Historical Survey of Multi-Story Building Collapses Due to Fire
by
Beitel, J. J., Hughes Associates, Inc
Iwankiw, N. R., Hughes Associates, Inc.
Introduction
This project was conducted for the National Institute for Standards and Technology
(NIST) under Contact Number NA1341-02-W-0686. It was commissioned to assess the
needs and existing capabilities for full-scale fire resistance testing of structural
connections under the direction of NIST Program Manager, William Grosshandler. The
Scope of Work consisted of three separate Tasks, one of which was to conduct a survey
of historical information on fire occurrences in multi-story buildings, which resulted in
full or partial structural collapse. The results of this individual Task are the subject of
this paper.
Either partial or total failure of the structural framing, members, and/or connections was
considered to have met the definition of “collapse.” A multi-story building was defined
to consist of 4 or more stories.
Methodology
The historical search for catastrophic multi-story fires included incidents dating
back to the 1950’s, or earlier, with emphasis on those which occurred in North America.
In addition, similar events that occurred throughout the world were also solicited and
captured as available. The search for this data was conducted using three principal
sources: news databases, published literature, and direct inquiries to key individuals and
organizations. Information sought included:
• Date and location of fire;
• Type of building, its occupancy use, construction type, number of stories, etc.;
• Cause and extent of the fire event;
• Description of the structural collapse;
• Additional information concerning the event, as available; and
• Reference for the fire event information to include literature citations, etc.
To supplement the broad and extensive news and literature searches, direct
contacts were made with individuals and organizations that were expected to have
authoritative information on historical fire-induced collapses. The list of domestic and
international professional organizations, companies, and/or governmental agencies
contacted included:
ABS-EQE
American Concrete Institute (ACI)
American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC)
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American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI)
American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
Arbed Steel
British Constructional Steel Association (BCSA)
Canadian Institute of Steel Construction (CISC)
Construction Technology Laboratory (CTL)
Corus-British Steel
CTICM, France
Disaster Prevention Institute, Kyoto University, Japan
Factory Mutual Research Corporation (FMRC)
Institute for Business and Home Safety
International Association For Fire Safety Science (IAFSS)
Isolatek International
Mexican Institute of Steel Construction (IMCA)
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
National Institute for Fire and Research (Japan)
National Research Council of Canada (NRCC)
Nucor-Yamato Steel Corp.
Society for Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE)
Victoria University of Technology, Australia
In addition, a survey request for information was sent to several prominent engineers and
consulting firms.
In order to have been included in this incident tabulation, fire needed to have been judged
the proximate cause for the building collapse (partial or total). Hence, any collapses due
primarily to explosions, impacts, earthquakes, wind, and other construction or design
factors were beyond the scope of this survey, even if fires had developed during the
course of these events. It was equally difficult to evaluate the separate effects of the
many fires in buildings that are known to have occurred after major earthquakes.
Survey Results
In summary, a total of 22 cases from 1970-2002 are presented in Table 1, with 15 from
the US and two from Canada. The number of fire-induced collapse events can be
categorized by building construction material as follows:
• Concrete: 7
• Structural steel: 6
• Brick/masonry: 5
• Unknown: 2
• Wood: 2
Three of these events were from the 1970’s, three were from the 1980’s, four
were from the 1990’s, and twelve occurred in 2000 and beyond. This temporal
distribution was skewed towards more recent occurrences both due to the magnitude of
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the WTC collapses (4 collapse events) and the enhanced availability of computerized
news media data.
The collapse distribution by building story height was as follows:
• 4-8 stories 13
• 9-20 3
• 21 or more 6
Almost 60% of the cases occurred in the 4-8 story building height range, with the
remainder affecting much taller buildings. Six collapses occurred in buildings over 20
stories, with three of these occurring at the World Trace Center complex (WTC 1,WTC 2
and WTC 7).
