Two fires occurred in an occupied, operational general merchandise warehouse on March 21, 1996 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The warehouse had a combination of high racks and low racks, some of which were all equipped with in-rack sprinklers. The initial fire, which was determined to be incendiary in nature, began between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m. in one of the non-protected racks, which contained wicker baskets and plastic lawn chairs. Once employees discovered the fire, they attempted unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire using portable fire extinguishers followed by occupant-use fire hoses. The overhead sprinkler system that was located approximately 50 feet above the top level of the racks activated, but did not extinguish or control the fire. The fire was extinguished by the fire department using an interior attack. Once fire control had been achieved, all of the sprinkler systems were manually shut down.
A second fire occurred at approximately 2:00 p.m. in an area remote from the original fire, in a high rack storage area. When this fire occurred, employees immediately began to turn the sprinkler system back on, but they system was not able to control the fire, and the warehouse and distribution area were destroyed.
The following were found to be major contributing factors to the loss:
- Excessive clearance between the ceiling sprinklers and the top of the storage racks in the area of fire origin for the first fire
- Lack of in-rack sprinkler systems
- Shutting off all of the sprinkler systems in the building following the first fire
- Restoration of electrical service without evaluating the damage to the electrical system (this action was determined to have caused the second fire)
- Lack of a fire separation wall within the warehouse
The fire highlighted issues with rack storage to be addressed by further research and in NFPA documents. NFPA members can read the full investigation report, and all site visitors can download a summary of the investigation in Spanish.