10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time
10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time

10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time

Larry Holzwarth - February 6, 2018

The idea of being unable to escape a fire is harrowing, to be unable to escape because of being locked up more so. All public buildings are required to have the means of rapid exit in the case of emergency. Some buildings though are designed to prevent any exit at all, and in these the risk of dying in a fire is increased. Even so-called fire proof buildings contain risks from fire which can occur in other flammable materials inside the building, from furnishings, furniture, and other items. Fires deliberately set by individuals can be disastrous for others, whether harm was intended or not.

Most victims of fire die from asphyxiation or the inhalation of toxic smoke, rather than the direct effects of the flames. Often panic makes its contribution to the list of casualties, an indication of the horror and desperation experienced by the victims in their final moments. There have been dozens of fires in prisons which led to multiple casualties, in the United States and elsewhere, and unfortunately, facilities housing those deemed too mentally disturbed to reside in a manner where they could potentially harm themselves or others.

Here are ten examples of fires in which many people died because they were unable to flee due to being incarcerated or restrained.

Maury County Jail Fire, Maury County, Tennessee 1977.

The small, one story Maury County Jail was designed to hold about 40 inmates, but like many jails across the United States was cursed with overcrowding in June of 1977. On the afternoon of June 26, a Sunday, there were 56 inmates incarcerated in the jail, with 40 visitors, who were allowed to visit in the cells, locked in with the inmates, or in the common area in the back corner of the jail. Among the inmates was a 16 year old runaway from a Wisconsin facility for emotionally disturbed juveniles named Andy Zinmer.

Zinmer had been picked up by deputies while walking along an Interstate Highway the preceding morning and after causing an incident in the separate juvenile facility was transferred to a padded cell in the main jail. As a visitor for another inmate passed his cell, Zinmer requested and was given a lighted cigarette. It was later determined that Zinmer was a non-smoker. He used the cigarette to ignite the padding of the cell. The flames spread quickly, igniting Zinmer’s clothing, and he began screaming that he was on fire.

One deputy dragged Zinmer from his cell while another began searching for the keys to the remaining cells, hampered by the rapid build-up of smoke and cyanide gas from the burning padding. A deputy with keys in hand tried to enter the cell block when he collided with a rush of panicked people heading for the main doors, dropping the keys. He searched on his hands and knees while others raced past him, and after “two or three minutes” located them on the floor. By then it was impossible to approach the cell block.

Attempts were made to use a bulldozer and other nearby heavy equipment to break the reinforced concrete walls from the outside to create escape holes, with some success. When firefighters wearing masks reached the cells they were able to rescue several of the trapped inmates and visitors, many of whom were already overcome from the toxic gases. A tow truck was used to pull the bars from windows, often straining to the point that the truck’s wheels came off the ground.

In all seventy-five of the people in the jail when the fire broke out were taken by rescuers to the Maury County Hospital, forty-two of them dead, with another thirty-three injured. Of the dead, 34 were inmates of the jail, eight were visitors. Most of the dead were piled one upon the other in the back of the common area. Several of the injured were transferred to burn units in Nashville hospitals, Zinmer among them. It was later learned that he had been in a home for mentally disturbed juveniles for starting and threatening to start fires.

10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time
The worst prison fire in US History was at the Ohio State Penitentiary. Ohio History Connection

The Ohio State Penitentiary Fire, Columbus Ohio 1930

The Ohio State Penitentiary was nearly 100 years old in 1930, a century in which it had developed a reputation as one of the worst prisons in the nation as far as living conditions were concerned. It had been built to house 1500 prisoners but nearly always housed far more than that, and in April 1930 there were 4,300 prisoners within its cells. Expansion of the facility was underway that spring, and scaffolding was in place along one side of the building, creating increased security concerns for the guards as the scaffolding could be used to facilitate an escape.

