Author(s): Stephen Badger. Published on September 1, 2020.

Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires and Explosions in the U.S. in 2019 

Last year, the number of these fires, as well as associated deaths and injuries, was significantly lower than in 2018 


AT ABOUT 3:15 A.M. ON SEPTEMBER 2, 2019, THE US COAST GUARD RECEIVED A DISTRESS CALL from a dive boat anchored near Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of California. The 75-foot (22.9-meter) wood and fiberglass commercial diving vessel, with 39 persons on board, took passengers on dive expeditions. On the last night of a three-day diving trip, the vessel was anchored when it caught fire. Thirty-three passengers and one crewmember died in the fire.

Weather conditions at the time were reported as slight to no winds with patchy fog, two- to three-foot (0.6- to 0.9-meter) seas, and air and water temperature about 65° F (18°C).Of the 39 persons on board, six were crew members. The vessel had three levels: the uppermost sun deck, containing the wheelhouse and crew rooms; the main deck, which included the salon and galley; and the lower deck within the hull, which housed the passenger bunkroom and shower room, as well as the engine room.
READ the list of Catastrophic incidents by type
Read the 2018 US Catastrophic Incident Report 

The bunkroom, where the 33 passengers and one crew member were sleeping, had an emergency escape hatch located on the aft end, which also exited to the salon. There were two smoke alarms in the bunkroom, and they sounded.

A noise woke a crew member asleep in the wheelhouse berth, and he got up to investigate. He saw a fire at the aft end of the sun deck, rising from the salon compartment below. The crewmember alerted and woke the crew. The captain went to the radio to send a distress message to the Coast Guard. Other crewmembers attempted to enter the salon and the bunkroom below. Unable to use the aft ladder, which was on fire, the crewmembers tried to gain access through a forward window in the salon and galley compartment, which was fully engulfed by fire at the aft end and by thick smoke in the forward end. Unable to open the window and overwhelmed by smoke, crewmembers jumped overboard.

Two crewmembers and the captain swam to the stern, reboarded the vessel, opened the hatch to the engine room, and saw no fire. Access to the salon through the aft doors was blocked by fire. The crew launched a small skiff and picked up the remaining two crewmembers in the water. The crew then went to another vessel anchored nearby, where the captain continued to radio for help, while two crewmembers returned to the dive boat to search for survivors around the burning hull.

Local Coast Guard and fire department boats arrived on scene to extinguish the fire and conduct search and rescue. The vessel burned to the waterline by morning and subsequently sank in about 60 feet (18 meters) of water. The victims ranged in age from 17 to 66 years. None of the victims was able to escape the boat.

This was the most severe of 19 catastrophic multiple-death fires and explosions that occurred in the US in 2019. Catastrophic multiple-death fires are defined as a fire in a home that kills five or more people, or a fire in a non-home structure or non-structural property (vehicle and wildfires are included) that kills three or more people.

US Coast Guard personnel support rescue operations as firefighters respond to a fire on a dive boat off Santa Cruz Island in California. Thirty-four people died in the fire, making it the deadliest multiple-death fire or explosion to occur in the US in 2019. VENTURA COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT/ZUMA WIRE VIA NEWSCOM

The 17 fires and 2 explosions that occurred in 2019 killed 116 people, including 15 children under the age of six. Of those 19 incidents, seven occurred in homes and accounted for 38 deaths, including 11 children under the age of six. Nine occurred in non-home structures and accounted for 32 of the deaths, including four children under the age of six. Additionally, three occurred in non-structure settings; all three were vehicle fires (two aircraft and the dive boat) and accounted for 46 deaths.

Compared to 2018, when there were 29 fires, 215 deaths and 38 victims under age six, there were 10 fewer fires (for a reduction of 34.5 percent), 99 fewer fatalities (a 46 percent reduction), and 23 fewer deaths of children under the age of six (a 60.5 percent reduction). Compared to the averages over the past 10 years (2009 to 2018), 2019 had a slightly-below-average number of incidents (21), or the third-lowest number in those 10 years. Also, the death toll was about 13 fewer than the average and was the fourth lowest, and the death toll of children under age six was five below the average and the fourth lowest number in the past 10 years.

