Today in fire history: fire at a fraternity house kills three students and injures two others

Blog Post created by paulalevesque Employee on Sep 8, 2014

At approximately 1:00 a.m. on Saturday, September 8, 1990, a fire occurred at the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity house at the University of California, Berkeley.  The fire killed three students and resulted in the injury to two others.  In addition, the building was heavily damaged.

The 33-year-old, wood-frame, multistory fraternity house was "L"-shaped with a large living room forming the smallest part, and the sleeping room area forming the largest part.  All interior wall surfaces, including the exit stairways, were covered with wood paneling.  Except for two, the sleeping rooms had hollow core wood doors.  The two exceptions had solid-core wood doors.  The doors separating the sleeping area from the assembly area were normally kept open.  In addition, closing devices on some exit stairway doors had been removed.

Fire protection equipment included fire extinguishers, fire hose cabinets, local fire alarm with bells and manual pull stations, and single-station, battery-operated smoke detectors in a few sleeping rooms.

Local fire investigators have determined that the fire started when a couch in the assembly room was ignited with a butane lighter.  The burning couch, in turn, ignited the room's combustible interior finish, and the fire quickly spread to other areas of the building.  First arriving fire fighters found the assembly room, an adjacent lobby area, and the two top stories in the sleeping room area fully involved with fire.

The following factors significantly contributed to the loss of life and property:

    •     Open stairways,

    •     Combustible interior finishes throughout the building,

    •     Lack of compartmentation and occupancy separation with fire-rated construction,

    •     The lack of firesafety training and fire exit drills.

For the full Fire Investigation report.  To learn more about the Fire Analysis and Research statistical report Dormitories, Fraternities, Sororities, and Barracks