The 11 Worst Fires in New York City History

Editorial credit: Antonio Gravante / The sign of a historic hotel in New York shows signs of a fire from earlier days.
Editorial credit: Antonio Gravante / The sign of a historic hotel in New York shows signs of a fire from earlier days.

11. First Great Fire of New York

This September 20, 1776 fire took place during the American Revolution when the British occupied New York. The city’s population at that time in history was approximately 25,000 residents. The First Great Fire of New not only resulted in lost lives but also major property destruction with an estimated 10-25% of the city’s buildings being damaged. Although the cause of the fire was thought to be arson the exact circumstances surrounding the start of the blaze remain unknown. The aftermath of the disaster saw British and Loyalists taking over N.Y. until the British forces permanently left in the city in 1783.

10. World Trade Center bombing of 1993

The eyes of the entire world were focused on the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993 when terrorists attacked the heart of the city’s trade building. The 1,310 pound truck bomb was intended to have caused the destruction of both towers and massive loss of life. Fortunately, the plot failed. However, the bombing resulted in six deaths and thousands of injuries. In 1995 a memorial plaque was put up in order to honor those lost in the fatal events of that day. This bomb attack would foreshadow the horrific attacks yet to come.

9. Manhattan State Hospital Fire

22 patients and three staff members perished in this disaster which began in the early morning hours of February 23, 1923. At the time, the over fifty year old four storey brick building was overcrowded and housed almost two thousand patients. The Manhattan State Hospital was located on Ward’s Island where it was reported that the fire was caused by tears the in insulation and electrical wires. Most of the patients who died had been stationed to Ward 53 on the top floor of the western portion of the institution. The hospital fire could’ve been much worse if not for the island’s small firefighting force.

8. Great New York City Fire of 1845

In the early morning hours of July 19, 1845 a fire began in the J. L. Van Doren, Oil Merchant and Stearin Candle Manufacturer building which specialized in whale oil & candles. As the blaze worsened, flames spread to a Broad Street warehouse storing saltpeter which resulted in a massive explosion. It’s estimated that Great New York City Fire of 1845 lasted over ten hours and resulted in the deaths of four firefighters and 26 city residents. The mighty disaster also destroyed about 345 buildings located in what is now New York’s Financial District.

7. Monarch Underwear Company Fire

This mighty fire took place in New York at 623 Broadway. It began March 19, 1958 and resulted in 24 fatalities. The fire raged from between Houston St. and Bleeker St. where even more people were killed. The blaze began in a processing oven of the S.T.S. Textile Company. Ironically the building was located a few blocks from Washington Place, near Greene Street, which was the former locale of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. It was in part due to the devastation of this fire that residents, law makers, and government officials were spurred to action in terms of establishing a public safety code.

6. Binghamton Factory Fire

The Binghamton Clothing Company, which specialized in manufacturing overalls, was housed in a building that had formerly served as a cigar factory. A fire broke out on the premises on July 22, 1913. The factory, located on Wall Street, resulted in a total of 31 people losing their lives. The fire was believed to have begun when a worker’s discarded stray cigarette landed in pile of fabric. Numerous unidentified fatalities and body parts were buried in Spring Forest Cemetery where a memorial was erected. A plaque was also put up at the former location to honor the victims.

5. Windsor Hotel East

On March 17, 1899, in the midst of N.Y.’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, a large fire engulfed all seven floors of the Windsor Hotel East. In an attempt to save lives ladders were placed at windows in order to facilitate some guests being saved by falling into nets. The devastation resulted in some victims never being identified with only body parts found littering the smouldering remnants of the hotel. 45 bodies were recovered in the rubble with a further 41 never found. Despite a public call for a memorial to the tragedy to be erected in the Kensico Cemetery where the unidentified were buried today, the plot remains unmarked.

4. Happy Land Fire

On March 25, 1990 a Bronx social club became the site of one of the most devastating fires in the history of the city as well as the country. It was determined that the blaze had been started deliberately and resulted in the deaths of 87 people. On the night the fire began members of the Honduran community had gathered to celebrate Carnival. The Happy Land club had previously been cited for safety violations but no action had ever been taken. An investigation revealed that Julio González, whose girlfriend worked at the club, had set the fire. He was convicted of 87 counts of arson and murder and died of a heart attack in 2016 while serving his term.

3. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This March 25, 1911 fire claimed the lives of 145 workers, 49 of whom burned to death or suffocated on smoke. 36 died in the elevator shaft, and 58 more were killed after plunging to the street below. The blaze began in a rag bin and quickly spread through the three upper floors of Manhattan’s Asch Building where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was located. A lack of proper safety measures was cited as one of the causes of the death toll. The garment factory was well known for hiring young female immigrants, the majority ofwhom didn’t speak English and toiled a grueling 12 hours a day, every day for low wages. Of the building’s four elevators just one was in working order and in the case of the two staircases one was locked to prevent stealing while the other only opened inward.

2. Brooklyn Theater Fire

On December 5, 1876 a fire broke out during the final portion of a sold out performance in the 400 seat theater. The devastating blaze started when a canvas backdrop came into contact with a stage gas light. When members of the audience realized that the flames weren’t part of the show panic ensued with some victims being trampled to death amid the chaos. Except for a staircase leading out to the building’s balcony the theater had no fire escapes. In total the Brooklyn Theater Fire claimed 278 casualties. After the fire the historic opera house was never rebuilt.

1. 9/11 Attacks

The events of September 11, 2001 rocked not only New York City and the United States. The horrors of that day sent long term reverberations of which were felt worldwide. The terrorist attack brought unprecedented horror with a total of 2,996 victims and another 6,000 injured. Along with the innocent passengers on the hijacked planes and the office workers in the World Trade Center, victims of the September 11 attacks also included firefighters, police personnel, and medical services staff. The day had begun with the terrorist group hijacking four commercial planes. They then callously ran the airliners into the twin towers, resulting in widespread carnage and loss of life. The attack stunned the world and ignited a global war on terrorism.


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