This Month in Fire History: Feb. 2024

Feb. 2, 2024
Each month we will look back at several significant fires/incidents that occurred in the month, including excerpts from articles that appeared in Firehouse Magazine or on (where applicable).

The month of February has historical significance in the fire service. One of this country’s deadliest fires, two tragic hazmat incidents, and fires that led to changes in laws and procedures all occurred in the month of February. Here now is a closer look at some of these fires.


Feb. 2, 1978—The Wade Dump Fire

The Wade Dump Fire started at Eastern Rubber Reclaiming, Inc., a tire recycling company in Chester, PA, owned by Melvin Wade. For years, Wade had allowed truckers to dump millions of tires at the site, creating a hazardous environment. Chester Fire Department crews initially believed that they were responding to a tire fire, but what they found was something much bigger and much more dangerous. Aside from the tires, Wade had been storing drums of toxic waste. Crews mounted an aggressive attack, but were driven back by multiple drum explosions that sent toxic smoke into the air. In the aftermath of the 10-hour battle, investigators found more than 18,000 drums of toxic chemicals on the site. Melvin Wade was convicted of risking a catastrophe, failing to prevent a catastrophe and violating the Clean Water Act by polluting the Delaware River. He was sentenced to prison and fined $30,000.

As for the 200-plus firefighters, police officers and paramedics on scene, the consequences were much greater, as described in John B. Tippett Jr.’s Major Incidents: Fires You Should Know from the May 2016 issue of Firehouse Magazine:

“Miraculously, no firefighters died the night of the raging fire or in the ensuing days of fire watch and cleanup. However, in the years that followed, a horrific toll emerged. One in five of the first responders on scene began contracting sinister and seemingly inexplicable varieties of cruel cancers as well as vascular, neuromuscular and kidney diseases. By 1988, 21 cancers were diagnosed among responders who worked the fire or the cleanup after. Eleven died. Between 1988 and 2000, 18 additional cancers had appeared, killing nine more of the responders. Cancer rates among the group at the fire are five to six times the norm, with cancers such as melanoma occurring in odd places on the firefighters’ bodies.”


Feb. 7, 1904—The Great Baltimore Fire

The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 started in the basement of the John E. Hurst Company building and was believed to have started by either a discarded cigarette or an overturned oil lamp. The Baltimore City Fire Department responded to what they thought was a minor fire, but were soon blown out of the building when it exploded, raining embers down on neighboring wood buildings. Strong winds helped fuel the fire, which quickly became an uncontrollable inferno.

As detailed in Revisit the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 in the Feb. 6, 2011 article on

“In all, 72 fire companies fought the blaze; 38 of them came from as far away as, New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware, Alexandria, VA, and Washington DC. They fought the flames for nearly 30 hours before it was brought under control.

“In the wake of the destruction, there remained a gutted city business district. The Burn District covered 70 blocks with 1,500 buildings and 4 lumberyards destroyed, putting 35,000 people out of work. Over 2,500 businesses were totally destroyed. Stores, banks, and hundreds of office buildings were leveled to the ground in the two-day inferno. Losses have been estimated at more than $150 million, which was a huge sum of money at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, miraculously, only two human lives were lost, and no individual homes were destroyed.”


Feb. 18, 1969—The Anhydrous Ammonia Train Derailment

Feb. 18, 1969, set up as a “perfect storm” for a train derailment in Crete, NE, a small college town of approximately 4,500 people. The temperature was 4 degrees F, the wind was calm, relative humidity was 90 percent, there was approximately 14 inches of snow on the ground, a temperature inversion was in place and ground fog was present. 

At 6:30 a.m., Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q) Train #64, consisting of three locomotive units and 95 cars, was entering town at 52 mph on the single main line track. Investigators claim the track was not maintained for trains going over 50 mph, which caused the train to derail.

In his April 2021 Hazmat Studies: Lessons Learned from Anhydrous Ammonia Incident column in Firehouse Magazine, Robert Burke explains what happened next:

“Some railcars on Train #64 struck two of Train #824’s anhydrous ammonia tank cars, causing them to derail and overturn, releasing the contents. Tank car SOU263210, an ammonia car, split into two pieces, releasing 29,200 gallons of ammonia almost instantly. The top 16 feet landed 200 feet over Highway 33 in the front yard of a residence at 1109 Highway 33. The rest of the tank with the sill intact was propelled 140 feet onto Unona Avenue. Tank car GATX 18120 (DOT112A) shattered completely, releasing 29,200 gallons of liquid ammonia, which almost immediately turned into ammonia gas. One gallon of ammonia liquid produces 877 gallons of gas volume.