In the evening of April 21 a fire began on a section of the scaffolding. Smoke soon began to build up in the nearby cells, which housed about 800 prisoners. The prisoners began importuning the guards to unlock their cells, which soon increased to screams as it became evident that the fire had spread to the roof of the cell block. The guards responded by ignoring the pleas to unlock cells and continued to lock other prisoners in their cells for the night. This led to two prisoners overpowering a guard, taking his keys, and letting out several other prisoners before the roof collapsed into the top floor.

The collapse of the roof and the guards’ dedication to keeping the prisoners under lock and key created a panic which led to a full-fledged riot, played out against the backdrop of fire. Armed guards were stationed around the prison walls and the call went out for National Guard troops. Firemen arriving to fight the fire found themselves under attack from inmates, who threw rocks, bricks, and whatever else came to hand at the firefighters. Regular Army troops rushed in from Fort Hayes to protect the firemen, they being closer than the National Guard units still mustering.

When National Guard troops did arrive they joined the Army troops and surrounded the entire prison, backed with machine guns in the towers, to prevent any inmates from attempting to escape. The response of the military was so quickly implemented that the prison was surrounded less than an hour after the outbreak of the fire. By the time the fire was out 322 inmates were dead, another 130 injured; it was the worst prison fire in American history.

The cause of the fire was disputed, prison officials believed it to have been set by escaping prisoners as a diversion, but no prisoners escaped that night. Critics believed the fire to have been due to poor supervision of the construction workers, which left a pile of oily rags near a heat source allowing the fire to start. Its aftermath led to Ohio making changes to its minimum sentencing laws and establishing its first parole system, both steps designed to try to ease prison overcrowding.

10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time
Honduras’ prisons have been plagued with several fires over the past two decades. CNN

National Prison Fire, Comayagua, Honduras 2012

National Prison at Comayagua in Honduras was a medium security prison containing 857 inmates in February of 2012. As with prisons seemingly everywhere it was housing prisoners far beyond the level of its design capacity, and the overcrowding was not the only criticism of the facility. International groups and the United States Department of State had previously reported malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions in all of Honduras’ prisons. Honduras allowed conjugal visits in their prison systems and some of the casualties from the fire in February 2012 were spouses of inmates.

The fire was first detected by inmates who immediately began calling for help and to be let out of the cells in proximity to the fire. According to later reports, the calls for help were at first ignored, and several minutes elapsed before guards investigated the disturbance being made by prisoners. Once guards recognized the seriousness of the situation they began releasing prisoners and calls for outside help were sent. Firefighters and other emergency personnel did not arrive at the scene for more than forty minutes.

Several prisoners escaped the fire through the roof of the prison and fled over the walls in the confusion, drawing shots from the guards. The gunshots caused many firefighters not to enter the prison grounds, understandably not wanting to become targets of gunfire. As the fire was gradually brought under control and the inmates were in the process of being counted crowds of relatives and friends of inmates began to gather outside of the prison, demanding information. Clashes with angry relatives and police led to a riot outside of the prison.

The death toll of the National Prison Fire exceeded 360 inmates and spouses. There were some escapes from facility as a result of the fire with officials refusing to announce how many prisoners were freed by the chaos. The cause of the fire was eventually attributed to the careless discarding of smoking materials although that too remains disputed by some, who contend that the fire was deliberately set to create a diversion by escaping prisoners.

Still others claim the fire originated in a faulty electrical outlet, spreading to stored mattresses. In the aftermath of the fire it was revealed that only about 40% of the inmates held in the prison had been convicted of crimes, the remainder were still awaiting adjudication. Honduran officials claimed that recent anti-gang sweeps by the Honduran police had led to the increase in the prison population, and the sheer number of cases pending was beyond the capacity of the legal system to rapidly process. Many of the victims of the fire were being held simply on suspicion of being involved in gang activity.

