SPANISH DISCO: Smoke in a Ceiling Void, Collapse Results in 43 Deaths
In the early morning hours of January 14, 1990, our Zaragoza, Spain fire department received an alarm for a fire at a discotheque called Flying. Firefighters responded to the scene within minutes. Although they encountered an intense smoke condition, they had very few problems controlling and extinguishing the small fire on the building’s first floor. But it was the basement that held the horror: 43 people dead, many still seated in their chairs.
The nightclub occupies the first floor and basement of a one-story, triangular-shaped, corner building in a residential neighborhood. Two stairways constructed of brick and cement connect the first floor and the basement: The one at the left side of the building leads to the main entrance and is the normal means of entrance and exit; the one to the right is used as an emergency exit, which in size and shape complies with local codes and regulations. Both exits are located at street level. [Note: To get outside using the primary staircase, occupants have to pass through a lobby; using the emergency stairs they have to pass through a corridor. There is no direct exit from the basement to the outside.)
The establishment had an authorized capacity of 200 people. The first floor contained a lobby, a coatroom, a storage room, restrooms, and a room with electrical equipment. The basement, with a semicircular shape of more than 4,000 square feet, contained a small stage for the band, a dee-jay booth, a bar, and a dance floor. Sofas, tables, and chairs were situated in the remaining areas.
What I consider most important in the design of the building relative to the fire is the enormous height from street level to the roof—almost 20 feet. Therefore the disco’s owner built a false ceiling at approximately 13 feet. The void was almost seven feet high with a surface area of greater than 4,000 square feet—capable of accumulating a considerable amount of smoke and fire gases, predominantly carbon monoxide (CO). The false ceiling was covered with aluminized synthetic fiber that both served as acoustic insulation and supported the decorative panels of scagliola (imitation ornamental marble consisting of a finely ground gypsum base mixed with glue). Electrical cables ran through the void in close contact with the scagliola ceiling. All the questions related to the materials that produced the toxic fumes point to the positioning of this false ceiling. The basement floor occupied by the customers wasn’t involved in the combustion.
The cause of the 43 deaths was carbon monoxide inhalation. Firefighters described a very small fire on their arrival. We suppose that the heat of the electric cables in contact with the acrylic fiber in the false ceiling for a prolonged period of time produced accumulations of toxic fumes in the large void space. The increasing heat produced cracks in the scagliola panels, which collapsed suddenly, pushing the fumes through the wide stairs and into the basement. [Note: (1) It has not been conclusively established whether there were warning signs of collapse. Thirty people did escape the premises. (2) Although CO is listed as the cause of deaths, there is a strong possibility that other toxic fire by-products, including hydrogen cyanide, figured in the fatalities, particularly since many of the victims were still seated in their chairs. (3) The violent force sufficient to propel the smoke and pressurized flammable gases rapidly downward out of the false ceiling and through the staircase could indicate that a smoke explosion occurred. Smoke explosion and subsequent ignition of fire gases on contact with air is another possible explanation for the fact that people were “killed in place.”}
The fire itself started in the room that contained the electrical box and storage. When the fire was detected the ceiling already had collapsed.
LAYOUT OF THE ZARAGOZA, SPAIN NIGHTCLUB
30 people escaped through the main entrance.
Some people tned to reach the main entrance to escape but the stairs were blocked by the collapsed ceiling.
The intense fumes were lethal and many people died sitting in their chairs; there was no evidence that they were burned.
The band members tried to leave through the emergency exit but the fire made it impossible.
The fire started in the electrical box. It was small and controlled quickly by fire fighters upon arrival. It never reached the basement but the lethal smoke did.
Therefore we suspect a previous and prolonged combustion that resulted in flames. At no time was the fire of large proportions, and it was controlled immediately by our firefighters.
Knowing that there were people inside, our main concern on arrival was to provide enough respiration equipment in order to treat possible victims of carbon monoxide intoxication. All available ambulances were recalled since they usually carry oxigenotherapy equipment. Furthermore, the three main city hospitals were placed on alert.
I do not want to interfere with the current judicial investigation; therefore this report must be considered my private opinion. The existence and depth of the drop ceiling, coupled with the undetected condition of fire and the buildup of toxic gases in an abnormally large enclosed space, seem to be the major factors in the production of this phenomenon that was allowed to erupt on top of the live occupancy.
COMPLIANCE WITH CODES
On the other hand, the disco had all the permits required to operate and as far as we can tell, pending investigation, there is no reason to doubt the regular upkeep of the electrical equipment, the initiator of this disaster. The general norms that public establishments have to follow are established by the Ministry of Public Works, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Municipal Government of Zaragoza.
The Ministry of Public Works requires what is known as the “Basic Norm of Building,” which describes the quality of the different materials to be used in the construction of all buildings. Also, the distribution of area for different uses and the location of various compartments for stairs, lobbies, elevators, patios, terraces, and so on are clearly outlined. The disco complied with the requirements of the Basic Norm of Building.
The Ministry of the Interior, in charge of civil protection in Spain, requires the use of clear signs for quick evacuation of any public establishment. The disco had an emergency exit wide enough for the authorized capacity of the establishment. It was clearly marked and had signs and lights leading to it.
The laws of the Municipality of Zaragoza require that the Municipal Order for the Prevention of Fires of 1984 be followed. The order defines all flammable and toxic materials that
are prohibited in public buildings. We assume that none of these substances were involved in the fire. To confirm this, tests of samples of the different materials used in the installation and decorations at the disco are being conducted by the National Institute of Security and Hygiene.
The Municipality of Zaragoza also requires adequate fire extinguishing equipment according to the type of construction materials used. This equipment was available on the premises.