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Gothenburg Disco Fire

On October 28, 1998, a disastrous arson fire occurred during a Halloween party at a nightclub in Gothenburg, Sweden. Of the estimated 400 young people in attendance, 63 died in the blaze.
The second-floor hall, which was constructed of concrete and masonry block, was 105 feet (32 meters) by 31 feet (9.5 meters) and had several rooms, including a television room, directly off of the main assembly area. Acoustical tile was suspended from the ceiling, which had a noncombustible void above it. The wall of the corridor leading into the hall had wainscoting approximately 4 feet (1.2 meters) high. The precise composition of the interior finish in the hall is unknown, but it was reported that party decorations, including a number of flags, had been hung on the walls.
A series of eight windows on the northeast wall 7 feet (2.2 meters) above the floor measured 5.9 feet by 2.6 feet (1.8 meters by 0.8 meters). Six of the windows were in the hall itself, and two were in ancillary rooms off the hall. The southwest wall had five similar windows, but they were covered by security bars to prevent intrusion.
The remains of the hall’s furniture indicate that it was made of combustible materials on metal frames. Much of it had been removed from the main hall to make room for dancing, but some of it had been stored in the southeast stairwell, which proved to be a fatal mistake.
There was one exit at each end of the hall, each equipped with a door 3 feet (0.9 meters) wide that swung out in the direction of travel and led to stairways 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide. The main stairway on the northwest end discharged directly outside and was the stairway through which the occupants had entered. The other stairway, on the southeast end, discharged into a corridor through which people would have had to travel before reaching the outside. Unfortunately, this was the stairway that was full of furniture and thus impassable.
Although there were lighted exit signs at each end of the hall, the building had no sprinkler or fire alarm systems.
Survivors reported that a folding wall partway down the main hall was partially closed, but there was an opening wide enough to allow three people abreast to pass through. A stage was on the southeast end, where a disc jockey had set up his equipment.
The fire
The private Halloween party for high school students was hosted by the Macedonian Association. Normally, when an event to which tickets are sold is held, the fire brigade is notified to determine how many people will be allowed inside the occupancy. In this case, the fire brigade was never contacted, even though tickets had been sold. Survivors reported that the hall was so crowded that it was impossible to dance because people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
Shortly before midnight, the disc jockey opened the door leading to the southeast stairwell, and smoke from a fire in the stairwell billowed into the hall. It’s not known whether anyone closed the door again after the fire was detected.
Apparently, no announcement was made about the fire. Some of the survivors, who had been further away from the end at which the fire occurred, reported they smelled and saw smoke but initially thought it was cigarette smoke. Others reported that the disco lights on the stage near the door started to pop and drop to the floor, probably due to fire exposure.
When the Gothenburg Fire Brigade received the call reporting the fire, there was a great deal of noise in the background, and the dispatcher had difficulty determining the exact address. When the dispatcher eventually got the correct address, an initial standard response of an engine and a ladder with eight firefighters was sent from the Lundby fire station 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) away. As the units approached, Station Officer Harald Jansson saw light smoke over the building and thought it might be a dumpster fire. The driver, Ulf Magnusson, concurred, saying that it was “not the typical black smoke we normally see at building fires.” As they turned the corner, however, they saw that the building was on fire, and Jansson realized that it was indeed a major fire. He requested additional units, which had already been dispatched, based on additional telephone calls the alarm room was receiving.

