High-Rise Lessons From Sad Paulo, Brazil

High-Rise Lessons From Sad Paulo, Brazil

The Editor’s Opinion Page

It is hard to believe, but a fire that started on the 12th floor of a 25story reinforced concrete building—during office hours—eventually destroyed the contents of all the offices above that floor and killed 179 persons. We are talking here of the Joelma Building fire in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which Commissioner John T. O’Hagan of the New York Fire Department has reported on for us elsewhere in these pages.

The building, of course, provides a horrible example of how a highrise should not be constructed. It started out fine with all the structural members, columns, beams and floors formed from reinforced concrete, but from there on things went downhill. The interior office walls were constructed of combustible panels nailed to wooden studs. The ceiling tiles which were suspended from wooden hangers were made from combustible fibers. And combustible furniture and the large amount of paper associated with an office occupancy added to this heavy fuel loading.

Other than the elevators, there was but one stairwell—open, extending from the first floor to the roof. And finally, there were no interior alarms, no automatic detection devices and no automatic extinguishing systems. All of this added up to a holocaust that provided a new lifeloss record for a high-rise structure.

This fire aroused the concern of all those who are involved in fire prevention, fire detection, fire suppression and the evacuation of occupants in high-rise buildings. Could it happen here was their first question. Well, in one way it could and in another it couldn’t.

Starting with the interior structure, we doubt if there are any modern high-rise buildings in this country that have combustible walls and ceilings. And we doubt, too, that there are any, with the floor area and the number of occupants of the Joelma Building, that have only one stair for egress. However, large quantities of paper are used in all office buildings, no matter what country or continent, and combustible furniture is ubiquitous.

The other contributing factors to the Joelma disaster—lack of interior alarms, automatic detection and automatic extinguishment—are present in most of the high-rise buildings in this country and Canada. So, perhaps it could happen here … unless something is done about it.

As Commissioner O’Hagan tells us, “the time and place to ensure safety in high-rise buildings is during the period that the building is designed.”

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