On the night of September 20, 1929, a deadly night club fire killed 22 people and injured over 50 more in Detroit, Michigan.
The Study Club was a popular cabaret on the edge of Detroit's downtown district that offered dining and dancing. There's evidence it also served liquor, which was illegal at the time under Prohibition. The club opened about a year before the fire and had a reputation for being "patronized by an outwardly respectable clientele" (Fire Engineering955).
The club had several fire hazards. Along the walls and hanging from the ceilings were highly flammable decorations, including wooden lattice work, hanging oak leaves that had been covered with wax or lacquer, and cloth draperies. About a year prior to the fire, the building department ordered that a new fire escape be installed before the club could open. However, the proprietor was able to get approval to open the club by assuring officials he would install a fire escape shortly. However, that never happened.
Escaping the Fire
When fire broke out around 1:30 a.m. on Friday, September 20, 1929, the Study Club was in full swing with a large after-theatre crowd. It's difficult to know how many people were in the club when the fire broke out, because few people who escaped without injuries reported their presence at the club. Estimates range from 75-175 people, well below the club's maximum capacity of 250. The fire originated from a drapery at the bottom of the stairs on the first floor. The drapery covered a walled partition that blocked the stairs leading down to the basement. The cause of the fire was never determined, but the most likely cause was a match carelessly cast aside by a patron coming down the stairs.
The fire was seemingly first noticed by a man and a woman on their way out around 1:30 a.m. As the couple passed the coat room, the man told the attendant, "Did you know there is a fire back there, girlie?" The girl rushed down the corridor, saw the fire at the foot of the stairs, and ran to the kitchen to get a pail of water. But by the time she returned, the flames had spread too much for her to handle, so she ran out of the building yelling "Fire!" The chef in the downstairs kitchen heard her cries and tried to go upstairs to warn patrons on the second floor, but the flames had already begun making their way up the stairs, so he ran out the door as well. Everyone on the first floor, who were mostly employees, had no trouble escaping. But on the second floor, panic quickly ensued, as "it was only a matter of seconds from the time the fire was first noted until flame and smoke were belching into the dance hall area" (NFPA Quarterly122).
As flames came up the stairs and into the front of the dance hall "with a lightning-like rapidity" (NFPA Quarterly122), most patrons ran toward the back of the room, where the only opening was a doorway to a small dressing room used by entertainers. People rushed into the tiny 5x13 room, thinking there was a fire escape. Unfortunately, the only possible means of escape from the dressing room were two windows, one of which was blocked off. Still, apparently a few people escaped through these windows. At least one person jumped 22-25 feet down into the alley below, and reportedly, a woman slid down a telephone pole several feet from the windows. However, soon "bodies were inextricably wedged together in this small space, making further escape by this route impossible" (NFPA Quarterly 123).
Next to the dance hall entrance were swinging doors that opened into the upstairs kitchen, where there was a service stairway. While some reports indicate a number of people escaped by this route, the NFPA Quarterly stated this seemed "very questionable in view of the location of the opening," since "the flame and smoke coming from the main doorway soon cut off access to the kitchen door." Not to mention, most patrons wouldn't have been aware of this stairway.
One employee rushed to the door where the fire escape was supposed to be, had it ever been installed. He found the door locked, but broke through the glass to jump the 20 or so feet to the ground below. It's possible a few others escaped this way as well, but the NFPA Quarterly concluded it was unlikely anyone could have reach the fire escape door after the first few moments because of how quickly the flames spread to that side of the room.
Fighting the Fire
There was a fire station just a few blocks away from the club, so the fire department responded within two minutes of the alarm sounding at 1:32 a.m. Firefighters had no indication that anyone was inside, because the electricity had gone out early in the fire and most of the windows were either covered by decorations or plastered off. It wasn't until firefighters made their way upstairs and into the dance hall, extinguishing flames along the way, that they realized victims were inside. Thirty-five to forty bodies were trapped in the dressing room, all dead or unconscious except for one girl who was wedged under several bodies.
Of those the firefighters found inside the building, 18 were dead at the scene, largely due to suffocation and crushing. Four others died later in hospitals, bringing the total deaths to 22. At least 45 cases of serious injury were reported, but presumably a number of others who escaped were also injured and left the site without reporting it.
Half a dozen city and state departments conducted an investigation of the fire. They concluded that the fire, which began as negligible, grew out of control so quickly because of highly flammable drapes and decorations, along with a draft caused by the front door being left open as people escaped. This draft was further fueled by a fan on the ceiling of the dance hall. It was determined that the club had undergone a routine fire inspection by the Fire Prevention Bureau on May 31, almost four months before the fire. No recommendations were made at that time, because the building had two means of exit, which is all the building required.
The day after the fire, Detroit officials met to discuss how to prevent a tragic night club fire from happening again. In Detroit at the time, it was the recreation department that issued licenses to operate night clubs. The city's fire marshal wrote in his report of the Study Club fire that night clubs "have never come under the jurisdiction of the Fire Prevention Bureau in relation to obtaining a certificate of approval from the Fire Department…before a license is issued" (Fire Engineering 956). He stated it was the building department's responsibility "to determine the adequacy of exits or other means of egress" (Fire Engineering 956) before a license could be issued. In the Study Club's case, the building department had in fact ordered the removal of the old, unsafe fire escape and the installation of a new one prior to opening. However, because the owner agreed to install a new fire escape soon, the building department signed off on the recreation department issuing a license.
In their meeting the night after the fire, Detroit officials unanimously agreed to require night clubs to pass an inspection and receive approval by the Fire Prevention Bureau before the recreation department would issue a license to them. In the week that followed, the city fire marshal "made a flying tour of the city's night resorts" (Fire Engineering 956) and ordered remedial fire prevention measures at some of them, such as the removal of draperies or other inflammable materials or the addition of a fire escape.
- Daly, William Jerome. "Draperies in Night Club Proved Serious Life Hazard." Fire Engineering (October 16, 1929): 955-956.
- Morris, R .J. "The Study Club." The Slate (undated).
- Moulton, Robert S. "The Study Club Fire." Quarterly of the National Fire Protection Association 23, no. 2 (October 1929): 115-125. (Available through the NFPA library)
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*Special thanks to Laurel Wilson for her work in researching and writing this synopsis of The Study Club Fire.