“Three Crete residents died during the accident, and three died later in the hospital. Three unidentified transients riding the train were killed by trauma during the derailment.

“Injury reports varied, however, the NTSB reported 53 in its final report. Of the injured were two train crewmembers.”


Feb. 20, 2003—The Station Nightclub Fire

On Feb. 20, 2003, people crowded into a Rhode Island nightclub to gather with friends and see a performance by the rock band Great White. During the show, someone set off pyrotechnics, which ignited the flammable polyurethane foam insulation on the club’s walls and ceiling. The fire spread rapidly, releasing toxic smoke as it burned. The club was not equipped with sprinklers and soon lost power.

Panic set in as the crowd scrambled in the dark, choking from the thick toxic smoke to find a way out. Although there were other exits, many headed toward the main entrance, where they had entered.

In the end, 100 people did not make it out. More than 200 others were injured in what became the fourth deadliest nightclub blaze in U.S. history.

The club’s owners and the band’s manager faced criminal charges, and the incident led to changes in safety regulations.

On the fifth anniversary of the fire, Susan Nicol talked to some of the survivors who shared their memories of that tragic day.

On Feb. 27, 2003 a NIST team was directed to investigate the fire. They filed this report.


Feb. 23, 1991—One Meridian Plaza Fire

The fire at One Meridian Plaza in Philadelphia began in a pile of linseed oil-soaked rags that were left by a contractor in a vacant office on the 22nd floor. The building was not equipped with automatic sprinklers or smoke detectors on most floors. It is believed that the fire was already well-advanced when the fire alarm activated at 8:23 p.m.

The first unit arrived at 8:31 p.m., reporting fire and smoke visible from the 22nd floor. Around 8:37 p.m., primary and secondary power failed, robbing critical systems (including the fire pumps, elevators, HVAC systems and interior lighting) of power. Firefighters were forced to use the dark, smoke-filled stairways to make the 22-story climb to attack the fire. The 12-alarm blaze lasted more than 18 hours, destroyed eight floors and caused $300 million in damages. Three firefighters were killed, and 24 others were injured.

In his February 2021 One Meridian Plaza: 30 Years Later article for Firehouse Magazine, Frank Ellis described in detail the tragic events that unfolded:

“Heavy smoke conditions in the stairwells further hampered suppression efforts. Around 10:00 p.m., Capt. David Holcombe, Firefighter Phyllis McAllister and Firefighter James Chappell, who were from Engine 11, were tasked with getting to the roof level to open a door or hatch to ventilate the smoke. While ascending the center stairwell, they advised command that they had become disoriented and had left the stairwell on the 30th floor. Holcombe requested permission to break a window for ventilation. A few moments later, Engine 11 would report, “The captain is down.” It was the last time that the crew from Engine 11 was heard from. Their bodies were found around 2:15 a.m. on the 28th floor.

“In May of 1991, the NFPA issued an alert bulletin (91-3) that investigated the One Meridian Plaza fire. The report stated that “the lack of automatic fire sprinklers on the floor of fire origin” was one of the “significant factors affecting the outcome of this fire.” The report continued, “This tragic occurrence underscores the importance of not only providing adequate fire protection to the occupants of high-rise buildings but also providing it to the firefighters who are summoned to suppress fire in such occupancies.”

“Within two years, Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode signed a law that required all nonresidential buildings that were taller than 75 feet to have fire sprinkler systems installed by 1997. An estimated 300 buildings were affected by the law. As a result, no significant fires occurred in Philadelphia nonresidential high-rises [since then].”


Other significant fires this month in history:

Feb. 7, 2009, Victoria, AustraliaBlack Saturday bushfires kill 170

Feb. 14, 1995, PittsburghBricelyn Street house fire kills three firefighters

Feb. 14, 2000, HoustonMcDonald’s restaurant fire kills two firefighters

Feb. 24, 1989, Orange County, FLLake Buena Vista gift shop fire kills two firefighters

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