The Nightclub Fire You Probably Never Heard About

The Nightclub Fire You Probably Never Heard About

The history of the fire service is closely entwined with nightclub fires that killed hundreds and resulted in significant changes in fire codes. But there’s one nightclub fire that you may never have heard about.

In 1940, in Natchez, Miss., 207* people died in the Rhythm Night Club fire. It ranks among the NFPA’s 10 deadliest public assembly and nightclub fires in U.S. history. And if you haven’t heard of it, the most likely reason is that the fire occurred in a club that catered to African-Americans. Like much of black history, this nightclub fire is less studied than many other similar fires where the victims were predominantly white. But the lessons it can teach us are no less important than those of Cocoanut Grove or the Beverly Hills Supper Club.

* Other sources report 203 or 209 killed; 207 is the NFPA figure.


Incident Recap
The Rhythm Night Club was located in 200-foot-long corrugated iron one-story frame building. The fire began around 11:30 p.m. on April 23, 1940, during a musical performance by Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians orchestra, a group from Chicago.

The blaze began in the front of the main entrance door of the building and quickly spread due to the decorative Spanish moss draped over the rafters. Due to the dry conditions, flammable methane gas was generated from the moss, resulting in the torching of the structure within an hour.

As was customary at the time, the nightclub’s windows were boarded up to prevent those outside the club from seeing or listing to the music. This significantly hampered the evacuation once the fire began. Some people were able to escape out the front door, the only working exit.

The fire is believed to have started near the front door by a careless smoker. In the aftermath of the tragedy, new fire laws were established to prevent the overcrowding of buildings.

Sources: Wikipedia, NatchezSites.com

Lessons Learned
FireRescue editor-in-chief Timothy E. Sendelbach offers the following comments:

"Are we learning from the past or just simply repeating it? The Rhythm Night Club Fire took place on April 23, 1940, with critical lessons for us all regarding overcrowding, highly combustible decorations, restricted egress and the devastating roles of human factors. Yet just over two years later on November 28, 1942, in Boston, the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire claimed 492 lives and injured hundreds more. In an all-too-similar fashion, the death toll was the direct result of rapid fire spread linked to highly combustible decorations, attempted mass egress through the main entrance and welded/boarded up windows and exits.

"It’s becoming all too common in the fire service: We continue to repeat the same mistakes time and time again. Call it politics, call it a result of the times, the Rhythm Night Club Fire should have been an event that brought about major change in the fire service--for whatever reason, it did not.

"The Rhythm Night Club Fire is a classic example of why we as company officers and chief officers must become students of fire service history. What we don’t experience on the streets, we must make every effort to learn in the classroom. Far too many lives have been lost and way too many lessons have been overshadowed by our resistance to accept change. The more we know about the past, the better prepared we will be for our future. Become a student of history and never let the mistakes of our past come back to haunt us in the future."


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