Catastrophic multiple-death fires are an important part of the nation’s overall fire picture. In 2019, firefighters in the US responded to an estimated 1,291,500 fires. An estimated 361,500 of those occurred in residential structures, 120,000 occurred in non-residential structures, an estimated 587,000 occurred outside of structures, and 223,000 occurred in vehicles. These fires accounted for an estimated 3,704 deaths, 2,870 of which occurred in residential structures, 110 in non-residential structures, 80 in fires outside of structures fires, and 644 in vehicle fires. The 19 catastrophic multiple-death incidents in this report accounted for .0015 percent of the total estimated fires in 2019, while the 116 deaths accounted for 3.1 percent of the total fire deaths in the US last year.

There were seven catastrophic multiple-death home fires in 2019. Four of those fires occurred in single-family homes, two of which were manufactured homes, and three occurred in apartment buildings (one with 191 units, and two with the number of units not reported). These home fires killed 38 people. Eleven of the victims were children under the age of six. Three of the fires killed six people, and four fires killed five each.

The first six-fatality fire broke out at 1:30 a.m. in a seven-story apartment building of unprotected, ordinary construction in New York. There were smoke alarms present, but no information was available on their operation. No information on a suppression system was reported. The fire occurred in a fifth-floor apartment in the kitchen. The cause was undetermined.

The second six-fatality fire broke out at 4:13 a.m. in a three-story apartment building of unprotected, ordinary construction in Nevada. There were smoke alarms and manual pull stations, but residents reported they did not operate. There was no automatic suppression system within the building. The fire began near the stove in a first-floor apartment, and the cause was undetermined. One victim was located on a sidewalk after jumping to escape and the others were located within the structure. All the victims were adults.

The third six-fatality fire broke out at 6:20 a.m. in a single-family home in Wisconsin. No additional information was available about this incident.

The remaining four home fires, each resulting in five fatalities, broke out in three single-family homes and one apartment building.

Four of these seven homes had smoke alarms installed, and one had none. No information was reported on detection equipment for the other two homes. The alarms did not operate in two of the homes, in one case because the batteries were missing. No reason was reported for the other system that failed to operate.

Three of the homes did not have a suppression system and no information was reported for the other four.

Six of the seven home fires broke out between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., killing 33 people, including eight children under age six. The area of origin was known in five of the seven home fires. There were three fires that broke out in the kitchen, and one each in a bedroom and a living room.

Only one of the home fires had a cause reported—unattended cooking.


Nine of the 19 catastrophic multiple-death fires and explosions in 2019 occurred in non-home structures, resulting in 32 deaths, including four children under the age of six.

Two of the nine occurred in barns. One fire each occurred at a halfway house, a day care facility, a boarding house, a vacant home occupied by squatters, a silicone manufacturing plant, a gas station/market, and an underground shelter. One fire killed five people, three fires killed four each, and five killed three each.

The deadliest non-home fire broke out at 6:30 a.m. in a two-and-a-half-story home of unprotected wood-frame construction that was operating as a 24-hour day care facility. There were smoke alarms in the attic only, but it was not reported if they operated. There was no automatic suppression system present. An extension cord short-circuited in the living room on the first floor and fire spread to a sofa, onto a porch and throughout the first floor. The five victims were all children, four of them under the age of six. It was not reported whether they were members of the family or children in care.

Four of the nine non-home fires broke out between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., killing 15 of the 39 victims, with four of the victims under the age of six.

The area of origin was known in four of the nine non-home fires. There were two fires that broke out in the living room, and one each in the process area and on a porch.

The cause was reported in four of the non-home fires. One was deliberately set; the others were caused by a short circuit, an improperly discarded cigarette, and a mechanical failure.


In 2019, there were three catastrophic vehicle fires including two aircraft and a dive boat. These fires killed 46 people.

The largest loss of life in a non-structure fire was the dive boat fire in California that killed 34.

One of the aircraft fires started while the plane was in mid-air, but the cause of the fire onboard has not been reported. Five people were killed in that incident after the aircraft crashed into homes: one in the aircraft and four in one home. The other fatal aircraft incident resulted from a post-crash fire and killed seven people.

