The following is a list of history’s top 15 worst nightclub fires, which includes the recent tragedy in Brazil. Most of the fires are a result of poor safety standards mixed with the casual discarding of a match, or the ill-advised use of pyrotechnics during stage acts. Because nightclubs tend to be small, contained areas carrying hundreds of people, these disasters usually end with horrible loss of life from smoke inhalation, burns, and trampling when everyone tries to exit at once. If you are ever at a venue, please take notice of all exits and be alert. Fires and toxic smoke spread very quickly.
History’s Top 15 Worst Nightclub Fires
WARNING: Some of the following photos and videos may be disturbing.
15. Gothenburg Disco Fire
October 29, 1998
Death Toll: 63
In late October 1998, a party organized for the local community of Macedonians took place in a disco on the island of Hisingen (northern Gothenburg). Almost 400 young people were celebrating Halloween when a fire started in a stairwell near an emergency exit. This blaze soon spread, but since the fire was so close to the emergency exit, it was rendered unusable. The students attending the party had no choice but to exit either through the bottle-necked front entrance or out windows, some of them 22 feet up. In addition, there were no sprinklers or fire alarms in the building. 63 people died from smoke inhalation. Most of the bodies were discovered in the cloak room or the narrow hallway in front of the entrance door.
After the fire, an investigation concluded that even though one exit remained, people should have been able to get out had the disco not exceeded the occupancy load (calculated to be about 150). But so many people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the hall, there wasn’t even enough room to dance. It was later determined that the fire was an act of arson started by four Iranian teenagers who were angry for not being allowed into the club due to an altercation over the 40 kronor ($5) entrance fee. Shoresh Kaveh was given 8 years in prison, Housein Arsani and Mohammad Mohammadamini were each given 6 years, and Meysam Mohammadyeh, who was a minor at the time, was sent to a juvenile facility.
14. Santika Club Fire
January 1, 2009
Death Toll: 66
There is a debate on what caused the fire at the Santika nightclub during New Years celebrations at the beginning of 2009. Some say it was fireworks, others say it was an electrical fault. Witness testimony and video evidence suggests that the blaze either started on the roof of the club, or in the ceiling somewhere. About 1,000 people were occupying the popular Bangkok club when the fire was discovered, causing a panicked exit. Only one public exit was available – the main entrance. Ironically, the band that was performing when the fire broke out was called Burn. 66 people died. The Santika never had a fire inspection and was operating illegally. The club owner, and some others, were charged and given some jailtime.
See the countdown to midnight below (take note of all the sparklers):
Video of the aftermath (WARNING: Disturbing images)
13. Alcalá 20 Fire
December 17, 1983
Death Toll: 82
The Alcalá 20 nightclub fire happened at the wee hours of the morning in a large, 4-story Madrid disco that had been in operation in some form or another since 1927. The fire that started near the stage spread to the curtains. Firefighters managed to put the fire out within the hour; however, by that time, over 80 people were dead from burns and smoke inhalation. A blocked exit door and faulty electrical wiring contributed to the tragedy. Ten years later, the co-owners of Alcalá 20 received prison sentences for reckless endangerment. The Alcalá 20 building reopened in 2005 as Adraba but even that was closed due to safety. A new club, opened in 2010, now stands.
12. Happy Land Fire
The Bronx, New York
March 25, 1990
Death Toll: 87
At 1959 Southern Blvd in The Bronx, an unlicensed social club named Happy Land (partly owned by Kathleen Turner’s ex-husband Jay Weiss) was in operation when on March 25, 1990, a fire broke out. That night, the young patrons (mostly Hondurans) were celebrating Carnival. Because the club had no fire exits, no sprinklers, and no fire alarms, it was supposed to be closed due to code violations. That evening, a 36 year old man named Julio Gonzalez got into an argument with his ex-girlfriend Lydia Feliciano, the club’s coat-check girl. Having been ejected from the club by the bouncer, he became enraged and returned later with a can of gasoline. He poured it on the stairs going into the club and lit a match.
The fire exits were blocked for the usual reason (so people couldn’t get in without paying). Most of the 87 victims died of suffocation (it was reported that smoke inhalation happened so fast that some victims still had drinks in their hands). Among the dead was club owner Elias Colon. Lydia Feliciano was one of the lucky ones to survive. González was found guilty on 87 counts of arson and 87 counts of murder. He is eligible for parole in March, 2015.
11. Great White / Station Nightclub Fire
West Warwick, Rhode Island
February 20, 2003
Death Toll: 100
The Station club fire was the 4th deadliest nightclub fire in American history. The 80s rock band Great White was performing on stage when one of their pyrotechnics started a fire in the soundproofing materials (acoustic foam made of flammable urethane and polyethylene). The stage lit up and within 6 minutes the whole club was in flames. Due to most patrons trying to exit through the front entrance at once, many people were crushed. (There were 4 possible exits; most of the band had already gotten out through the west exit). In the end, 100 people died and 230 people were injured.
Victims who died included Ty Longley, lead guitarist for the band, and DJ Mike Gonsalves from radio station WHJY. Daniel Biechele, tour manager for Great White, pled guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and served 2 years in prison. The club owners – Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, also went to jail for a few years after pleading no-contest. Ray Villanova, the owner of the site where The Station stood, is donating the land for a permanent memorial.