10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time
Epileptics were often in the asylums of the day, in Illinois and other states, having no other resort. University of Illinois

Chicago State Hospital for the Insane, Dunning Illinois 1923

For more than a decade prior to the fire at Dunning Asylum it had been considered a fire trap, known locally as the Death House. The frame structure was overcrowded and had been plagued with at least eight smaller fires since 1910, none of which had caused serious injury. There were approximately 600 patients housed in the facilities for conditions which ranged from the criminally insane to those suffering from epilepsy. Several World War I veterans were in the facility for treatment of what was then called shell shock and other war related mental disorders. Veterans in the facility were there after being taken by the Chicago police rather than prosecuting them for vagrancy.

There had been fires at the Dunning complex before the 1923 fire, including a fire which destroyed the infirmary in 1912. During that fire problems were encountered by firefighters, including inadequate water supply and pressure to fight the fire, and difficulty maneuvering fire equipment within the grounds of the facility. None of these problems had been adequately addressed following their detection and the facility had merely become more overcrowded.

On December 26 1923 most of the 600 residents of the building were at dinner when the fire was discovered, now believed to have originated in a storage closet where numerous solvents and rags were stored. Attendants tried to maintain order and evacuate the resident’s to another building on the grounds, but panic ensued and many residents attempted to return to the burning building, or to flee the grounds entirely. Several residents and attendants were overcome by smoke as they attempted to exit the burning building.

At least one escaped patient was picked up by police in Chicago following the fire. Federal and state agencies, including the United States Veterans Bureau, dispatched representatives to the facility to help identify the dead and determine the cause of the fire. The building was completely destroyed by the blaze and 18 residents and attendants lost their lives. State officials listed 30 patients deemed to be dangerous as probably escaped from the asylum as a result of the fire, pending identifying all of the bodies found in the remains of the building.

Little changes were made to the facilities or to the administration of the Chicago State Hospital as a result of the fire and its aftermath. In 1947 conditions at the hospital were so overcrowded that many patients were required to sleep on mattresses on the floor in corridors, with nothing separating them from other patients but air.

10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time
Mercy Hospital’s St. Elizabeth ward was nearly impossible for firefighters to enter, and for patients to escape. Wikimedia

Mercy Hospital St Elizabeth Ward Fire Davenport Iowa, 1950

The Saint Elizabeth Ward was a three story brick building used to house and treat mental health patients at Davenport, Iowa’s Mercy Hospital in 1950. The hospital and ward were operated by the Sisters of Mercy. There were 65 women and 3 men in the ward when it burned on January 7, 1950, and though the building was of brick it contained a great deal of wooden framing and other flammable materials, and the flames spread quickly. Because the building housed facilities for treating the mentally ill many of the windows were barred, minimizing potential escape routes, and creating barriers for rescuers.

The majority of the women patients were elderly, and many suffered from other infirmities in addition to the mental health issues which led to them being in the ward. When the fire broke out all three of the men patients managed to escape, two of them from jumping through an upper story window which was unbarred. More than 100 firemen arrived to fight the fire and rescue those trapped within the building, but the amount of fuel for the fire which also produced toxic smoke and gases rapidly overcame many of the patients. Firemen trying to enter the building through barred windows did so from ladders which were threatened by flames from the floor below.

The heat from the fire was so intense that iron bed frames melted and were carried out afterwards as unrecognizable twisted metal. Many of the patients opened the windows of their rooms in an attempt to get fresh air, providing fresh oxygen which fed the intensity of the fire. By the time the firefighters brought the blaze under control after more than four hours, 31 were known dead, and another 31 had been treated in other areas of Mercy hospital for burns or other injuries. It was believed that the other six bodies were buried in the ruins of the building.

It was at first believed that careless smoking started the blaze in a room on the second floor, which spread unnoticed due to the lateness of the hour (the fire was first spotted at about 2 AM). Later it was learned that a patient deliberately used a cigarette lighter to set fire to the curtains in her room, and the fire quickly spread through the use of combustible ceiling tiles throughout the building.