When the apparatus pulled into the parking lot, it couldn’t reach the building because of the crowd. Jansson had to walk in front of the truck to get people to clear the way for them to approach the fire. As he got closer, he saw that a number of young people had jumped from the second-story windows and were lying injured on the ground. There were also people inside the building at the windows among the fully developed fire. Other building occupants were pushing the ones in the windows out, causing them to fall 22 feet (6.7 meters) to the ground.
Although the firefighters’ immediate priority was to get inside the building, they weren’t able to place ground ladders up to the windows on the northeast side of the building because of people lying on the ground beneath them. An aerial apparatus was ordered to position itself and place a ladder in one of the windows.
When the officer and his firefighters tried to enter the building through the main entrance at the northwest end, they found the stairway blocked by a tangle of injured people who had to be dragged outside before firefighters could proceed up the stairs. As they were doing this, civilians kept trying to get back into the building to rescue their friends. At one point, a firefighter was hit over the head with a bottle, and police were called in to control the crowd so the fire brigade could work. Rescue personnel immediately began conducting triage operations and setting priorities for treatment. A doctor who was on her way home stopped to help and, as one officer noted, “was given an inhuman task—totally unprepared...without equipment or information, straight into this chaos.” Another firefighter was working alone with three patients when a group of youths brought him a dead friend and demanded he treat him. When the firefighter tried to explain that the person was dead, the young people assaulted him.
Meanwhile, fire crews who had managed to reach the top of the stairs were faced with a wall of bodies packed tightly inside the door to the hall from the floor to the top of the doorway. Firefighters started removing the bodies, quickly passing them down the stairs and outside. As soon as they were able to make an opening, more people from inside the hall pushed forward to fill it up.
While this rescue operation was under way, the aerial apparatus placed a ladder at a window on the northeast side of the building, and firefighters discharged water from a hand line into the structure in an effort to protect the occupants and reduce the fire’s severity. A firefighter in breathing apparatus entered the building through one of the windows, dropping 7.2 feet (2.2 meters) to the floor. Using his radio, he immediately asked for a short ladder so that victims could be rescued from inside.
As the firefighter moved further into the hall, people pulled at him, almost dislodging his face mask. Although the interior was dark, smoky, and hot, he said there was no heavy fire involvement at this time. Progressing further inside, he started to see some light from the doorway at the northwest end where firefighters were removing the bodies that had been obstructing the doorway.
While_ crews entered the building over the ladder, the first-due pumper was discharging water into the structure to protect them. Once this had started, the pump operator, Magnusson, started treating the wounded around his apparatus while waiting for a water supply. With the help of bystanders, he began moving them and initiating basic care.
At about this time, an automobile repair garage next to the building was forced open and used as a triage area. The incident commander also requested that all Gothenburg Fire Brigade units respond and help rescue and transport victims. Openings were made in the fence around the building to allow the ambulances to drive in, pick up the patients, and leave immediately. The head of unit for the ambulance section, Mats Kihlgren, reported that 16 ambulances from the region were alerted, along with a medical team from Östra Hospital. According to Kihlgren, as many as six or seven patients had to be transported in a single ambulance, with one ambulance orderly and the patients taking turns breathing through a single oxygen mask en route to a hospital. Forty-five victims were transported over the course of two hours.
Lennart Olin, the senior on-duty officer who assumed command of the incident, also requested that city buses be sent to the scene to transport the large number of “walking wounded”. As word of the disaster spread, many taxis began to arrive, and these were used to transport less-severely injured victims to four area hospitals, as well.
Once the fire had been extinguished, 20 more bodies were found in a small room on the northwest end of the building. These victims had apparently tried to flee but were unable to make it through the main door at the northwest end. They then tried to take refuge in the room, where they were overcome by smoke. According to Olin, the bodies were piled approximately 3 feet (0.9 meters) deep in the room. Sixty-three people, ranging in age from 14 to 20 years old, died in the blaze, all from smoke inhalation. Another 213 were injured. Of these 213, 60 were admitted to intensive care units, and 13 were transported to specialized burn units in Sweden and Norway. In addition to the 63 dead and 213 injured, 60 people were rescued by the fire brigade.
What happened?
The Gothenburg police department investigated the fire in the weeks following and determined that it had been deliberately set in the southeast stairwell. Even though the fire occurred in one of the exits, all the occupants would have been able to make it out the other exit had the occupancy load not been exceeded.
According to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, there are several ways to calculate the occupancy load of a given area. It can be based on the square footage of the area or the width of the egress components—that is, the doors and stairs. The method and component that yields the fewest occupants becomes the limiting factor.
According to calculations based on the building dimensions provided by the Gothenburg Fire Brigade, the main assembly hall would have had an occupancy of 312, based on a door width of 31.2 inches (0.8 meters). Because 63 people died, 213 were injured, and 60 people were rescued, we know there were at least 336 people in the hall, and some projections run as high as 400. According to the Gothenburg Fire Brigade, the maximum number of people they would have permitted in the hall was 150.
The exact number of occupants in the building will probably never be known, but overcrowding appears to have been a major factor in the death toll. Given reports that people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder and unable to dance, it’s possible that the occupant load had reached a “jam point.” According to Jim Lake, NFPA senior fire protection specialist, a jam point occurs when there are so many people in an occupancy that individuals can’t move on their own volition but are dependent on the people in front of them to move first. The main exit quickly became impassable, causing people to seek other means to escape. Given the building construction, the Life Safety Code would also have required a fire alarm system equipped with manual pull stations and audible and visual alerting devices. A sprinkler system wouldn’t have been required but it would unquestionably have changed the outcome of this tragic fire.
Arson and overcrowding were a deadly combination for 63 young people on Halloween night 1998 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Let’s learn from this tragedy and make the changes necessary to keep this from happening again, anywhere.

Fire Investigation Summary

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