Shortly after 11 pm on April 23, 1940, a fire broke out at the Rhythm Night Club in the town of Natchez, MS. As a result, 207 people died and many others were seriously injured.
The fire, which occurred 70 years ago, still remains the second deadliest night club fire in the history of the United States. The fire also claimed the life of Vicksburg, MS native and famous swing band leader, Walter Barnes.
“Poor fire protection design was a major contributing factor to the significant number of deaths and injuries,” says Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager with the Bethesda, MD-Based Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE). “Additionally, many lives were lost because the night club was overcrowded.”
The exact number of people in the one story, 120′ long x 38′ wide corrugated metal building when the fire started was undetermined, however, bystanders indicated the building was extremely overcrowded.
The fire started near the building entrance and spread to the highly combustible decorative Spanish moss that covered the length of the ceiling. Once the moss was ignited, the fire spread quickly.
At the time of the fire, the only available emergency exit was the doorway used as the main building entrance. An additional doorway was located near this entrance, but it was padlocked shut. Moreover, the building was not equipped with a fire suppression system.
“Once the fire started, the burning moss fell to the floor and formed a barrier between the dance floor and the only available exit. This prevented the occupants from safely exiting,” says Jelenewicz. “Some of the building occupants were severely burned when the flaming moss fell on them and others were trampled to death as the occupants tried to run to safety.”
Many of the building windows were covered with shutters, most of which were secured with latches or nailed shut. If unsecured, many of the building occupants could have escaped the inferno through these windows.
As a result of this fire and other deadly night club fires, many building requirements were enhanced to make night clubs safer from fire. Some of these requirements include the installation of fire protection systems, provisions for safer building finishes and decorations, provisions for better exiting systems, and the requirement to have trained crowd managers on duty.
“The Natchez night club fire reminds us of the threat that is posed by fire and the importance of designing buildings that that keep people safe from fire,” says Jelenewicz. “The fact of the matter, however, is that today most night clubs are much better protected. This is in large part due to the fire safety strategies and systems designed by fire protection engineers that make our world safer from fire.”