The eventual death toll from the Saint Elizabeth Ward fire was 41, as four of the injured succumbed to their injuries, all of them women, and all of them patients on the ward at the time of the fire but one. The sole exception was a nurse who escorted one patient out of the building and returned to help more before the firemen arrived to prevent such behavior. The year before the fire the hospital had received a suggestion that a sprinkler system be installed, but had taken no action.

10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time
Whether accident or deliberately set, the Mitchell County jail fire killed eight inmates. WLOS

Mitchell County Jail Fire Bakersville, North Carolina 2002

If one was to search for a North Carolina town resembling the fictional Mayberry, one need look no further than Bakersville. The small town of roughly 450 people is the county seat of Mitchell County, situated about 50 miles from Asheville, near the border with Tennessee. On May 3, 2003 its two story jail held 17 inmates, some serving their sentences for misdemeanors and others being held pending trial. The jail had been built in the 1950s, and was operated by a jailer rather than the county sheriff. In addition to the 17 inmates there was one prisoner being held in a holding cell on the first floor.

Around ten o’clock on the evening of May 3 the jailer smelled smoke, and in a short time the building filled with heavy smoke. The jailer and a trustee attempted to free the prisoners held on the ground floor – the jail’s four cells were required to be opened manually – but were unable to either breathe or see in the heavy smoke and were forced to leave the building. Two deputies responded to the alarm and managed to open the cells of the first floor, evacuating eight inmates. They were not aware of the prisoner in the holding cell on the first floor.

Over 100 firefighters fought the fire, which gutted the building before it was extinguished. When the fire was finally brought under control, the bodies of eight men were recovered from the building, seven whom had been held in the cells on the second floor and one in the holding cell on the first floor. All of the eight dead had died from smoke inhalation. Thirteen others were treated for various injuries, including the trustee who had tried to assist the jailer in releasing the inmates. The fire was determined to have been started when cardboard boxes were ignited by a portable heater.

At first no charges were filed as a result of the fire, but investigations arising during the settlements of various lawsuits filed by the estates of the dead inmates led to the state alleging that the fire had been set deliberately as a means of facilitating the escape of an inmate, abetted by the trustee who was not locked up at the time the fire started. The inmate, Jesse Davis, had died in the fire. The state alleged that Davis’s wife and the trustee, Melissa Robinson, had deliberately placed the boxes near a heater to create the appearance of an accidental fire.

The allegations were that the two soaked the boxes with an accelerant, probably fingernail polish remover, and that one of the two then ignited the boxes. The fire spread faster than they had anticipated, and Davis, who was incarcerated for multiple felonies, was not able to have been set free. The charges were eventually dropped by prosecutors for lack of evidence. The jail was never rebuilt, and a memorial to the victims of the fire was erected on the site. Mitchell County has since housed its prisoners in a neighboring facility under contract.

10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time
Saudi Arabia’s repressive religious laws have contributed to overcrowded prisons. Wikimedia

al-Ha’ir Prison Fire Saudi Arabia 2003

In Saudi Arabia, prison sentences and/or incarceration can be for offenses ranging from terrorism to religious dissension, possession of alcoholic beverages, possession of pornography, and a host of other what the regime designates as crimes. al-Ha’ir Prison is a maximum security facility which housed several hundred inmates convicted of crimes and those detained for various violations in 2003, though Saudi officials later denied that any persons suspected of terrorism were held within the prison.

In September 2003 the prison was ravaged by a fire which killed 67 inmates and injured more than 20 others held in the prison, as well as three security guards. Saudi officials immediately established road blocks outside the prison, preventing access by media and relatives of those held in the prison, and issued reports that the fire was accidental. Western media had speculated that the fire may have been the result of arson by an individual or group of suspected members of Al Qaeda, following a recent roundup of suspects following a series of attacks around Riyadh.

