov. 28, 1942 What happened: The Cocoanut Grove Nightclub Fire, which had its walls and ceilings covered in paper palm tree decorations, caught fire when someone lit a match. The nightclub was filled more than twice its capacity, killing 492 people. The building didn’t have a fire sprinkler system and the primary exit was a revolving door.
3. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

Location: New York City, N.Y. Date: March 25, 1911 What happened: The garment factory occupied the top three floors of a 10-story building. The workers were immigrant women — some as young as 14 years old. The fire killed 123 women and 23 men. Many of the garment workers couldn’t escape because the owners locked the doors to the stairwells and exits — to prevent theft and workers from taking breaks.
2. The Great Peshtigo Fire

Location: Peshtigo, Wis. Date: Oct. 8, 1871 What happened: The Peshtigo Fire is the deadliest wildfire in history. As many as 2,500 people were killed and 1.2 million acres of land burned. Drought and high temperatures led to fire-prone conditions.
1. The Great Chicago Fire

Location: Chicago, Ill. Date: Oct. 8, 1871 What happened: The Great Chicago Fire occurred on the same day as the Great Peshtigo Fire. The fire killed more than 250 people and left 100,000 homeless. Legend says the fire occurred after Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lamp, setting a barn and the whole city on fire. There’s no proof the cow started the fire. The fire caused an estimated $200 million in damages.

Sarah Calams, who previously served as associate editor of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, is the senior editor of and In addition to her regular editing duties, Sarah delves deep into the people and issues that make up the public safety industry to bring insights and lessons learned to first responders everywhere.

Sarah graduated with a bachelor’s degree in news/editorial journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Have a story idea you’d like to discuss? Send Sarah an email or reach out on LinkedIn.