At least four of these fire-induced collapses occurred during construction or
renovations, when the usual architectural, structural and fire protection functions were
incomplete or temporarily disrupted. Partial collapses (14 events) were the most frequent
occurrences, and the three World Trade Center complete collapses dominated the full
collapse event total of eight cases. Office and residential were the primary occupancy
types in these 20 buildings, as would be expected in multi-story construction. The
occupancy distribution is as follows:
• Office: 9
• Residential: 8
• Commercial: 3
• Combined commercial/residential: 2
The events related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade
Center (WTC) complex in New York were the dominant fire and collapse events of this
survey (represented as 4 separate incidents). The extent of the tragedy and devastation on
this day were unprecedented. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
report (FEMA 403) published in May, 2002, is a notable reference that provides an
excellent overview of the day’s chronology and each of the directly affected structural
steel buildings (WTC 1, WTC 2, WTC 5, WTC 7). On September 11, 2001 the 5-story
Pentagon building in Washington, DC, was also struck by a hijacked aircraft, resulting in
extensive damage and fire. The Pentagon was constructed between 1941 and 1943 of
hardened, cast-in-place reinforced concrete. The Pentagon Building Performance Report
was released in February, 2003 by ASCE/SEI.
Among the other prior fire events of interest, Sao Paulo experienced one of the
biggest fires in Brazil on May 21, 1987, which precipitated a substantial partial collapse
of the central core of the CESP Building 2, see Figure 1. This was a 21-story office
building, headquarters of the Sao Paulo Power Company (CESP). Buildings 1 and 2 of
this office complex were both constructed of reinforced concrete framing, with ribbed
slab floors.
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Figure 1 CESP 2 Core Collapse in Sao Paulo, Brazil
A fire-initiated collapse of a 6-story reinforced concrete textile factory occurred in
Alexandria, Egypt on July 19, 2000 (Reuters News, 2000; BBC News, 2000). The fire
started in the storage room at the ground floor. Fire extinguishers were non-functional,
and the fire spread quickly before firefighters arrived. Approximately nine hours after
the start of the fire, when the blaze seemingly was under control and subsiding, the
building suddenly collapsed, killing 27 people. Figure 2 shows a photograph of this
collapse.
Figure 2 Collapsed Textile Factory in Alexandria, Egypt
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Among the general observations from this survey of fire-induced collapses of
multi-story buildings was that while they are relatively few in number, the consequences
were significant, and could have been even worse in terms of human fatalities and
economic losses. The fire risk appeared to be slightly higher during building construction
and renovation work. Of the 17 fire incidents in the US and Canada, only the Santana
Row development collapse in San Jose, CA, occurred outside the northeastern quadrant
of North American (North and East of Missouri).
This data demonstrated that buildings of all types of construction and
occupancies, in North America, and abroad, are susceptible to fire-induced collapse,
particularly older buildings. The annual fire occurrences in the US, according to Hall,
(2001), exceeded 10,000 in buildings that were 7-stories or taller. Those that were
undergoing repairs or renovations appeared to further increase the fire and collapse risk.
If the fire could not be quickly contained and suppressed by sprinklers, firefighters, or
other fire protection measures, it posed a serious life safety hazard for any of the building
occupants present. Continued fire spread can lead to a partial or total collapse in a multistory
building, compounding occupant losses, as in some of the cases described above.
Difficulties were encountered during this survey in readily identifying news, and other
credible sources, of historical and technical information on the fire-induced collapses of
buildings. The potential data sources were fragmented, often incomplete, and sometimes
conflicting. This lack of data and information significantly hampered the development of
a more complete understanding of the magnitude and nature of fire-induced collapse. A
centralized reliable body of catalogued information on fire-induced building collapses is
needed.
To complement the fire-induced collapse cases described previously, a summary of
selected major recent fires in high-rises that did not suffer collapse, but did incur
significant structural fire damage, are presented in Table 2. The significance of the
selected 7 major fire events in Table 2 was that even though there was no associated
structural collapse, numerous casualties had occurred in some cases (MGM Grand Hotel,
Las Vegas, 1980 and the Joelma Building, Sao Paulo, 1972 fires), and there was
generally significant fire damage and enormous property loss in every instance.
