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Mass Casualties Related to Major Events Since 1900: Why the Tragedies Are Still Happening

By: Dr. Luiz Hargreaves
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In 1903, a fire killed more than 600 people in the Iroquois Theater in Chicago. Most of the victims were children. Among the causes of this tragedy were inadequate emergency exits, insufficient and poorly signposted, overcrowding, lack of fire protection equipment and even suspicion of bribery of persons responsible for overseen the safety conditions of the Theater.

After many years, new tragedies occurred. In my Master's capstone at Webster University, all mass casualties related to major events with at least 100 victims occurring in the United States from 1900 until 2014 were analyzed. This included fires in hotels, nightclubs and vessels contracted for special celebrations. Arson and terrorist acts involving sporting events were also analyzed.

The objective of the research was to assess how the lessons were learned based on past tragedies and what caused the incidents.

Altogether, 18 events were analyzed. The total number of dead as a result of these tragedies was 4,455. At 66.67% of the mass casualties studied, the fires were responsible for the killings. In over 70% of cases, emergency exits were inadequate, blocked or nonexistent. In cases of fire, in 100% of cases, the warning and alarm system against flames did not exist or did not work adequately. Overcrowding was present in almost 40% of cases, and if we exclude incidents in hotels, it was 70%. Corruption charges were present in over 65% of cases and in about 22% of cases the tragedies were linked to arsonists or motivated by terrorist acts.

Even after 100 years, the tragedies continued to occur with many similarities. In 2003, in Rhode Island (USA), the nightclub The Station was reduced to ashes in few minutes due a fire that killed more than 100 youngsters. Again, the emergency exits were inadequate, there place was overcrowding and, even with firefighters arriving quickly at the scene, little could be done.

By comparing this data with other international events, we found that the fire, which occurred in a circus in 1961 in the city of Niteroi in Brazil, had many similarities to what happened in a circus fire in Hartford in 1944 when 167 people died. In the Brazilian city, more than 500 died, most of the victims were children and it is believed that the fire was criminal. In both cases, the event was completely crowded and the emergency exits, and the system of fighting flames were inefficient or nonexistent. The flames spread quickly.

In the year following the tragedy at The Station, a nightclub in Buenos Aires (República Cromagnon) burned down almost identically to the American nightclub. The fire started in both cases, after the use of pyrotechnic devices on the stage and in both situations the coating material was highly toxic and flammable. Emergency exits were inadequate and there was overcrowding and the death of 194 people with about 1432 injuries.

In 2014, in the city of Santa Maria (Brazil), a new tragedy seemed to be a repetition of The Station nightclub and Republic Cromagnón. All elements were present, including the use of pyrotechnics on stage, overcrowding, the existence of only one emergency exit and almost all were killed by smoke inhalation. This time, 242 were killed, almost all young people. There were also allegations of corruption against those responsible for supervision and rescue was chaotic.

The study showed that even in the face of tragedies like those that occurred since 1900, the lessons have not been learned. The same mistakes have been repeated, as well as omissions and irresponsibility.

Many reflections have yet to be made based on those events. One concerns the study of the maximum capacity of spectators at an event, especially those that occur indoors. The analysis currently undertaken and applied under the legislation in the countries studied is based on the size of the area and the number of people per square meter. It does not take into account the nature of the event or the age group of people. In presentations that bring together many children, it is common for them to be taken by the grandparents, who are elderly. Several evacuation protocols are based on people's regular walk pace, regardless, walking difficulties, possible poisoning smoke or even drink in cases of nightclubs, as well as the peculiarities of vulnerable people.

The complete study will be published soon, but right now it is important that such issues are discussed, since there are much more work towork to be done in the area of prevention and preparedness for emergencies and disasters, especially on the occasion of mass gathering events.

Luiz Hargreaves, AAS, MD, MS, MA is a qualified Expert in Crisis Management and Disaster Preparedness. He has been working in these fields for more than 30 years, with a large experience in major events, counterterrorism, disaster prevention and emergency planning.

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