#TBT From the NFPA Archives: Remembering Cleveland School Fire of 1923

Blog Post created by jrodowicz Employee on May 17, 2018

On May 17, 1923, the community of Camden, South Carolina suffered a terrible loss when 77 people died resulting from a fire at the Cleveland School commencement exercises.


The building was completely destroyed by fire.


On the day of the fire, the Cleveland School auditorium was filled to capacity (200-300 people) to watch the commencement exercises. Dressing rooms had been constructed by hanging burlap on the stage. During the play, the hanging oil lamp had ignited the ceiling above it. The heat caused the lamp to fall to the stage and the oil began to burn. People made attempts to extinguish the flames but the burlap curtains ignited. The crowd panicked and began trying to make their way down the one stairway. Panicked parents throwing children over the railing caused a jam at the doorway. Many who escaped the fire went back in attempting to save family members. Some escaped by jumping out windows or escaped via the roof of the building.


Causal Factors:


  • The oil lamp was suspended without sufficient protection, which allowed it to burn the top of the ceiling, and fall to the ground.
  • The stairway was combustible.
  • The stairway should have been the same width all the way to the exit.
  • There should have been more than one exit from the building.



For more information regarding this and other moments in fire history, please feel free to reach out to the NFPA Research Library & Archives.

The NFPA Archives houses all of NFPA's publications, both current and historic. Library staff are available to answer research questions from members and the general public.