Just as for other natural hazards (wind or earthquake), the time, location, and
characteristics of the fire are critical in determining the resulting human and property
losses. The total deaths reported for the events in Table 1 were over 3,000. Over 2,800
occurred in the recent 2001 collapses of WTC 1 and WTC 2.
A fire-induced collapse in a multi-story building can be classified as a low
frequency, high-consequence event. Modern society draws much attention to these and
attempts to prevent them, much as it does for earthquakes and windstorms. Given that
there can be no guarantee that a fire will not occur in a given building, or that it will be
successfully contained and suppressed, the fire resistance of the building structure must
be duly assessed in its design in order to avoid local and progressive collapses. Since
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several of these documented cases demonstrated various member and structural
connection failures, a better understanding of the response of various building
connections to fire is needed. The effects of elevated temperatures on the strength of
connectors themselves and on their ductility, as well as how thermal expansion of
adjacent heated members affects the stress redistribution in a floor and framing subassemblage
through its connections, are important issues yet to be resolved for all
building materials. Connections are generally recognized as the critical link in the
collapse vulnerability of all structural framing systems, whether or not fire is involved.
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Table 1 Summary of Multi-Story Building Fires With Collapses
(4 or more stories)
Building Name Location Type of Construction, Material, and Fire
Resistance
# Of Floors and
Occupancy
Date, Approximate Time of Collapse, and
References
Nature and Extent of Collapse
(Partial or Total)
Santana Row, Bldgs.
7
San Jose, CA,
USA
Wood frame, still under construction, fire
protection and sprinklers not
completed/functional
5
Commercial/residential
August 19, 2002
Chui; Gathright
Total collapse and destruction
Apartment block St. Petersburg,
Russia
Concrete l9 June 3, 2002, starting at 1 hour fire duration
Residential BBC News Online
Total
Jackson Street
Apartments
Hamilton, Ontario
Canada
Concrete 21
Residential
February 8, 2002,
News
Partial collapse of concrete floorceilings

WTC 7 New York, NY,
USA
Steel moment frame with composite steel
beam and deck floors; fire resistive with
sprinklers
47
Office
Sept. 11, 2001
FEMA 403
Total
WTC 2 New York, NY,
USA
Structural steel tube lateral system with
composite floor truss system; fire resistive
with retrofitted sprinklers
110
Office
Sept. 11, 2001, after 1 hour of fire
following jet impact and damage
FEMA 403
Total
WTC 1 New York, NY,
USA
Structural steel tube lateral system with
composite floor truss system; fire resistive
with retrofitted sprinklers
110
Office
Sept. 11, 2001, after 1.5 hours of fire
following jet impact and damage
FEMA 403
Total
WTC 5 New York, NY,
USA
Steel moment frame with composite steel
beam and deck floors; fire resistive with
sprinklers
9
Office
Sept. 11, 2001, unknown time, fire burned
uncontrolled for more than 8 hours
FEMA 403
Partial collapse of 4 stories and 2
bays
Pentagon Washington, DC,
USA
Reinforced Concrete 5
Office
Sept. 11, 2001, 30 minutes after jet impact
Official report release pending
Partial collapses of floors and
members
Faces Nightclub and
Memories Lounge Bar
Motherwell,
Lanarkshire
UK
Unknown 4
Commercial/residential
February 27, 2001, after 2 hours
News
Total
Textile Factory Alexandria, Egypt Reinforced Concrete. no sprinklers 6
Commercial
July 21, 2000, after 9 hours of fire
Reuters News
Total
Building Name Location Type of Construction, Material, and Fire
Resistance
# Of Floors and
Occupancy
Date, Approximate Time of Collapse, and
References
Nature and Extent of Collapse
(Partial or Total)
Apartment in
Vandergrift
Pittsburgh, PA,
USA
Wood 6 May 7, 2000, few hours after fire started
Residential News
Back wall fell, initiating
progressive
collapse
Commercial complex
(near Chestnut Hill
Mall)
Newton, MA,
USA
Brick/masonry 4
Commercial
February 9, 2000,
after slightly more than a 1 hour fire
News
Collapse started at upper story and
progressed
Effingham Plaza
Nursing Home
.