In the aftermath of the fire groups in England opposing the Saudi government questioned the official death toll and announced that sources from Dubai had informed them that over 144 inmates had died in the blaze, which had occurred several hours before the time frame announced by the Saudi government. The group also claimed that the high death toll was a result of prison officials placing security over the safety of inmates when handling the fire, since many of the inmates within the prison were in fact Al Qaeda members, held in maximum security areas not damaged by the fire.

Security forces had stopped and searched arriving firefighters and ambulances, delaying their response time fighting the fire and providing emergency medical services to those injured or overcome by smoke and toxic gases. According to the reports from sources in Dubai, prison security had also prevented inmates from fleeing the immediate area of the fire to safer areas within the prison, keeping all prisoners locked down in their assigned areas. The sources also reported that the fire had been deliberately set by inmates to draw attention to the conditions within the Saudi prison system.

The Saudi prison system has been plagued with several fires over the last 20 years, but Saudi officials said within hours that the al-Ha’ir fire was the worst in the country’s history in terms of deaths, and within days issued statements concluding that the fire was accidental. According to the Saudis the fire which killed 67 prisoners started by the accidental ignition of a foam mattress.

10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time
A drawing of an entertainment for patients at Colney Hatch, then referred to as Middlesex County Asylum. Wikipedia

Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum Fire, London 1903

Colney Hatch was an asylum operated by the London County Council, housing what were referred to at the time the “pauper insane.” More than 3,000 resided there and the facility was comprised of several brick and mortar buildings as well as others of wood. Long, dimly lit corridors were one of its features. It was located in the region of New Southgate, had limited fire-fighting facilities and insufficient water pressure, and its reputation suffered by the predominant anti-mental health facility prejudice of the day.

On January 27, 1903 Colney Hatch was struck by a fire which swept through what was known as the Jewish Wing of the facility, resulting in the deaths of 52 women, and leading to headlines in the London newspapers of multiple “lunatics” escaping and remaining at large. Why a separate wing was set up to isolate Jewish patients is not known for certainty, it may have been for practical reasons such as dietary restrictions, or it may have been a reflection of the wide-spread prejudices of the day.

Firefighters were forced to create a dam across a nearby stream to enable them to pump sufficient water for battling the flames. A report in the Boston Evening Transcript described the deaths of many of the victims occurring in the long hallways where they were overcome by the combined effects of smoke inhalation and panic in the dark. Others were found dead in their beds, with many of the bodies badly burnt. Others were crowded into corners, huddled together on the floor. All of the windows of the asylum were barred with iron.

The building itself was built of pine and tarpaper, and according to press reports – the fire burned hot enough to turn the iron bars in the windows to a glowing red. None of the asylum’s buildings were equipped with fire escapes and the entire facility was enclosed with a high wall, preventing anyone wanting to render assistance to reach the scene other than by entering through the security gate. The majority of the 500 residents of the Jewish wing were women, described as elderly by the press reports of the time.

According to one report the inmates became “…so wild with excitement that they were not only unable to help themselves, but hindered the operations of those trying to save them.” The Colney Hatch Asylum fire is virtually forgotten today, despite it being one of the most deadly fires in London’s history since the eighteenth century. The asylum was renamed Friern Hospital and remained a psychiatric facility until the 1990s. Today, the site of the Colney Hatch Asylum is covered with luxury apartment buildings. There is no memorial for the victims of the fire of 1903.

10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time
Oakley Prison Farm was part of the Mississippi Adult Penal system. Today it is a juvenile facility.

Oakley Prison Farm Fire, Mississippi 1913

The Oakley Prison Farm was a thorn in the side of the Mississippi Prison system, as it did not provide sufficient revenues to subsidize its operation, as did other facilities in the state. A limestone crushing business at the site was financially unsuccessful and attempts to grow crops in the farm’s poor soil yielded equally poor harvests. By the early 1910s the farm was used to house black prisoners, who occupied a building built by the reclaimed lumber of former penitentiary buildings. The prisoners were used as convict labor in nearby cotton fields, who paid the state of Mississippi for their services.