No wildland fires in 2019 killed three or more people.

Seven people died when a refurbished World War II-era B-17 bomber crashed and burned at an airport in Connecticut. (NTSB via AP)


Information about automatic detection equipment was available for eight of the 16 catastrophic multiple-death structure fires and in the boat fire. One of the homes and one of the non-home structures had no automatic detection present. In two structural incidents it was reported the system operated, and three systems did not operate, one system was damaged in an explosion, one was missing batteries, and no information was reported on the other. The boat was reported to have smoke alarms, which operated. In the cases where the alarms sounded, exits were blocked by fire and the victims were unable to escape.

Only one structure incident was reported to have suppression equipment. This system did not operate as it was damaged in an explosion. Three home fires and three non-home structure fires were known to have no suppression system.

Smoke alarms have been proven effective in reducing the risk of death in home fires. The most effective arrangement is interconnected, multiple-station smoke alarms supplied by hardwired AC power with a battery backup. These should be located outside each sleeping area, on each level, and in each bedroom. Homeowners should routinely test smoke alarms according to manufacturers’ recommendations. NFPA recommends testing home smoke alarms at least monthly.

It is unfortunate that only one of the 16 structures were known to have suppression equipment, because sprinklers have been proven to save lives across many kinds of properties, including homes. According to NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative (, the civilian death rate associated with home fires is 81 percent lower in homes with fire sprinklers than in homes without them. Additionally, sprinklers reduce the average property loss in home fires by 71 percent per fire, and the average firefighter injury rate is nearly 80 percent lower when fire sprinklers are present during fires. When home sprinklers are present, fires are kept to the room of origin 97 percent of the time.

When fire sprinklers and hardwired smoke alarms are both present, the home fire death rate drops by 90 percent. By comparison, when battery-powered smoke alarms are present but automatic extinguishing systems are not, the home fire death rate drops by 18 percent.

Batteries for smoke alarms should be replaced according to manufacturer recommendations; conventional batteries should be replaced at least yearly. If an alarm chirps, indicating that the battery is low, the battery should be replaced right away. All smoke alarms, including hard-wired alarms and alarms that use 10-year batteries, should be replaced when they are 10 years old, or sooner if they do not respond properly when tested.

Smoke alarms are only effective if occupants leave the building when the alarms sound. Children should be familiar with the sound of a properly operating smoke alarm and follow a practiced escape plan that emphasizes two exits from any location, as well as a designated meeting place once they have left the structure. Exit drills in the home are part of many schools’ curricula. Practicing the plan helps families determine whether children and others readily waken to the sound of a smoke alarm if it sounds during the night; that knowledge, along with assistance for family members who require it, can be factored into the escape plan. Practicing escape plans, as well as basic fire prevention principles, might have prevented many of the fires and deaths included in this report.


NFPA obtains its data by first reviewing national and local news media, including fire service publications. A news clipping service reads all daily US newspapers and notifies the NFPA Applied Research Division of fatal fires. Once an incident has been identified, we request information from the local fire department, or the authority having jurisdiction and follow up as necessary. NFPA’s annual survey of US fire experience and mailings to state fire marshals are additional data sources, although not principal ones. We also contact federal agencies that have participated in the investigation of such fires.

The diversity and redundancy of these sources enable us to collect the most complete data available on catastrophic multiple-death fires throughout the US. We understand that, in many cases, a fire department cannot release information due to ongoing litigation. In other cases, fire departments have been unable to determine the information we requested.

In the second quarter of 2020, when much of the data gathering for this study occurred, the US, along with the rest of the world, was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding that fire departments had their hands full with emergencies, we did not make additional follow-up requests and phone calls to fire departments, and as a result, less detailed information was available for the 2019 study.

NFPA wishes to thank the US fire service and the medical examiners for their contributions of data, without which this report would not be possible. The author also thanks Nancy Schwartz as well as the staff of the NFPA Applied Research and Data and Analytics Groups. 

Stephen G. Badger, a fire data assistant with NFPA's Research Division, is retired from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire department. 

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