Portsmouth, VA,
USA
Unknown Multi-story April 6, 1998, fire started on top floor
Residential News
Roof collapsed in places
Coeur de Royale
Condominium
I-270 and Olive Blvd.
Creve Coeur, MO,
USA
Unknown 4
Residential
August 25, 1994
News
Partial collapses of roofs
Apartments, Brooke
Ave and 138th St.
Bronx, NY, USA Brick 5
Residential
April 5, 1994
News
Rear of the building collapsed.
Central Square Apt.
Massachusetts Ave.
and Douglas St.
Cambridge, MA,
USA
Brick 8
Residential
October 1, 1993
News
Collapse of several floors
CESP, Sede 2 Sao Paulo, Brazil Reinforced concrete frame, with ribbed slabs;
no sprinklers
21
Office
May 21, 1987, after 2 hour fire
Berto and Tomina
Partial, full height interior core
collapse
Alexis Nihon Plaza Montreal, Canada Steel frame with composite steel beam and
deck floors; fire resistive without sprinklers
15
Office
Oct. 26, 1986, after 5 hour fire, which then
continued for 13 hours
Isner, NFPA Fire Investigation Report
Partial 11th floor collapse
Katrantzos Sport
Department Store
Athens, Greece Reinforced concrete 8
Commercial
Dec. 19,1980
Papaioannou
Partial collapses of 5-8th floor,
together with various other
members, during a 2-3 hour fire
Military Personnel
Record Center
Overland, MO,
USA
Reinforced concrete, without expansion
joints, no sprinklers above 2nd floor
6
Office
July 12, 1973
1974 Fire Journal
Roof and supporting columns
partially collapsed 12 hours after
fire began
Hotel Vendome Boston, MA, USA Masonry with cast iron 5-6
Residential
June 17, 1972, after almost a 3 hour fire
News
All five floors of a 40 by 45 ft
section collapsed
One New York Plaza New York, NY,
USA
Steel framing with reinforced concrete core,
fire resistive with no sprinklers.
50
Office
August 5, 1970
Abrams
Connection bolts sheared during
fire, causing several steel filler
beams on the 33-34th floors to fall
and rest on the bottom flanges of
their supporting girders.
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Table 2 Selected Multi-Story Building Fires With No Collapses
(4 or more stories)
Building
Name
Location Type of Construction,
Material, and Fire
Resistance
# Of Floors
and Occupancy
Date of Fire
Incident, and
References
Nature and Extent of Fire
One Meridian
Plaza
Philadelphia, PA, USA Steel frame with composite
steel beam and deck floors;
fire resistive, but sprinklers
not operational (retrofit in
process)
38
Office
Feb. 23-24, 1991
Klem, 1991
Started Saturday and burned for
a total of 18 hours, causing
significant structural damage to
9 floors
Mercantile
Credit
Insurance
Building
Churchill Plaza,
Basingstoke, UK
Steel frame with composite
floor beams; fire resistive, but
no sprinklers
12
Office
1991
Newman, et al., 200
Fire burnout of 8th to10th floors
Broadgate
Phase 8
London, UK Steel composite trusses and
beams; mostly not fire
protected and without
sprinklers
14
Office
1990
Newman, et al., 200
During construction, 4.5 hour
fire duration and temperatures
reached 1000 ºC
First Interstate
Bank
Los Angeles, CA, USA Steel frame with composite
steel beam and deck floors;
fire resistive; sprinklers not
operational
62
Office
May 4, 1988
Klem, 1988
Lasted for about 3.5 hours,
causing major damage to four
floors
MGM Grand
Hotel
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA Mixed, no sprinklers 26
Resort and
casino
Nov. 21, 1980
Misc. News &
Clark County Report
Burned for hours
Andraus
Building
Sao Paulo, Brazil Reinforced concrete 31
Office
Feb. 24, 1972
Hall, 2001
Spalling of exterior walls,
joists, and columns, exposing
reinforcing.
Joelma
Building
(Crefisul
Bank)
Sao Paulo, Brazil Reinforced Concrete 25
Office
Feb. 1, 1974
Hall, 2001
Spalling of exterior walls
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