February 8, 1999
The documentaries will probe the dangers we face in burning buildings, crashing cars, plummeting planes and sinking ships. What can engineers and safety experts learn from such disasters to ensure that more people survive the next time tragedy occurs? The series concludes with "Plane Crash and Abandon Ship" on Wednesday, Feb. 17 from 8 to 10 p.m.
"Fire" opens with a harrowing account by a survivor of the conflagration that swept through London's King's Cross subway station in 1987, killing thirty-one. It began with a typical act of human carelessness: a lit cigarette dropped on a moving escalator. A tragic chain of events unfolded in the next few minutes. A small smoldering fire started to grow; staff failed to respond to the danger, and passengers were not evacuated quickly enough. A sudden "flashover" of combustible gases tore through the ticket hall, turning an enclosed space into a death trap. One of the worst fires in British history gave rise to more than 100 changes throughout the British transport system.
NOVA shows how similar scenarios resulted in catastrophe at New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, at Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub in 1942, in a Brazilian office tower in 1974, and at an English soccer stadium in 1985.
After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 died, the Life Safety Code was established, creating requirements for building design and construction that protect human life in a fire. After the Cocoanut Grove tragedy, which killed 492, revolving doors were required to have flanking exits.
The basic tools to fight fire have developed over the course of centuries: the water pump, the hose, and reliable access to a supply of water. NOVA chronicles the surprisingly fascinating development of the fire hydrant. Also called the fireplug, it was once literally a wooden plug hammered into a water pipe which could be removed when a fire broke out nearby.
Among the latest refinements in the firefighter's arsenal are heat-resistant suits, special breathing apparatus, and a glimpse at the future with infrared devices that let firefighters see through dense, disorienting smoke.
Another critical device is the sprinkler system, which is the key to containing fires in high-rise buildings, especially on upper stories beyond the reach of firetruck ladders and hoses. Although sprinklers are perhaps the most effective devices to prevent fire spread, relatively few buildings have them.
For anyone caught in a fire, the first rule is to know an escape route beforehand. NOVA accompanies Gary Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, as he checks into a hotel and runs through his habitual checklist.
First, he makes sure the building has sprinklers and detectors. Then he requests a room no higher than the seventh floor and facing the street (and therefore within reach of big city fire equipment). On arrival at his room, he memorizes an evacuation route, bearing in mind that visibility may be low due to smoke or loss of power. He also locates sprinklers and extinguishers and tests the smoke detector. Then, and only then, does he unpack.