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Around the World: Some Notable Incidents 1822 and 1972

The Museum of Fire is dedicated to the preservation of the history of fire and firefighting, first and foremost within NSW and Australia but where applicable across the world.

Though our heritage and research team generally focus upon the former, occasionally their research sees them come across stories of fire and firefighting from international sources. These are a few such pieces from 200 years ago and 50 years ago.

200 years ago – Norway

Two hundred ago last week, the deadliest fire in Norwegian history occurred killing at least 113 people.

The incident occurred on 26 May 1822 at the Grue Church which was hosting around 550 people for the Pentecost service. The church dated to around the thirteenth century and was made entirely of wood.

On the day of the fire, it was particularly hot with the fire beginning in the wooden walls. With just three exit doors panic ensued and this was heighted when the main entry door was quickly cut off by the fire. The remaining doors all opened inwards which caused greater delays in getting people out. As people rushed to exit those sitting in the higher galleries jumped to the ground below landing on those fleeing beneath them.

As was tradition the unmarried people and women sat separate to the men, whose seating area was located close to the exit. For this reason, most victims were women and children. At least 36 children under the age of 15 died as did at least 69 women.

Many of the men who were unable to flee out of the doors did so through the windows which meant that the number of men to perish was less than ten. Unfortunately, due to the severity of the fire many of the victims were never identified.

The cause of the fire was never found however it was thought that it may have been due to one of the altar candles.

The church wasn’t rebuilt until 1828 but one of the lasting legacies was a law stating that all church doors must swing outwards.

Meanwhile in Sydney, Australia...

Two hundred years can seem like an eternity, or it can feel like it was only yesterday. As a way to place 1822 along the historical timeline we look to our own fledgling colony of Sydney.

It was in 1822 that a firefighting appliance was first used in Sydney. This was on the 15 January 1822 by the Military Brigade. To learn more about this piece of history follow this link to our 2021 History Week Special Edition Blog: CLICK HERE

Sydney Convict Barracks, c. 1819 by G.W. Evans (State Library NSW)

50 Years Ago - Around the World

Jumping ahead 150 years to 1972 two major international fires have come to the attention of our team.

The first occurred on 9 January 1972, when one of the world’s most recognised and luxurious ships was destroyed by fire in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. The Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth was launched on 27 September 1938 and named after Queen Elizabeth, wife of sitting monarch King George VI. At the time she was the largest passenger liner built and would retain that title for almost another 60 years. Despite being built as a passenger ship the QE entered war service in early 1940 with a new coat of paint hiding her Cunard colours. Later in the year she was converted to a troop ship and continued on her secret missions. After the war, while the QE was returned to passenger service her sister, Queen Mary continued in military service to help return troops to their homeports before joining QE back at sea on the transatlantic crossings between Southampton and New York. The ships were incredibly popular until the 1960s when airline travel began to take hold of the market at which time both ships were retired and replaced by the more economical Queen Elizabeth II. In 1968 QE was sold to an American company who set her up as a hotel in Florida, similar to what happened to Mary who is still located in Long Beach, California being used in the same manner. Unfortunately, QE didn’t have the same success as Mary and in 1970 she was sold to a Hong Kong company. The ship was re-named Seawise University as the ship was to be used as a floating university cruise ship. The trip from the USA to Hong Kong took months and the cost of repairs began to mount. On 9 January 1972 as the overhaul of the ship neared completion a number of fires broke out on the ship with the water from the fireboats causing her to sink. There was some suspicion that this may have been an insurance job as the vessel was insured for much more than she had been purchased for. Eventually the ship, which had been left at the site of her sinking was declared a shipping hazard and was dismantled for scrap. A sad end for a war hero & majestic liner.

The second fire we share from 1972 also occurred in Asia. This was sadly, Japan’s worst department store fire and it occurred on 13 May 1972 in Osaka, with the deaths of 118 people.

The building that was destroyed wasn’t just a department store, it also housed a cabaret on the upper floor which was where all victims were at the time of the incident. The cabaret was a type of amusement arcade.

The tragedy took place on a Saturday night with around 180 people packed into the cabaret. Below, on the third floor, electricians were working in the women’s clothing department, and it is believed that the fire was started by one of their cigarettes or a lit match.

Initially the men attempted to extinguish the fire however without working sprinklers and a high fuel load on the floor this was not possible. Unfortunately, the fire brigade was not summoned until almost 15 minutes later by which time the fire had begun to spread to other floors.

As the fire spread into the cabaret mass panic erupted and this was heightened when the exits around the cabaret were found to be locked. Escape for many was no longer an option and the few who knew their way around the venue escaped themselves down a backfire exit that most patrons would not have been aware of.

When the fire brigade arrived on the scene, they found people hanging on window ledges, having broken the windows open and sadly people also falling to their deaths. An evacuation chute was available from the cabaret’s floor however this was made of canvas and due to misuse 20 people died escaping this way.

It took two days to extinguish the fire with 27 firefighters suffering various injuries throughout this time however they did manage to evacuate 49 survivors.

In addition to the 20 people noted above, another 20 died when they jumped or fell from the windows and three died from being trampled. The largest number of victims, 93 died from carbon monoxide poising and it has been determined that many wouldn’t have even known what was happening and didn’t have time to react as they succumbed to the fumes. Most of these people were found suffering no visible burns marks or results of being burnt by the fire.

Four people were found to have been negligent prior to the fire which had led to the deaths of the 118 people. Two of these people were from the department store with one dyeing before they could be sentenced, and the other being sentenced to two years and six months in prison. The other two people worked in the cabaret and were both sentenced to 18 months in prison with a two-year suspended sentence. The three who were convicted did not receive their sentences until 1990, almost twenty years later.

This incident did lead to some major changes in building management and the necessity for fire escape plans across Japan.

Meanwhile in Sydney, Australia...

Again, let’s put these two incidents into context back home in Sydney.

The Sydney Fire District was extended to include Marayong, Doonside and Plumpton in the west; while the Ulladulla Fire District was gazetted with the creation of the new Ulladulla Fire Brigade. A second new fire brigade was also established in 1972, the Albion Park Fire Brigade which was included in the Shellharbour Fire District.

Across the state 11 new fire stations were erected at a cost of $400,000, which today is equivalent to $4.2 million. To read more about these stations and other incidents that took place in NSW in 1972, you can read this blog: CLICK HERE

Eight Dennis Jag’s D Pumpers were commissioned as were three Dennis Rolls Royce F49’s. The Board of Fire Commissioners of NSW also designed their own vehicle – the International 1600, which you can read about by clicking here: The International C1600

The NSWFB State Fireifghter Champions also took place in 1972 and our Championship Historian John Hand shared a blog on this recently, CLICK HERE to read it!

Here are the answers!

A – Murwillumbah, active operations began from this station on 19 January 1972

B – Sawtell, replaced in 2009 by a new station

C – Hornsby, built in 1972 to replace the former station that was destroyed by fire (to read more visit our blog: CLICK HERE)

D – Wentworth, this station became operational at the end of 1972 and was officially opened mid-1973

E – Moss Vale, became operational in 1972 replacing the brigades 1894 station

F – Swansea, became operational in late 1972

G – Riverstone, operational in late 1972 and officially opened the following year


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