Today in fire history: a natural gas explosion in a motel kills four and injures ten

Blog Post created by paulalevesque Employee on Feb 18, 2015


On Sunday, February 18, 1990, a natural gas explosion and subsequent fire in the Hagerstown Super 8 Motel resulted in the deaths of four guests and minor injuries to ten others.  Three of the four fatalities occurred in rooms affected by the explosion and the fourth victim was found in a corridor approximately 35 feet from the area of the explosion.

 The three-story wood frame structure was designed to meet, among other codes, the requirements of the 1985 Life Safety Code which the city had adopted and was enforcing when the building was constructed in 1987.  The building had 62 guest rooms and was provided with smoke detectors in the rooms and corridors, a local fire alarm system, sprinklers in hazardous areas, a standpipe system in each stairway, fire extinguishers, emergency lighting, and operable windows.  In addition, the exit access corridors and the exit stairways were enclosed with fire-rated walls and doors.  Further, staff had been trained in firesafety (evacuation, use of extinguishers).

At approximately 5:10 a.m., two guests reported the smell of gas to the hotel desk clerk.  After confirming that there was a gas leak, the desk clerk called the gas company and attempted to stop the gas that was escaping from a damaged hot water heater valve.  Neither the clerk nor the gas company dispatcher called the fire department, and the building evacuation alarm was not activated until after the explosion.

The explosion occurred at approximately 5:30 a.m., when the build-up of gas was ignited from an unknown source.  The explosion heavily damaged several guest rooms, two utility rooms, and a laundry room.  The rooms that were damaged by the explosion were also damaged by the ensuing fire that continued to burn until the gas source was shut off (approximately one hour after the explosion), and it was suppressed by the fire department.

Three of the victims were in rooms that were damaged in the initial explosion.  Their location with respect to the explosion area appears to be a major factor leading to their deaths.  The last victim had apparently entered the corridor to escape and was overcome by heavy smoke from the ensuing fire.

Even though the building was damaged by the gas explosion and subsequent fire, the interior fire rated walls maintained tenable conditions sufficiently long to allow over 90 percent of the occupants to escape without assistance from firefighters and contained most of the fire to the immediate fire area. 

NFPA members can download the full investigation report Those interested in more information about hotel and motel fires can download NFPA's free fact sheet, and members can read a full report