Lack of Sprinklers Leads to Mall Destruction
When fire fighters arrived at the incident, fire had already spread throughout the covered mall complex. The total destruction was the result of
- an absence of sprinklers
- a delayed alarm
- poor construction practices.
Theoretically, the large open area inside a shopping mall is supposed to act as a firebreak, preventing fire from spreading between small, independent shops.
In Brunswick, Ga., however, fire fighters found that the wide open mall area, even with light to moderate combustible loading, did little to slow a serious fire that destroyed the Brunswick Mall last fall.
Brunswick Mall, opened in 1967, had concrete block walls with brick veneer. The interior concrete block walls between stores only ran up to the bottom of the roof deck and bar joists. Over the years, additional stores had been added in spaces, subdivided with walls of wood studs and Sheetrock. The floor, a concrete slab, was covered with terrazzo in the mall common and carpeting over concrete in the individual shops.
There were two types of roof construction. The roof deck over the 45foot-wide mall was 3 X 3-inch tongue and groove wood planking supported by laminated wood beams. These wooden beams were supported by a steel beam parallel to the mall itself, running the entire length of the mall, over the front wall of each store. Steel columns supported these load-bearing beams.
Over the leased spaces, the interior concrete block walls topped by steel 1 beams and columns where necessary, supported lightweight, roll-bar joists, on top of which rested steel Q decking which in turn supported 2 inches of lightweight gypsum exterior covering.
The roof over the mall area was 20 feet high, and over the stores 16 feet high. Each store had 10-foot-high plate glass fronts with wood facade above to the wooden roof deck.
The individual shops had mineral tile ceilings in metal tracks, except in the stockroom areas, where the roof deck was exposed. The wooden deck over the open mall hallway was exposed to the hallway below, not protected by any type of suspended ceiling. There were no firewalls to compartmentalize the 175,000-square-foot mall, nor were there any sprinkler systems.
To add to the problems from a fire fighting standpoint, there were no hydrants on the mall property. The nearest one outside, roughly 600 feet away, was on a dead-end main. Other hydrants were as far away as 1400 feet.
The Georgia State Fire Marshal’s Office reported that since 1967, the mall had never received a certificate of occupancy from the state, because it did not comply with the state code that requires a sprinkler system in any building over 25,000 square feet in one common area not subdivided by firewalls. Uniquely, a state fire marshal was in the middle of his inspection on the morning of the fire.
Reportedly, the mall owners, a European consortium called N.V. Menlo Corporation, had been ordered by the Georgia State Fire Marshal’s Office to submit plans for bringing the mall into compliance by August 1983; however, the plans were never received by the fire marshal’s office in Atlanta. The Brunswick Fire Department also had sent letters to the mall owners requesting the addition of sprinklers or firewalls to make the huge shopping center comply with current Georgia, Glynn County, and Brunswick fire codes. At the time of the fire, nothing had been done, and the mall continued to be open for business as usual.
In pre-fire planning for the shopping center, the first-due engine was well aware that supplying large quantities of water to the mall would be a serious problem. Fire fighters had loaded the engine with an additional 500 feet of 2 1/2-inch line for this reason and ran with a total of 2000 feet of hose rather than the standard load of 1500 feet.
At 2:28 a.m. on September 20, a police officer was responding to a burglar alarm in the Brunswick Mall. While still ¼ mile from the shopping complex, he saw the glow of flames and notified his dispatcher to contact both the Brunswick and Glynn County Fire Departments. The Brunswick Fire Department also received a call from a caretaker at an adjacent store, who reported that the roof of one of the mall shops was on fire and he had heard a loud explosion.
Upon receiving the call at 2:31 a.m., three engines and a deputy chief responded. Brunswick has no aerial equipment and operates with 11 fire personnel on duty per shift. Brunswick Chief Tom Nichols heard the radio traffic and immediately responded to the mall, arriving at 2:33 a.m., the same time as Police Chief Jim Carter.
Nichols’ first intention was to size up the situation and see where he needed to deploy his forces to cut off the fire. As he came even with the glass doors at the mall’s west entrance, he saw a horrifying sight. The mall’s open space (40 feet wide and 25 feet high) was a sea of flames fed by six fully involved stores. He drove to the north entrance and found full involvement of the 175 X 200-foot Woolworth store at the end of the hall.
At 2:34 a.m., a request was sent for all off-duty Brunswick fire fighters and all available equipment from the Glynn County Department.
The largest body of fire was noted to be in the northwest sector of the mall. Nichols continued along the north side and around the east end of the mall to the south entrance. He again found fires in almost all of the shops which lined the hall.
During this time, attempts to maneuver handlines into the mall to gain access to the fire were thwarted by the overbearing fire front and by the evidence of an immediate collapse situation.
An outside attack was evident and a stand was made at the east end of the mall to stop fire spread and protect the 173 X 228-foot commercial anchor building.
Nichols felt that, on arrival, roughly 90 percent of the area destroyed was already lost, and the remaining 10 percent would be lost as lines were laid. Once the attack was in position, the fire advance was slowed and stopped in a reasonable length of time. Additional water pressure had to be requested at 3:15 a.m. due to low water availability at the nozzles. Part of this, of course, was caused by the friction loss of long hose lays.
About 70 fire fighters from the Glynn County Fire Department, St. Simons Island Volunteer Fire Department, Jekyll Island Volunteer Fire Department, and the Brunswick Fire Department operated at the scene. Companies laid 9000 feet of 2 1/2-inch supply lines and 3500 feet of 1 ½-inch attack lines. The initial advance of the fire was stopped by 4:30 a.m., and it was declared under control at 6:30 a.m.
Brunswick Fire Fighter Gregory Horne summed up the situation: “We were trying to get the fire out in the center of the mall so we could see where to cut it off and save something. When we reached the center of the mall, everything in front of us was on fire. Everything on both sides of us was on fire, and everything on top of us was on fire. There was no way we could save anything. The walls started leaning in on us and we had to pull out.”
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, even though samples sent to the Georgia State Crime Lab came up negative. The rapid spread and the total involvement upon arrival make the incident suspicious. The blaze was investigated by the Brunswick Police and Fire Department along with various state and federal agencies.
Nearly 400 people lost their jobs due to the destruction of this mall.
Chief Roger A. McGary of the Takoma Park, Md., Volunteer Fire Department brought up several points about mall fires in the October 1983 issue of FIRE ENGINEERING which held true for this fire:
- void or cockloft above the stores was a virtual lumberyard;
- absence of sprinklers;
- poor firewalls and construction;
- delayed alarm;
- no supervised alarm system.
Chief Nichols stated that an automatic sprinkler system supplied from an adequate water supply, would have either extinguished the fire or at least contained it within the area of origin until fire fighters could arrive. Additionally, had a sprinkler system been, provided with a water flow alarm to the fire department, the early alerting of the fire would have prevented the serious delay which let this fire get such headway. With the Brunswick Mall fire, as well as with the Winter Haven, Fla., mall fire, the local police departments received burglar alarms as the first indication that a fire was in progress.
On the plus side, pre-fire planning led to the additional hose, loaded in the event of such a fire, which proved valuable for the rapid delivery of water to this mall.
Fortunately at this incident, the fire occurred when shopper/employee evacuation did not have to be considered; but the overall points brought out by Chief McGary should be seriously considered by all fire protection officials.