The prisoners were housed in a two story building which doubled as a warehouse for numerous materials which were stored on the first floor, many of which were inflammable. The prisoners lived on the second floor, using the floor as their collective bed. One stairway connected the floors, and there were no fire escapes. Upstairs windows were barred and there was no access by the prisoners to the building’s roof. Thus the only access to the second floor was the main stairway, making it easier for guards to maintain security when the prisoners were in the building for the night.

What caused the fire which broke out on the night of July 21, 1913 has never been determined, but the prisoners were on the second floor of the building when it began. The fire started on the first floor and the old wood of the staircase quickly burned through, closing off access between the floors. The fire spread quickly throughout the first floor, fed by the inflammable materials stored there, and climbed the walls and ceiling towards the second, the ceiling being merely the reverse side of the boards which comprised the second floor.

Efforts to fight the fire were largely in vain due to the rapidity with which it spread and the heat which confronted the firefighters. Efforts to reach the second floor to rescue the trapped prisoners were equally hopeless, the flames on the outside walls prevented the placement of ladders and the water thrown on the fire by guards and volunteers was ineffectual. There was little the security personnel and fire fighters could do but watch as the building burned to the ground.

They were joined by several people from neighboring farms, attracted by the brightness of the flames and the screams of the men trapped on the second floor of the building. Efforts by some of the prisoners to loosen the iron bars on the windows were soon defeated by the rising heat, and the screaming grew weaker as one by one the prisoners succumbed to smoke, asphyxiation, or heat. By the time the building collapsed the screaming had stopped. Thirty-five prisoners, all of them black, were killed in the fire.

10 of the Deadliest Prison and Asylum Fires of All Time
The remains of the wooden addition which housed some of the female patients, and the main building at Seacliff. New Zealand History

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Fire, New Zealand 1942

Seacliff Asylum was built near the end of the 19th century and seemed to have been cursed for most of its existence, plagued with faulty construction and landslides which undermined the building. Ward 5 was a wooden addition to the main building, added several years after completion. Seacliff was in an isolated location, about twenty miles north of Dunedin, and was at the time of its completion the largest building in New Zealand. Because of its isolation it maintained its own fire department, which was small since the building was mainly of stone and masonry.

Ward 5 was for the housing of female patients and consisted of both private rooms and a dormitory of twenty beds. The ward was built with windows, most of which were kept shuttered from the outside at night. The others were barred. The ward was isolated from the rest of the hospital by locking its doors at night. During the Second World War New Zealand, which was then part of the British Empire, was under conscription which included nurses, and shortages of medical personnel for civilian facilities were common.

On December 8, 1942, a fire was reported in Ward 5 by a male attendant, and Seacliff’s firefighters responded quickly. Sufficient water was available but the wooden structure was engulfed in flames rapidly, with firefighters unable to bring it in check before the entire addition was destroyed. Firefighters were able to help two women escape the flames when it was discovered that the shutters over the windows to their rooms were unlocked.

The remaining 37 women (or 39, reports vary) were killed in the fire, unable to escape either into the main hospital or the outside. There were no fire escapes, fire doors, or critically a sprinkler system which would have helped suppress the flames.

What caused the fire which led to the complete destruction of the ward was never determined with certainty, some blamed it on smoking, some suggested arson, and some suggested it was from an electrical failure created by the building’s settling. The fire led to changes in fire codes for future institutional buildings, but not to existing institutions.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Tennesseean June 27, 1977

Ohio Penitentiary Fire, Ohio History Central

CNN – More Than 300 Killed in Honduras Prison Fire, February 16, 2012

The Mansfield News December 27, 1923

The Cedar Rapids Gazette January 7, 1950

Associated Press – 145 Dead in Nigerian Plane Crash, May 5, 2002

The New York Times – 67 Killed and 23 Hurt in Fire at Largest Prison in Saudi Arabia, September 16, 2003

London’s Forgotten Disasters, The Londonist

Deadly Fire at Seacliff Mental Hospital. New Zealand History

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